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The Surge Delusion

Posted on Mar 15, 2017

By Danny Sjursen / TomDispatch

  2nd Platoon, B Troop, 3-61 Cavalry in Kuwait in October 2006. The author is standing on the far left. (Danny Sjursen / TomDispatch)

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The other day, I found myself flipping through old photos from my time in Iraq.  One in particular from October 2006 stood out. I see my 23-year-old self, along with my platoon. We’re still at Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, posing in front of our squadron logo splashed across a huge concrete barrier. It was a tradition by then, three and a half years after the invasion of neighboring Iraq, for every Army, Marine, and even Air Force battalion at that camp to proudly paint its unit emblem on one of those large, ubiquitous barricades.

Gazing at that photo, it’s hard for me to believe that it was taken a decade ago.  Those were Iraq’s bad old days, just before General David Petraeus’s fabled “surge” campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, a defining event for American military professionals.  The term has permanently entered the martial lexicon and now it’s everywhere.  We soldiers stay late at work because we need to “surge” on the latest PowerPoint presentation.  To inject extra effort into anything (no matter how mundane) is to “surge.”  Nor is the term’s use limited to the military vernacular.  Within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal, for instance, reported on a deportation “surge.”

For many career soldiers, the surge era (2007-2011) provides a kind of vindication for all those years of effort and seeming failure, a brief window into what might have been and a proof certain of the enduring utility of force.  When it comes to that long-gone surge, senior leaders still talk the talk on its alleged success as though reciting scripture.  Take retired general, surge architect, and former CIA Director Petraeus.  As recently as 2013, he wrote a Foreign Policy piece entitled “How We Won in Iraq.”  Now “win” is a bold word indeed.  Yet few in our American world would think to question its accuracy.  After all, Petraeus was a general, and in an era when Americans have little or no faith in other public institutions, polls show nearly everyone trusts the military.  Of course, no one asks whether this is healthy for the republic.  No matter, the surge’s success is, by now, a given among Washington’s policy elite.

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Recently, for instance, I listened to a podcast of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel discussion that promoted a common set of myths about the glories of the surge. What I heard should be shocking, but it’s not.  The group peddled a common myth about the surge’s inherent wisdom that may soon become far more dangerous in the “go big” military era of Donald Trump.

CFR’s three guests—retired General Raymond Odierno, former commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq and now a senior adviser to JPMorgan Chase; Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush; and Christopher Kojm, former senior adviser to the Iraq Study Group—had remarkably similar views. No dissenting voices were included.  All three had been enthusiastic promoters of the surge in 2006-2007 and continue to market the myth of its success.  While recognizing the unmistakable failure of the post-surge American effort in Iraq, each still firmly believes in the inherent validity of that “strategy.”  I listened for more than an hour waiting for a single dissenting thought.  The silence was deafening.

Establishing the Bona Fides of Victory in Washington, If Not Iraq

With the madness of the 24-hour news cycle pin-balling us from one Trump “crisis” to another, who has time for honest reflection about that surge on its 10th anniversary?  Few even remember the controversy, turmoil, and drama of those days, but believe me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I led a scout platoon in Baghdad and my unit was a few months into a nasty deployment when we first heard the term “surge.”  Iraq was by then falling apart and violence was at an all-time high with insurgents killing scores of Americans each month.  The nascent central government, supported by the Bush administration, was in turmoil and, to top it all off, the Sunni and Shia were already fighting a civil war in the streets.

In November 2006, just a month into our deployment, Democrats won control over both houses of Congress in what was interpreted as a negative referendum on that war.  A humbler, more reticent or reflective president might have backed off, cut his losses, and begun a withdrawal from that country, but not George W. Bush.  He doubled down, announcing in January 2007 an infusion of 30,000 additional troops and a new “strategy” for victory, a temporary surge that would provide time, space, and security for the new Iraqi government to reconcile the country’s warring ethnic groups and factions, while incorporating minority groups into the largely Shiite, Baghdad-based power structure.

Soon after, my unit along with nearly every other American already in theater received word that our tours had been extended by three months—15 months in all, which then seemed like an eternity.  I sat against a wall and chain-smoked nearly a pack of cigarettes before passing the word on to my platoon.  And so it began.

Less than nine months later, the administration paraded General Petraeus, decked out in full dress uniform, at congressional hearings to plug the strategy, sell the surge, and warn against a premature withdrawal from Iraq.  What a selling job it proved to be.  It established the bona fides of victory in Washington, if not Iraq.

The man was compelling and over the next three years violence did, in fact, drop.  The additional troops and “new” counterinsurgency tactics were, however, only part of the story.  In an orgy of killing in Baghdad and many other cities, the two main sects ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, expelling each other into a series of highly segregated enclaves.  The capital, for instance, essentially became a Shiite city.  In a sense, the civil war had, momentarily at least, run its course.

In addition, the U.S. military had successfully, though again only temporarily, convinced many previously rebellious Sunni tribes to switch sides in exchange for money, support, and help in getting rid of the overly fundamentalist and brutal terror outfit, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  For the time being, AQI seemed to the tribal leaders like a bigger threat than the Shiites in Baghdad.  For this, the Sunnis briefly bet on the U.S. without ever fully trusting or accepting Shiite-Baghdad’s suzerainty.  Think of this as a tactical pause—not that the surge’s architects and supporters saw (or see) it that way.

Which brings us back to that CFR panel.  The most essential assumption of all three speakers was this: the U.S. needed to establish “security first” in Iraq before that country’s government, set in place by the American occupation, could begin to make political progress. They still don’t seem to understand that, whatever the bright hopes of surge enthusiasts at the time, no true political settlement was ever likely, with or without the surge.

America’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was already in the process of becoming a sectarian strongman, hell-bent on alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.  Even 60,000 or 90,000 more American troops couldn’t have solved that problem because the surge was incapable of addressing, and barely pretended to face, the true conundrum of the invasion and occupation: any American-directed version of Iraqi “democracy” would invariably usher in Shia-majority dominance over a largely synthetic state.  The real question no surge cheerleaders publicly asked (or ask to this day) was whether an invading foreign entity was even capable of imposing an inclusive political settlement there. To assume that the United States could have done so smacks of a faith-based as opposed to reality-based worldview—another version of a deep and abiding belief in American exceptionalism.

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