Cross-posted from Consortium News
A beloved myth of Official Washington -- especially among Republicans, neocons and other supporters of the Iraq War -- is the fable of the "successful surge," how President George W. Bush's heroic escalation of 30,000 troops in 2007 supposedly "won" that war; it then follows that the current Iraq disaster must be President Barack Obama's fault.
The appeal of this myth should be obvious. Nearly every "important" person in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the mainstream media endorsed the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- and such well-placed and well-paid people do not like to admit that their judgment was so bad that they should be disqualified from holding any responsible position forever.
On Wednesday, McCain fulminated from the Senate floor, accusing Obama of squandering the "surge," the success of which he deemed a "fact." Cheney -- along with his daughter Liz -- accused the President of "securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom."
Kagan, who pushed for an invasion of Iraq as early as 1998, attacked Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq -- and not committing the U.S. military to the civil war in Syria. Kagan told the New York Times: "It's striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster" in Iraq.
But the core of the neocon narrative is that the 2007 "surge" essentially "won" the war in Iraq and that an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq would have kept a lid on the sectarian violence that has periodically ripped the country apart since Bush's invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.
There is much wrong about this narrative, including that it was Bush who signed the timeline for total U.S. withdrawal in 2008 and that the Iraqi government insisted that U.S. troops depart under that schedule at the end of 2011. But the greatest fallacy is to pretend that it was Bush's "surge" that achieved the temporary lull in the sectarian violence and that it achieved its principal goal of resolving the Sunni-Shiite divisions.
Any serious analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the "surge" and were implemented by the U.S. commanding generals in 2006, George Casey and John Abizaid, who wanted as small a U.S. "footprint" as possible to tamp down Iraqi nationalism.
Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid ran a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called "Awakening" in Anbar Province, also in 2006.
And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels that year, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves -- protected by concrete barriers -- thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of sectarian violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the "surge" or not.
Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military's occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush, who finally capitulated.
Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush's early war judgments, concluded that the "surge" was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.
In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, "In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge."
Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. In other words, key factors in the drop in violence had nothing to do with the "surge."
And, beyond the dubious impact of the "surge" on the gradual reduction in violence, Bush's escalation failed to achieve its other stated goals, particularly creating political space so the Sunni-Shiite divisions over issues like oil profits could be resolved. Despite the sacrifice of additional American and Iraqi blood, those compromises did not materialize.
Plus, if you're wondering what the "surge" and its loosened rules of engagement meant for Iraqis, you should watch the WikiLeaks' "Collateral Murder" video, which depicts a scene during the "surge" when U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked down a street in Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters then killed a father and wounded his two children when the man stopped his van in an effort to take survivors to the hospital.