Saturday, August 11, 2007

Grading the surge

There can be little doubt that, officially speaking, the "surge" in Iraq has already been deemed a modest success—more than a month before General David Petraeus is scheduled to submit his formal report. In fact, there's every reason to believe this been a foregone conclusion since the surge began last winter (as described in posts here and here and on many other blogs). More recently:
In an Associated Press interview in late July in his office at the U.S. Embassy, Petraeus betrayed no sign of anxiety, except perhaps a hint of worry that he might tip his hand too early, thus opening himself to challenge from critics before he has fully armed himself with credible arguments for why the buildup is working. Clearly, he believes it is working. But he is not ready to say that too expansively. [My emphasis.]
So the only real issue is how Petraeus can spin the carefully-selected "facts" to confirm the overall success of his own strategies. He's like a probationary employee who gets to write his own six-month evaluation. No doubt there will be self-criticisms and admissions of various deficiencies, especially on the Iraqi political front, but these are necessary if the evaluation is to have any credibility at all. Petraeus will be praised for being "direct," "unsparing" and "candid." You can almost hear Dubya at the Rose Garden press conference: "Heckuva job, Dave."

The criteria that Petraeus will apply in his self-evaluation seem clear enough. Here's my modest preview of the issues it will have to address and its likely conclusions:

1. Casualties among U.S. forces

Depending on how the Pentagon's numbers are parsed, there has been some slight improvement compared to the high levels of April-June, 2007. But July's total of 79 killed is still higher than 10 out of 12 months during 2006, and it's twice as high as last July. The number of wounded declined to 608 in July compared to June's 744, but it was about the same as previous months (but not as low as February's 517). The administration has already concluded, of course, that higher casualties are a measure of more aggressive U.S. tactics, and therefore a perverse measure of "success." So far in August, it appears that the U.S. casualty rate is increasing compared to July.

2. Insurgent attacks and Iraqi casualty rates

There are no reliable figures for Iraqi military or civilian casualties, but the available evidence suggests a continuing high level of both since insurgent attacks began to intensify in July, 2006. Despite monthly fluctuations, the overall civilian casualty rate is significantly higher than it was during 2005 and the first half of 2006. There's no reason to conclude that the security situation has improved nationwide, as insurgents shift their attacks to areas outside the focal points of the surge.

The number of attacks by roadside bombs reached 99 in July, a record level. Deadlier car bombs appear to be producing more deaths and injuries per attack.

3. Military successes or failures

In their now-notorious article ("A War We Just Might Win") for the NY Times, alleged "former war critics" Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution argue that co-ordination with "reliable partners" in the Iraqi army has improved to the point that the U.S. "might finally be getting somewhere" in defeating the insurgency.

Some progress has also been claimed in developing a Sunni coalition, armed and financed by the U.S., against Al Qaida cells in Anbar province and elsewhere. This is a risky strategy: the Sunni sheiks may have accepted a temporary alliance of convenience with U.S. forces so they can better arm their militias, eliminate rivals and consolidate their fiefdoms for the coming civil war.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is predicting that insurgents will attempt a "surge" of their own during the next few weeks in order to demonstrate that Petraeus' strategy isn't working.

4. Training and motivating Iraqi security forces

Iraqi security forces, especially the police, have been so heavily infiltrated that they're widely suspected of being little more than local extensions of the Shia and Sunni militias. While they make claims of tangible progress in a few locations, O'Hanlon and Pollack admit that, "all across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark."

5. Infrastructure and economy

Progress in reconstructing the economy and basic infrastructure is either scanty or nonexistent, as Iraqis suffer through the summer inferno with little or no electricity, potable water, sanitation or gasoline. If anything, the Iraqi power grid is on the brink of a complete breakdown, with individual provinces hoarding their electricity at the expense of everywhere else. Unemployment continues at up to 70% nationwide. Daily life in Iraq is beyond intolerable, which no doubt generates support for the insurgency and reinforces the perception that the U.S. occupation authority is utterly incompetent—a perception based on overwhelming evidence.

6. Political cohesion and popular support for the government

In any counterinsurgency campaign, these issues are far more important than all the others combined: military success or failure will ultimately be judged by the ability of the Iraqis to sustain a viable government that enjoys a critical mass of popular support and a monopoly on violence—the final test of sovereign authority.

By this standard, Iraq is moving towards a deepening civil war. The political situation is, at best, stagnant. Iraq's parliament is taking a long vacation while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems in no hurry whatsoever to promote national reconciliation or a compromise on sharing oil revenues. With the resignation of Sunni ministers from the government, it appears that Sunnis have now given up on the political process.

Even the O'Hanlon/Pollack article had to acknowledge the grim political realities in Baghdad:
In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed.
It's hard to reconcile the upbeat conclusions of O'Hanlon/Pollack with such statements. The only thing that really matters in Iraq is the "political front." If "huge hurdles" exist there, what does it matter if you can cherry-pick a few facts suggesting progress on the "military front?" One would expect a more incisive analysis from so-called "scholars."

Petraeus, a counterinsurgency specialist long before his assignment to Iraq, understands far better than his predecessors and O'Hanlon/Pollack that military strategy must be constantly subordinated to overarching political goals. As Thomas Ricks notes repeatedly in Fiasco, his excellent critique of the war, the administration and the Pentagon reversed these priorities from the very beginning with their obsessive focus on military considerations.

If basic counterinsurgency techniques had been implemented after the seizure of Baghdad, the chances for ultimate "success" under the six criteria listed above may have been greatly improved. Needless to say, though, the Iraq war could never have been redeemed by any strategy: it was an act of aggression, a crime against peace, from the moment it was conceived. Those responsible should be held accountable in a criminal prosecution.

The evaluation of the surge will distract Washington for weeks or months, but it should properly be part of an overall assessment of the entire war. In a Congress that still hasn't bothered to investigate Abu Ghraib, this kind of meta-critique is unlikely to be on any official agendas this year. But if and when such a report is ever written by a future Congress or administration, it would have to consider the political, economic and military effects of the war here in the U.S. It's easy to imagine the list it will have to address:
  • The internal deliberations that led the administration to develop a bogus rationale for a war of aggression on a sovereign, if deeply flawed, state;
  • The administrative processes that led to catastrophic policy decisions in Iraq, including the failure to control looting and other disorders at the beginning of the war, the "deep de-Baathification" program, brutal and counterproductive applications of force on civilian populations, corruption in civilian contracting, overreliance on private security forces, failure to control weapons stocks and protect Iraqi infrastructure, and a host of related issues.
  • The failure of Congress and the media to ask appropriate questions about the war and perform their oversight roles once it began;
  • The economic effects of a war that has already cost some $500 billion, including the opportunity costs of diverting that sum of money from domestic needs such as a national health-care plan or a program to rebuild crumbling infrastructure;
  • The weakening of the U.S. military due to extended tours in Iraq, damaged morale, depleted inventories of vital equipment, lower standards for recruits and failure to meet recruitment goals (1);
  • The devastating political costs of a conflict that has left the country as polarized as it was at during the Vietnam war; and,
  • The long-term effects of U.S. exceptionalism—the widespread assumption in the U.S. that our actions in the world are always guided by the highest moral principles, regardless of the human consequences.
The ghosts of this war could haunt U.S. political culture for at least a generation. A thorough and honest assessment, making the perpetrators accountable for their war of aggression and taking steps to prevent similar disasters in the future, would at least begin the exorcism.


(1) Leading "war czar" Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute to suggest reinstating the military draft.

PHOTO: Iraqi police on patrol (Wikipedia Commons)

UPDATE (8/14/07): The BBC is conducting a nuanced evaluation of the surge, including its effects on the daily lives of Iraqis.

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