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Surge Evaluation

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I mostly agree with what Ezra says here, here, and here about David Brooks Surge column. I would diverge slightly in regards to his discussion of the four trends that have led to a decrease in violence; Ezra lists the Sadrist truce, the Awakening strategy, successful ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, and the Surge, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. For one, I would divide the Surge itself into tactical and material components, as one element of the Surge was a shift in tactics, while another was the increase in troops on the ground. It’s also important to note that the five trends aren’t analytically independent. Sadr certainly saw the Surge coming when he decided to pursue a political rather than military strategy. The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was probably accelerated by the same anticipation. Similarly, the Awakening strategy is tied to the tactical evolution of US doctrine that resulted in the Surge, and the increase in troops is called for by that doctrinal development.

Ezra also reminds us…

Folks forget this, but the surge was actually part of Howard Dean’s 2004 candidacy, when he was running as an anti-war candidate. In June 2003, on Meet the Press, he said, “I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now.” I disagreed with him, but that was the plan: More troops, leading to less violence, leading to withdrawal. It was a plan that Democrats, even liberal Democrats, supported. Would Brooks like to credit Dean as a military visionary?

Indeed, although I have to wonder whether an increase in 2005 would have had the same effect as the increase in 2007. There was still plenty of ethnic cleansing to do in 2005, and Al Qaeda may not have grown sufficient in strength to make the US a good option for the Sunni tribal leadership. Just as important, the Army and Marine Corps were not the organizations in 2005 that they were in 2007; the experience of Iraq (and, in fairness, the revolutionary push by David Petraeus) has served to shift the focus especially of the Army, making it an instrument more capable of carrying out a Surge-like operation.

Still, even if Brooks is 100% off base. It wasn’t hard to predict that the Surge would fail to produce reconciliation, or that the empowering of Sunni tribal leaders would serve to facilitate the disintegration of the Iraqi state. I thought that both of these outcomes would result from the Surge in early 2007, and nothing that’s happened has changed my view. However, I did very much doubt that the expansion of US forces by only 25000 would contribute to any significant reduction in violence in Iraq. While the Surge hasn’t begun to “solve” the problem of Iraq, and certainly hasn’t been the sole contributor to the reduction in violence, I think it’s fair to say that violence since June 2007 has declined more than I would have thought possible. If someone had told me that US casualties in Iraq would average under 40/month for a nine month period, I doubt I would have believed it, and I know I wouldn’t have bought it if told that this could be accomplished in the context of increased operational tempo.

So there’s that, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the occupation of Iraq is less costly in human terms than I would have expected a year ago, but that doesn’t, in the end, get us very far.

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