Scoring the "Surge" and What Lies Beyond

The March 5 edition of the Wall Street Journal carried a story, demurely buried on page 13, citing the latest public opinion poll from the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on the public’s view about the war on terror in general, the Iraq war in particular, and more specifically the public’s attitude on the success of the 2007 “troop surge.”

The opening sentence of the article ought to give pause not just to those who want the U.S. to withdraw military forces from Iraq  but also to the Pentagon brass for what is implied for the future security of the country: “The [public’s]  perception [is] that the U.S. troop surge in Iraq has succeeded….” The February poll found that 48 per cent of respondents thought the war in Iraq was “going well” or “fairly well” and 47 percent said that U.S. troops ought to stay in Iraq for now – nearly as many (49 percent) as calling for immediate or rapid withdrawal.

Also on March 5, the Houston Chronicle ran a story entitled “Army Unit That Led The Surge Is Heading For Home.” Just days after President George Bush’s January 10, 2007 television address to the nation in which he formally announced that an additional 21,000 U.S. soldiers (the real number was closer to 29,000) would be placed “in harm’s way,” a combat brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Iraq and began operations in Baghdad against rampaging sectarian militias bent on “cleansing” each neighborhood of the minority sect. The first soldier to die on this deployment was killed January 24, 2007. Barring additional deaths among the wounded, the last fatality suffered by the brigade on the “surge” deployment occurred February 5, 2008. Overall, the brigade lost 25 soldiers.

This brigade is the second of five, along with two Marine Corps combat battalions, expected to be withdrawn by July without a designated similar unit going into Iraq as a replacement. One of the Marine battalions was withdrawn in December as part of the pre-Christmas reduction of 5,000 promised by Bush in September 2007.  The pace of further troop reductions will be signaled in April when the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is to advise the president on this issue and answer questions in testimony before Congress.

Once the five combat brigades and the two Marine battalions have redeployed, total U.S. troop strength in Iraq will be about 140,000 – some 8,000 over the total in-country before the “surge” began.

Those are the basic facts and the way ahead from Washington’s perspective.  Now the questions.

First, is the increased “support” for remaining in Iraq that the poll detected ephemeral or a reflection of a longer-term change in attitude among the population of the United States? Is the public, once again, letting the administration get away with spinning the news?

In announcing the troop increase thirteen months ago, President Bush told the public that the added numbers of U.S. soldiers would give the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “political space” in which to debate and enact laws

–         amending earlier statutes that would deny employment in the post-Saddam Iraq to any Iraqi who had been a member of the Ba’athist Party;

–         creating  new arrangements to develop Iraq’s oil fields and for distributing revenues from sales of oil, and

–         finalizing arrangements for the election of provincial government officials.

So what is the box score?

The “re-employment” law as passed throws more people out of work than it takes in, particularly in the security services where an estimated 20,000 could lose their positions, their income, and all inhibitions to oppose the current government and the coalition forces.

The Iraqi parliament could not resolve disagreements on which level of government, Baghdad or the provinces, controls oil and gas resources and who has the power to conclude contracts for developing the oil fields. Similarly, efforts to legislate the informal arrangements pertaining to the distribution of oil revenues foundered on objections of the Kurdish faction and their demands for the referendum on the future of Kirkukt.

As for the provincial election law, this was passed by the Iraqi parliament but was then vetoed by the presidency council.

That’s zero for three, which in baseball is an out.

What about the reduction in fatalities reported among U.S. and coalition forces, the Iraqi military, other Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi civilians in the last five months of 2007 and, for the foreign forces, in the first two months of 2008?

The decreases were real, but not for the reason asserted by the White House: i.e., “the surge worked!” Contrary to the administration’s spin, there was no straight-forward cause-effect relationship in play. The decreases were due to at least three factors unrelated to the “surge:”

–        the operational stand down by the Shi’a death squads and others in the Mahdi army ordered by Moqtada al- Sadr in April 2007 and extended last month to the end of 2008;

–        the virtual completion of the campaigns to ethnically cleanse the minority religious sect from each of Baghdad’s formerly mixed neighborhoods, leaving no “others” to kill; and, most significantly,

–        the spread of U.S.-funded Sunni “Awakening Councils” – the informal “neighborhood watch” groups organized by tribal sheiks and paid and armed by U.S. military units.

The Shi’a-dominated central government has opposed the formation of the Awakening Councils, fearing that the Pentagon is creating another armed militia that will ratchet up violence exponentially in the aftermath of a coalition withdrawal. The math says it all: in a nation of 27 million people, there are approximately 900,000 entitled to carry arms.

And speaking of math, that’s another zero for three – another out.

There’s more.

The first week in March sees the fifth anniversary of the formation of the Department of Homeland Security while the third week of March – the 19th to be precise – marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. These were supposed to keep the American public safe by engaging terrorists “over there.”

Has it worked?  Hardly. The Department of Homeland Security, by its own admission, has yet to even get inside the ballpark with regard to achieving one of its fundamental missions: controlling the passage of people and goods across U.S. borders.  The FBI – again – has admitted improper use of “national security letters” to demand personal records or data on U.S. citizens (as many as 1,000 incidents over the last year) not under suspicion of any wrong-doing.  As for the public, many respond that they feel no more secure today than they did last year or the year before.

Another out.

And it was exactly this psychology of fear that Bush played to when the House of Representatives refused to re-authorize expanded powers for government wiretapping without first getting (or applying for early in the wiretap operation) warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. The White House mantra was that without the law, the terrorists would have a holiday at the expense of the security of the U.S. public.

For the most part, however, Bush would just as soon have the public ignore the war and its effects on those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sometime this month, probably after the Ides of March, the 4,000th U.S. fatality of Operation Iraqi Freedom  will be quietly registered by the Pentagon – quietly as Congress will be in recess and the President likely will be  in Texas at the ranch,

It is equally possible that few Americans other than those with family members serving in combat will notice. Even the media seems to be feeling battle fatigue. Whereas at least one major U.S. newspaper always carried a page 1 story on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is no longer the case. On some occasions – March 6th being the most recent occurrence – even the page 1 summaries of significant stories on the inside pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post made no reference to the fighting. And this was just two days after presidential primary contests in Ohio and Texas addressed the “national security three -o’clock-in-the-morning telephone call.”

But that call might still come on Bush’s watch. On December 31, Moqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire ends. So too does the UN mandate authorizing the presence of foreign military forces in Iraq  Under the Bush “plan,” U.S. troops will still be in Iraq – and the costs in lives and treasure may quickly escalate.

Finally, speaking of treasure, one is left with “what might have been” – imagining what $845 billion – the amount already spent on these wars, let alone the projected “final” cost of at least $2 trillion – could have done to improve the quality of life for everyone around the globe.

That is more than three strikes. In fact, it might well be the whole ballgame.

Col. DAN SMITH, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at