As former assistant secretary of defense Bing West recounts in The Strongest Tribe — a much more serious, well-written, and interesting book than The Gamble, in case you’re interested — the NSC staff developed a consensus for shifting to “population security,” particularly in Baghdad. This was to be achieved with a major troop surge and followed by accelerated transition to Iraqi control. Toward the end of those deliberations, the White House invited a few key supporters over to brief the NSC: “Keane added the stature of a four-star general and Kagan contributed concrete specifics,” writes West. They were to become invaluable public advocates of the surge at a time when it was not clear that the administration would be able to stave off a disaster in Congress.
Many leading proponents of the surge have been harshly critical of Rumsfeld for not implementing this strategy sooner, but General Keane is not quite as unforgiving. “Look,” he says, “I understand how difficult this is. It wasn’t until 2006 that I started advocating for a change in strategy. Before that, a lot of people were troubled by what we were seeing, but we didn’t have answers.” Inside the administration, the real obstacle to the surge was the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which reports directly to the president and which didn’t come around to supporting the new strategy until well after Rumsfeld had endorsed it.
It remains far from clear that what worked in 2007 could have worked in 2005. As Rumsfeld wrote in a New York Times op-ed last November, “By early 2007, several years of struggle had created the new conditions for a tipping point.” Those conditions included a tectonic shift of the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda and toward an open alliance with the Americans, the emergence of a large and increasingly capable Iraqi security force, the withering losses inflicted on the insurgency in years of fighting, and the progressive weakening of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia.
Without any of those factors present, dispatching foot patrols to protect Iraqi neighborhoods 24/7 might have only have gotten many more American soldiers killed — to little effect. In 2005, the insurgency still had a lot of public support, and senior Iraqi officials insisted on a smaller American footprint. In any case, there weren’t enough troops on the ground — particularly Iraqi troops — to implement such a strategy. From the right, Rumsfeld’s critics agitated that many more troops were needed. This was clearly correct, but the numbers needed — not three or four more brigades, but ten times that many — simply could not come from the United States: They could only come from Iraq. In fact, there were multiple-brigade surges of U.S. forces twice in 2005, reaching levels close to the 2007 surge, but they had little effect, chiefly because the Iraqi security forces were too small and ineffective.
The classical ratio of force-to-population called for in the counterinsurgency literature is 20 soldiers and police for every 1,000 souls, implying a force of about 500,000 troops for Iraq’s population of 25 million. In 2005, the entire coalition including Iraqi forces was not even half that. By contrast, in the spring of 2007, when the surge brought the combined total of Iraqi and U.S. forces to about 500,000, Gen. Ray Odierno went on the offensive and the insurgency was utterly defeated in just a few months. The pervasive presence of security forces that followed — especially of Iraqi police — soon allowed life to return to normal for most Iraqis.
MILITARY SUCCESS, POLITICAL FAILURE
“In retrospect,” writes Ricks, “the winter of 2007–8 appears to be a time of missed opportunity, when Iraqi leaders should have made great strides politically, but didn’t. It was at this point that the surge began to fracture: It was succeeding militarily but failing politically.” The principal evidence he cites in support of this proposition is a series of quotes by senior advisers, such as, “There is a chance of this breaking down,” and “We also have created a whole new load of risks,” and “I didn’t see us moving forward politically,” and “It hasn’t worked as well as I hoped.”
But if you search for particulars, you will search in vain. Ricks hardly takes account of the fact that sectarian violence has largely vanished in Iraq. He doesn’t address the once-famous congressionally mandated “benchmarks of political progress.” A convenient oversight: By early 2008, Iraq was assessed to have achieved 12 of the 18 benchmarks, with substantial progress in the remainder, even toward such Arcadian aspirations as “respect for minority rights.”
In the spring of 2008, the Maliki government conducted its first major offensive with its own forces against the very Iranian-backed organizations that critics (including many Iraqi Sunnis) had long claimed were actually in control of the government. When Muqtada al-Sadr took up arms, Iraq’s major political parties, representing all regions and sects, issued a joint statement threatening to disqualify the Sadrists from participating in future elections if they did not back down. Sadr promptly declared a cease-fire and receded. At the time, Hussein al-Falluji, a lawmaker from the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament, which had earlier pulled out of the government to protest its policies, said, “I think the government is now enjoying the support of most political groups because it has adopted a correct approach to the militia problem.” Even a leading Sadrist, Hassan al-Rubaie, lamented that “we, the Sadrists, are in a predicament. Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament.” It was a stunning reversal for the extremist groups, and a clear sign of strength in Iraq’s political institutions.
Ricks recalls the foreboding assessment of one Petraeus adviser: “The test, he said, would be provincial elections, if and when they came — not only whether they would be held, but whether they would be fair enough to achieve balanced representation.” (There may be some sort of virus that causes people to self-identify as Petraeus advisers; if so, and if The Gamble is any guide, Baghdad and Washington may have to be quarantined.)