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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is the Surge Actually Working?

posted by on July 31 at 9:04 AM

Here’s a Q&A with Thomas Ricks, the author of Fiasco, the landmark 2006 book whose sharp criticisms (stop fighting a heavy handed conventional war and start fighting strategically against an insurgency) now seems to be the guiding principle for the US forces in Iraq.

Indeed, Gen. David Petraeus was the candid dissident in Ricks’s Fiasco, and he’s now leading the American mission.

From the Q&A (by Stranger freelancer Tom Nissley): One of the remarkable things over the past year for a reader of Fiasco has been how much of what your book recommends has, apparently, been taken to heart by the military and civilian leadership. As you write in your new postscript to the paperback edition, the war has been “turned over to the dissidents.” General David Petraeus, who was one of the first to put classic counterinsurgency tactics to use in Iraq, is now the top American commander there, and he has surrounded himself with others with similar views. What was that transformation like on the inside?

Ricks: I was really struck when I was out in Baghdad two months ago at how different the American military felt. I used to hate going into the Green Zone because of all the unreal happy talk I’d hear. It was a relief to leave the place, even if being outside it (and contrary to popular myth, most reporters do live outside it) was more dangerous.

There is a new realism in the U.S. military. In May, I was getting a briefing from one official in the Green Zone and I thought, “Wow, not only does this briefing strike me as accurate, it also is better said than I could do.” That feeling was a real change from the old days.

The other thing that struck me was the number of copies I saw of Fiasco as I knocked around Iraq. When I started writing it, the title was controversial. Now generals say things to me like, “Got it, understand it, agree with it.” I am told that the Army War College is making the book required reading this fall.

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The US military adapted as well in Vietnam, using counterinsurgency techniques pioneered by the British in Malaysia.

It didn’t work, because the underlying political conflict was not solvable through improved military techniques. Ditto Iraq.

Posted by Biff | July 31, 2007 9:51 AM

Who knows how well it's working or whether it will continue to work. But if it really is working; I just wish the Democrats would get over being so jaded and stop trying to spin it down.

Posted by raindrop | July 31, 2007 10:54 AM

"Who knows? But if it is working...?" You acknowledge you don't know and yet you state the democrats are being jaded. You ever consider the possibility that it is not working and the democrats are right? You want to keep feeding young people into a meat grinder when we have nothing to show us anything is being gained? With the massive spin machine we now have as an administration, you think they would not get the story out if there was any good news to tell? All you can do is bitch about the opposition?

Posted by jamesb | July 31, 2007 11:07 AM

Biff pretty much said what I was going to say here. The military has likely stopped doing a lot of the stupid things that made the situation so bad in the first place by adopting conventional counterinsurgency efforts, but we're in a no-win situation when it comes to finding political solutions. The Iraqis don't trust our intentions and will never accept a government seen as being "allied" with us. We need to extract ourselves from the situation and let the Iraqis start the rebuilding process on their own. That will definitely have drawback, but it's an inevitability. The sooner we do it, the less monumental a task of rebuilding it will be.

Posted by thehim | July 31, 2007 11:18 AM

I agree with @1.

The problem is we're bogged down in a civil war between groups that have zero incentive to agree to anything.

That is unlikely to change, especially with our new oil law we foisted on them, allowing US and related oil firms to plunder them.

Sooner we leave, sooner they start to solve their own problems.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 31, 2007 11:21 AM

It is possible that had these techniques been followed from the start, there wouldn't be such a clusterfuck. My hunch is that it was doomed from the start, which is why I opposed the war all along, but there's no way to know at this point.

We're well past that point now. The Iraqi people don't trust us and mostly hate each other, after four years of sectarian killings and American bumbling. Our real chance was in the first few months, but I think we passed the turning point when the Samarra mosque was bombed the first time. The only thing our military can do now is get the hell out, the sooner the better.

Posted by Cascadian | July 31, 2007 11:40 AM

jamesb @2: I can't win. I'm trying to straddle the issue taking a reasonable position with input from both sides. What is so wrong with a glimmer of hope that we are at least stabilizing some provices in Iraq with some limited sucess? You can still take pride in that you're vindicated that it's the worst mistake in U.S. History. Lighten up!

Posted by raindrop | July 31, 2007 11:49 AM

Well, they've pulled their heads out of their asses. It's a start. After spending four years hassling people at pointless checkpoints, knocking down doors in pointless raids, and imprisoning and torturing a whole lot of innocent people picked up on pointless raids, it's way too late. When you've made an insurgent that way they stay, uh, insurged.

That Ricks is impressed that people bought his book doesn't mean the surge is working. It is a great book though.

Posted by Chris | July 31, 2007 2:05 PM

A start? You REALLY want to have 100,000 US troops there for the next 70 years?

Because that's the plan.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 31, 2007 2:22 PM

#7: Sometimes, there is a right side and a wrong side, sometimes there isn't a compromise position that's reasonable. The correct answer isn't always a combination of two opposites. Compromise is what brought us into the war to begin with. Politically, you're correct, because there isn't going to be a winner takes all solution to Iraq- the democrats are not going to be able to take the US out of the war purely on their own terms- compromise will be necessary (I for one want us to prop up Kurdistan and prevent the civil war in Iraq from spilling over while letting it rage). However, the people claiming that the civil war will somehow stop because of the surge, are dead wrong. There is no compromised take on reality. Facts aren't reached through political consensus unfortunately.

Posted by Jay | July 31, 2007 2:50 PM

It gets characterised as "working" and "we are winning in Iraq"* under very narrow definitions. Supposedly we are "winning" and the 'surge' is "working" against Al Queda (in Iraq). If you listen closely, you will hear begrudging admission that this isn't working in regards to the civil war and that we have armed insurgents to fight Al Queda (over the opposition of the Iraqi gov't) to do so.

Some victory.

Posted by K X One | July 31, 2007 3:01 PM

Oh yeah:

* I was surprised to hear the first segment of "This Week In War" on CNN this weekend approach the situation as "We are winning" complete with a ex-General expert literally saying in the at the top of the hour "We are winning in Iraq". It was only later in the program that they pointed out that this is only true against the tiny amount of "Al Queda in Iraq" fighters, and doesn't address the larger issues.

Posted by K X One | July 31, 2007 3:03 PM

" What is so wrong with a glimmer of hope that we are at least stabilizing some provices in Iraq with some limited sucess? "

It's illusory, it's not like we can maintain the 'surge' for any real length of time anyway and the Iraqi's aren't ready to 'stand up' yet either. Experts are still saying that it may take 3-4 years for the Iraqi forces to be independant and they've been saying that from day one.

An entire Iraqi battalion (circa 500-1000 men) has been found out not to exist at all! They've been receiving funds (& likely arms) but there aren't any troops! Likely this was one of the units that got one of the better ratings for it's readiness from Bush.

Posted by K X One | July 31, 2007 3:09 PM

Reasonable approach? Why even mention the demcrats? What about the almost 70% of EVERYBODY that wants us out of this war and doesn't trust anything this administration [and sadly, most departments of the federal Government due to this administrations politicalization of government] says? Its not just democrats and its not just about the surge. We have been given a series of never ending goals that once reached have failed to produce the promised result. The administration's biggest move, before getting rid of Rumsfeld, was to change what they called things but never a substantial change in the on the ground tactics. This war not only began under suspicious circumstances but has been horribly mismanaged. It wasn't the democrats in charge. I don't think lightening up is a good plan while people are being killed.

Posted by ajmesb | July 31, 2007 4:49 PM

Not to mention the fact that a story out just yesterday reported that 8 MILLION Iraqis need assistance just to make it day to day. That's a third of the population!

This whole fiasco has been a total failure, and you'd have to be pretty stupid to keep buying the right-wing propaganda about it.

Posted by Original Andrew | July 31, 2007 5:13 PM

Ironic. The dems complained about the number of troops, the leadership, the tactics. They now have everything they wanted. They won and now they tell us it isn't working?
Methnks its about politics and power rather than any honest criticism of the war, its objectives, or its results.

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