Final thoughts on Iraq and the surge

One thing about the surge must be acknowledged: that it quieted things down enough, for the time being, to allow our forces—or at least our fighting forces—to leave. “Things being quiet enough for the time being to allow our forces to leave” is not victory, but it is a success of sorts, especially when we remember the alternative: Iraq as it was in late 2006 and early 2007, with sectarian murders everywhere, with the country on the verge of collapse into chaotic violence, and with fears of a ruinous U.S. withdrawal. So even if, as Diana West points out, the second, political goal of the surge—namely a functioning, pro-Western Iraqi government—was not reached, the fact that the first, security goal of the surge—namely a reduction of violence and increase of personal safety—was reached, was of decisive importance, and should be acknowledged by critics of President Bush.

But remember what this means. It means that all that we were able to do in Iraq was get out. It means that all of the larger goals of U.S. policy for the transformation of Iraq and the Middle East have failed.

Any praise of the surge must be further qualified by the fact that it wasn’t just the surge, it was the “Sunni awakening”—which was wholly unexpected and was not a product of U.S. policy—that led to the decline of al Qaeda and the drop in violence. Without the Sunni awakening, our forces would not have been able to leave Iraq with any semblance of order and dignity as they have done.

So the picture is highly ambiguous. The surge was necessary, if Iraq was not to collapse and the U.S. retreat in humiliation. But the surge alone did not produce the results that allowed for the orderly U.S. withdrawal. Events outside the control of the U.S. made that possible. Which, by the way, was exactly what I predicted at FrontPage Magazine way back in April 2004, and repeated several times thereafter:

Let us hope that I am wrong, and that the insurgency soon collapses and the jihadist forces fade away, allowing the Iraqi people to continue forward to the “broad sunlit uplands” of freedom and self-government. But if that wished-for event comes to pass, it will have happened as much by good fortune as by any conscious plan on the part of the Bush administration.

The “good fortune” turned out to be the Sunni awakening. The Bush/neocon policy was a complete disaster, mitigated only by the fact that, in the end, we were able to withdraw our fighting forces from Iraq without instantly delivering the country into the hands of al Qaeda or some other hell. And that withdrawal was made possible in part by the surge, which came only after four years of utterly failed policy which the neocons kept calling a success, and in part by the unexpected good fortune of the Sunni awakening. Without the Sunni awakening, there could have been no peaceful U.S. withdrawal. The neocons’ boast of success in Iraq is a lie. And most of them will go to their graves repeating it.

- end of initial entry -

LA writes: See “The Surge—a Collection.”

Edward writes:

The U.S. forces are not out of Iraq. That is all semantics. They classified some forces as combat and removed them. Other forces remain and even though not classified as combat will engage in combat. If they are not there for combat purposes then why are they there? [LA replies: Advisory, training, security, etc.] Soldiers by definition are for combat not for social work. [LA replies: But our soldiers have been doing social work, as you know.] And when the last of the U.S. forces are gone Iraq will return either to dictatorship or chaos. Saddam knew his people and understood that they required a strong leader, and they still do. Civil war will return, chaos will return and dictatorship will return. In the meantime China is using its money and efforts to secure access to oil and we are wasting our time trying to nation build.

LA replies:

In my view, the practical question facing the U.S. was never: can we withdraw our forces from Iraq with Iraq remaining peaceful forever?

The practical question facing the U.S. was: can we withdraw our forces from Iraq without Iraq falling instantly into chaos the moment our forces leave?

It was the latter that needed to be achieved, not the former.

September 2

Ken Hechtman writes:

You wrote:

Any praise of the surge must be further qualified by the fact that it wasn’t just the surge, it was the “Sunni awakening”—which was wholly unexpected and was not a product of U.S. policy—that led to the decline of al Qaeda and the drop in violence. Without the Sunni awakening, our forces would not have been able to leave Iraq with any semblance of order and dignity as they have done.

I have to disagree with you here. The Sunni Awakening *was* the surge—everything else was window-dressing. But the window-dressing was the only part David Petraeus could talk about in public before the fact. That’s why I and almost all of the anti-war movement got the surge wrong at the time. We didn’t know what Petraeus really had in mind.

Petraeus understood that while Al Qaeda is initially welcomed by an occupied Muslim population, it eventually overstays its welcome. This is what happened in Bosnia and Chechnya and most other places where Al Qaeda has operated for any length of time. The random bombings and strict application of Wahhabi-interpreted sharia turn people against them. When that moment came, Petraeus simply hired half the Iraqi resistance to kill the other half. Al Qaeda in Iraq even made it easy for him to recognize the right time and the right people to hire. At the end of 2006, AQI ran up the flag but not everybody saluted. They proclaimed The Islamic Emirate of Iraq and invited all resistance groups to sign on under that banner. About twenty-odd did. The rest didn’t.

You could argue that the backlash against Al Qaeda wasn’t strictly speaking a product of U.S. policy, but the Sons of Iraq militia certainly was. We recruited them, we armed them, we paid their salaries—and this is the part that couldn’t be talked about at all—we collected so much information about them, biometrics, extended-family ties, everything, that they could never again go back underground.

People who are generally right about Iraq, Juan Cole and people like him, got this dead wrong. Juan Cole said the Sons of Iraq would just turn against us and go back to the resistance. Well, no, they can’t do that. Even though we broke our promise to integrate them into the Iraqi Army and stopped paying their salaries long ago, they can’t do anything about it. We know where their families live, which means the Iraqi government knows, which means the Shia death squads know. They’re just as neutralized as the Al Qaeda members they killed.

LA replies:

I don’t know if what you’re saying is true, but it if is, then its effect on my thesis would be as follows:

The Sunni awakening was not just “good fortune” from the American point of view, which the Americans did nothing to make happen, and which made possible the success of the surge, or rather the success of part one of the surge. Rather, the Americans grasped the potential of the Sunni awakening, and deliberately and very effectively organized it and employed it as a weapon against al Qaeda and also as a weapon against any possible future insurgencies as well.

Either way, the fact remains that without the Sunni awakening, the surge by itself would not have been enough to bring relative peace to Iraq, and therefore the credit which is given to the surge is vastly overstated.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 01, 2010 01:20 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):