I know this has been decided now because everybody keeps saying the surge has succeeded and I must look like some horrible anti-American left winger to question that assertion….but here goes.
As you may recall, the point of the surge as announced by President Bush was to create “breathing space for national reconciliation.” So in the technical (sorta literal) sense of that formulation the surge succeeded. It did create that breathing room.
Of course the reconciliation never happened. And is never going to happen. In Bush’s self-declared criterion for the surge, the clear implication being that the breathing room is a means to an end (reconciliation) or at least a means to a bigger means (reconciliation) which is itself a means to an end (peaceful democratic Iraq).
So achieving the means but the means not translating into the ends by most standards would be considered a failure. I mean really what is the point of achieving the means if the means doesn’t lead to the end desired?
This is however not a knock on Petraeus or the soldiers. They achieved their end of the deal. They did so as much if not more through finesse than brute strength (contra many right-wing cheerleaders) but did so nonetheless. But they were set up for a failed mission for the get go and that is entirely missed in all the discussion about “Are we Winning or Losing?” Winning and Losing what? Winning battles? Sure. But winning battles and even having a better COIN doctrine has not, does not and will not translate into lasting political achievement (losing). Or rather into a situation where winning/losing as we normally conceive of them doesn’t apply.
The key point to remember in this is that Iraq under Saddam was a police state and the United States destroyed and utterly overthrew the remnants of that state–particularly under Bremer with de-Baathification, army dismemberment, etc. The US however did not replace that vacuum that inevitably arose in the aftermath of that police state wipeout.
The United States during the Gen. Casey years of Big Superbase Entrenchment (prior to the Anbar Awakening and later the Surge) left the vacuum open and it was filled by the Civil War. At that point mostly Shia-Sunni (the potential for Kurd-Sunni and even Kurd-Shia Civil War is increasing by the day for Civil War 2.0).
What the Petraeus COIN did was put a seal around the vacuum but did not fill it. It prevented/hampered others from filling that void and then made side-deals with essentially all available militias outside the sealed vacuum.
But the vacuum remains to be filled. And that is why no reconciliation will take place. Because A)there is no legitimate government with which to make deals B)everybody is simply waiting for their moment to rush the vacuum so why make deals prior to the fight? Why possibly screw yourself and your militia/ethnic grouping for the future prior to what is actually going to decide that outcome (i.e. violence)?
The surge then failed because it never had a chance to succeed. (edit: relative to the goal) . Petraeus will go so far as to say that the US military can not win the peace. i.e. It can continue to win military battles but it can not enforce national reconciliation. On that score he is right (contra McCain) yet there is another piece to add: the presence of the US occupation works as the primary excuse for the lack of a reconciliation. The political reconciliation desired is not going to hapen anyway in my opinion, but the US army occupation allows everybody to use that as an excuse to not do so anyway. [And not fight openly at the moment either.]
iow, There will be no reconciliation as long as US troops are there. The reconciliation won’t happen until there is a new equilibrium reached vis a vis the nation-state vacuum. That is, until after a new round of fighting I fear. I generally favor the Biden-Gelb plan for federalization but that looks like a no go from the Iraqi side. The leadership and the populace it appears both wants to go at each other across ethnic-sectarian lines and yet not devolve either (excepting Kurdistan of course). That is in my mind a recipe for bloodshed and perhaps the Lebanonization of Iraq where the next civil war cuts across lines with certain Sunni groups perhaps aligning with certain Shia groupings and vice versa.
But the continued policy of the occupation only grows the seal around the vacuum. It never fills it. Maliki is doing his best to try and use the occupation (and the training of the Iraqi Army/Shia militia) to allow him to fill the vacuum as a Shia Neo-Dictator (the only the country is held together with a strong government) playing his hand now to push the Americans out. He both needed them to build up his forces and now needs them out of battle/the streets to gain his legitimacy with the populace.
If violence re-erupts on a much larger scale (as I’m afraid to say I think is inevitable) I wonder whether we will look back on the surge as a kind of timeout before round 2 rather than success.
Update I: This is far from the best analogy, but what I’m trying to get at is something like creating a strategy that is going to create breathing room in my life so that someone can send me a trillion dollar check. Whatever we decide are the appropriate mechanisms whereby to achieve that strategy, let’s surmise I meet them, i.e. I do create the breathing room for receiving my trillion dollar check—it doesn’t matter. Because no one is ever going to send me a trillion dollar check (national reconciliation in this analogy and then even further out/by extension democratic stable unified Iraq). So if I achieve that strategy (“breathing room”) but it is hitched to a completely unrealizable goal (reconciliation/trilliion dollar check receipt) what is the point of having the strategy? And what sense does it make or even matter if the strategy (breathing room) is achieved or not? Why focus on the strategy when the goal is unreachable?
The trillion dollar check example of course is harmless. All that’s lost is my time (and perhaps some money). But with the surge of course it comes at the cost of more wounded and dead soldiers and debt. [The calculation of dead relative to Iraqi civilians is hard to decipher in this context, but the calculation relative to the US is clear].
Update II: What I’m really suggesting is that the question about succeeding or not succeeding is the wrong question. In some ways it can be said to have succeeded, in other ways I would say not (given that is it’s connected to a failed/unrealizable goal which has to effect the status vis a vis a determination of the tactic like it or not). But ultimately the question is about the goal of the democratic unified Iraq and the primary means of trynig achieve that goal being through a national reconciliation (so-called) political deal. The surge is simply a tactic to give space for the strategy (reconciliation) which is the way to achieve the goal (democractic unified Iraq). Each layer (tactic-strategy-goal) can be thought of as kind of emergent (not defined solely by the addition of its simpler parts) and hence judgment regarding effectiveness or not depends on which layer we are discussing. My assertion is that only looking at the tactical level is the simplest (in the bad sense, aka simplistic) form of evaluation.
The flaw of the McCain position has always been that victory at the lowest level of complexity (tactical-military) will automatically bubble up into more complex layers (political). This is why he still uses the frame of a war–because then the way to win is through military battles. But if as I’m suggesting each layer has emergent properties then this entire view is stopped short right there.