Surge Working, Still Losing

AP’s Robert Burns left his “base” in Washington for a two week tour of Iraq and pronounces the Surge a great success. The all-important political reconciliation, on the other hand ….

The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working.

In two weeks of observing the U.S. military on the ground and interviewing commanders, strategists and intelligence officers, it’s apparent that the war has entered a new phase in its fifth year. It is a phase with fresh promise yet the same old worry: Iraq may be too fractured to make whole.

No matter how well or how long the U.S. military carries out its counterinsurgency mission, it cannot guarantee victory. Only the Iraqis can. And to do so they probably need many more months of heavy U.S. military involvement. Even then, it is far from certain that they are capable of putting this shattered country together again. It’s been an uphill struggle from the start to build Iraqi security forces that are able to fight and—more importantly at this juncture—able to divorce themselves from deep-rooted sectarian loyalties. It is the latter requirement—evenhandedness and reliability—that is furthest from being fulfilled.

There is no magic formula for success. And magic is what it may take to turn military gains into the strategy’s ultimate goal: a political process that moves Iraq’s rival Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds from the brink of civil war to the threshold of peace—and to get there on a timetable that takes account of growing war fatigue in the United States.

Efforts at Iraqi reconciliation saw another blow Monday: Five Cabinet ministers loyal to Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein leader decided to boycott government meetings, further deepening a crisis that threatens Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The boycott would leave the Shiite-led government with no Sunni participants, at least temporarily.

Despite political setbacks, American commanders are clinging to a hope that stability might be built from the bottom up—with local groups joining or aiding U.S. efforts to root out extremists—rather than from the top down, where national leaders have failed to act. Commanders are encouraged by signs that more Iraqis are growing fed up with violence. They are also counting on improvements in the Iraqi army and police, which are burdened by religious rivalries and are not ready to take over national defense duties from U.S. troops this year.

U.S. military leaders want Congress and President Bush to give them more time to keep trying—to reach a point, perhaps in 2009, when the Iraqis will be closer to reconciliation and ready to provide much of their own security. The idea, after all, is not to kill or capture every terrorist and insurgent. That can’t be done. The idea is to create a security environment more favorable to political action by the government, to provide breathing space for leaders of rival factions to work out a peaceful way to share power.

That’s the hope we all share. It’s increasingly hard to believe there’s much reason for it, given the incompetence of the Maliki government and the lack of better alternatives.

The “bottom up” concept is interesting but incredibly unlikely to happen any time soon. Certainly, “perhaps in 2009″ is not a slogan one wants to present to a public overwhelmingly against the war in 2007. Further, it’s doubtful that the Army and Marine Corps can sustain another two years of the present OPSTEMPO, let alone with a big “perhaps” modifier hanging over it.

Which gets to two matters that underlie much of the conviction in Congress that it is time to get out of Iraq.

First: Do the potential benefits of sticking with the war strategy outweigh the cost, in American blood and treasure? Total U.S. war deaths now exceed 3,665 and are climbing by more than two per day, on average.

And second: Would Iraqi political leaders be more likely to settle their sectarian differences if they knew that America’s patience was ending and that its troops were leaving—at least the combat forces?

The potential benefits would indeed be worth the cost. The problem is that a proper expected utility calculation incorporates likelihood of success into the calculation.

The second question is pure conjecture, although it depends on what one means by “settle.” My strong guess is that post-intervention Iraq would quickly explode into full-on civil war, eventually resulting in multiple mini-states. And the process may well be accompanied by direct or proxy wars involving Iraq’s neighbors.

Edward Luttwak argued in a controversial 1999 Foreign Affairs piece “Give War a Chance,”

An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.

So, yes, the sectarian differences are more likely to be settled. We’re just quite unlikely to be happy with the results. The real question is whether the time we’re buying at the cost of American blood and treasure is merely delaying the inevitable.

H.R. McMaster, one of the Surge’s architects, fully admits that there are no easy answers.

McMaster holds no illusions that the democratic Iraq that was the euphoric vision of many in Washington after Saddam was toppled will emerge in time for presidential elections in 2008, or any time soon. The picture is dark, even when painted by a believer. “It depends on how you define success,” he says. “This internal war will not end short of a generation.”

In the near future the best that can be hoped for is what he calls “sustainable stability” — a low level of violence that would allow US troops to withdraw and Iraqis to live relatively normal lives while hoping that their government and armed forces eventually get control.

That’s not much to hang your hat on. It does, however, have to be balanced against the alternatives.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head 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. Bithead says:

    Full reconciliation, it seems to me, is an impossible standard to meet. (Note the placement of the emphasis…) This would be true regardless of where these events were happening, and, regardless of the cultural influences involved.

    The question is not full reconciliation that question is whether or not the Iraqi government is capable of maintaining the peace. Those are two quite different situations. The latter, is not dependent on the former.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Although I’ve never for a moment doubted that “the Surge” could succeed in its military objectives, I’ve also been skeptical of the idea that all that was necessary for the Iraqis to resolve their differences was the space that “the Surge” would create. As I see it the problem has been and always has been one of incentives: why should the Sunnis, for example, stop resisting the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government?

    I really wish that people here would consider the alternatives we really have rather than the alternatives we wish we had and relate them to what they want to achieve. If the sole objective is to reduce American casualties in the short term, for example, withdrawal probably won’t achieve that. The last time we withdrew a substantial number of troops under fire (in Viet Nam) we suffered 40% of the casualties of the total conflict.

    If the sole objective is to get Iraq off the evening news, the only way to achieve that is immediate withdrawal.

  3. legion says:

    Well, it goes back to the same thing left-leaning types have been beating the drum about for _years_ now: there is no conceivable way a purely military operation can stabilize Iraq.

    Until the Administration commits to actually putting effective, competent people into power in Iraq (rather than whoever is most effectively kissing the right DC backside), there will be no stable Iraq gov’t. As long as there is no stable Iraq gov’t, there will continue to be a civil war. It’s a pretty simple concept, but one Bush has shown he simply cannot wrap his brain around. “Hit it with a bigger hammer” is the only excuse for policy we’ve ever really used there, and it’s the only one that’s going to be used until he’s out of office.

  4. fester says:

    Legion — the competence dodge is way past expired. That might have been a good counterfactual in 2003, maybe 2004, but my opinion is that rearranging the deck chairs now with competent professionals will only be slightly more effective in achieving positive results than the Titanic band’s last revised seating chart.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Until the Administration commits to actually putting effective, competent people into power in Iraq (rather than whoever is most effectively kissing the right DC backside), there will be no stable Iraq gov’t.

    Then there will be no stable Iraq government. What you’re describing is simply the way our government works whether Democrats or Republicans run the show. Meritocracy is a phantasm.

    “Hit it with a bigger hammer” is the only excuse for policy we’ve ever really used there, and it’s the only one that’s going to be used until he’s out of office.

    I honestly don’t think that’s true, legion. I think that the bigger hammer has been alternated with avoidance, a kind of not-so-benign neglect.

    However, that’s been a typically American way of doing things for generations—continuing approximation, sort of a Goldilocks approach: too hot, too cold, just right. It’s why Churchill said “The Americans will always do the right thing…when every other alternative has been exhausted.”

    I wrote a post some time ago on why that probably won’t be an effective approach in Iraq. As I suggested above I think we need to revisit means and ends.

  6. Bithead says:

    From my own extended comments on this thread at my place:

    There are many from center to left, who have been banging the drum up on this “military victory means nothing without reconciliation” business for some time now, and the volume on that has been cranked up significantly since the meme about how we were losing the Iraq war militarily, has been discredited, and summarily dumped.

    The fact, however, is that full reconciliation is an impossible standard to meet, in any event, regardless of how the military play works out. That’s not just rule in Iraq, or Afghanistan, but any war. There are always a large number of holdouts at the end of any war. Always has been. Regardless of where these events occur. Regardless of the cultural influences involved.

    Some extreme examples would be the partitioning in response to communist expansionism: Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and so on. Even within the region, the religious and ethnic tensions have been going on literally for thousands of years. Yet, while their frequency has been larger than some other areas of the world, still, wars have been relatively infrequent. Certainly, their differences were not reconciled through that period.

    I submit, that the question is not full reconciliation, but rather the question is whether or not the Iraqi government is capable of maintaining the peace. Certainly, that has been the major issue in any other war we have ever fought in. Those are two completely different issues. Maintaining the peace, is not dependent on full reconciliation.

    Frankly, I have begun to think that this call for full reconciliation, being the conditioned upon which victory stands, is just another attempt by the left to declare Iraq a failure. Nothing else has worked to so label it, so far.

  7. James, as I’ve asked before, what if this is as good as it gets, especially when the alternatives are considered. When there are nothing but bad choices, we still have an obligation to try and do our best.

    Damn the utopians, full speed ahead!