Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Petraeus-mania left some observers unmoved. Comparing Petraeus and Odierno to Grant and Sherman was a bit like ranking George W. Bush alongside Abraham Lincoln, in their view. Yes, violence in Iraq dramatically subsided in 2007–2008. But, no, Petraeus and the implementation of COIN “best practices” did not provide an adequate causal explanation.
As surge skeptics were quick to point out, the so-called Sunni Awakening—Sunni tribal leaders turning on Al Qaeda and forging marriages of convenience with local U.S. commanders—predated Petraeus’s appointment as overall commander in Baghdad. In 2005, H. R. McMaster, hero of 73 Easting during the Second Gulf War and now a colonel commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had stabilized the city of Tal Afar west of Mosul by taking an approach that emphasized patiently building relationships rather than kicking down doors.
In the summer and fall of 2006, Colonel Sean MacFarland, commanding a brigade of the 1st Armored Division successfully (if temporarily) pacified Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province. Like McMaster, MacFarland demonstrated a capacity to cut loose from orthodoxy and innovate on the fly. “I was a bit of a drowning man in Ramadi,” he subsequently admitted. “I was reaching for anything that would help me float. And that was the tribes.”
Yet it was Al Qaeda’s excesses rather than the teachings of FM 3-24 that prompted Sunni tribal leaders to suspend their campaign against the Americans, who gratefully responded with subsidies and expressions of warm regard.
In Baghdad itself, a purge had preceded the surge. Many months of fierce fighting between Sunnis and Shia (and among Shiite factions) had effectively ended the commingling of sectarian antagonists in the Iraqi capital. By early 2007, Baghdad appeared intent on replicating mid-twentieth century Boston or Chicago: Mixed neighborhoods had become a thing of the past. Physical separation greatly reduced levels of violence, which Petraeus’s troops had not induced but merely affirmed and policed.
Finally, a shadowy kill-or-capture campaign conducted by elite U.S. special operators specifically targeting Al Qaeda was gaining momentum. Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who directed that campaign, reported directly to CENTCOM, not to the American commander in Baghdad. By taking down Al Qaeda in Iraq, McChrystal was regaining some of the territory “lost” to terrorism as a direct result of President Bush’s ill-advised 2003 invasion. To credit Petraeus’s surge with that success was more or less like crediting the inventors of Facebook with creating the digital age. Others had already done the heavy lifting.
How then are we to situate the Iraq surge within the larger framework of America’s War for the Greater Middle East? According to Lieutenant General Bolger, a Petraeus critic, “The surge did not ‘win’ anything.”
For his part, Senator John McCain, a Petraeus booster, quickly concluded that “the surge worked” and never budged from that position.
Although contradictory, each judgment in its own way has merit.
As an actual event, the surge proved to be little more than a pause. It coincided with and helped further a temporary decline in violence. Unfortunately, Petraeus’s achievement in Baghdad in 2007–2008 resembles his achievement in occupying Mosul in 2003–2004: Gains proved fleeting. A genuinely decisive battlefield victory—Midway, for example, or Stalingrad—paves the way for ending a war on favorable terms.
In U.S. military doctrine, the sequel to a successful offensive operation is first
—in lay terms, going in for the final kill. Neither occurred or was even contemplated in the wake of the Iraq surge.
So rather than ending the Third Gulf War, Petraeus’s success provided the war’s proponents with a rationale for prolonging it. On this score, Bolger surely stands correct. Ultimately, the surge had no bearing whatsoever on the war’s outcome.
Yet as a pseudo-event, it qualified as a singular achievement. Styling the surge as an epic victory offered a way to rebut suspicions, growing more prominent the longer Iraq dragged on, that U.S. policymakers were clueless and American military leaders incompetent. To allow such impressions to take hold would be to invite all manner of unwelcome questions about the wisdom of invading Iraq in the first place, of deferring to elites who dreamed up such ideas, and of shoveling ever more money at the Pentagon to persist in a failing enterprise. Most dangerous of all for a nation deeply invested in maintaining global military supremacy were Iraq-induced questions about whether war itself remained a viable instrument of policy.
To all such nitpicking, surge supporters offered this ready reply: Behold the brilliance of King David.
Behold, too, his resurrection of COIN as the formula for a new and improved American way of war.
Here, Senator McCain’s view rather than General Bolger’s prevailed. As a preemptive strike against any inclination to reexamine the basic assumptions underlying America’s War for the Greater Middle East or to reconsider the militarization of U.S. policy more generally, the surge did succeed and notably so.
The implications became apparent in the 2008 presidential campaign. That contest bore some similarity to the notorious election of 1968 pitting Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon. Forty years later, at least in a political sense, Iraq was Vietnam
. Choosing the successor to an incumbent discredited by war required each of the opposing candidates to explain what that war signified and what he intended to do with it.
In the replay, John McCain found himself in the role of Humphrey. Without altogether forsaking the war itself, McCain struggled to avoid having it taint his candidacy. Fortune cast Barack Obama, first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, as Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, Obama ran for the presidency promising to exit the war without damaging the nation’s credibility or reputation. Nixon had referred to “peace with honor.” Obama chose a similar formulation, pledging “to end this war responsibly.”
More specifically, Obama promised to shift the weight of the U.S. military effort in the Islamic world. Instead of Iraq, which he had characterized as a “dumb” and “rash” war, Afghanistan would receive top billing. That he depicted as the “war we need to win.”
In some respects, the election turned on how the two candidates differed in framing Iraq. For McCain, the surge meant everything. He had supported it while Obama had not. On that basis, McCain argued that he had demonstrated his worthiness to serve as commander in chief whereas Obama had disqualified himself. Of course, even when he had criticized its conduct, McCain had never wavered in supporting the Third Gulf War, which Obama had opposed from day one—indeed, before day one. That, Obama argued, showed that whereas he himself possessed the foresight required of a commander in chief, McCain had revealed his own unsuitability. Crucially, while each candidate impugned the other’s judgment, neither questioned the decades-old military enterprise of which Iraq represented one manifestation.
Often in American elections, the outcome of a contest based on ostensibly sharp differences affirms an implicit consensus transcending those differences. Certainly, that occurred here. Obama handily defeated McCain. America’s War for the Greater Middle East thereby survived unscathed—which would also have occurred if the polling had produced the opposite result.
The war in Iraq for which Obama assumed responsibility when he became president on January 20, 2009, was already winding down. In his last visit to Baghdad, President Bush had signed off on “a framework for the drawdown of American forces as the fight in Iraq nears a successful end.”
With success—ostensibly thanks to the surge—so close at hand, the time for U.S. troops to begin packing up for home had arrived. The agreement with the Iraqi government identified December 2011 as the deadline for completing the withdrawal. Preparing to leave office, Bush described Iraq as “a rising democracy, an ally in the war on terror, an inspiring model of freedom for people across the Middle East.”
Take that at face value, and it looked like “Mission Accomplished” all over again.
In truth, by the one measure that Americans actually cared about—U.S. combat casualties—things were certainly looking up. Yes, fighting continued. But during the first six months of Obama’s presidency, the number of Americans killed in Iraq averaged just seventeen per month—a decline of more than 80 percent from two years before. The number of Americans being wounded had also dropped precipitously, with the monthly tally of wounded now smaller than the monthly death toll when the surge was in its early stages.
Such signs of progress sufficed to encourage Americans to begin tuning out the war.
Yet once more appearances deceived. In fact, the United States was no closer to “Mission Accomplished” in 2009 than it had been back in 2003, unless, that is, one accepted a severely watered-down definition of what that mission entailed.
Security is a relative term. Although the security within Iraq had improved considerably in the wake of the surge, violence persisted, as did the insurgency itself. During the first six months of President Obama’s term, with the surge now officially complete, internecine violence was still claiming an average of 280 Iraqi lives per month. Attacks on coalition forces continued to occur at a rate exceeding 200 per week. From one month to the next, insurgents were killing dozens of Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
Newspaper headlines recording incidents that occurred in a single month hint at the continuing mayhem: “Four Killed in Baghdad Market Blast,” June 1, 2009; “Nine Killed in Baghdad Café Bombing,” June 4, 2009; “Iraq: Bombing of Minibus in Shiite Area Kills 9,” June 8, 2009; “Car Bomb in Iraq Kills About 30 People,” June 10, 2009; “Iraq Truck Bomb Kills 64,” June 20, 2009; “Iraqis Hunt for Relatives in Rubble of Deadly Truck Bombing,” June 21, 2009; “31 Killed in Iraq Attacks as U.S. Pullback Looms,” June 22, 2009; “Bomb Strikes Shiite Market in Baghdad, Killing 69,” June 24, 2009; “Motorcycle Bombs Kill 20 in Baghdad,” June 26, 2009; “Iraqis Celebrate US Pullback but Bombing Kills 33,” June 30, 2009.
In no other country (barring perhaps Afghanistan) would violence on a scale that Iraqis were continuing to endure qualify as even remotely tolerable. Even so, once in office, President Obama found it politically expedient to adopt the position of his predecessor. Without saying so explicitly, his administration accepted the pretense that the surge had indeed turned the war around. Improved conditions thereby provided a justification for doing precisely what George W. Bush had envisioned and what Obama himself had promised to do if elected president—incrementally reducing the number of GIs present in Iraq.
As often happens when a war drags on for too long, domestic politics now superseded strategic considerations as a basis for policy. Americans had elected Obama to get the United States out of Iraq. The new president was fully committed to making good on that expectation. His challenge was to make withdrawal look like something other than retreat. This describes the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq during the last two years of the Third Gulf War. As General Zinni or any other veteran of the Vietnam War in its waning years might have remarked, it was Vietnamization all over again.
As the Third Gulf War progressed through its several phases, American military leaders displayed a proclivity for gnomic aphorisms of the sort that in an earlier day might have found favor with Chairman Mao. General Tommy Franks reduced his theory of modern warfare to just two words: “Speed kills.”
When speed alone did not suffice to finish the job, George Casey devised an alternative: “Al Qaeda out, Sunnis in, ISF in the lead,” a formulation that expressed his determination to eliminate foreign fighters, end sectarian divisions, and prod Iraqi Security Forces into taking over the fight.
With Petraeus’s surge came yet another maxim. “Clear, hold, and build” was meant to convey renewed resolve, even if the ultimate aim—finding a way out—remained unchanged. Petraeus departed Iraq in September 2008, elevated to the post of CENTCOM commander. Neither Odierno, his immediate successor in Baghdad, nor General Lloyd Austin, who in September 2010 became the sixth U.S. officer to preside over the war, coined a snappy phrase to describe what they were trying to accomplish. Had they done so, something along the lines of “hang on, exit gracefully, fingers crossed” would have fit the bill.
As Operation Iraqi Freedom’s last days dwindled down, egress management displaced “kinetic operations” as the focus of attention. Two issues now dominated: the pace of troop withdrawal and the composition of a residual force, if any, to remain behind after the December 2011 end date to which the Bush administration had agreed. Each involved sensitive negotiations between the new commander in chief back in Washington and the general already installed in Baghdad.
As a candidate, Obama had vowed to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within sixteen months of taking office. Odierno told his new boss that twenty-three months sounded like a better number. They settled on nineteen. Candidate Obama had implied that all combat troops out meant just that. Supported by Petraeus at CENTCOM, Odierno argued for retaining a backup if the Iraqi army encountered problems it could not handle. Although initially balking at this request, Obama ultimately agreed to a “transitional” force remaining after the U.S. combat role had officially ended. To provide the president with political cover, the Pentagon styled the stay-behind forces as “advise and assist” brigades. In reality, they would be standard U.S. Army combat formations augmented with a small advisory contingent. It was the equivalent of calling an aircraft carrier a hospital ship by adding a few nurses to the crew. Odierno envisioned a total headcount of fifty thousand for this transitional force. Anticipating that this was more than his party’s antiwar wing was likely to swallow, Obama countered with an offer of somewhere between thirty-five and fifty thousand, exact numbers to be worked out later.