Be­hind-scenes strat­egy that led to Iraq ‘surge’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

The con­duct of war is sel­dom lin­ear and pre­dictable. What ap­pears in hind­sight to be a log­i­cal pro­gres­sion of events ob­scures the chaotic na­ture of the process, which re­quires timely adap­ta­tion if the strug­gle is to be con­cluded suc­cess­fully. In “The Gam­ble,” Thomas Ricks chron­i­cles the dif­fi­cult birth of the “surge” strat­egy in Iraq and de­scribes the per­son­al­i­ties and events that re­versed the course of the con­flict and ar­guably led to victory.

It is a use­ful com­pan­ion to the vet­eran Wash­ing­ton Post cor­re­spon­dent’s 2006 book, “Fi­asco,” which de­tails how we got into the mess in the first place.

The cen­tral ideas be­hind the surge — such as de­vel­op­ing co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tion­ships with Iraqi tribal leaders, in­creas­ing U.S. troop pres­ence and us­ing our forces to se­cure the pop­u­la­tion from the in­sur­gents rather than keep­ing them penned in be­hind blast-proof walls — had been un­der dis­cus­sion for years be­fore they were im­ple­mented.

“There’s no rule book, there’s no his­tory for this,” then-Sec­re­tar y of De­fense Don­ald H. Rums­feld told a Se­nate panel in 2006, but he was wrong on both counts. There was a lengthy his­tory of coun­terin­sur­gency lit­er­a­ture and prac­ti­cal lessons learned, stretch­ing back hun­dreds of years in this coun­try alone. As for the rule book, the doc­trine at that time was be­ing writ­ten by a team led by Gen. David H. Pe­traeus.

Gen. Pe­traeus was part of a trin­ity of gen­er­als who brought about the dif­fi­cult mid­course cor­rec­tion of U.S. strat­egy in Iraq. The mo­ti­vat­ing force was Gen. Jack Keane, a re­tired for­mer Army vice chief of staff who launched a “guer­rilla cam­paign” in the de­fense es­tab­lish­ment to get th­ese new ideas ac­cepted at the high­est lev­els.

Work­ing with him was Gen. Ray­mond T. Odierno, as­sis­tant to the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had com­manded the 4th In­fantry Divi­sion in Iraq dur­ing the first year of the war. They la­bored largely be­hind the scenes and of­ten out­side the chain of com­mand, try­ing to sell their model of a work­able strat­egy even as the war was at its bleak­est stage and calls for a pull­out were mount­ing.

Trans­lat­ing ideas into pol­icy is dif­fi­cult; surge ad­vo­cates faced en­trenched in­ter­ests and in­flated egos. How­ever, many of th­ese im­ped­i­ments were swept aside af­ter what Mr. Ricks calls the “turn­ing point of the war” in Novem­ber 2006, when the Repub­li­cans lost con­trol of Congress. This ap­par­ently fo­cused Pres­i­dent Bush on the need for quick action to sal­vage the sit­u­a­tion in Iraq or face a con­gres­sion­ally im­posed pull­out and ul­ti­mate de­feat. Mr. Bush even­tu­ally re­moved Mr. Rums­feld, and Mr. Ricks might have ex­plored the back­ground of that de­ci­sion in more depth, given its rich sym­bol­ism.

Mean­while, the spade­work for the pol­icy change had been done by Gen. Keane and his group, along with some dis­sent­ing Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffers (dubbed the “Sur­gios”) and a num­ber of schol­ars af­fil­i­ated with the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, most notably Fred­er­ick W. Ka­gan. The surge strat­egy was adopted af­ter a De­cem­ber 2006 meet­ing with Mr. Bush. Gen. Pe­traeus was cho­sen to im­ple­ment the new ap­proach as the com­man­der of Multi-Na­tional Forces — Iraq, ably aided by Gen. Odierno, then com­mand­ing III Corps.

Gen. Pe­traeus found him­self in a three-front war. First was the fight­ing in Iraq, where the new strat­egy, cou­pled with a grow­ing re­align­ment of in­ter­ests among tr ibal leaders, quickly be­gan to pro­duce re­sults. How­ever, he si­mul­ta­ne­ously was fight­ing a rear­guard action against Cen­tral Com­mand com­man­der Adm. William J. Fal­lon, who had taken over from Gen. John P. Abizaid in March 2007. Adm. Fal­lon did not fa­vor the surge and sought to cut the mis­sion short. Gen. Pe­treaus, though nom­i­nally Adm. Fal­lon’s sub­or­di­nate, was able to re­sist this pres­sure be­cause of his in­flu­ence with the pres­i­dent.

The third front was po­lit­i­cal. The decisive en­gage­ment came in Septem­ber 2007. The Se­nate held a two-day hear­ing on the war that Democrats ex­pected to be a dance of death on the surge and the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. chaired the hear­ing, and also present were Sens. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Barack Obama. All three were run­ning for pres­i­dent, and all de­clared the surge a fail­ure.

Sen. Clin­ton grace­lessly ques­tioned Gen. Pe­treaus’ hon­esty. Gen. Pe­treaus emerged the vic­tor, how­ever, in part be­cause of a taste­less ad that ran (at a dis­counted rate) in the New York Times call­ing Gen. Pe­traeus a traitor.

The ad gen­er­ated sub­stan­tial pub­lic sym­pa­thy for the self­less war­rior and forced Democrats to blunt some of their more se­vere lines of at­tack. More im­por­tant, Amer­i­can ca­su­alty rates, the ma­trix of choice of the po­lit­i­cal class and me­dia, had be­gun to drop pre­cip­i­tously. This hear­ing marked the beginning of the end of Iraq as the dom­i­nant cam­paign is­sue of the 2008 elec­tion.

But has the war been won? Mr. Ricks con­cludes with a se­ries of gloomy sce­nar­ios, say­ing in clos­ing, “The events for which the Iraq war will be re­mem­bered prob­a­bly have not yet hap­pened.” How­ever, Iraq will only be­come more mem­o­rable if Pres­i­dent Obama squan­ders the victory he has been handed, which is un­likely at this point.

The prin­ci­pal value of Mr. Ricks’ book be­yond be­ing a his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle is the light it may shed on the fu­ture course of events in Afghanistan. Dur­ing the Septem­ber 2007 hear­ing, Mr. Obama spent his en­tire al­lot­ted seven min­utes ask­ing Gen. Pe­traeus pointed, soap­box-type ques­tions, leav­ing no time for an­swers. Mr. Obama con­sis­tently doubted the surge strat­egy, even months later, when progress in Iraq had be­come un­de­ni­able. Now, 18 months af­ter that hear­ing, Mr. Obama is pres­i­dent and Gen. Pe­treaus com­mands Cen­tral Com­mand. Mr. Obama al­ready has de­cided to in­crease troop lev­els in Afghanistan, evok­ing at least the im­age of the surge in Iraq.

Yet ini­tial re­ports of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mr. Obama and Gen. Pe­traeus are not en­cour­ag­ing, and the pres­i­dent has or­dered a 60-day in­ter­a­gency re- view of Afghanistan pol­icy op­tions to com­pete with Cen­tral Com­mand’s up­com­ing as­sess­ment. As Mr. Ricks’ work il­lus­trates, the prod­ucts of the bu­reau­cracy can be un­pre­dictable and some­times ir­ra­tional. Stay­ing the course with the ideas that brought us victory in Iraq may be too un­so­phis­ti­cated for the best and the bright­est on the Obama team. One hopes we are not headed for an­other fi­asco.

James S. Rob­bins is se­nior ed­i­to­rial writer for for­eign af­fairs at The Wash­ing­ton Times and se­nior fel­low for na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs at the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil.

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