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Ever since my friend and mentor Tom Ricks concluded at the end of his book The Gamble that the Surge succeeded tactically but failed strategically, it has been safe among others to say that the Surge -- for all the heroics of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps -- failed. Andrew Sullivan and Tom write this regularly on their blogs, and because they are serious people, others parrot what they say. At some point, though, evidence gets in the way of their conclusion.
If you really move the goal posts, defining up "success" as the Surge having not only reduced levels of violence and addressed immediate drivers of conflict but having also managed to fix all the problems in Iraq's political process, then yeah, it failed. But I don't recall that ever being the aim of the operation in 2007, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect the U.S. military and its friends in the diplomatic corps to be able to settle the political affairs of a host nation. That's not what a military does, and I am known for having a pretty expansive definition of what militaries should be expected to do on the battlefield. “We intervene in … a conflict,” Gen. Sir Rupert Smith wrote in 2005, “in order to establish a condition in which the political objective can be achieved by other means and in other ways. We seek to create a conceptual space for diplomacy, economic incentives, political pressure and other measures to create a desired political outcome of stability, and if possible democracy.”
So how has the U.S. military and its partners done in carving out that conceptual space Sir Rupert writes about? Well, let's take a look at the numbers:
We can argue about how many other factors aside from U.S. diplomatic and military operations led to the stunning drop in violence in 2007. There was a civil war in 2005 and 2006, tribes from al-Anbar "flipped" in 2006, and Muqtada al-Sadr decided to keep his troops out of the fight for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Those are just three factors which might not have had anything to do with U.S. operations. But there can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. Acts of heinous violence still take place in Baghdad, but so too does a relatively peaceful political process.
If you want to argue that getting involved in Iraq in the first place was a stupid decision, fine. I agree with you. But trying to argue that the Surge "failed" at this point -- even if Iraq someday descends anew into civil war -- simply isn't a credible option anymore.
Update: Sullivan, Larison and Cohen object. Cohen's concern is that we'll take the Iraq experience and think that we now have a one-size-fits-all COIN blueprint that we can apply with equal success to Afghanistan and elsewhere. And I have some sympathy for that concern. (Rand's Nora Bensahel -- who knows more about Iraq than Sullivan, Larison, Cohen or me -- wrote a note in the comments, and I have a lot of sympathy for her concern as well.) Sullivan and Larison, meanwhile, cannot seem to come to grips with the fact that a stunning drop in ethno-sectarian violence -- caused by several factors, including U.S. military operations in 2007 -- has indeed facilitated political reconciliation. We have the recent elections and several negotiated agreements -- not least the status of forces agreement negotiated between the United States government and the Iraqi government -- as evidence that the space created for a political process has been exploited. So my beef with Larison is like the conversations I have with Tom: I don't think he gives enough credit to the political successes in Iraq since 2007.
Again, I thought the Iraq War was a really stupid idea too -- and I actually had to fight in it, so I should be more bitter than most. But the inability to admit that we managed to avoid a horrific defeat in 2007 is really something. You simply cannot look at the above chart and read what Sullivan is arguing without scratching your head. Sullivan even points to something Ayad Allawi said about this Iraqi government not representing all Iraqis and saying that is evidence the Surge failed. Which I think is hilarious, since Allawi is ... an opposition politician. Sullivan regularly links to opposition politicians in this country saying nuttier stuff than Ayad Allawi has ever said (and I have sympathy for what Allawi is saying, actually) without wringing his hands as to whether or not it amounts to a Constitutional crisis. ("The U.S. Civil War failed!") "Opposition politician criticizes government" is hardly a shocker. And after denying he is moving the goal posts, Sullivan then says his criteria for success is "a non-sectarian space for a non-sectarian national government capable of running the country when the US leaves." Well, okay, so an absence of sectarianism is now a requirement for success? You're not going to ever beat "taifiyya" in Iraq, so though I do not remember eradication of sectarianism as one of the metrics tracked by either Gen. Petraeus or the Bush Administration, I guess Sullivan will never have to say he was wrong about the surge.