Paul Pillar

Legacy of a Surge

Since the declaration three weeks ago of a supposed end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq, most Americans have seemed awfully quick to wash that war right out of their hair.  The way the Obama administration pitched the "end" to combat was evidently designed to encourage such a response, to keep Iraq from being too much of a distraction from its other endeavors, most notably that other war two countries to the east.  Observing an "end" to combat operations was a subterfuge, in that U.S. troops are still in Iraq, they are still sometimes engaged in firefights, they are still incurring casualties, and they will remain in Iraq for another fifteen months.  This subterfuge, along with President Obama's clear statement of intent to stick to the commitment to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, may be beneficial to the extent it helps the president to ward off agitation from some quarters to revise the U.S.-Iraqi agreement and extend the U.S. military presence beyond 2011.

The quickness in trying to put the Iraq War behind us has also, however, unhelpfully frozen in amber some perceptions about the war, despite continuing events that should call those perceptions into question.  Foremost among these perceptions is one that has become received wisdom: that the surge of U.S. forces in 2007 was a big success.  Violence in Iraq did drop markedly, of course, from the worst sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007.  But the troop surge was only one of several changes in Iraq's political and military landscape that were occurring at the same time and contributed to the drop in violence.  And violence continues at a level that, although it seems favorable compared to the darkest days of the sectarian civil war, is horrible by most other standards.  The bloodshed on Sunday represented one of the worst days since the "end" of U.S. combat operations but seems all too typical of the prevailing trend.

Most important, the surge never brought about the political reconciliation for which it was supposed to provide space.  The impasse over formation of the next government has gone on for so long (over six months) that it has become a well-established form of political theater.  The disillusionment of the Iraqi population is clear in poll results, such as a survey by the International Republican Institute in June showing that 59% of Iraqis think the country is on the wrong track--a substantial increase over the portion who thought that six months earlier.  And the squabbling over who will be the next prime minister doesn't even get to more fundamental questions that divide Iraqis, including the overall role of Sunni Arabs in a new Iraqi political order and the parceling out of territory and oil resources between Arabs and Kurds.

President Obama is on the right track in sticking to the agreement reached between his predecessor and the Maliki government to terminate the U.S. troop presence in Iraq at the end of next year.  In appropriately ending that very costly chapter of an ill-advised military expedition, however, we should not brush aside the lessons this unhappy misadventure holds.  The most important lessons have to do with the warped way in which it all began, especially the total absence of any policy process for deciding whether the war was a good idea.  But other lessons, highly relevant to other foreign policy problems, concern exactly what results military deployments do or do not buy for us.