Commentary

Petraeus, the Surge & History

By the time Gen. David Petraeus arrived at the Capitol to report on the state of American operations in Iraq, most pundits and politicians had chosen their historical analogies.

Many have repeated the claim that Iraq is Vietnam all over again. History never repeats itself exactly, so no example is perfect. But the American surge in Iraq bears a striking and little-noted resemblance to the Germans’ ill-fated offensive in the last year of World War I.

Launched on March 21, 1918, the German effort was initially so successful that March 24 was declared a national holiday. But casualties were huge and American forces were beginning to arrive to reinforce the Allies.

Despite appearances, the offensive could not be sustained. On Oct. 2, the German High Command informed the Reichstag that military victory was no longer possible. But it insisted that “a united front must be shown at home, so that the enemy recognize our unbending will to continue the war.”

Now there is also an effort to show a united front in Iraq. But beneath the surface, there is a recognition of the limits of American power.

“The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources,” said Gen. Petraeus. “This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more — or less — violently.”

So, Petraeus acknowledges that violence in Iraq will endure for some time.

The surge has had initial success. But as even our own generals admit, it’s not sustainable.

“The surge was and remains a temporary function,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey stresses, which “can be sustained through the spring without changes to the existing mobilization and deployment policies.”

In other words, for the surge to be successful, it has to create conditions that survive the drawdown of American forces. That means Iraqi forces must be ready to replace U.S. forces by next spring. Although progress has been made, it is questionable whether Iraqi forces will be ready by that time.

“U.S. commanders intent on building capable Iraqi security forces and a competent Iraqi government say their efforts are increasingly being stymied by the radical Shiite Mahdi Army,” The Wall Street Journal reported recently. “Today, the Mahdi Army has infiltrated Iraq’s government and society so deeply that the Americans are struggling to distinguish friend from foe.”

Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement that he was suspending the activities of the Mahdi militia for six months may well be related to the timeline of the American drawdown.

So the real question is not whether we are providing increased security now. It is whether we can take an army riddled with parties committed to our defeat and turn it into an army that can replace ours in less than a year. If we cannot, the initial success will turn out to be as fleeting as the German advances of 1918.

And there is another parallel that also bears mentioning. The Germans were facing American forces because in 1917 they had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and begun to attack American ships, convinced that these were critical to the Allied war effort. They thought, mistakenly, that by broadening the war they would increase their chances of winning it.

Now similar claims are being made about Iran.

To be sure, Iran’s behavior is troubling but attacking it risks retaliation by tens of thousands of well-trained and well-armed troops. Before we engage in any cross-border operations, we should think through the second- and third-order effects, says Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

Gen. Odierno did not elaborate but he is concerned that we are underestimating the Iranians. Indeed, if there is one lesson we should draw from history, it is that we should not underestimate our enemies.

“I underestimated the tenacity of the North Vietnamese,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk acknowledged in his memoirs. “I thought North Vietnam would reach a point, as happened with our adversaries during the Korea War and the Berlin blockade of 1948, when it would be unwilling to continue making those terrible sacrifices. …”

“I was wrong.”

Those who praise success in the surge should remember that victory in Iraq was declared once before. Maybe this time will be different. But like the spring of 1918, it’s too early to tell. The success of the surge lies in its sustainability.

We should not make the mistakes of generations before us and underestimate the challenges ahead.

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