Lessons of the Surge

Many Americans and Iraqis think of the recent surge in Iraq as simply the temporary addition of more U.S. troops to the war effort in 2007 and the first half of 2008. This is incorrect. It is also dangerous.

Partly because they misunderstand the true nature of the surge, many American and Iraqi political leaders now seem to want American forces out of Iraq as fast as possible. Iraqi leaders also now seem unwilling to accept a reasonable Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to govern the actions of U.S. troops in their country after the current U.N. Security Council mandate expires at the end of the year.

In fact, the basic logic of the surge continues – and must continue – even now that the increase in U.S. combat formations in Iraq has come to an end. At its core, the surge has been about cooperatively protecting the Iraqi civilian population. This is the central point policymakers in Baghdad, Washington and other capitals around the world need to appreciate.

At the risk of falling victim to Pentagonese, I would propose we broaden our understanding of the surge by thinking of that word as an acronym. Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy has been a remarkable success, reducing the rate of violence by more than 80 percent in Iraq over the last two years while also helping spark the beginnings of a process of political reconciliation. It took far more than the simple addition of 30,000 American troops, on top of the 140,000 already there when the surge began, to make this happen. So instead of surge, think SURGE:

The “S” in surge should be understood as an emphasis on security. This is, as noted, the centerpiece of the strategy. Protecting the Iraqi civilian population has been essential to restore trust in government and trust across sectarian lines, to rekindle hopefulness about the country’s future, and restore some degree of normalcy in daily life. In practical terms, among other things it has meant setting up joint security stations across Iraq in the country’s urban centers to live and work near vulnerable populations. Increased troop totals have been just part of the story.

“U” stands for unity of effort (as an assistant of Gen. Petraeus’ suggested to me). It means Iraqis, Americans and others working collaboratively toward a common purpose. It has led to Americans and Iraqis living together in the joint security stations and patrolling and when necessary fighting together in Iraq’s toughest neighborhoods. It has also led to development of a campaign plan that is gradually passing more and more responsibility to Iraqis for all aspects of their country’s governance.

“R” must stand for reconciliation. This has been an absolutely crucial aspect of the progress in Iraq since 2007. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has purged many Shia extremist leaders that he considered irreconcilable, and replaced them in many cases with former Ba’athists (most Sunni) with whom he thought he could work. Iraqi and American leaders convinced Muqtada al-Sadr to agree to a cease-fire; the United States also launched the so-called Sons of Iraq program, paying some of the very same tribesmen (generally Sunni) who had been part of the insurgency a couple years ago to cooperate with us in providing security.

More progress is needed here, given Mr. al-Maliki’s concerns about the loyalties of some Sons of Iraq and various key pieces of key legislation not yet agreed to. But the trends have been good.

“G” stands for government capacity in Iraq. As a key example, while American forces surged by 30,000 in 2007, Iraqi security forces have grown by some 200,000 over the last two years. They now total more than half a million personnel. This year’s remarkable additional progress in improving security, even as U.S. forces have declined in country, has been possible only because indigenous forces have performed so well – a track record of which all Iraqis can be proud.

“E” stands for excellence in execution. Doing counterinsurgency and stabilization missions correctly is very hard, requiring excellent troop training and leadership at all levels of command.

Not only Americans, but Iraqis need to bear in mind the true logic of the surge. Having been offered a SOFA deal that grants them legal jurisdiction over foreign contractors, that increases advance consultations on sensitive military operations, that provides more jurisdiction over certain types of crimes committed by American GIs than developing-country governments usually obtain, they continue to insist on better terms even at the risk of sending U.S. forces home prematurely.

In so doing, they are failing to remember the importance of several of the above precepts, starting with the fact that the “U” in surge stands for unity of effort, “R” stands for a reconciliation process they have hardly yet completed among themselves, and “E” stands for excellence that U.S. troops themselves arguably did not fully attain in Iraq until 2007-08.

Whatever the SOFA ultimately says, Iraqis can always ask us to leave at any point, and we will leave – just as the United States has done in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in modern times. But they should think twice before doing so.

Once gone, it is unlikely we would be willing to come back. Iraqi brinkmanship over the SOFA is no longer just a nettlesome worry for Washington; it is becoming a risky and irresponsible gamble that could soon jeopardize their nation’s future stability.