Iraq: The Sleight of Hand Surge
To beg from a favorite expression of my grandmother's, I don't know whether to laugh or cry over the latest "good news" from Iraq. As we begin the twelve-month countdown to next November's election, friends of the Bush administration are once again declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq.
An editorial in Monday's Los Angeles Times by David B. Rivkin Jr., a former Bush II policy aide (and Donald Rumsfeld apologist), stated, "By every objective measure of military performance, the United States' surge of military forces into Iraq has been a great success." Tuesday morning, MSNBC's token Republican Joe Scarborough squealed, "The surge has worked."
All this right wing hoopla conveniently ignores the Baby Ruth floating in the punch bowl: 2007, the year of the surge, has seen the largest annual toll of U.S. troop deaths (854) in the history of this woebegone war, and we have the rest of November and December left to go.
Well, all right, not everybody in the administration has ignored this. Colonel Steven Boylan, General David Petraeus's personal public affairs officer, says, "We knew going into this that with the new strategy there was a potential for more casualties." In other words, we knew more troops were going to die so it's okay that they did. See how neat that works?
And nobody in the Bush camp too seems upset about how many troops died this year because not very many of the troops who died this year died in the last three months, and according to administration echo chamberlain Richard Benedetto, the last three months is all that really matters in the killed in action department, and bad on that darn old liberal media for not bringing that to everybody's attention. Sure, it's tough about all those other troops who got killed four or more months ago, but war is hell, haven't you heard? Plus, when you get right down to it, the troops who were killed in the last three months really shouldn't count either, according to Benedetto's reasoning, because there were so darn few of them. Relatively speaking, that is.
They're making hay out of the reduced number of roadside bomb attacks, despite that fact that on Monday four American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb. The neocons are still chortling about how well things are going in Anbar province, even though an American soldier was killed there Monday while conducting combat operations. You'll also hear congratulatory rumblings about how well Iraq's security forces are progressing, despite six Iraqi policemen in a town outside Mosul being gunned down in front of their own police station. The gunmen? They got away, of course. How's that for police work?
To call what's now happening in Iraq a "great success" because bad things have happened less in the last three months than in previous several months is exactly like saying losing one leg to a roadside bomb is preferable to losing two legs to a roadside bomb. That's true in a Rovewellian sort of way, but the only thing in this analogy I'd consider a "great success" is losing zero legs to a roadside bomb.
But however great, small or in between you care to measure the military performance of late in Iraq, the surge's successes have been at the tactical level, and we're long past the point in this war where tactical victories can be touted as signs of strategic progress. The surge's stated aim was to provide breathing space for Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's unity government to get its act together, and there's no sign of that happening any of our lifetimes. As Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post wrote recently, "Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq."
What's more, the region is less stable than ever. Increasing talk of establishing separate autonomous regions for the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds increases the odds that our "ally" Turkey, historically fearful of Kurdish nationalism, will invade Iraq from the north. Our other ally, Pakistan, has become what the administration tells us we should be afraid that Iran might turn into: a Muslim country with nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Whatever you do, don't fall for any stated or implied message that the surge's overwhelming triumph is the thing that's allowing planned reductions of U.S. troop levels in Iraq. The coming drawdown, if one can call it that, was an integral part of the surge from the beginning, and it had nothing to do with projected success or failure. It had to do with how long a force already stretched to opaqueness could sustain an escalation. The surge had to begin its ebb around New Year's, and was fated to putt out in the summer of 2008. Even so, the current plan to reduce the 167,000 troop level presently in Iraq to 140,000-145,000 by July will leave 10,000-15,000 more troops in country than were there when the surge began. Some drawdown.
One tends to wonder why the administration still expends so much effort spinning the war in lieu of winning it, until one considers that this latest propaganda operation may benefit a GOP presidential candidate who came out foursquare behind the surge back in January, and one doesn't need help from one's mommy to figure out who that candidate might be.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword, ePluribus and Military.com Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books, ISBN: 9781601640192) will be available March 1, 2008.