Beyond the Surge
To the Editor:
Peter D. Feaver is certainly correct that by the middle of 2005, a policy redirection was necessary for the United States in Iraq [“Anatomy of the Surge,” April]. And indeed, the surge appears to have helped America achieve its previously asserted goal of reconciling Sunnis and Shiites and integrating both communities into the Iraqi armed forces so that American troops could stand down. In this respect, the surge has bought time, but it has also left the ball largely in the court of the factious Iraqis, who for their part appear to be squandering the political opportunity provided by the improvements in security.
In other words, the U.S. has helped bolster various centers of armed power beyond the control of the central government without simultaneously effecting a political bargain among Iraqi leaders. But American troops cannot long remain as the lynchpin keeping antagonistic groups from reengaging in civil and sectarian war. The political gains of the surge still fall well short of anything that promises to bring lasting stability to the country. When American support for Sunni “Awakening” forces (i.e., militiamen formerly hostile to the U.S. who have turned against al Qaeda) tails off, the Sunnis may not be as helpful as they are now. If Moqtada al-Sadr reemerges to engage in armed conflict, the U.S. will be back at square one.
In short, the surge should not be seen as an end in and of itself. There must be a strategy for building on its gains. Few seem to realize how tenuous they are.
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
Peter D. Feaver fails to recognize that the real change in strategy that has succeeded in Iraq has nothing to do with the surge of troops. General David Petraeus negotiated cease-fires with militia groups in Anbar and Diyala and with Moqtada al-Sadr; that is why violence has gone down. We can draw down our troops now and eventually pull them out completely if we continue to bring Iraqi insurgents into the system. You cannot win a war until you settle on a peace agreement. You cannot kill all the terrorists: you must stop their recruitment.
General Petraeus seems to recognize this, and has a much more subtle approach than Mr. Feaver allows. The Iraqi security forces will not crumble if we pull out—that is a scare tactic from those who want permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. Ultimately, our presence there is part of the problem and our responsible pullout is a key to the solution.
The next President must recognize that Iraq is not going to be the next Bosnia. It will continue for a long time to see occasional bombings and a steady if slowed stream of American casualties. The American people will not accept this, and we must therefore have an exit strategy. An 85,000-man force is not politically sustainable for a McCain or an Obama presidency. An Obama presidency will lead to a gradual reduction in violence and an American victory once we are pulled out. A McCain presidency will lead to a continuing cycle of bombings and deaths, eventually leading to a congressional abandonment of funding and a precipitous withdrawal—and defeat. McCain cannot win in Iraq because he has no exit strategy.
To the Editor:
Peter D. Feaver’s article illustrates the problem with our public discourse on the surge and its supposed success. He assumes without any causal evidence that the recent decrease in the number of attacks and deaths in Iraq has been the result of the surge just because the improvements coincided with the increase in the number of American combat brigades. What Mr. Feaver fails to acknowledge is that starting in late 2006 and continuing through 2007, American commanders shifted their strategy to focus more on air strikes. In 2007 alone, the number of American air strikes increased fourfold.
Bronx, New York
Peter D. Feaver writes:
I thank Jason Hillman, David Shackleford, and Matthew Beller for their letters. Collectively, these correspondents make two points that I fully accept, and that I accepted in my article:
• The gains of the “surge” strategy are not irreversible, and depend on the Iraqis making wise decisions in the coming years, particularly with respect to resolving political differences peacefully. The surge’s success could also be reversed by bad decisions on the part of American commanders or politicians. We have bought an opportunity for a better outcome in Iraq, not a certainty of that outcome.
• It is also true that the gains of the surge are not due merely to the increase in the number of American boots on the ground but to a host of other strategic elements, including the pursuit of the Sunni tribal “Awakening.” As I wrote in my article: “Each of these labels [for the new strategy] had the unfortunate side-effect of obscuring the many other changes contained in the new strategy and focusing attention exclusively on the increase in military troops—certainly the gutsiest element in terms of our domestic politics but by no means the only important one.” For a more detailed look at the social, political, and diplomatic arrows in our strategic quiver, interested readers may consult the 2007 “Highlights of the Iraq Strategy Review,” downloadable from the White House website.
Still, it is a mistake to argue that the surge of reinforcements has been irrelevant. General Petraeus has said that the surge allowed the coalition to capitalize on the tribal awakening more rapidly than would have otherwise been possible. Independent observers like Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations have noted that the surge allowed us to make more credible promises of protection to former insurgents who came in from the cold. It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to pretend that we could have expected the same results in Iraq if, for instance, congressional Democrats had succeeded in blocking the surge in 2007.
As for the way forward from here, I support President Bush’s decision (based on General Petraeus’s advice) to end the surge of troops while pressing ahead with the rest of the strategy. It appears as of this writing that the situation on the ground in Iraq may even allow for some further reductions in our combat presence.
If we want to achieve a decent outcome in Iraq, however, such reductions should not be based on the domestic American political calendar. Those who suggest otherwise end up arguing themselves into logical contradictions, as Mr. Shackleford does when he claims that Iraqi forces would not crumble if a President Obama were to initiate a pullout of U.S. troops but a precipitous withdrawal leading to defeat would be our fate if a President McCain were to continue General Petraeus’s phased transition.