The Wikileaks doc-dump adds more light to debunking the myth of the surge. No one doubts that Petraeus' extra troops and shrewd bribery played a part in reducing sectarian violence of nightmarish levels. But the further we get away from that moment in time and the more we learn, the clearer it is that it was the internal dynamic of Iraq that created the lull:
A unique set of conditions had coalesced on the ground. The warring communities were exhausted from the frenzy of killing. Mixed neighborhoods and cities were largely cleansed. The militias, both Sunni and Shiite, long seen as defenders of their communities, had begun to cannibalize them, making local residents newly receptive to American overtures.
Civil wars have their own ghastly rhythms; and the war we pretended to control we never controlled. And we still don't. The violence was dropping fast before the surge was in place:
The single worst month for civilian deaths was December 2006, two months before the buildup’s first brigade arrived. Casualties dropped slightly in January. In February, when the first new brigade arrived, the recorded casualties dropped by a quarter, though it is the shortest month. Around that time, Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, decamped to Iran, perhaps fearing American troops. What the documents suggest strongly is that Iraqis themselves were looking for an escape from the orgy of sectarian killing made worse by the growth of ordinary, but still violent, crime.
There's no doubt that the US military were admirably able to take advantage of these internal dynamics. But the narrative that official Washington has tried to perpetrate - that the war was "ended" by more US troops - is simply untrue. The war was burning itself out before more troops arrived; the surge failed to use this lull to construct a multi-sectarian democratic government (which was its own criterion for success); the current forces pit a Sadr-Maliki Shiite government against increasingly alienated Sunnis now re-aligning with al Qaeda, and possibly also against the Kurds in the north, where tensions are rising again and could easily spiral into a civil war as US troops leave.
What Petraeus achieved was a face-saving withdrawal. That was all.
If that face-saving encourages the US to stay in Iraq with any serious presence for much longer, we will be dragged back into a conflict we now have a rare chance to extricate ourselves from, a conflict our incompetent invasion made possible.
We must learn this lesson: the US is a terrible neo-imperialist power. This whole enterprise designed to rid the world of danger has increased danger in the world; an attempt to end a torture regime led to widespread torture by Iraqi government forces, and, of course, by the US itself; a bid to encourage democracy will in all likelihood lead to either chaos or a Shiite strongman; an endeavor seeking to weaken Iran has ended in empowering it.
These are conservative lessons, not liberal ones - of the hellish consequences of good intentions in places we do not understand and cannot control. And if we continue to delude ourselves in the same way about Afghanistan, we will not just be imprudent.
By repeating what we know to have failed, we will be edging close to the classical definition of insanity.
(Photo: Military helicopters fly over the Green Zone area in Baghdad following a loud explosion early on October 18, 2010. By Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty.)
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