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the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.
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.
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.