Commentary Magazine

Woodward on the Surge

Since it hasn’t been available until today, I have not yet read Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. But his articles in the Washington Post and and his 60 Minutes interview do invite commentary.

The most important point to make, I think, is that the book underscores what an extraordinary decision President Bush made in deciding on the so-called surge. As Woodward’s book recounts, and my own experience in the White House underscores, in settling on a surge of five brigades to Baghdad and 4,000 Marines to Anbar Province, the President bucked the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (including the Army Chief of Staff, Peter Schoomaker, and Chief of Naval Operations, Michael Mullen), General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, military analysts, the entire Democratic Party, much of the Republican Party, most of the foreign policy establishment, the Iraq Study Group, and many within his own Administration.

The prevailing view was that of General Casey, whom Woodward quotes as telling the President in June 2006, "To win, we have to draw down." General Casey was exactly wrong, as was the much-heralded Baker-Hamilton Report, which in its 96 pages dismissed the idea of a surge in a single paragraph. (The ISG did recommend a short-term surge, but it argued, "Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation… past experience indicates that the violence would simply rekindle as soon as U.S. forces are moved to another area… America’s military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence." The ISG also recommended a drawdown of all U.S. combat forces by early 2008.)

The only real support for the surge was found within the White House and the National Security Council; from General David Petraeus, who succeeded General Casey and said, "I want all the force you can give me" and knew what to do with it once he got it;  from Lt. General Ray Odierno, who had the courage to request the forces he knew were required despite the opposition from those he reported to; from retired General Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff; from Fredrick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and William Kristol; and, of course, the early, forceful support of Senator McCain, as well as Senators Graham and Lieberman, was crucial, politically and substantively. At the time the surge was announced, it seemed as if its supporters could fit in a large phone booth.

For the President to have made the decision he did, in the face of such widespread opposition and with the war deeply unpopular within the country and his own party, took serious resolve. It was easily the most impressive and courageous decision he made in office.

Again, based just on the excerpts and the 60 Minutes appearance, one major area in which I disagree with the assessment of Woodward–one of the most influential journalists in American history–is his claim that the surge was not the primary factor in the staggering drop of violence in Iraq.

Woodward is certainly correct in saying that other factors were important, from the Anbar Awakening to the militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordering the Mahdi Army to suspend operations, including attacks against U.S. troops. Those things have been discussed at some length by many of us.

Woodward also cites a series of top-secret operations that enabled U.S. military and intelligence agencies to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or "special groups."

Those three elements were all important, but the surge was crucial in the success of each. It enabled everything else to take place.

The Anbar Awakening, which was triggered by the savagery of AQI, did predate the surge, but there is no question that the surge provided confidence and support to the sheiks of Anbar. Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as Gen. David Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq from February 2007 to May 2008, put it well in a recent Washington Post op-ed: "The surge did not create the first of the tribal ‘awakenings,’ but it was the catalyst for their expansion and eventual success."

It’s worth bearing in mind, for example, that while the Ramadi Awakening predated the surge, the clearance of Ramadi didn’t take place until mid-March 2007, when the surge was underway, and that clearance of other areas throughout Anbar was undoubtedly enabled by the additional Marine battalions as well as the Iraqi Security Forces.

Similarly, Sadr’s decision to agree to a ceasefire was unquestionably influenced by the surge and its success. Sadr did not suddenly have a revelation that it was time to turn his swords into plowshares; he and his Mahdi Army had sustained tremendous military blows which drove his decision.

As for the top-secret operations targeting terrorist leaders, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley argued in a statement last weekend, "It was the surge that provided more resources and a security context to support newly developed techniques and operations."

What seems to get lost in the discussion of the surge is that it was not simply an increase in the number of troops sent to Iraq; what mattered far more was the way our troops were employed. The genius of the surge was that it used a traditional counterinsurgency strategy to protect the population, which eventually began to win them over, which in turn led to a massive increase in tips and actionable intelligence. The surge was in large measure responsible for weakening Shia militia and inflicting enormous damage done to AQI, taking away its sanctuaries, and holding the areas that had been cleared. That had never been done prior to the surge (see Operation Together Forward in 2006, both the 1.0 and 2.0 versions).

To put it another way: it’s simplistic to identify the surge as simply or primarily an increase in troops rather than as one (important) part of a much broader change in strategy– including setting up the armed neighborhood watch groups (known as "Sons of Iraq") Woodward praises.

The most authoritative voice to listen to on this whole matter is General Petraeus, the individual most responsible for executing the turn-about in Iraq. His April 2008 testimony to Congress, which discusses various factors that have led to progress, can be found here.

In any event, we’re (thankfully) now in a position where people are arguing over the various factors that have led to the stunning change in Iraq. What matters most–in terms of the human dimension, the national security interests of the United States, and history–is that Iraq, which was in a death spiral in late 2006, is now on the road to recovery. That progress, which General Petraeus rightly calls "fragile and reversible," was achieved faster than almost anyone could have imagined in the dark days of January 2007. We should be grateful that a few national leaders did envision the surge’s success and worked to initiate it. And we should be most grateful to the American military, the Iraqis Security Forces, and the diplomats who put the surge into effect.

According to Woodward, when President Bush told General Petraeus that with the surge he, the President, was doubling down, Petraeus corrected him. It was all in, Petraeus said. He was right. And the bet paid off, spectacularly so.

I have made the case before that our Administration made massive errors in judgment in Iraq and the corrections that were made came very late in the day. But this also needs to be said: Without President Bush, there would have been no surge. Without the surge, Iraq would be lost. And if we had lost Iraq, the radiating effects would have been enormously damaging.

Instead, victory is now within reach. Iraq was on the brink; it is now on the mend. The war is still playing itself out, so we cannot issue a final verdict yet. But because of what it may do not only for Iraq and the region but to al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, the war to liberate Iraq now looks to be defensible and justified and even worth doing. That is what matters above all to President Bush, and it is what will matter to history.

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