The Surge That Failed
“How was it,” asked Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, that the Russian army “did not achieve its purpose when it had surrounded the French on three sides and its intention was to capture them?” The answer, according to Tolstoy, was that “the aim of cutting off Napoleon and his army never existed except in the imagination of some dozen individuals. It could not have existed because it was absurd and impracticable.”
Today we have our own version of an absurd and impracticable plan—the surge in Iraq—and again only a dozen or so individuals, concentrated in the White House and the corridors of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to believe that it can succeed. Among them are William Kristol and Frederick Kagan.
In the June 26 issue of The Weekly Standard, they comment that “real progress has already been made in the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the terrorists know it. That’s why they’re surging against our surge.” A few weeks earlier, another true believer, Charles Krauthammer, argued that a temporary reduction in violence in Iraq (since reversed) was also evidence that the surge was working. In the rose-tinted world of the neoconservative revolutionaries, if violence goes up, the surge is succeeding; if it goes down, that is also a sign that the surge is succeeding. Back on Planet Earth, the general opinion appears to be that the situation has stayed about the same: better in some places, worse in others. But no doubt more of the same is evidence of progress to the neocons as well.
The war’s supporters have long been arguing that the insurgency is in its “last throes.” At present, much is being made of an alleged alliance between American forces and Sunni tribes in Anbar province against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Anbar Sunnis have decisively turned against AQI, we are told. Unfortunately we have heard this many times in the past, yet AQI still survives.
In October 2004, for instance, the Washington Post reported, “Local insurgents in the city of Fallujah are turning against the foreign fighters who have been their allies in the rebellion that has held the U.S. military at bay in parts of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland.” In August 2005, the same newspaper then reported, “Rising up against insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Ramadi fought with grenade launchers and automatic weapons Saturday to defend their Shiite neighbors against a bid to drive them from the western city. … The fighting in Ramadi suggested a potentially serious threat to Zarqawi’s group, al Qaeda in Iraq.” Again, in September 2005, a statement by the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars denouncing the tactics of AQI was met with the assertion that it “represents compelling evidence of a real break between mainstream Sunni Iraqis and fringe Salafist extremists.” And then in March 2006, USA Today stepped in to declare that “there were signs in parts of Iraq that local Sunni leaders and their militias were rising up against foreign fighters.” Despite all this, like weeds in a garden, AQI keeps popping up again, and U.S.-Sunni deals notwithstanding, it will continue to do so. The environment suits it too well.
Tolstoy, a veteran of the siege of Sevastopol and experienced in matters of war, felt that a great general was one like Marshal Kutuzov who “knows that there is something stronger and more important than his own will—the inevitable march of events—and has the brains to see them and grasp their significance.” One does not have to share Tolstoy’s historical determinism to see that there is something to what he says. Putting his ideas in a slightly different context, something called “ripeness theory” is currently in vogue in academic studies of conflict termination. The theory suggests that even the most competent general, with the strongest will, executing the best strategy for conflict resolution in the most efficient manner, will not succeed if the conditions for peace do not already exist, unless, in other words, the time is ripe.
Ripeness, according to the guru of the theory, I. William Zartmann, exists when a conflict reaches a “mutually hurting stalemate,” in which both sides understand they cannot escape by means of escalation, and when there is also a “mutually perceived way out,” whereby both sides believe that a negotiated solution is possible and can envisage the rough outlines of what it might be. Unfortunately, all too often, even when an outside observer might consider that these conditions exist in some objective sense, the competing parties themselves fail to perceive this. Emotional considerations such as fear, anger, and a desire for revenge cloud their judgement.
The key questions, therefore, are whether there exist in Iraq a mutually hurting stalemate and perceived way out, whether the combatants are emotionally capable of seeing such a path even if it exists, and whether the surge has made things any riper than they were before. The answer to all of these questions is clearly “no.” The Shia and the Kurds are on top, not stalemated, and they see no reason to surrender their positions. Moreover, both Sunni and Shia insurgents clearly believe that the will of the United States is weak and that they can push the occupation forces out of the country if they continue the struggle. Meanwhile, it is not at all obvious what the outlines of any mutually perceived way out might be. Ripeness is clearly absent.
Now the process of ripening can be speeded up, and one may imagine the surge as a form of horticulture designed to do just that. In this regard, it is important to note what those in charge of executing the operation have to say about counterinsurgency strategy and how the fruit of peace can be brought to maturity: not, they universally say, by destroying the insurgents but by creating a sufficient degree of temporary calm to enable all competing factions to perceive a mutually agreeable way out. Watering the plants is more likely to succeed than ripping off their leaves.
The head gardener in this case is Gen. David Petraeus. Backing him up is his so-called “brains trust,” consisting of such green-thumbed men as Col. Herbert McMaster, author of a devastating critique of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Vietnam War, Lt. Col. John Nagl, author of a comparative study of British and American counterinsurgency practices in Malaysia and Vietnam, and an Australian lieutenant colonel, David Kilcullen, author of a doctoral thesis and various articles on counterinsurgency theory and practice. All recite the same mantra: politics matter more than military action. Thus Petraeus has repeatedly stated that the solution to Iraq’s problems is political, not military. Similarly, according to Nagl, “the establishment of a legitimate, functioning government is the surest means to fostering a lasting peace.” Success in Iraq, he claims, demands “national-level reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shia.” And Kilcullen has said that “the best counterinsurgency techniques … attacked insurgency through unified military, intelligence, political, socio-economic, ‘hearts and minds,’ and security measures.” This thinking has now become formal doctrine with the issuance of the Army’s new field manual on counterinsurgency, “FM 3-24,” which notes that “political factors have primacy in counterinsurgency. … resolving most insurgencies requires a political solution.”
This isn’t especially novel stuff, but Counterinsurgency 101, a modern-day update of what the British and French experts Robert Thompson and David Galula wrote in the 1960s. Undergraduates taking strategic studies at any half-decent university could have told the Pentagon most of this years ago. Nevertheless, it makes clear that the success of the surge has to be measured not in military but in political terms. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has admitted that the purpose of the strategy is political. The idea is that Iraqi leaders will not be willing or able to work out a settlement to end the crisis in their country if the capital remains in chaos, but if a semblance of order can be created, emotions might cool sufficiently for them to be able to do so. Cut back the undergrowth and perhaps enough sunshine may reach the struggling new shoots of politics to give them a chance to develop.
Sadly for Gates, the political situation has become worse, not better, since the surge began. The United States has set four benchmarks for progress. These are voiced in proposed legislation to share Iraq’s oil wealth between regions, allow more former Ba’ath Party members to take up government positions (a neat sequel to de-Ba’athification!), allow local elections to be held, and amend the constitution. Yet a recent Pentagon report commented that “Iraqi delivery on these commitments has been uneven.” “Frankly,” says Gates, “we are disappointed with the progress so far.” Indeed, the Iraqi parliament’s immediate response to the surge was to take a two-month recess and plan another for August. Even at the best of times, the parliament has difficulty in obtaining a quorum, and now that 30 MPs who support Moqtada al-Sadr have announced that they will boycott sittings, it will find it even more difficult, if not impossible. The likelihood of the desired legislation seeing the light of day is slight.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is losing what little authority it ever had. Iraqi legislators interviewed by USA Today in late May told the newspaper that Prime Minister al-Maliki is “weak,” his government is “more or less paralyzed,” “not competent,” “hasn’t delivered and is not capable of doing the job.” Sunni MPs are trying to form a new bloc to topple the government, while the Sadrists have abandoned parliament altogether. At the same time, Sadr himself has emerged from hiding to renew calls for an end to the occupation. In June, his Mahdi Army clashed with the British in Amarah and with Iraqi security forces in Nasiriyah. A senior British officer in Basra assessed in mid-June that the leadership of the Mahdi Army “has made a conscious decision to rejoin the fight.”
While the surge focuses on bringing the Sunnis into the political fold, the Shia are slipping out of it. As the New York Times reported on June 22, “violence is convulsing” the previously quiet Shi’ite city of Diwaniya in southern Iraq. The violence, says the newspaper, “reflects the emergence of a poisonous political landscape in which competing Shiite groups no longer look to the political system to allocate power. The government’s authority appears to have broken down.”
In any event, the U.S. plan rests on a rather naïve trust in the power of paperwork. Even if the desired laws are passed, little may change, for legislation is meaningless if not transformed into action at the local level—and the Iraqi state lacks the capacity to do this. According to Foreign Policy’s “Failed State Index,” in the past year, it has fallen from the fourth most incapable state in the world to second most incapable, beaten only by Sudan. Almost nothing has been done to end corruption, institute competent governance, or promote economic and social prosperity. National electricity output in June 2007 sunk to 8 percent lower than in June 2006, and oil production also fell in the same period. Even by the most generous estimates, the rate of unemployment remains around 30 percent. In all of these areas, the surge is entirely irrelevant.
Here we confront the fundamental weakness of the American position in Iraq. While military power rests in the hands of the United States, political sovereignty belongs to the Iraqis. This situation conflicts entirely with a basic premise of counter-insurgency theory, namely the unity of military and political command. As David Kilcullen notes, “control of all counter-insurgent actions (political, military, social and economic) in the hands of a single ‘Supremo’ is recognized as a key element. … But to achieve this level of integration requires excellent government stability, unity and restraint.” This is impossible in Iraq. Not only is it the case that all actions cannot be unified in a single set of hands, the government is anything but stable, united, and restrained. The U.S. Army is trying to ripen peace in a compost heap when what it needs is a greenhouse. Given this, failure is almost inevitable. Corrupt, incompetent, and fractious local leaders can and will squander even the most spectacular military successes by U.S. forces. The only way to ensure unity of political and military effort would be to go the whole imperialist hog and govern directly. But in the modern world, this option is both morally and politically unacceptable and likely to generate such enormous resistance as to more than undermine any benefits it might bring.
Finally, it is essential to note that the political battle for Iraq is not only being fought inside that country. Equally crucially, it is being fought inside the United States. Not even the surge’s most ardent advocates believe that the insurgency can be defeated quickly. For the surge to succeed, it must above all else boost popular support for the war at home. Success is only possible if the American people are willing to make a long-term commitment. But the very nature of the operation in-volves putting more U.S. troops in danger and so risks undermining support as casualties rise. Indeed, casualties have risen, with U.S. fatalities averaging around three and a half a day so far in 2007, compared with about two and half per day in 2006. Unsurprisingly, a June opinion poll recorded that the percentage of Americans in favor of keeping troops in Iraq had fallen since the surge began, from 43 percent to 39 percent, while the number in favor of bringing the troops home had risen, from 52 percent to 56 percent. Here too, the surge has failed, and this failure will almost certainly be fatal.
Guerrilla warfare, wrote Tolstoy, is “always successful, as history testifies.” He rather overstated his point, but in truth, the modern record of counterinsurgency operations is very poor. Eventually the war in Iraq will come to an end, as every war does, but only when the Iraqis themselves have determined that the time is ripe. Until then, futile efforts to ignore the march of history will merely add to the cup of human suffering for no practical benefit. The guerrillas, says Tolstoy, “destroyed the Grande Armée piecemeal.” We must hope against hope that a better fate awaits the American military.
Paul Robinson is an associate professor in public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Military Honour and the Conduct of War: from Ancient Greece to Iraq.