Here’s another article about the success of the the so-called “surge.” In it, Jeff Emanual writes that the results—which so far have exceeded expectations—are attributable not only to the increase in numbers that the word “surge” signifies, but to a basic change of strategy that involves engaging the Iraqi people in a consistent way rather than withdrawing into secure bases and relying primarily on unstable Iraqi forces to do the job:
A sustained presence within the cities and rural areas that each unit is tasked with securing, involving spending the maximum amount of time possible out amongst the people who live and work there, is a major element of counterinsurgency strategy. It not only allows the unit responsible for an area to be present and able to respond at a moment’s notice to any event or emergency, but also allows the members of that unit to become more familiar with the district (and the people, including who should and should not be there) that they are responsible for policing.
Such a policy also allows the civilians in the area to become familiar with and begin to begin to trust their military protectors. Building this bond of trust between military personnel and civilians in each area should lead at some point to cooperation, both in the form of providing information (the first step) and (later) in the form of the organization of an armed resistance working with the Coalition and against the insurgents and terrorists in the region. This is a very long, tortuous process, and it literally depends on the clichéd ‘winning of the hearts and minds’ of the people. This is done not only by providing security and quality of life improvements in an area, but also by convincing the citizenry that such a sustained presence (and the security that it is capable of providing) will be a long-term reality.
This is the essence of the General Petraeus approach. Whether or not it ultimately succeeds long term in the extremely difficult task of rebuilding Iraqi society into a functioning democracy, there is no question it has made the necessary initial inroads towards that goal.
My question is: why did it take so long to put something like this into place?
General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual wasn’t available until December of 2006, so perhaps it wasn’t clear until then that he was the right man for the job. Then again, that doesn’t make much sense; surely, those in the know (or those who ought to have been in the know) should have been aware that he was the closest thing to an expert on counterinsurgency that the military had.
After all, Petraeus achieved enough early success using his methods in Mosul, the area of Iraq under his command, to have been featured Newsweek’s cover in July of 2004 with a headline reading, “Can This Man Save Iraq?” Afterwards, he was given the assignment of writing the counterinsurgency guide, the first revision of that document in twenty years.
That time gap is puzzling, as well. After all, it seems clear that counterinsurgencies (including assymetrical warfare and terrorist tactics) would feature prominently in the battles we were going to be facing, especially since the end of the Cold War. Twenty years seems a long time between manuals on this vitally important subject.
My guess is that the end of Rumsfeld cleared the way for Petraeus. Petraeus’ suggestions seemed to run counter to the prevailing Rumsfeldian wisdom of keeping US numbers down in Iraq while maintaining a relatively low profile removed from much interaction with the Iraqi population. There were also rumors to the effect that Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon were unhappy with Petraeus’ high profile.
Whatever the reason, it is extremely unfortunate that it took so long to install Petraeus, both for the obvious reason that more innocent people may have died than necessary, and for the secondary reason that the length and extent of the time of chaos and murder in Iraq fatigued the easily-exhausted patience of the American people, and probably contributed to public resistance against noticing and appreciating that things are starting to look up there.
I lay the blame at the feet of President Bush. He’s a man with two traits—stubbornness and loyalty—that are double-edged swords. I think these two were operating in his allegiance to Rumsfeld, which lasted far longer than it should have.
Fortunately, this has been corrected. It’s too bad it happened only, if not at the eleventh hour, then certainly at the ninth or tenth.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20. Perhaps it was necessary that the approach of Rumsfeld be tried, and be seen as deeply flawed, in order for the military and the administration to embrace the new approach. Perhaps it was necessary for the people of Iraq to have suffered deeply at the hands of the various “insurgent” groups and al Qaeda in order to perceive that trusting the US military was going to be in their best interests after all.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We can speculate nearly forever—and, seeing how much we still discuss Vietnam, sometimes I think the argument about Iraq will go on nearly as long, especially if things don’t ultimately go well there.
But evidence is building that our goals in Iraq have a good chance of being accomplished, if the next administration and the next Congress don’t pull the plug on the effort. In this regard, it’s instructive to know that General Petraeus is familiar with the history of Vietnam; his 1987 Princeton doctoral thesis was entitled, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Vietnam continues to cast a long shadow; Petraeus is one who seems determined to learn from our mistakes there.