Stephen M. Walt

The myth of the “surge”

With the level of violence rising and the Kurds pressing for a level of autonomy that borders on independence, can we finally dispense with the myth that the 2007 “surge” in Iraq was a success? The surge had two main goals. The first goal was to bring the level of violence down by increasing U.S. ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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With the level of violence rising and the Kurds pressing for a level of autonomy that borders on independence, can we finally dispense with the myth that the 2007 "surge" in Iraq was a success?

The surge had two main goals. The first goal was to bring the level of violence down by increasing U.S. force levels in key areas, forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups, and shifting to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized population protection. This aspect of the surge succeeded, though it is still hard to know how much of the progress was due to increased force levels and improved tactics and how much was due to other developments, such as the prior "ethnic cleansing" that had separated the contending groups.

With the level of violence rising and the Kurds pressing for a level of autonomy that borders on independence, can we finally dispense with the myth that the 2007 “surge” in Iraq was a success?

The surge had two main goals. The first goal was to bring the level of violence down by increasing U.S. force levels in key areas, forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups, and shifting to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized population protection. This aspect of the surge succeeded, though it is still hard to know how much of the progress was due to increased force levels and improved tactics and how much was due to other developments, such as the prior “ethnic cleansing” that had separated the contending groups.

The second and equally important goal was to promote political reconciliation among the competing factions in Iraq. This goal was not achieved, and the consequences of that failure are increasingly apparent. What lies ahead is a long-delayed test of strength between the various contending groups, until a new formula for allocating political power emerges. That formula has been missing since before the United States invaded — that is, Washington never had a plausible plan for reconstructing a workable Iraqi state once it dismantled Saddam’s regime — and it will be up to the Iraqi people to work it out amongst themselves. It won’t be pretty.

With the passage of time, the “surge” should be seen as a well-intentioned attempt to staunch the violence temporarily and let President Bush hand the problem off to his successor. Hawks will undoubtedly try to pin the blame on Obama by claiming that we were (finally) winning by the time Bush left office, in the hope that Americans have forgotten the strategic objectives that the “surge” was supposed to achieve. It’s a bogus argument, but what would you expect from the folks who got us in there in the first place?

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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