Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda in Iraq

AQI Comeback Is Not Indictment of Surge

The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

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The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

I find that conclusion to be squarely in line with the facts as I discovered them for myself during my trips to Iraq in 2007-2008. Neither the surge nor the Sunni Awakening would have succeeded by itself; together they turned the tide and decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq. The fact that AQI has now made a comeback is no indictment of the surge; it is, rather, an indictment of Prime Minister Maliki’s recent leadership and of the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to extend the mandate of U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011.

It often takes decades to solidify the gains won on any battlefield. If U.S. troops had left Europe in 1945–as they did in 1919–it is fair to speculate that World War II would not be seen as the “good war”; it might even be seen, like World  War I, as a military victory undone by political defeat afterward. So too, if the U.S. had left South Korea after the end of fighting in 1953. It took decades of commitment to harvest the gains won on the battlefield by our soldiers. We have not made that commitment in Iraq, and so the result is to allow a once-defeated terrorist group to stage a comeback. The same thing happened in Afghanistan in the past decade: the Taliban were truly defeated, if not totally annihilated, in 2001, but our inattention and unwillingness to make a commitment to building a durable post-Taliban state allowed them to stage a comeback.

In war victory is seldom final; it is almost always conditional and provisional. President Obama has lost sight of that truth in Iraq, as President Bush lost sight of it in Afghanistan, and the result is needless fighting. But that in no way slights the achievements of either the soldiers and spies who brought down the Taliban in the fall of 2001 or those who routed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008.

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High-Level Attention Needed on Iraq

Yesterday, I noted the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in no small part because of the U.S. troop pullout after the Obama administration failed to get Iraqi agreement on a status of forces agreement. Today, the question I want to consider is: What, if anything, can the U.S. still do to prevent Iraq from going totally off the rails?

Sadly, with the loss of our troop presence and with it much of our intelligence-gathering capacity, our options are vastly diminished. If we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in the country–and we don’t, having lost much of our situational awareness at the end of last year–it is hard to figure out how to shape developments. Heck, we can’t even be sure of the number of Iraqis killed in terrorist attacks; the U.S. military no longer compiles independent figures, and it’s hard to fully trust the numbers produced in Baghdad.

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Yesterday, I noted the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in no small part because of the U.S. troop pullout after the Obama administration failed to get Iraqi agreement on a status of forces agreement. Today, the question I want to consider is: What, if anything, can the U.S. still do to prevent Iraq from going totally off the rails?

Sadly, with the loss of our troop presence and with it much of our intelligence-gathering capacity, our options are vastly diminished. If we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in the country–and we don’t, having lost much of our situational awareness at the end of last year–it is hard to figure out how to shape developments. Heck, we can’t even be sure of the number of Iraqis killed in terrorist attacks; the U.S. military no longer compiles independent figures, and it’s hard to fully trust the numbers produced in Baghdad.

But there are still things we can do to try to prevent Prime Minister Maliki from alienating Sunnis even more than he already has. The fact that the Iraqis are counting on major weapons sales from the U.S. (the Pentagon has just placed an initial order for 16 F-16s) gives us a certain amount of leverage, albeit limited leverage–the Iraqis are rich enough to buy weapons elsewhere if we refuse to sell them. But we can at least try to condition our weapons deliveries on continued Iraqi progress on governance and human rights.

To do that effectively, however, we need high-level attention focused on Iraq. That has been totally lacking in the Obama White House, which has handed off the Iraq portfolio to Vice President Biden–only he has a multitude of other responsibilities and doesn’t seem to be particularly focused on Iraq. The president, meanwhile, appears to be totally disengaged, treating Iraq as if it were his predecessor’s problem, not his. This helps to explain why we couldn’t get the status of forces agreement and why we are not able to exert much leverage at the moment to counteract strong Iranian and sectarian influence in Baghdad.

Shockingly, we don’t even have an ambassador in Baghdad at the moment. Jim Jeffrey has left and his designated successor–Brett McGurk–had to withdraw his nomination under fire. The White House has recently announced new ambassadors to Kabul and Islamabad but not to Baghdad. Even with an influential and knowledgeable ambassador in place (there are several top-drawer Arabists at the State Department who would be excellent choices for the job), we would have a tough time changing Iraq’s trajectory. Without an ambassador–and without high-level attention in Washington–it’s hopeless. So we will be left sitting on the sidelines as al-Qaeda in Iraq continues to gain strength and potentially undo the gains of the 2007-2008 surge.

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Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s New Terror Offensive

Back around 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated. Its founder (Abu Musab al Zarqawi) was dead, along with many of his lieutenants, and it had lost the support of the Sunni community. Consequently, American and Iraq forces, working with the Sons of Iraq militia, were able to rout the terrorist group out of its lairs and break its hold on a swath of territory the size of New England.

That was then, this is now.

On Monday, at the start of Ramadan, Iraq experienced the bloodiest day of the year, with more than 100 people killed and 300 wounded in a series of at least 40 separate attacks around the country. Some of the attacks were carried out with car bombs, others with direct assaults on security personnel. Claiming responsibility was none other than AQI, whose shadowy leader, Abu Bakir al Baghdadi, claimed this was part of a new offensive called Breaking Down Walls.

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Back around 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated. Its founder (Abu Musab al Zarqawi) was dead, along with many of his lieutenants, and it had lost the support of the Sunni community. Consequently, American and Iraq forces, working with the Sons of Iraq militia, were able to rout the terrorist group out of its lairs and break its hold on a swath of territory the size of New England.

That was then, this is now.

On Monday, at the start of Ramadan, Iraq experienced the bloodiest day of the year, with more than 100 people killed and 300 wounded in a series of at least 40 separate attacks around the country. Some of the attacks were carried out with car bombs, others with direct assaults on security personnel. Claiming responsibility was none other than AQI, whose shadowy leader, Abu Bakir al Baghdadi, claimed this was part of a new offensive called Breaking Down Walls.

So much for the claims of American and Iraqi officials that violence is on the wane. In fact, as noted by the New York Times, “The attacks were likely to continue the trend of the first six months since the departure of American troops, when violence has steadily increased, according to United Nations statistics.” If the trend continues this will mark a remarkable defeat–and a self-inflicted one–for American policy in the Middle East.

If only the U.S. had been able to keep troops in Iraq past 2011, the odds are that Iraqi forces would have had greater success in continuing to crack down on AQI. The U.S. presence was particularly important for providing intelligence support to the Iraqis as well as pressuring Prime Minister Maliki to share power with Sunnis so as to avoid fueling a sectarian conflagration. With the U.S. out of the picture, Maliki is busy accumulating dictatorial power and the Iraqi security forces appear to be fighting half-blind, thus allowing AQI to rise from the grave like a zombie.

It did not have to be this way. Although there is no way to prove a counterfactual, I am convinced the U.S. could have won Iraqi political support to maintain a troop presence past 2011 if President Obama had gone all-out to push for it. But he didn’t, preferring to suspend negotiations at the first stumbling block (over immunity for U.S. troops). The result is a tragedy for Iraq–and a possibly grave defeat for the United States.

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