3 Years Later, Did the Iraq Surge Work?

Bush's controversial gambit gets a thorough retrospective

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In 2007, President Bush sought to quell the chaos enveloping Iraq by dramatically reshaping American strategy. The "surge," as he called it, was actually about much more than just increasing the number of troops on the ground. Bush, along with new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, fundamentally altered the nature of the American mission from a conventional war to a counterinsurgency. While it's true that Iraq's violence has been dramatically reduced, and that the recent March elections went much better than the fraught 2005 elections, has the surge really worked? Did it really turn the Iraq war for the better?

  • Yes, The Surge Worked  Iraq vet-turned-think tanker Andrew Exum argues it worked. "There can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. Acts of heinous violence still take place in Baghdad, but so too does a relatively peaceful political process. If you want to argue that getting involved in Iraq in the first place was a stupid decision, fine. I agree with you. But trying to argue that the Surge 'failed' at this point -- even if Iraq someday descends anew into civil war -- simply isn't a credible option anymore." He cites this graph:

ESV Slide March 9204

  • Didn't Achieve Political Reconciliation  The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan counters, "No one denies the decline in violence, and the luck and military skill that it took. But the entire point of reducing the violence was to create a space for political reconciliation, which would be the proof of the surge's success, and which would allow the US to leave without a regional and sectarian bloodbath. Such proof does not exist." He adds, "the [political] paralysis since suggests that the sectarian divides and distrust remain as deep as ever."
  • Doesn't Even Meet Bush's Standards  Conservative blogger Daniel Larison digs up Bush's original goals for the surge, concluding they have not been met: "Strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption. Build on security gains to foster local and national political accommodations. Make Iraqi institutions even-handed, serving all of Iraq’s communities on an impartial basis." He fumes, "it is absurd to say that it is not credible to judge the success of the plan according to the standards set up by the administration that proposed it."
  • Better Question: Does it Apply to Afghanistan?  Defense blogger Michael Cohen says a more pressing question is "whether the surge and counter-insurgency tactics adopted by the United States in 2007 and 2008 decreased violence in Iraq - and here's the rub - can be replicated elsewhere?" He says people are wrongly jumping to the assumption that it can. "So while I think it's fair to argue that the surge in US troops in Iraq contributed to the decline of sectarian violence in Iraq (which it almost certainly did) it's exceedingly dubious and dangerous to argue that thus COIN will work in Afghanistan or anywhere else for that matter."
  • Kind of a Silly Debate  Middle East blogger Greg Carlstrom scoffs, "It's an almost-impossible question to answer, because it requires disentangling the surge itself -- the infusion of troops -- from the Sunni Awakening and the ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Suffice it to say I disagree with Exum." He adds, "The reality is that the Iraqi Security Forces are improving, as Michael Hanna makes clear in a smart new Foreign Affairs piece. They still have a long way to go, of course, and Iraq will remain plagued by horrific violence for years."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.