Kimberley Strassel’s interview with former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, author of Known and Unknown, includes these paragraphs:
Mr. Rumsfeld thus takes an unorthodox view of the significance of President Bush’s surge, which began to take effect in early 2007. He argues that by 2006 things were, in fact, improving in Iraq. The Anbar Awakening—which Mr. Rumsfeld credits as beginning in the fall of 2006—”had convinced a lot of Sunnis they didn’t want to be associated with al Qaeda,” and “the government of Iraq was evolving the ability to take on some of the radicals” with the help of Iraqi security forces that had become “very capable.”
As a result, he argues, the force of President Bush’s surge was as much “psychological” as anything else. “The president’s decision galvanized the opinion in Iraq. It said: ‘Look, if you think it is going to go to the insurgents, you are wrong.’” The fact of the statement, argues Mr. Rumsfeld, mattered as much as did the increase of troops “tactically or strategically.”
Let’s examine Secretary Rumsfeld’s claims in order.
He says that in 2006 things were “improving” in Iraq. In fact Iraq, in the latter half of 2006, was in a death spiral. The insurgency and Shia militias were gaining strength. Sectarian divisions were deepening. Millions of Iraqis had fled the country. In the words of the Iraq Study Group Report, “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” Indeed, December 2006 saw civilian killings reach their highest level, with an average of more than 50 civilians killed on average every day in Baghdad alone.
For Iraq, 2006 was the annus horribilis.
The Anbar Awakening, which was motivated by the sadism of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was important and predated the surge. Still, the surge provided crucial support to the sheiks of Anbar. Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor summarized things well when he wrote, “The surge did not create the first of the tribal ‘awakenings,’ but it was the catalyst for their expansion and eventual success.”
As for the claim that the surge’s psychological effects were as important as its tactical and strategic influence: the Bush surge did send an important psychological signal to both our allies and our adversaries in Iraq. But the psychological advantage this created couldn’t have been sustained without a dramatic change in our strategy. And here, I think, Rumsfeld is missing something essential.
The surge changed the entire counterinsurgency approach in Iraq — away from trying to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces (which couldn’t handle the increasing levels of violence) to focusing on securing the population. This, in turn, led to a massive increase in tips and actionable intelligence. The surge weakened Shia militia and inflicted enormous damage to AQI, took away its sanctuaries, and held areas that had been cleared. That had never been done prior to the surge.
The most authoritative voice to listen to on this whole matter is General David Petraeus, the individual most responsible for executing the turnabout in Iraq. His April 2008 congressional testimony can be found here.
Secretary Rumsfeld’s approach — which was shared by Generals Sanchez, Abizaid, and Casey — was the antithesis of the surge philosophy. They believed in the “light footprint” approach, a strategy premised on the conviction that American forces were an irritant fueling the insurgency. A key goal for Rumsfeld, therefore, was to expedite the drawdown of American troops rather than using them to increase security. A favorite metaphor for Rumsfeld was to refer to the Iraqis as children learning to ride a bike; our job was to take the training wheels off and let them learn to ride by themselves.
The problem is that we kept taking the training wheels off too early and the bike kept crashing. The American military would win control of an area and hand it over to the Iraqis, but they could not defend the gains that had been made. The surge changed all that.
Donald Rumsfeld certainly doesn’t deserve the entire blame for what went wrong in Iraq. But as defense secretary, he deserves a good deal of it. The Pentagon’s Phase IV (occupation and transition) planning was badly mismanaged. There was a huge gap between ends (a secure, stable Iraq) and means (the number of troops and their counterinsurgency mission). The early signs of the insurgency were misread. And Rumsfeld himself never accepted that a massive nation-building effort in Iraq was required.
I can understand Secretary Rumsfeld’s desire to shape the historical record in a way that is most flattering to him. But it is what it is. Iraq was on edge, not on the mend, when he resigned. For almost his entire tenure, Rumsfeld was indifferent or hostile to the strategy that turned a losing war into a winning one.