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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How Important Was the Surge? | The American Prospect

The past few weeks have been momentous for the national conversation about Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki's explicitly stated insistence on a timetable for American withdrawal was transformative. For the first time, the Iraqi people, the American people, and the Iraqi government have all clearly expressed a desire for America to end its occupation of Iraq. For some in America, this has sounded like an endorsement of a well-defined withdrawal plan. For others, it has been validation of the surge strategy, and testament to the need to stay the course.

Nowhere has this tension been more acute than in the rapid-fire press releases between the two presidential candidates. As Randy Scheunemann, John McCain's foreign policy adviser, put it, "The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed." This raises an interesting empirical question, however. There's no doubt that the past year or two have seen a dramatic drop in Iraqi violence, and real gains in stability. In the American press, much of this stability has been chalked up to the "surge" of 30,000 or so extra troops, centered around Baghdad.

But was the surge the only, or even the main, factor creating this stability? To find out, TAP Online asked ten Iraq experts, from all sides of the political spectrum, to explain the forces and developments they believed had resulted in Iraq's relative stability, and evaluate the centrality of the surge. As you'll see in the following responses, it's not a question that's easily answered.

Shawn Brimley
Fellow, Center for a New American Security

The narrative surrounding the "surge" has been overly simplified by the McCain campaign. Senator McCain's mistake in claiming that the "surge" which started in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni's to turn against al-Qaeda is clearly false. The Sunni tribes began to shift their allegiances in the Fall of 2006, in no small part due to the actions of U.S. troops in Anbar. The decline in violence in 2007 had much more to do with a change in U.S. strategy than simply the additional troops. A change in strategy, plus the Sunni Awakening, the decision of Sadr to stand down his militia, and the use of concrete barriers in Baghdad to separate Sunni and Shia were all extremely important factors that, along with the additional troops, combined to help lower the violence.

Finally, as Colonel Sean McFarland argued in Military Review: "A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made these younger leaders open to our overtures."

The additional troops were an important contributing factor in reducing the violence, but only one of several variables. By downplaying the impact that a credible threat of withdrawal had in producing the security gains in 2007, the McCain campaign is grossly simplifying the war for political gain.

Juan Cole
Richard P. Mitchell Distinguished University Professor of History, University of Michigan

Decline of violence causes:

1. Dulaim tribesmen in Anbar developed a feud with Salafi Jihadis, who were hitting Dulaim young men who tried to join police; Dulaim took money from the United States to fight jihadis.

2. Shiite militias ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and environs, leaving few mixed neighborhoods and less opportunity for neighborhood killings. (Baghdad went from 65 percent Shiite in Jan. 2007 to 75 percent Shiite by late last summer.)

3. Extra oil income strengthened Iraqi security forces.

4. Badr Corps paramilitary of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq won out in South over Sadr's movement, with help of Iraqi police and army and U.S. air support (e.g. Diwaniya, Karbala).

5. Sunnis left in West Baghdad took money from United States to form anti-jihadi militias.

6. Extra U.S. troops in Baghdad put in blast walls, no-drive markets, bridge and other checkpoints -- which may have had some impact in capital, though ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis was more important.

How Important Was the Surge? | The American Prospect

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