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Matthew Yglesias asks a good question about Iraq

4 January 2008

Excerpt from “Declaring Victory” by Matthew Yglesias (somewhat mis-titled, as his subject is the surge — about progress, not overall victory)

… The weird thing about the surge is that its failure has been much more unambiguous.  The theory behind the surge was clear.  Some people said more troops would bring more security to Iraq.  Critics of that idea noted that sending more troops would be logistically unsustainable.  Surge theorists posited that a temporary increase in force levels would create a temporary increase in security that would open window of opportunity for political reconciliation that would allow for a permanent increase in security. So the surge was implemented.

As of September, the surge had failed to generate the political reconciliation that would allow for a permanent increase in security.  Surge supporters told skeptics we had to give it more time.  Three months later, the surge has still failed to generate the political reconciliation that would allow for a permanent increase in security.

Now we’re near the point of de-surging — the window is closing rapidly and nobody thinks the opportunity will be seized.  And yet surge fans are declaring victory.  It’s doesn’t make sense.  The surge’s architects laid out admirably clear goals for it.  Laid them out and unambiguously failed to meet them.

Matthew Yglesias states this well.  Why do so many find this controversial?  Those declaring the “surge” a success tend to ignore the actual benfits to the US – as if military operations were self-sufficient, conducted for their own sake and not to obtain larger political results.  They also tend to ignore the costs (something I will discuss another day).

Comment by Jake H., also from Yglesias site:

I don’t think “moving the goalposts” is an appropriate metaphor to apply to neocon behavior anymore.  This isn’t football or soccer anymore, it’s Calvinball.  It’s a sport played completely, entirely, blissfully in the present, with no goals, no score kept, no end in sight.  Every day we win the war on terror anew, but every day is more dangerous than every day before it and more war is always required.

A note to remember when reading the following goal statements:  in November 2005 our enemy in Iraq was still described as primarily Sunni insurgents, not Al Qaeda.  The focus of attention, at least in public statements, shifted to Al Qaeda In Iraq only in early 2007  (see this NY Times article; this blognote has more links).

This is not difficult to assess.  The US government has been commendably explicit about our goals.  Below are texts of the President’s victory conditions and the legislated “Benchmarks.”  At the end are links to two of my articles about this.

Victory In Iraq Defined, part of Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (November 2005):

Helping the Iraqi People Defeat the Terrorists and Build an Inclusive Democratic State

As the central front in the global war on terror, success in Iraq is an essential element in the long war against the ideology that breeds international terrorism. Unlike past wars, however, victory in Iraq will not come in the form of an enemy’s surrender, or be signaled by a single particular event — there will be no Battleship Missouri, no Appomattox. The ultimate victory will be achieved in stages, and we expect:

In the short term:

An Iraq that is making steady progress in fighting terrorists and neutralizing the insurgency, meeting political milestones; building democratic institutions; standing up robust security forces to gather intelligence, destroy terrorist networks, and maintain security; and tackling key economic reforms to lay the foundation for a sound economy.

In the medium term:

An Iraq that is in the lead defeating terrorists and insurgents and providing its own security, with a constitutional, elected government in place, providing an inspiring example to reformers in the region, and well on its way to achieving its economic potential.

In the longer term:

  • An Iraq that has defeated the terrorists and neutralized the insurgency.
  • An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country.
  • An Iraq that is a partner in the global war on terror and the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, integrated into the international community, an engine for regional economic growth, and proving the fruits of democratic governance to the region.

The Congressional benchmarks:

Here is the President’s 14 September Benchmark Assessment Report.  It states

Today’s report is based on data available as of September 1 and reflects that the Iraqis have made satisfactory progress since January 2007 on 9 benchmarks,  including on de-Ba’athification reform which in July was assessed as unsatisfactory.  In addition, while the current report assesses 7 benchmarks as not satisfactory, this includes 4 benchmarks with progress on some aspects while not on others.  In both the July report and today’s assessment, 2 benchmarks are not rated because the necessary preconditions are not yet present.

Here is the Comptroller General’s 4 September mandated report on the status of the achievement of these benchmarks, here is the GAO’s comprehensive analysis.  The GAO summary:

As of August 30, 2007, the Iraqi government met 3, partially met 4, and did not meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks.  Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds.

The 18 benchmarks:

  1. Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review.
  2. Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba’athification.
  3. Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources of the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.
  4. Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.
  5. Enacting and implementing legislation establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial elections law, provincial council authorities, and a date for provincial elections.
  6. Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty.
  7. Enacting and implementing legislation establishing strong militia disarmament program to ensure that such security forces are accountable only to the central government and loyal to the Constitution of Iraq.
  8. Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad security plan.
  9. Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.
  10. Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions, in consultation with U.S. commanders, without political intervention, to include the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
  11. Ensuring that the Iraqi security forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law.
  12. Ensuring that, according to President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki said ‘‘the Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation.”
  13. Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.
  14. Establishing all of the planned joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.
  15. Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces’ units capable of operating independently.
  16. Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.
  17. Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.
  18. Ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi security forces.

Previous articles about the “surge”

The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace

Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. dckinder permalink
    4 January 2008 3:51 pm

    In defense of the surge proponents – for whom I generally have little use – that their stated objectives have not materialized does not necessarily mean the surge “failed.”

    Analogy: Christopher Columbus’ stated goal was to establish a route to the Far East. Applying Fabius Maximus’ reaoning, his expeditions, therefore, “failed.”

    None of this excuses the criminal folly that was the launching of the Iraq War in the first place, the criminal conduct with which it has been conducted, nor the overall abuses of the so-called “War on Terror.” Nor does it remove consideration that the “Surge” marks a lull, that the United States is actually arming its enemies, that it has diverted attention and resources away from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other places, and other such criticisms. Nor does it obviate the Pyhrric nature of any such “success.”

    But logic nevertheless is logic – and it is possible to stumble upon success while intending to head upon a different venture.

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  2. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    4 January 2008 4:24 pm

    That is, of course, a vaid criticism. But it does not address the key point. The drop in violence to the current high level is nice for Iraq but does not appear to be generating meaningful geopolitical benefits to the US — let alone any benfits proportional to the large costs in blood and money. As such considering it a success seems without foundation at this time.

    A secondary but still significant point is that, despite the hype, the connection between the drop in violence and the “surge” (tiny increase in numbers, new doctrines) seems weak. The primary factors seem to be imho (as I said in the articles mentioned) the Sunni Arabs turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq (perhaps they’re no longer needed), and us putting them on our payroll. However difficult to do, getting the causes correct is important as this influences future policy.

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  3. 5 January 2008 12:36 pm

    We may be too close to events to make reasonable assessments. Fluctuations in data are normal (one should get suspicious if they’re not there). Also, given the weakness of the central government, the quality of the data is questionable.

    A larger issue is what “succeeding” or “victory” means. If our goal is to drive down US casualties, we can manage attrition by avoiding situations where we’re liable to incur casualties (ultimately we can set them at zero just by leaving).

    Because the objective of a stable, democratic, secular, US-allied Iraq selling us an unlimited supply of cheap oil seems somewhat out of reach at the moment, and as Fab notes, the Iraqis don’t seem to be making much progress on the other goals that we’ve helpfully given them, I’m still at a loss as to how we define “success.”

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  4. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    5 January 2008 5:01 pm

    What is success? As time goes by — one Friedman Unit after another — it increasingly appears that some form of colonization is our govt’s true goal in Iraq.

    * The “enduring bases” get larger,
    * leaders of more parties talk more boldly about long-term occupation of Iraq, and
    * experts such as General McCaffrey (USA, Ret) talk about the next 36 months instead of the next 6 months.

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  5. 6 January 2008 7:19 pm

    Petraeus is certainly the best commander America had in Iraq. He understands what is going on and is able to react to it. He managed to defeat Al-Quaida (not finally, of course) by a clever combination of military operations with politics. The difference with the previous commanders, who seemed to be totally unconnected to reality, is immense. Vide Sanchez: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2007/11/sanchez-delivers-democratic-pa/

    By doing so, however, Petraeus abandoned the Iraqi state, which is controlled by Shia, and began supporting Sunni militias. Iraq is now ruled by mostly religious militias. This means abandoning the democratisation of Iraq- the stated purpose for which American army was occupying Iraq (after it became apparent that there are no nuclear weapons there).

    What Petraeus lacks is the vision of the ultimate aim and strategy to reach it. I think he is very conscious of this lack of long-term plan. He cannot provide it, however. He can keep the lid on the situation and wait for favourable developments.

    Building up Sunni militias works in the short term, but will be probably detrimental in the long term. This depends, of course, on the ultimate long-term goal, which is not yet apparent.

    Nothing I say should be constructed as criticizing general Petraeus, however. Petraeus has been given the task of winning the war, or if that should prove impossibe, getting the best possible outcome. However, he must stay within given parameters. He cannot control policy – and the most important factors belong to it. He can influence one – the perception of war by public opinion. It is a commonplace to say that Vietnam war was lost in the American media, and that Iraqi war will be decided by media. Accordingly, the media war is the most important part of the whole strategy – and Petraeus already have proved very talented in prosecuting it.

    The favourable press can stop the premature withdrawal, which would be a disaster, and buy time for some plan to emerge.

    To conclude: before we can meaningfully speak about victory or defeat for America in Iraq, we must see some realistic war aims. Any fantasies about democracy in Iraq do not qualify. Until America decides what is the aim, we cannot say whether it gained it or not.

    As to the objective results of the war, I think there can be no doubt that it diminished American power. America used to be able to afford such mistakes. Their resources were and are incomparably greater than those of the enemies. But now, the American strategy is so inefficient that even the Arabs – the weakest possible enemy – can keep the fight on idefinitely. We will see how it will end this time.

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  6. 6 January 2008 9:00 pm

    Good post. I did my own analysis of the surge here. But one of the problems with the benchmarks is that they are designed for the Iraq of 2006, January 2007, etc., not the Iraq of today. When measuring success, your metrics have to keep up with your strategy, very difficult. My friend Eli Margolis argued this point well here.

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  7. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    7 January 2008 3:15 am

    Both are excellent posts at Politics at Soccer, imho. Goals however are more fundamental than benchmarks. What are our goals in Iraq? If those vary as events change than we are riding the wind. I suspect much of the disconnent, the irrationality of discussion about Iraq results from our actual goals differing from the stated goals (as in the White House statement linked above). If we seek a neo-colonial rule over Iraq that would explain our actions better than the “Bush is crazy and incompetent” narrative commonly used.

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  8. 8 January 2008 5:53 am

    “What are our goals in Iraq?” Good question. Depressingly hard to answer.

    Like

  9. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    8 January 2008 5:57 am

    I am afraid that the question is easy to answer, or becoming so — but the answer is depressing.

    Like

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