The troop surge isn't working. At all.
The violence in Iraq has dropped to mid-2005 levels. But the troop surge has had very little to do with it.
During this week's State of the Union address, President Bush said that "some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt." That brought a lot of applause from Republicans, and from some Democrats as well:
Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated. The president’s line divided most of the Democratic audience, with nearly half standing to applaud and the other half sitting in stony silence.
That's not what should have happened. The war is still very unpopular among Democrats and independents. Discontent among the Sadrists and the Sunnis of Anbar province threatens to unravel all of the security gains made since the summer of 2007. Under normal circumstances, one would have expected only a handful of Democrats to applaud the president's assertion. The trouble is, we've had a steady drumbeat of disinformation from the Bush administration, which the media has passed along virtually unexamined. Administration officials say that violence in Iraq is down and that the troop surge has brought down the level of violence in Iraq, and the media assures us that this is true. But the facts tell a different story.
Here's how thoroughly Americans have swallowed this particular lie: Blue Texan, who writes for a decidedly antiwar, anti-Bush site called Firedoglake, feels the need to apply a little spin to the claim that the troop surge is working. He points out that Bush told us a year ago that the surge would enable the Iraqis to take over responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and that it would provide the Iraqi government with the opportunity to meet a series of benchmarks. None of that has happened.
What Blue Texan says is true, but irrelevant in political terms. The fact is that violence in Iraq has fallen by at least 2/3 since last summer. Even if there hasn't been as much progress as Bush promised last January, the fact is that life for most Iraqis is now greatly improved due to the drop in car bombs, gun battles, assassinations, and death squad operations. If I thought that the troop surge was responsible for the drop in violence, I'd be the first to say that I was wrong to have opposed it. But the fact is, the troop surge has had very little to do with it. What follows is my response to a commenter over at Liberal Avenger who asserted that the surge had brought relative calm to Iraq.
When the surge was announced, US troop strength was around 130,000. By March it was 150,000, and the level of violence had not subsided. In fact, there was a big spike in violence levels in February and March.
Violence continued unchecked through August, even as US troop levels rose. Internal Pentagon assessments from that time indicated that the situation in Anbar was a stalemate at best, an American failure at worst (link, see Sept. 11 entry).
But there were two significant events in August that changed the landscape. The first was the Anbar Awakening strategy (link, see August 21 entry), which involves the US paying tribal leaders in Sunni areas like Anbar to keep the peace. Since most of these leaders had been part of the Iraqi insurgency, this can be thought of as paying protection money to the local warlords.
The second event was the unilateral 6-month truce called by Muqtada al-Sadr, which was accompanied by an immediate drop in violence in and around Baghdad.
Check the levels of violence in Iraq overall one more time (link), and you'll see that the surge had no impact through August, but that there was an immediate and lasting drop in violence just after Sadr's truce. Official civilian casualty reports show a drop in deaths of more than 2/3 when the last 5 months are compared to the previous year.
At the end of September, the Pentagon abruptly stopped escalating troop levels at 168,000 (link). Bush officials declared that any assessment of the Surge had to begin in September, as if there was something magical about the 168,000 figure which would enable the troops to have a massive impact, while the 160,000 troops that were present in August had zero impact. Note that there had been more than 160,000 American troops in Iraq back in 2005, a time of increasing violence. Note also that Pentagon officials had initially planned to increase troop levels to 172,000 (link), but suddenly capped the troop surge and began their assessment period when it became clear that September's casualty figures would be far lower than the figures for previous months.
In short, the troop surge HASN'T worked. What we've seen are the effects of Sadr's truce, and of the policy of paying Sunni insurgents not to attack US and Iraqi security forces. What the Bush administration did was gradually escalate troop levels while negotiating with the insurgents, hoping for a drop in violence that would "vindicate" the surge.
It's important that those of us who favor withdrawal from Iraq get our facts right on this issue. If we concede the point that the surge has been responsible for the drop of violence in Iraq, we virtually guarantee that the US will continue to occupy Iraq for a long time to come. Because if the surge HAS dampened violence, then the only sensible thing to do is to keep a large force in Iraq until the country's political and economic situation has completely stabilized. That won't happen for a long time, perhaps more than a decade. And whenever there is a spike in violence, the only sensible thing to do is to send even more troops. That's why it's so troubling to see Hillary Clinton, who will probably be our next president, stand up and cheer when the president says that the surge has brought relative peace to Iraq.
Thomas Friedman, who continues to serve as the New York Times' resident "expert on the Middle East despite the fact that he's been wrong about every aspect of the Iraq war, said that "it’s clear that the surge by U.S. troops has really dampened violence in Iraq." The fact that Friedman thinks so is powerful evidence that the surge hasn't dampened the violence.
(cross posted at appletree and Liberal Avenger)