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More on Woodward

Bob Woodward can be an impressive reporter, but as a military analyst he leaves something to be desired. Today’s excerpt in the Washington Post from his new book, The War Within, focuses on why violence fell in Iraq since 2006.

Woodward boldly rejects the “conventional wisdom” in Washington which supposedly attributed the decline entirely to the surge. He writes that “the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge. These factors either have not been reported publicly or have received less attention than the influx of troops.”

Actually, no one claims that the surge was solely responsible for all the security gains of the past 18 months. But Woodward misses the point–which is that the surge catalyzed precisely those trends which he breathlessly cites as evidence that the surge was not so important after all.

The first of these factors:

Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government. . . . [A] number of authoritative sources say the covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it.

Far be it for me to quarrel with “authoritative sources” or to take anything away from the Joint Special Operations Command which was responsible for for taking down so many bad guys. . . . But ask yourself this question: Why did JSOC’s efforts suddenly become so much more successful starting in the late spring of 2007? Might it possibly be because of the surge, which put large numbers of U.S. troops into neighborhoods where they could provide sufficient security to make more Iraqis willing to come forward and provide invaluable intelligence on Al Qaeda and Special Groups terrorists? The special operators had been working in Iraq since 2003 and it was not until the arrival of more regular troops that violence became to fall dramatically. If we had stuck mainly to a commando-focused campaign-as so many, including the Democratic leadership, wanted to do-the odds of success would have been no greater than they were in 2006, notwithstanding all of the “highly classified techniques” incorporated by JSOC.

Woodward goes on: “A second important factor in the lessening of violence was the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces.” True, the Awakening was important, and there is no doubt it began prior to the surge-in September 2006, to be precise. But there had been tribal tensions with Al Qaeda before and the terrorists had managed to repress all opposition. It was only the arrival of more American troops that gave the Awakening a chance to succeed. If you want to see what would have likely happened absent the American influx, read this article from the New York Times Magazine about Pakistan’s frontier areas. Writes reporter Dexter Filkins:

The rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda has come at the expense of the maliks [tribal elders], who have been systematically murdered and marginalized in a campaign to destroy the old order. In South Waziristan, where Mehsud presides, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have killed more than 150 maliks since 2005, all but destroying the tribal system. And there are continual reminders of what happens to the survivors who do not understand this – who, for example, attempt to talk with Pakistan’s civilian government and assert their authority. In June, Mehsud’s men gunned down 28 tribal leaders who had formed a “peace committee” in South Waziristan. Their bodies were dumped on the side of a road. “This shows what happens when the tribal elders try to challenge Baitullah Mehsud,” Jan said.

Finally, Woodward, writes, “A third significant break came Aug. 29 [2007], when militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his powerful Mahdi Army to suspend operations, including attacks against U.S. troops.” It’s true that Sadr’s decision to pull back his forces, confirmed in the wake of battles with the Iraqi army in Basra and Sadr City this year, has contributed to the overall reduction in violence. But this wasn’t due to any change of heart on the part of Moqtada. It was due to the fact that his forces took a beating from Iraqi and American troops. The increase in size and the growing competence of the Iraqi Security Forces were vitally important but so too was the increase in the size of the American force and the change in how it was employed.

In short, the surge had more to do with the success we’re seeing in Iraq than Woodward is prepared to admit. As no less an authority than Barack Obama has just said: “I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated . . . it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”