‘Surge’ Not Working as Hoped

Monterey County Herald, September 9, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta
In the next few weeks, Congress and the nation will have to determine whether the most recent “surge” in Iraq has worked. That verdict will largely determine what U.S. strategy will be as we enter the fifth year of this war.

A series of reports needs to be considered: the presentation by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, on the results of adding 30,000 troops this year; the reports of the intelligence community on the broader strategic issues; the assessment of the Government Accountability Office on whether Iraq has met the benchmarks for political reform; and an independent commission examining the state of the Iraqi military and police.

The result is likely to be a very mixed review that will provide neither the president nor the Congress with conclusive findings and a clear strategy forward. They will likely argue that the reports support their own political viewpoint of the war. But if both again fail to concur on what U.S. policy should be, one thing is certain: This difficult war will remain divisive, unstable and dangerous.

So how should we judge whether the “surge” has worked?

From a military point of view, it will be argued that if it has helped reduce violence, however temporary, it is working. The addition of 30,000 troops in Baghdad has certainly helped reduce attacks on civilians and sectarian killing in that city. The U.S. command has also implemented a bold strategy of providing economic and military assistance to former Sunni insurgents in fighting al-Qaida in Anbar province, the area recently visited by the president.

While it appears to be working, the risk is that the Shiite-dominated national government opposes empowering the Sunnis and both could easily revert to sectarian violence. Nevertheless, American combat deaths have dropped by half in the three months since the buildup. The president will argue that the reduced violence in the Baghdad area, however temporary, is the result of the “surge” and that Congress should not force an end to the troop buildup.

But from a broader strategic and political point of view, little has changed in the underlying violence in Iraq. While the killing is down in Baghdad, Iraqi civilian deaths in the rest of the country rose in August to their second highest monthly level this year, according to figures recently reported by The Associated Press. At least 1,809 civilians were killed in attacks, bringing the total Iraqi death toll to 27,564.

The Iraqi government has failed to achieve any of the significant benchmarks for political reform. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lost the support of the largest Shiite, Sunni and secular parties in the Parliament. The Iraqi Army and police still lack the ability to effectively take over from U.S. forces and maintain security.

Reconstruction efforts are mired in violence and corruption to the point that the Iraqis still lack basic services such as electric power, sewage treatment, potable water, health care, telephone service and jobs.

If the fundamental test of success is whether U.S. forces are changing the conditions encouraging sectarian violence and helping an Iraq that can, in the words of President Bush, “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,” then the “surge” obviously has not worked.

One year ago this Labor Day, I was one of the members of the Iraq Study Group who went to Baghdad for three days to review the military and political situation. The U.S. military command was implementing another “surge” operation in Baghdad that added some 15,000 U.S. troops to work with members of the Iraqi Army and police to “clear, hold and build.” It was called “Operation Together Forward II.”

The results were disheartening. As U.S. forces were moving from neighborhood to neighborhood clearing areas of insurgents, the Iraqi Army and police were unable or unwilling to hold the areas that had been cleared. In addition, little was being done to build back important basic services to the people.

The hope was that reduced violence in some of the key neighborhoods of Baghdad would inspire the Iraqi government to implement essential political and economic reforms. Because of sectarian infighting over how to deal with militias, particularly in Sadr City, little was accomplished.

In our report, the Iraq Study Group concluded that “because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraq military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end.”

Unfortunately, what we are seeing today is in many ways a repetition of the results of the two “surges” in 2005 and 2006. While U.S. forces are both clearing and now holding areas around Baghdad and pressing efforts to recruit and pay local Sunni Arabs to protect neighborhoods in central Iraq, there remain serious concerns over the ability of the Iraqi Army and police to effectively control sectarian violence in areas cleared by U.S. forces. The fear is that all of this is only temporary, and once the United States withdraws, the insurgents will return.

If, as the administration stated, the basic purpose of the “surge” was to give “breathing room” to the government to achieve political reconciliation, then clearly the failure of the Iraqi government to meet any of the key benchmarks for political reform only confirms that the fundamental purpose of the “surge” has not been achieved.

The mistake of the “surges” is to assume that if an escalation of U.S. forces could achieve a reduction in violence, then the other pieces of Iraqi reconciliation, security and governance, would fall into place. That has not happened.

What has been lacking is a clear message from the United States to the Iraqis that U.S. strategy, our other security needs and the future of our military cannot be made hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government.

As the Iraq Study Group Report recommended: The United States should set a strategy in Iraq to transition from combat to support, redeploy our forces in rapid-reaction and special-operations teams to fight al-Qaida and deter interference from Syria and Iran, and train, equip and support Iraqi security forces. The United States should make clear to the Iraqi government that it intends to carry out its planned changes, including redeployments, without waiting for Iraq to act on political reforms.

An open-ended commitment of American forces has not provided the Iraqi government the incentive it needs to take the political actions that give Iraq the best chance of quelling sectarian violence. To continue an open-ended commitment is to make the same mistake over and over again.

The time has come for the president and the Congress to make certain that the United States takes control of its destiny even as it makes clear to the Iraqis that it is time for them to control theirs. This is the real lesson of the “surge,” and one that just might lead to a better strategy for Iraq.

LEON PANETTA is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group. His column runs every other month in Commentary.


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