The Surge

THE SURGE….Col. Peter Mansoor, David Petraeus’s former executive officer in Iraq, had a smart op-ed defending the surge in yesterday’s Washington Post:

The surge did not create the first of the tribal “awakenings,” but it was the catalyst for their expansion and eventual success. The tribal revolt took off after the arrival of reinforcements and as U.S. and Iraqi units fought to make the Iraqi people secure.

Over time, in areas where there were insufficient forces to provide security, U.S. commanders extended contracts to Sunni (and some Shiite) tribes that volunteered to stand up against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

….Improved security led to greater Iraqi confidence and lessened the need for, and acceptance of, Shiite militias that for too long held sway in many neighborhoods. When the Mahdi Army instigated a gun battle in Karbala last August that forced the cancellation of a major Shiite religious observance, the resulting public pressure compelled Moqtada al-Sadr to declare a unilateral cease-fire. Without the improved security conditions created by the surge, this cease-fire would not have been declared; nor could it have been observed, because the militia would still have been needed to protect Shiite communities from terrorist attacks.

Pro-war conservatives, when they write about the surge, too often try to defend obvious absurdities about how the surge was responsible for things like the Sunni Awakenings or the Mahdi Army ceasefire, even though both events started well before the surge. This is odd, because they’ve always had a much better argument to make, one that Mansoor comes close to making here.

Roughly, it goes like this: at the end of 2006, (a) the violence stemming from the bombing of the Golden Mosque had started to burn itself out, (b) the Awakening movement had begun turning Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda in Iraq, (c) ongoing sectarian cleansing, as horrible as it was, had created an opportunity for greater stability in Baghdad, and (d) Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire, if we could persuade him to continue it, removed a huge source of sectarian violence. In other words, the security situation in Iraq was on the cusp of something potentially dramatic, and it was possible that a small nudge might make an outsized difference. The surge was that nudge.

I’m not sure why surge supporters seem averse to making this argument directly. Perhaps because it doesn’t give enough credit to the U.S. troop presence, which in this scenario had only a modest role in setting the initial conditions for success. Or maybe there’s some other reason. But it sure seems like both the most plausible and the most persuasive argument in favor of the surge — one that I’m not at all sure I’d reject out of hand. This certainly wasn’t the way I viewed events back in early 2007 (and I have my doubts that George Bush viewed it quite this way either), but in the end that’s how things worked out. Sure, political progress has remained meager in the past 18 months, and past performance doesn’t guaranteee future results etc. etc., but it’s unquestionable that the security situation in Iraq today is light years better than it was a couple of years ago.

Now, it’s true that conservatives can’t claim utter prescience about all this since most of them weren’t really making quite this argument at the time, but so what? Why not make it now anyway? It’s a helluva lot more convincing than the fable that John McCain and the rest of them usually spin — and it has the valuable bonus of possibly being true. They should follow Mansoor’s lead and make it more often.