Iraq Surge Success a Sham?

Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan gets the front page of today’s edition with a report that one of the most cited symbols of the success of the Surge is really a sham.

If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves. But the numbers only partly describe the reality on the ground. Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory.


Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus’s showcase remain skeptical. “Personally, I think it’s a false representation,” Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge’s success. “But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”


Hours before Campbell spoke, a delegation led by an American general, with several reporters in tow, filed through Combat Outpost Gator. Scores of Iraqis were milling inside the fortified market, where shopkeepers were selling clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods. In December, the market was a war zone, but roadside bombings and other attacks there have dropped significantly.

After the delegation left, Maj. Ron Minty, 36, said that the generals had wanted 300 shops open for business by July 1. By the day of the delegation’s visit, 303 had opened. “It took us until August 1st — not bad,” said Minty, the acting commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. The goal by Sept. 1 was 500, he said. (By Monday, 349 stores were open. Before the U.S.-led invasion, the market had more than 850 shops.)

Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said.


Security measures in the market are rigorous. Vehicles are not allowed inside for fear of car bombs. Customers are body-searched at checkpoints. Humvees constantly patrol the area, which is the sole focus of the 50 or so soldiers of Combat Outpost Gator.

But the Dora market has not regained its former cachet as one of southeastern Baghdad’s most vibrant commercial centers. Before the invasion, many of its stores stayed open past midnight. Today, they are open for just a few hours, and by noon the market is mostly deserted. The shopkeepers, who are mostly Sunni, said they rarely see customers from outside Dora because it is too dangerous to travel here.

Kevin Drum wonders, “Visitors could come to Iraq by the planeload and all report back that they were individually impressed with what they saw, but how meaningful is this if it turns out they all saw the same few places?”

The military long ago perfected the dog and pony show, where announced visitors are greeted with a tour with lots of bells and whistles that hide the many actual flaws of the thing or place being visited. The impending visits of generals, Congressmen, inspectors, and other notables are preceded by long periods, provided sufficient advance notice is given, of late nights of spit and polish. All the equipment is shiny, the troops have fresh haircuts and their best uniforms, and the barracks are spotless. The dignitaries are escorted by hand-picked officers who are tall, attractive, and glib and taken to the places that have been prepared to be showcased, where pre-selected soldiers await to give the right answers.

While this process is cynical (not to mention an infuriating drain on manpower and morale) it fools only the most gullible. Indeed, I’ve long thought that the generals and inspectors knew precisely what announcing their visit weeks in advance would accomplish and that they would simply drop by unannounced if they really wanted to get a sense of how the unit was actually operating. That they didn’t meant that they wanted to have the unit spend long periods paying attention to the things that they ordinarily neglect.

There’s no doubt that visitors are escorted to unrepresentative villages for purposes of giving an overly rosy impression of how much progress is being made. But, like those dog an pony shows that the military routinely puts on for its own purposes, the fact of the matter is that places like Doha are actually making progress.

Drum asks, reasonably enough, “Are there thousands of Dora markets around Iraq? Hundreds? A couple of dozen?” I don’t know the answer to that, although my guess, like Kevin’s, is that the last of those is closest to the truth. Still, one has to start somewhere.

The question, though, is whether pouring large amounts of resources into propping up dozens of villages and then gradually expanding that number will ultimately achieve the desired goal. And whether we can do it before running out of operational capability and political support.

UPDATE: Juan Cole and John Robb note the devastating impact creating security by isolating a village has on the economic activity therein.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Congress, Iraq War, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    will ultimately achieve the desired goal.

    This is what is lost in the conversation relating to the purported “success” of the surge.

    The problem, of course, is that no one is quite sure what the “goal” is. Bush clearly has no clue. There is very little doubt that he is concerned solely with his own “legacy” and all he is doing is running out the clock in the last months of his presidency.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Nearly everybody has made their minds up already. Political support is already on twilight cruise.

  3. Andy says:

    While this process is cynical … it fools only the most gullible.

    Namely, most U.S. politicians.

  4. legion says:

    Equally important is the word “ultimately”. If, as some (even folks in uniform & on Bush’s side) have said, bringing “peace” (for some value of peace) to the middle east is a generational struggle that could take decades, it begs the question:

    How could it possibly take longer if we pulled our troops out now?

  5. spencer says:

    I’m old enough to remember when Mitt Romney’s fathers campaign for president was ruined when he came back from Viet Nam claiming he was brain washed. so what is the difference between what the military is doing now and what they did in Viet Nam?