Iraq War II, Part 9: The Surge
To mark the 20th anniversary of the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion" of Iraq, as George W. Bush himself now characterizes it, we are serializing that chapter from my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism over the next few weeks exclusively here at Substack.
Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven, Part Twelve, Part Thirteen, Part Fourteen.
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In 2007, the administration and military launched the Iraq “surge.” All this escalation accomplished was the near completion of the brutal sectarian cleansing of Sunni Arabs from Baghdad and the consolidation of power in the hands of the Shi’ite forces in the capital city. We cannot know what would have happened if the U.S. had withdrawn just after deposing Hussein’s government, or even later, say in 2006 when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wanted to end the war before finally being forced out himself. But if they had pulled the troops out, then there certainly would have been much more incentive remaining for the Shi’ite parties to negotiate. Perhaps there would have been a horrible civil war no matter what.
We do know what happened when Shi’ite factions had the Americans at their disposal. It was a bloodbath. Instead of using Rumsfeld’s position as cover to back out, Bush fired him and brought in the former CIA director Robert Gates to be the new secretary of defense. Gen. David Petraeus would take over the war and implement his and Gen. Mattis’s newly revised and rewritten counterinsurgency manual for how to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
The result was not the reconciliation that the “benchmarks for victory” stated at the beginning of the year. Instead, all they did was predictably remove the last incentive the Shi’ite factions had to compromise with the Sunnis. Their militias, and indeed the new Iraqi army, which was drawn primarily from their ranks, doubled down on their sectarian cleansing campaign. The U.S. was giving the Shi’ite factions a total victory in the capital city.
Petraeus also announced the policy of supporting the “Sahwa” or “Awakening” movement. This meant that he compromised with the different Sunni tribal factions in the western Anbar province, allowing them to patrol their own neighborhoods and bribing them with cash and guns to stop attacking American troops and instead to marginalize the worst of the al Qaeda forces who had been fighting with them in the Sunni insurgency. Neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad had first proposed a deal with the Sunni insurgency to President Bush, who turned it down, at the end of 2005.
In fact, the local Iraqi Sunnis were sick and tired of the jihadis’ antics and had already started marginalizing them around the time Khalilzad wanted to make the change — more than a year before Petraeus ever showed up at the front of that parade. AQI, at that time mostly led by Egyptians and Saudis, had worn out their welcome. Local Sunnis betrayed Zarqawi to U.S. forces, who promptly killed him with an airstrike, that summer. At its lowest point, after his death, Zarqawi’s group renamed itself the “Islamic State of Iraq” in what was simultaneously a moment of then-comedic self-ridicule and what turned out to be an ominous portent of the years ahead. Though they had no power to make it happen, they were making their goals as clear as could be. All the while, more and more Shi’ites were being expelled by these Petraeus-sanctioned Sunni militias out of the western Anbar province, east toward the new Shi’ite lines. Divisions were getting sharper than at any time since the fall of the British-backed king.
Petraeus bribed the tribes to continue expelling the bin Ladenites while all along promising them a place in the new Iraqi system that he could never provide. Many jihadists were killed. Many more simply went home to cause trouble later. Al Qaeda in Iraq was practically decimated by their former allies among the Iraqi Sunni-based insurgency.
The U.S. military was quickly backing down from their stated goals. “The surge is working, we’re going to achieve those benchmarks, you watch,” the administration said in the winter and spring of 2007. By the summer, with body counts in the civil war coming in at more than 3,000 per month, it was announced that Gen. Petraeus’s report to Congress would be delayed. Then the military and media suddenly quit mentioning “benchmarks” at all. The whole narrative was reduced to an empty banner slogan: “The surge is working! The surge is working!” What it was working at was no longer defined. By the fall, the talking point was updated to “The surge worked!” It no longer mattered what the “surge” was ever supposed to achieve. It just worked. Virtually the entire political and media class bought it. It cost them nothing.
But the benchmarks were supposed to be political reconciliation between major factions in the now-secure, newly 85 percent Shi’ite capital of Baghdad. Instead, they created a situation where the Shi’ite parties had no reason left to compromise with the Sunnis. Petraeus’s promises to the “Sons of Iraq” and the “Concerned Local Citizens” — the Sunni insurgents who had quit their fight against U.S. forces — that they would be incorporated into the police and military and into patronage positions in the ministries, never happened. They were just left high and dry.
Once the U.S. helped make Baghdad an almost entirely Shi’ite city, there was a lot less fighting among factions in the capital. Peace was what they called it, but they were leaving the country open wide for the next conflict to break out a few years later due to the unresolved question of the now-powerless factions of western Iraqi Sunnistan.
Ethnic-Religious Neighborhoods in Metropolitan Baghdad, 2003
Ethnic-Religious Neighborhoods in Metropolitan Baghdad, 2007
Ethnic-Religious Neighborhoods in Metropolitan Baghdad, 2009
Stay tuned to this space for the rest of Enough Already, Chapter 3 Iraq War II. They will be published every few days until the anniversary of the invasion in mid-March.
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