Friday 22 Mar 2019 | 11:15 | SYDNEY
Friday 22 Mar 2019 | 11:15 | SYDNEY

The political effect of the surge


Mark O'Neill

13 February 2009 14:58

Hugh White and Jim Molan are both right in a way in their views about the surge – but I think neither of them has it quite right.

Like Jim, I believe the surge ‘worked’. And Hugh is right that there has not yet been a definitive study that analyses precisely what happened, and whether the actions that took place actually had a causal effect on the progress made (although, like Jim, I do not hesitate to recommend Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends for a good account of the operational and strategic machinations behind the surge).

However, there are some ready answers to Hugh’s question: how precisely did the increase in US forces and the change in operational concepts contribute to the political changes we have seen?

First, and most obvious, the increase in ‘boots on the ground’ – both US, and ultimately more significantly, Iraqi – led to a degree of pacification of the ethnic, communal and religious violence that was literally tearing lives and neighbourhoods apart. The political effect of this was rapid and threefold:

  • The violence made it impossible for politicians to act effectively (few politicians could act rationally and objectively when their constituents are engaged in a daily life and death struggle). Indeed, politicians on all sides were involved with militias undertaking some of the worst acts of violence. The discourse of the time among politicians and with their constituents was inevitably about the violence. The reduction in violence brought about by the surge took this issue from the centre table and enabled other vital political discussions to progress.
  • The surge not only quelled Sunni ethnic violence, it also gave the Sunni minority protection, both actual and against their fears that there would be no role for them in the ‘new’ Iraq. 
  • This in turn led to the final political effect that ‘boots on the ground’ enabled – reconciliation. I have argued previously that compromise is an enduring characteristic of all successful counterinsurgency campaigns. The compromises I am talking about are political, and they begin with degrees of reconciliation between the warring elements. The increased security afforded by the surge broke the cycle of internecine violence that prevented reconciliation.

The second effect of the ‘surge’ relates directly to the political realm. The ‘surge’ was a multi-faceted activity, with the increase in troop numbers merely the most obvious manifestation. The public commitment to the Iraqi endeavour that the ‘military surge’ represented underpinned Ambassador Ryan Crocker's efforts to influence the development of the Iraqi polity, allowing him mount a diplomatic and political surge in a manner that his predecessor simply could not. The second order political effect of the military surge was to reinforce the first order effect of the renewed diplomatic effort under Crocker.

The third effect of the surge is economic, which in turn created an enduring political effect. Put bluntly, during 2007 and 2008 the US reconstruction effort finally approached the levels that would have been desirable immediately after the invasion in 2003. Provincial Reconstruction Teams finally began to receive the resources they required (human, financial and political commitment) and, equally importantly, the improving security situation allowed their activities to bear fruit. 

Infrastructure began to come back to life, commerce blossomed, schools re-opened and vital oil exports flowed. The change in the character of Iraqi economic life I witnessed over the seven months I spent there was truly remarkable. This in turn created a sense of optimism among Iraqis and an obvious desire to engage in the political process to share in the gains.

I tender as a concluding ‘political effect’ of the surge one that is outside Iraq. The success of the surge eased tensions within the US in a remarkable fashion. If someone had said in late 2006 that the Iraq war would not have been the central issue of the 2008 presidential election, many would have been incredulous. The surge’s success seemed to turn the war into a virtual ‘non-issue’. Yet discussions within the Obama Administration about troop levels and ongoing commitments in Iraq are somewhat unremarkable and politically benign. The benefit of this for a nation fighting an insurgency cannot be overstated – the political impact of that the Vietnamese war was having by the early 1970s provides salutary example.

The ultimate political effect of the surge may well be as Hugh implies – in the impact it has on future decisions by the US about Afghanistan. Of course, Iraq and Afghanistan are sui generis – peril probably awaits those who conflate the examples.