“We had it won, thanks to the surge. It was won.” — John McCain, Sept. 11, 2014
In light of all that has happened since that announcement, it is jaw-dropping to still hear the surge described as a success. Yet the myth of its success is as alive as it is dangerous. It’s a myth that prevents us from grappling with the realities of the last effort in Iraq, even as we embark on another.
To believe in the myth of the surge is to absolve Iraqis of their responsibility to resolve their differences. It gives the US government an unrealistic sense of its own capabilities. And it ignores the roots of the conflict now stretching from Damascus to Baghdad.
“The surge didn’t ‘win’ anything. It bought time,” writes retired Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger in his new book, “Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.” It’s not surprising that those words of wisdom come from a retired officer. But it is a shame. Credible institutional memory is of great value and often in short supply. It’s an inoculant against the repetition of mistakes.
Much institutional knowledge about the conduct of the Iraqi surge, as learned on the frontlines by junior and non-commissioned officers, has been lost to attrition as the military shrinks. What remains is the mythology.
A former junior officer who served in Baghdad during the surge and now attends one of this city’s fine graduate schools recently told me that the gains he saw were akin to Potemkin villages. “I always thought that the Iraqis were just pretending to play nice so that we’d leave, and they could continue their civil war,” he said. Whatever their motivations then — and they are still not well understood — Iraqis are again at war with themselves.
This summer, the Iraqi army collapsed as the Islamic State insurgency swept across the Sunni heartland. Despite years of training, and billions of dollars worth of US weapons and materiel, Iraqi Army soldiers abandoned their uniforms, guns, and Humvees as they fled. The United States has sent more troops to Iraq and launched airstrikes.
But our mission is shackled to a conundrum: Why should Americans pick up weapons and fight the Islamic State if the other countries in the region, including the Iraqis themselves, won’t do the same? Why is the militant group an existential threat to us, yet not enough of a threat to spur its neighbors to take up arms? “We are not about to send American boys 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” Lyndon Johnson once promised in the fall of 1964.
For Americans, the myth of the victorious surge is so seductive because it perpetuates an illusion of control. It frames the Iraq War as something other than a geostrategic blunder and remembers our effort as something more than a stalemate. What’s more, it reinforces the notion that it’s possible to influence events around the world, if only military force is deployed properly. It’s a myth that makes victory in the current Iraq mission appear achievable.
Dispelling the myth of the successful surge begins by measuring it against its own metrics for success: violence and reconciliation.
There is far too little written on the Iraqi perspective, but their evaluation of the surge is illustrative: In 2008, only 4 percent of Iraqis said additional US forces were responsible for the decline in violence. They know their own country well.
Violence in Iraq began to decline before the surge started. Civilian deaths peaked in July 2006, at more than 3,250 per month, a full six months before the surge policy was even announced. This was the result of many factors, including the completion of the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Some 80 percent of the casualties in the Iraqi civil war pre-surge occurred within 30 miles of Baghdad.
As early February 2005 and more widely in 2006, Sunni tribes began turning against Al Qaeda, which entered the country for the first time on the heels of the US invasion. Also critical was the 2007 stand-down by militias — particularly the Mahdi Army under the control of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A 2011 study published in the Small Wars Journal found these and other “intangible factors affect security more than the number of deployed coalition battalions.”
Other key factors included a greater unity of effort by American forces, better intelligence, and an overall renewed sense of mission under new leadership. The morale of US troops is almost never mentioned, but the shift from pessimism to cautious optimism that I remember between early 2007 and late 2008 was unmistakable.
The surge sent US troops into neighborhoods, which led to better intelligence gathering. But there were costs. No matter how brilliant the manual, counterinsurgency policy was implemented by average Americans. Brave and patriotic to be sure, and volunteers all. But putting 20-somethings on patrol as community policemen in a war zone, where they didn’t understand the language or culture, had serious and unintended consequences.
Many thousands of Iraqis were swept into an archipelago of US or Iraqi prisons for offenses — real or imagined. I remember watching the arrest of a student by a group of American soldiers. His offense was telling one American soldier, through an interpreter of dubious allegiances, a joke.
Thousands were arrested and held without trial. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one of those arrested. He and a dozen others, radicalized during their incarceration, are now the leadership of ISIS, itself a reincarnation of the old Al Qaeda in Iraq militia. Accounts of the prisons describe them as “jihadi universities.”
Many of the Iraqis swept up into prisons were dangerous insurgents and locking them up meant that they couldn’t plant IEDs or shoot mortars. Others took cash payments to not fight and to man checkpoints rather than bomb them.
The American soldiers I traveled with hated paying the Sons of Iraq, men who’d been insurgents only a day earlier. But they hated fighting them even more. It all led to a lull in the killing, one of the surge’s key goals.
When the Iraqi government stopped the flow of money, the violence began anew.
Which brings us to the second and equally important goal of the surge: political reconciliation. This also failed — and in spectacular fashion.
The corrupt, viciously sectarian government of Nouri al-Malaki was prone to terrible abuses of any and all opponents. And Muslims weren’t the only ones in the crosshairs. “Christians are finished in Iraq,” wrote one former Human Rights Watch worker this fall, after an exodus of some 750,000 people that predated the rise of the Islamic State.
Days after he was elected, I wrote from Baghdad that, regardless of what the incoming president Barack Obama wanted, the Iraqi government wanted all US forces out by 2011. The Bush administration duly agreed in December 2008, as the surge wound down.
What follows from the surge mythology is the idea that a few thousand residual US troops could have prevented Maliki from indulging in his worst sectarian impulses, or held off the ISIS rout. Given the record of an occupying US force many times larger, which was unable to halt either rampant ethnic cleansing or civil war, such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence.
Iraqis had the responsibility to capitalize on the lull in violence. They failed. And it is the Iraqis who are paying the steepest price for it.
Alex Kingsbury is a senior associate producer for WBUR’s “Radio Boston.” He reported from Iraq for US News and World Report in 2007 and 2008.