Before the Surge

To follow up a little bit on my post from Tuesday, it’s already obvious that “the Surge” has become a sort of political shorthand that means different things for different people. I was using it as shorthand for the political message it sent to the various Iraqi factions, namely that American forces would have to factored into the cost-benefit analysis of armed conflict so long as President Bush was in office.

The problem of assigning causality, of course, is that the decision to increase troop strength in Baghdad didn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather in the aftermath of the November 2006 Congressional elections, which signalled that while President Bush was still obstinate about remaining in Iraq, the American people was not. It’s a point I made here, in noting that Iraqi civilian casualties actually began falling in November 2006, before the Surge was announced, and which Iraqologist over at Abu Muqawama made here yesterday:

For clarity’s sake, we should understand that the surge–meaning the increase in troops and adoption of a viable counterinsurgency strategy–was only one, and perhaps not even the most important, element in the reduction of violence. By late 2006, it had become clear that the US public and US leaders and policy-makers had run out of patience in Iraq. By that point, large-scale withdrawal of US forces from Iraq had become a serious, immediate possibility. It’s hard to know for sure how much this development actually played a role in Iraq and the region. Nonetheless, it’s quite plausible that the growing impatience in the US, coupled with nightmarish violence across Iraq, led to a change in a number of actors’ calculi about the need to damage the US and pursue their own narrow advantages on the one hand, versus the desirability of making pragmatic changes and compromises toward a basically livable, self-sustaining stability on the other.

It’s impossible to draw a causal relationship between one or the other of the two political signals with any degree of precision, all the more so since both were preceded by the impact of the Anbar Awakening, and followed by the actual operational impact of Gen. Petraeus’ counter-insurgency tactics. In all likelihood, they functioned as complements to each other, and might bear out the hypothesis that for all its bitter and divisive tone, the American political deadlock over the issue just might have proven effective by amounting to a show of resolve backed by the threat of withdrawal.

It’s important to remember, though, that the improvements in Iraq since November 2006 (or January 2007) in no way bear out the argument that we’ve “won” the Iraq War, nor do they undermine the argument that the war was a strategic catastrophe for American interests in the region. My point about how the Surge changed the optics of leaving Iraq in terms of the American military’s coercive reputation still stands. But that was only at stake because of the decision to invade and the failure to realistically plan for the ensuing occupation. A stable, U.S.-aligned Iraq is just one of many possible outcomes at this point, and it is both uncertain and remote.