Strange Victory


Reading today’s Fred Hiatt column I’m once again struck by how weird the hardened conventional wisdom about the surge in Iraq is. I’ll happily concede that surge critics like myself said some things that were falsified by events. At the same time, one very common strategic argument made by surge critics has been completely vindicated—while Bush was surging in Iraq, the Taliban was surging in Afghanistan and at the margin it made more sense to deploy resources in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Meanwhile, after the surge began Iraq got more violent, then it got less violent, and now there’s kinda sorta a political accommodation that may or may not hold up over time.

In other words, Iraq is definitely in better shape than it was three years ago and Afghanistan is definitely in worse shape. It’s not clear that that’s a net strategic gain for the United States nor is it clear that our dispatch of troops to Iraq was really decisive in leading to the improvements. But as far as the conventional wisdom is concerned, the surge in Iraq “worked” and its architects are the greatest geniuses of all time.

With that in mind, I was interested to read this post by Brian Katulis at the Wonk Room on the views of Mowaffaq Al-Rubaie, who was national security adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before and during the surge:

At a conference last Friday looking at dynamics in Iraq as it heads to new elections organized by the Landau Network Centro Volto, Dr. Al-Rubaie asked the conference, “Did the surge (in Iraq) do what it was supposed to do or not? No one will be able to answer this question.”

In a conversation with him later, Al-Rubaie chuckled when I mentioned that the policy community in America has concluded that it was the addition of U.S. troops that was the central factor in stemming the violence. Al-Rubaie enumerated other factors — including the violence by Shia militia groups and the formation of Sunni awakening groups as other key variables contributing to declines in Iraq’s violence. “There’s no double blind control test” that can be done on the Iraq surge to prove anyone’s case, said Al-Rubaie — his comments suggesting that the conventional wisdom about the Iraq surge, on display in this morning’s article by the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt — isn’t an accurate reflection of reality.

“We had been saying to the Americans since 2006 — please remove the U.S. presence from the streets,” Al-Rubaie told the conference. It was previously reported that when President George W. Bush met with Prime Minister Maliki in Amman in November 2006, the Iraqi leader came with a Powerpoint presentation arguing against the U.S. surge of forces. Al-Rubaie argued that there haven’t been many U.S. troop deaths in Iraq since the U.S. presence was removed from urban areas this past June — and he said this was “a point the Obama administration should take into account in Afghanistan.”

That said, from the beginning it’s been clear that one of the main goals of the surge had relatively little to do with reality on the ground in Iraq or American national security interests, but was instead simply focused on creating a narrative of “victory” in the American political context. At that goal, the surge has undoubtedly been a huge success, and the influx of extra forces definitely played a key role.