Commentary

Did the Surge Work?

The appointment of General David Petraeus to lead the American and allied forces in Afghanistan has revived claims that the surge he oversaw in Iraq succeeded. Even President Barack Obama, who opposed the surge, is reported to have conceded, “it turned out to be a good thing” before announcing his own surge in Afghanistan.

But are these assessments correct?

For the last few months Iraq has seen a return of the violence that had been reduced following the increase of American forces. “The number of Iraqi martyrs and wounded reached 7,000 since the beginning of 2010,” former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya alliance came in first in the Iraqi elections, recently observed. “This is a horrifying number by any measure.”

The success of the surge was attributed not only to the increase in American troops, but also to the “Sunni Awakening,” the recruiting of locals to fight the insurgency. Indeed, the Awakening was widely regarded as more important. In the first place, even the American surge was too small to have a significant impact by itself. “A city as big and sprawling as Baghdad, with 5 million people living in two- and three-story homes, can swallow 30,000 troops without a burp,” notes military correspondent Tom Ricks.

Second, it was obvious the United States and allied forces would leave sooner or later. We do not live there, and we have other obligations. Any successful strategy requires a handoff to locals willing to pick up the burden.

Unfortunately, the Sunni Awakening has been pummeled. Awakening members — and their families — have been the subject of repeated attacks by a resurgent insurgency. In addition, they feel the government has treated them badly, not offering them suitable jobs. “We didn’t get what we deserved for our sacrifices,” one Awakening member from Baghdad bitterly told the New York Times. “Right now the government has hired me as a street cleaner.”

The bitterness is intensified by the political rivalry that has split Iraq. Four months after elections were held, the competing parties have not been able to form a governing coalition. Allawi, having been first past the post, insists that he should have the option of forming the government, but his chief opponent, runner-up and current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is reluctant to surrender power.

The standoff has drawn the involvement of neighboring powers, notably Iran, which has been brokering a deal that would favor Maliki. Shortly after the elections, three of the four competing alliances sent delegations to Tehran. Arab countries, worried about Iran’s influence, have tried to push back, but appear to have less influence.

“The border with Iran is a continuous stretch of history and civilization,” explains Entifadh Qanbar, an aide to Ahmad Chalabi, who was influential in convincing the Bush administration to invade Iraq, “while the border with Arab countries is a desert.”

Iran’s most respected religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, who has been praised for staying outside politics, has also been reported to have become involved on the side of Iran. According to a report by the Associated Press, in a meeting that was “fraught with tension” Sistani rebuked Allawi for seeking the support of Sunni Arab countries.

Indeed, while we have been focused on the threat from al Qaeda in Iraq, neighboring Arab countries appear to be increasingly concerned with the growing Iranian influence.

“Politically, the border incursion has highlighted fears about Iran’s ambitions in Iraq and raised questions as to whether Tehran is taking advantage of the turmoil in the war-torn country,” Egypt’s al Ahram reported following a confrontation last December over an isolated oil well on the border of Iraq and Iran. “Those who have never trusted Iran’s commitment in Iraq are now feeling vindicated.”

“The ouster of Saddam and subsequent developments in Iraq have played into Iran’s hands,” agrees Musa Keilani in the Jordan Times. “And that is one of the reasons why Tehran has toughened its already hardline approach to its regional and international relations.”

These assessments are not isolated, and they contradict the Washington consensus about the success of the surge. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives, and if all we have done is empower Iran, it is difficult to see how we or our allies have benefited.

Stanley Kober is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.