As Ilan Goldenberg, Spencer Ackerman, and others have made clear, John McCain is very mixed up about the chronology of the Anbar awakening phenomenon. Specifically the fact that the troop surge occurred after the Awakening had already begun, something that makes McCain’s contention that “the surge… began the Anbar awakening” somewhat, shall we say, problematic.
It also gets the causation exactly wrong. As Colin Kahl writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, it wasn’t the promise to stay forever, but the credible threat of U.S. withdrawal that was fundamental to the Anbari sheikhs’ initial decision to ally with the U.S. against Al Qaeda in Iraq:
U.S. forces had to convince the Sunnis that they were not occupiers — that is, that they did not intend to stay forever. Here, growing opposition to the war in the United States and the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections were critical. Major General John Allen, the Marine Corps officer responsible for tribal engagement in Anbar in 2007, recently told me that among Sunni leaders, the Democratic victory and the rising pro-withdrawal sentiment “did not go unnoticed…. They talked about it all the time.”[…]
As Major Niel Smith, the operations officer at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, and Colonel Sean MacFarland, the commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi during the pivotal period of the Awakening, wrote recently (pdf) in Military Review, “A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made these younger [tribal] leaders [who led the Awakening] open to our overtures.” In short, contrary to the Bush administration’s claims, the Awakening began before the surge and was driven in part by Democratic pressure to withdraw.
It’s more than a little bizarre that McCain should demonstrate this sort of incoherence in regard to his marquee item. Kind of like Gary Rossington forgetting the wheedly-wheedly-wheedly high parts to the Free Bird solo.
But McCain has never evidenced much knowledge on the various factors that have contributed to the drop in violence in Iraq — the Awakening, the Sadr freeze, and the completion of sectarian cleansing — or the way that the surge worked to support, encourage, and consolidate these things. For McCain, it’s always been about more force. More troops, more arms, more ass-kicking. This is why his presentation on his website of the “McCain Surge” is so ridiculous: Even though McCain was calling for more troops as early as mid-2003, none of the phenomena which have fortuitously combined to drive down violence existed back then. But don’t bother McCain with such details.