The Competing Narratives of the Surge

When Gen. Petraeus testifies before Congress tomorrow, it will be the latest installment in an ongoing battle between competing narratives of the Surge. On the one hand, that of its supporters who argue that through a combination of brilliantly conceived and skillfully implemented COIN tactics, an increase in troop strength that intimidated Iraqi and Iranian agents provocateurs, and an emphasis on bottom-up reconciliation among Sunni insurgents, Iraq has been brought back from the edge of the abyss. The gains are measurable but fragile, and thus in need of continued consolidation. The major threats to stability are the result of either Iranian proxies or direct agents as well as al-Qaida operatives, both of whom would be emboldened to exploit Iraq’s pronounced sectarian, ethnic and factional faultlines to plunge the country into chaos and violence should American resolve waver, which is what withdrawal would signal.

Steven Simon’s article in Foreign Policy, The Price of the Surge, illustrates as well as any the competing narrative that is increasingly crystallizing among Surge skeptics: The security gains of the past nine months are the result of a fortunate confluence of Shiite tactical decisions, Sunni dissaffection with foreign al-Qaida elements reinforced by generous American financial incentives, a natural winding down of the cycle of ethnic cleansing that had largely accomplished its goals, and an Iranian strategic calculation to de-escalate its interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. While accompanied by welcome concurrent events, the tactics applied over the past year have either not advanced their stated political goals or, in the case of the Anbar Awakening, worked at longterm counter-purposes to them.

The first narrative places America squarely in the middle of a landscape full of hostile enemies, opportunistic fellow travellers and tactical neutrals, but few friends. In such a situation, there’s little we might accomplish outside of maintaining the fragile status quo that further necessitates our presence, all in the unlikely hope that we’ll manage to wait out the grudges and blood fueds that have driven hostilities in that part of the world for millenia.

By comparison, the value of the second narrative, to my mind, is that it actually offers a way forward. As Simon argues, an announced troop withdrawal would force everyone — starting with the Iraqis themselves, but also including the Iranians, the Turks, the region at large, Europe, Russia and the UN — to either work towards a stable power-sharing arrangement, or else build firewalls to limit the fallout of a failed Iraqi state. The argument that we’re responsible for the situation in Iraq and are therefore exclusively responsible for resolving it is both unrealistic and shortsighted, because it suggests that we would not play an integral role in the kinds of multi-lateral international fora necessary for hammering out a true political solution.

By announcing our commitment to actually leave Iraq, though, we would signal to everyone who is for now watching from the sidelines our willingness to accept a solution that corresponds to the needs and interests of Iraq, the region and the world, instead of just our own. For the time being we’ve got a monopoly on the responsibility for, and costs of, the Iraq War, but what gets less attention is that we’ve also got a pretty tight grip on the potential benefits, too. If we want multi-lateralism on the first two, we’ve got to give some up on the third, and removing our military is a quick way to signal that we’re willing to do that.