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the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.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