Measuring Success of the Surge

Bernard Finel quips that, “The ‘success’ of the surge is like winning a pie eating contest where is the prize is… more pie.” That’s a good line, regardless of where you stand on Iraq.

More seriously, he tries to come up with metrics for defining “success” and observes,

We are now precisely back where we started, though at 2005 levels of violence rather than 2006. I don’t think anyone back in 2005 was really happy about progress in Iraq, so it is not clear to me why anyone would be happy now.

I’m not sure that’s right. Violence ratcheted up in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and AQI managed to turn an uncoordinated anti-Coalition insurgency into sectarian violence with the al-Askari Mosque bombing and other incidents. Until that happened, there were real signs of political progress in Iraq, with two reasonably successful elections, recognition of basic human rights and religious tolerance, and so forth.

Violence is down for a host of reasons, not least of which is the Sunnis turning against AQI and a general sense of combat fatigue. If we can get back on the path we were on in 2005, then, there’s hope of turning a corner.

In his opening statement earlier today, General Petraeus stated that, “In the coming months, Iraq leaders must strengthen governmental capacity, execute budgets, pass additional legislation, conduct provincial elections, carry out a census, determine the status of disputed territories, and resettle internally displaced persons and refugees.” If those things happen, the Surge will have been a success; if they don’t, it won’t.

No doubt, we continue to kick the ball down the road, pleading for another six months (One more Friedman!) to assess the situation. Inevitably, the result is that we need another six months. If things are looking up, it shows that we’re on the right track; if things are getting worse, it shows that we can’t afford to pull out and leave the Iraqis without help. It’s not clear, though, that there’s an appealing alternative.

UPDATE: Finel responds that a wonkish interest in details obscures larger truths. in this case, “Iraq is already, even with all the violence and divisions, in the middle of the pack of Arab states in terms of political health. We have accomplished virtually all we can ever reasonably hope to accomplish in Iraq. At this point, we are staying in Iraq because it is a commitment trap.”

He’s certainly right that plenty of other Arab states have issues with corruption, political violence, and radical Islamists. It’s unreasonable to hope that, if we just work hard enough, we’ll turn Iraq into Sweden. Still, we set the wheels in motion here and have some responsibility to finish what we’ve started. Is that a commitment trap? Sure. But the “trap” exists.

Classically, game theorists applied the notion to nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. The theory was that a leader would have to honor his pre-announced commitment to retaliate to a nuclear strike in kind in order to preserve credibility and thus deter future attacks. This has, obviously, never been tested.

In the Iraqi case, the argument is both that we have a moral obligation to those who have literally risked their lives in making common cause with us and that, if we don’t do that, we’ll have difficulty getting others to trust us in future interventions. As with the nuclear case, it’s unprovable in the abstract but seems intuitively compelling.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal says:

    Think how cool it will be to be the last man/woman to die for Nouri al Maliki

    The arguments for staying in Iraq are drearily familiar. There will be a “blood bath” if the United States leaves. Withdrawing will only “embolden” al Qaeda. Iraq’s oil will be taken off the market. Iran will seize control of the country. These risks are not only overblown, they are also deeply uncertain. They must be weighed against the well-known costs of sticking around—a U.S. military stretched to the breaking point, a Middle East becoming more radicalized and anti-American, continued distraction from the real fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the real diplomatic action in Asia, to name but a few. Most importantly, we must not forget that even a perfect surge would still have left the United States chasing an expected strategic payoff—a stable, democratic Iraq—that is extremely unlikely to be realized for decades, if at all.

    It’s one thing to ask American soldiers to lay their lives on the line for freedom and democracy, or to safeguard their country from weapons of mass destruction. But who wants to be the last man to die for Nuri al-Maliki?

  2. mike says:

    Just keep eating that $!%t sandwich – one expensive and deadly bite at a time.

  3. legion says:

    Well, the actual intent of the Surge was ultimately to allow the incipient Iraqi gov’t to get some legitimate work done. It was assumed that sending more troops there would reduce the level of violence… at first, all over Iraq, but when it became obvious that that was a ridiculous concept with anything less than 300-400k soldiers on the ground, that was scaled back to just creating ‘security pockets’.

    It was likewise assumed that a reduction in violence would allow the Iraqi gov’t to truly function like the democracy everyone wanted them to be.

    Unfortunately, since Maliki has been shown to be (at best) just one of several centers of power, and since an active civil war still appears to be under way (at least in significant parts of the country), and since it’s highly arguable whether anything the Iraqi Parliament has accomplished is functional or simply window-dressing, I don’t see anything the Surge has been successful at.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I think we need to distinguish between tactical success and strategic success.

    The surge has been a resounding, notable tactical success. That’s obvious. Whether it’s been a strategic success remains to be seen. My own view is that it can’t be a strategic success in the timeframe required by the impatient American people.

    That doesn’t necessarily translate into either “stay the course” or “bring the troops home”. I think it translates into the path that all three of the presidential contenders seem to be advocating: draw down the troops to a sustainable level (and to where things don’t go oblong).

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    The surge has been a resounding, notable tactical success.

    I disagree. From all I can tell, the reduction in violence in Iraq appears to stem from four primary sources:

    1) The ethnic redistribution and literal building of walls between ethnically segregated areas of Baghdad.

    2) The ceasefire declared by the Mahdi Army.

    3) The bribeing of Sunni warlords to stop attacking American forces and attack AQI instead.

    4) The increase in the number of American troops.

    Of these four, I would say that the troop increase has had the LEAST to do with the temporary reduction of overall violence in Iraq–which is not to say that it had nothing to do with it, but I’d say it has the least to do with it.

    But given the Iranian-backed Maliki’s recent attack on the Iraqi-nationalist Mahdi army, I have my doubts as to how temporary the reduction in violence will be.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I wouldn’t disagree with that Alex. To be a tactical success all that is needed is that it be a factor not that it be the the only or even the most important factor.

  7. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    That’s a strange argument, Dave Schuler. I was picking my nose during the “surge”. Was that _a_ factor in tactical success in Iraq?

  8. Bithead says:

    The surge has been a resounding, notable tactical success. That’s obvious. Whether it’s been a strategic success remains to be seen. My own view is that it can’t be a strategic success in the timeframe required by the impatient American people.

    Well, it’s down to the resolve shown by the American people just now. I say it that way, because the one point neither you nor James mentions is the violence vs the election cycles here in the US.

    Hume, tonight:

    If you had any doubt that insurgents in Iraq are aware of the political seasons here in the U.S., consider this: New data from the Defense Intelligence Agency shows that enemy initiated attacks during the entire course of the war peaked in October 2006 — the month leading up to the midterm elections. That month, the total number of insurgent led attacks was at more than 5,000.

    The data shows that between November 2006 and May 2007, attacks remained at the highest levels of the 5 year conflict. However, the numbers indicate that since the surge was fully implemented last summer that attacks have dropped significantly — down about 70 percent since June 2007.

    So, here’s the problem; Showing a resolve to see this trough in the face of Iran and AQI playing for the election cycle news coverage, is not likely to be easy. BUt as to the value of showing resolve to see it through;

    Alex;
    I must admit to being surprised by your response. I, too, think the surge a tactical success but for perhaps a different reason than Dave… I think you under-estimate the psychological effects of the surge, from the stand point of sending the message both to the Iraqi people as a whole, and the terrorists, we’re staying to see this thing through.

    So, back to the point I was making with Dave…If we elect a “cut and run” Democrat, what message does THAT send, I wonder?

  9. Triumph says:

    I think we need to distinguish between tactical success and strategic success.

    This is an example of flawed thinking here. The LAST thing we need to do is distinguish between “tactical” & “strategic” success.

    There can only be one notion of “success.” Given the fact that the entire enterprise was concocted by Bush for undecipherable reasons makes this difficult.

    But my sense is that the reason we haven’t left Iraq is because of some fear that the political situation will degenerate in our absence.

    So the “measure of success” surely shouldn’t be simplistic measures of levels of violence which James latches onto–it should be the extent to which our military escalation helped create conditions for political stability.

  10. anjin-san says:

    we’re staying to see this thing through

    Who is staying Bit? Are you in Iraq getting shot at because Bush is a fool? I think not…

  11. Bithead says:

    Who is staying Bit? Are you in Iraq getting shot at because Bush is a fool? I think not…

    And how many of the troops are re-upping voluntarily? How many of them do we need to hear saying taht te fight is worth fighting before you take them at their word?

  12. Michael says:

    So, back to the point I was making with Dave…If we elect a “cut and run” Democrat, what message does THAT send, I wonder?

    Please tell me you have a better argument for sending Americans to die than the perceived message it would send to our enemies.

    And how many of the troops are re-upping voluntarily?

    Evidently not enough to keep the army staffed at it’s required levels.

  13. Bithead says:

    How many will die when we sent the message that we will fold if pressured? Consider, please that BinLaden used our response in Vietnam as an example of how the US could be beaten. I submit to you on tat basis that everyone who has died fighting Islamic extremism has died because we sent the wrong message back in ’75.

    Oh… and guess who it was back then screaming for withdrawal regardless of consequences? Well, they got their wish.

    Evidently not enough to keep the army staffed at it’s required levels

    So, all these reports about how Recruiting is on target are all lies, then?

  14. sam says:

    So, back to the point I was making with Dave…If we elect a “cut and run” Democrat, what message does THAT send, I wonder?

    But Dave’s final graf says:

    That doesn’t necessarily translate into either “stay the course” or “bring the troops home”. I think it translates into the path that all three of the presidential contenders seem to be advocating: draw down the troops to a sustainable level (and to where things don’t go oblong).

    If that’s correct, neither of the Dems can be characterized as being of the “cut and run” persuasion. Is there some other Dem candidate that we don’t know about, but you do?

  15. Bithead says:

    Nice try.
    Both Obama and Clinton ahve made statements about being out by a set date.
    Now, if you’re going to respond that tehse were to mollify heir own left, I’ll go along with that. But what does this say about their honesty? And in any event, the message being sent by their election, regardless is cut and run, because of those statements.

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    Who is staying Bit? Are you in Iraq getting shot at because Bush is a fool? I think not…

    brave unselfish noble citizens who are not sitting
    around hating their country and trying to undermine its war effort with their typers and their liberal indoctrination and their seething rage for a good man and a good president.

  17. Tlaloc says:

    Triumph:

    This is an example of flawed thinking here. The LAST thing we need to do is distinguish between “tactical” & “strategic” success.

    But I love winning the battle to lose the war, damn it.

    Bithead:

    And how many of the troops are re-upping voluntarily?

    Nice. It’s well established that troops who see stressful combat assignments encounter difficulties reintegrating with society and one of the defense mechanisms is to remain in the military. It’s similar to how some prisoners actually prefer prison because they become habituated to it and can’t easily adapt to being free- and so they go out of their way to get sent back in.

    Here are the warning signs:
    1) general recruiting is down (true)
    2) heavy combat groups report elevated suicide and PTSD (also true)
    3) instances of spousal abuse and divorce skyrocket among veterans (again true)
    4) heavy combat units reup at suspiciously high levels (as you pointed out, true)

    It all adds up to a serious mental health crisis, but because it’s convenient for the warmongers it’ll be used. Assholes.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Tlaloc,

    Its also interesting (and revolting) to note that the Bush admin is fighting hard to deny mental health benefits to combat vets. Might there be a method to their madness?

    Well one thing is for sure, the lapel pin patriots are fighting hard from the safety of their homes. (yes bit, I mean you)

  19. Bithead says:

    I’ll one this one by saying that the first tool to measurement of success is to say that there can BE such a thing as success. there seem a godly number of people who have yet to get so far. Some of them even go to extremes to justify their positions:

    Nice. It’s well established that troops who see stressful combat assignments encounter difficulties reintegrating with society and one of the defense mechanisms is to remain in the military

    Am I to understand you to say that the only reason we have a military that’s as strong as it is, is due to mental problems? Next we’ll hear about how you support the troops but not the mission.