The Surge a Year Later

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Iraq War is that it is difficult to make any predictions with confidence. It is hard to imagine now the extreme pessimism on the prospects for success of the troop surge in Iraq that permeated the elites just one short year ago. The Hamilton-Baker Study Group had just been released and although the report did not totally reject the idea of a troop surge, it was definitely cool to the idea. The policy recommendation of the report essentially amounted to a phased troop withdrawal coupled with diplomatic overtures to states like Iran who would benefit from a chaotic Iraq.

Senator Joseph Biden, who represents as much as anyone, the foreign policy establishment of the Democratic Party confidently asserted in January of this year that, “We’ve tried the military surge option before and it failed. If we try it again, it will fail again.” Progress in Iraq may not be predictable, but the editorial page of the New York Times is. On the prospects of the surge they editors opined last January, “The disaster is Mr. Bush’s war, and he has already failed… There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq.” Sidney Blumenthal, confidant of former President Bill Clinton, writing in reported that the Pentagon was going over contingencies in case the troop surge failed and that:

“None of those who are taking part in these exercises, shielded from the public view and the immediate scrutiny of the White House, believes that the so-called surge will succeed. On the contrary, everyone thinks it will not only fail to achieve its aims but also accelerate instability by providing a glaring example of U.S. incapacity and incompetence.”

In a debate with Senator John McCain last January, Senator Barak Obama urged that we begin troop withdrawal in the middle of 2007. As it turns out in retrospect, this would have been precisely the wrong time to do so. The surge was only beginning to demonstrate a clearly measurable impact at that point.

In April 2007, before the troop surge began in earnest, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, perhaps in a bid to appease the Left wing of the Democratic Party, infamously asserted, “I believe … that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything, as is shown by the extreme violence in Iraq this week.” Reid’s negative assessment was premature.

It is possible to find many angry, Left-leaning blogs even more confidently predicting that the surge would fail militarily or painting a pejorative portrayal of the surge leader, General David Patraeus, but one should not grant them the credibility of citation.

The numbers are now in and they tell a different story, at least from a military standpoint. The surge began full-scale operations over the summer. The increased number of troops, critically coupled with General Patraeus’s new assertive anti-insurgency strategy pacified the Sunnis in Al Anbar province, drove Al Qaeda out of the cities where they were largely destroyed by special forces and airpower, and drove down civilian casualties by a factor of five. The number of Coalition casualties has mirrored the deep reduction in civilian losses. The graph below shows the rate of Coalition casualties per day (in blue) since the war began. The solid red line is the mean level and the dashed lines represent the plus-or-minus one standard deviation levels from this mean. Since the middle of summer the rate of Coalition casualties has plummeted and this trend has continued for months. At this point, we are close to having the lowest casualty rate for any month since the war began.

Of course, things may still go wrong. Iraqis have to step up and take advantage of the opportunity that the US military has courageously provided. We should not slide in to the same slip as surge skeptics and confidently extrapolate from the current course into the future. Iraq represents a difficult situation that will take some time to straighten out. Nonetheless, the surge has proved far more successful than even its supporters could have hoped for just months ago. If nothing else the current success of the surge should make opponents of US Administration strategy less sanguine in their embrace of defeat.

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