What constitutes success or failure in counterinsurgency campaigns is controversial and has sparked much informed (and uninformed) discussion in the policy and academic communities. (It has also generated this priceless article in the Onion.) Yesterday, I posted a quote from David Galula's Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 and asked the readership to determine whether or not Galula's definition of success can be accurately applied to the United States in Iraq. Here is Galula's definition:
Victory is won and pacification ends when most of the counterinsurgent forces can safely be withdrawn, leaving the population to take care of itself with the help of a normal contingent of police and Army forces.
The debate sparked in the comments thread was a good one, and I promised my own thoughts today. First, though, I need to be up front about some qualifications:
1. My thoughts on whether or not the United States was successful in its counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq does not mean I think the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq was a wise one. Quite the opposite. I think the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq was a blunder, and counterinsurgency operations were only necessary, in my view, once the Bush Administration and the U.S. and British militaries had badly mismanaged the war from 2003 to 2006.
2. I am critical of U.S. and British military performance in Iraq from 2003 until 2006 (and beyond). This does not mean that I believe all units performed equally poorly. Some units and commanders performed exceptionally well. So if you were yourself a U.S. officer or troop on the ground between 2003 and 2006 -- and I myself served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 -- do not take my criticism personally. I do, however, believe that the U.S. military began a difficult and bloody learning process in 2003 that started to show some real fruits by 2006 and that the Bush Administration made a number of wise decisions before and after the midterm elections of 2006 that had a positive effect. The U.S. military deserves credit for learning, and the Bush Administration deserves credit for correcting course.
3. U.S. counterinsurgency operations were not -- I repeat, were NOT -- the only variable which led to the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq in 2007. A bloody civil war in 2006 combined with Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to largely keep his forces on the sidelines and a tribal "awakening" all had an effect on the drop in violence, and it is impossible to determine with relative certainty which variables were most important to the drop in violence. So I am not arguing that the surge in U.S. troops was solely responsible for the drop in violence, and I am also not arguing that counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2007 is the only appropriate counterinsurgency strategy or could be replicated with ease elsewhere.
4. I have a very limited view of what success in Iraq looks like. A secular democracy, free from violence, in which individual rights and civil liberties are protected by a robust legal system? That would be nice, sure. But nations wage war in their own interests, and my view -- which is perhaps cynical -- is that in 2006, the United States was looking for a way to a) reduce the levels of violence in Iraq in order to b) build up key Iraqi institutions so that we could c) transition to a security force assistance mission and largely depart the country. (This is almost precisely what we are attempting to do in Afghanistan today, with less success.)
Given and based upon those qualifications, I believe the United States (and its allies, Iraqi and international) were successful in Iraq from 2006 onwards in serving U.S. interests. I believe the desired policy outcome of U.S. decision-makers has largely been realized through a combination of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, actions taken by the Iraqi government and non-state actors, and wise policy decisions made by the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2006 and 2010.
Today, a series of brutal insurgent attacks tore through Iraq, killing scores in some of the worst violence Iraq has seen since the dark days of 2007. And Iraq's political class remains deadlocked, unable to form a government and frustrating its people. Yesterday, though, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq dipped below 50,000 as the United States credibly transitioned to a smaller security force assistance mission. So while Iraq continues to be wracked by violence and suffers from political instability, U.S. interests have been served in the sense that the conflict in Iraq is now an Iraqi conflict that will be largely settled and fought by Iraqi actors. It's a curious, tragic and selfish definition of victory, I know. But it's victory.