To many critics, President Bush’s new way forward in Iraq had failed before it even began. The new strategy, which shifted toward an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign coupled with a surge in troop levels, was officially announced on January 10, 2007. Even before this announcement, congressional Democrats declared the new strategy a useless and futile gesture.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were among the surge’s most vocal critics. Five days before its announcement, they wrote an open letter to President Bush declaring that “[s]urging forces is a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed.” They claimed, “Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain. . . . We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq.”
Other Democrats pushed for the beginning of a pullout rather than a surge of troops. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D., Calif.) claimed that “[a] surge is not a new strategy. A surge is a new tactic that does nothing to change the underlying strategy that has so clearly failed.” Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D., Hawaii) complained “I don’t know if Mr. Bush even believes in this so-called surge. The neocons are trying to test the new Congress to see how we respond.”
The new military strategy in Iraq began with the arrival of additional combat forces in theater, followed by Operation Phantom Thunder, which Fred and Kim Kagan described in the pages of The Weekly Standard: “a vast and complex effort to disrupt al Qaeda and Shiite militia bases all around Baghdad in advance of the major clear-and-hold operations that will follow.” The military recently launched a new offensive, Operation Phantom Strike, which consists of “simultaneous operations throughout Iraq focused on pursuing ‘remaining AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] terrorists and Iranian-supported extremist elements.’”
About 28,000 additional troops arrived in theater for these operations; the full deployment did not come until mid-June. Yet opponents continued to declare the surge a failure before it hit full strength. Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid sent President Bush another open letter two days before the full deployment arrived:
As many had foreseen, the escalation has failed to produce the intended results. The increase in US forces has had little impact in curbing the violence or fostering political reconciliation. It has not enhanced America’s national security. The unsettling reality is that instances of violence against Iraqis remain high and attacks on U.S. forces have increased. In fact, the last two months of the war were the deadliest to date for U.S. troops.
(At the time, increases in U.S. casualty rates were due to an aggressive push into insurgent sanctuaries in Baquba and Khalis in Diyala, northern Babil, and areas of Baghdad. Taking casualties does not necessarily mean that you are losing a counterinsurgency campaign — particularly when those casualties are taken entering areas where the enemy has become entrenched.)
The most astonishing statement came from Senator Reid, who in mid-June declared that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, “isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad.” Even war critics were forced to acknowledge the absurdity of a senator sitting in an air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C. declaring the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq to be out of touch with events in Baghdad.
But now that the surge is in full swing, attitudes are rapidly changing. The first shifts came early, as those who were in Iraq noticed the surge’s successes. In May, I was embedded with the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery in Baghdad. The soldiers with whom I was embedded patrolled the west-central Baghdad districts of Yarmouk and Hateen, and in late May I reported that the surge had made a visible difference in these districts:
I spoke with a large number of soldiers in 2-32 about the state of Yarmouk when they arrived, and all of them painted the same picture: the soldiers would routinely find corpses and there were a large number of IEDs and VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices). On one dangerous road that the U.S. military calls Whitesnake (other Baghdad road names form a virtual tribute to Eighties bands), there was only one checkpoint. There are now three, and the Iraqi army presence makes it harder for insurgents to plant IEDs.
Multiple sources informed me that since 2-32 moved to Yarmouk as part of the surge, a lot of residents who had previously left have moved back, and a number of stores had opened up. Also, residents have given American soldiers intelligence tips that have resulted in valuable arrests.
My reporting was by no means entirely positive: I questioned the sustainability of these improvements, reported on problems with the Iraqi security forces, and discussed how long deployments were seemingly hurting American troop reenlistment. But I was surprised by how dramatic the turnaround was in the districts that I saw.
Other embedded reporters have similarly seen improvements on the ground. Michael Yon, a former Green Beret who has produced some truly insightful embedded journalism, stated in an National Review Online symposium that he has seen positive changes in Nineveh, Anbar, and Diyala “that are more fundamental than just winning battles.” He noted improvements in the Iraqi security forces, U.S. soldiers’ ability to align with tribes that were turning against al Qaeda, and successful U.S. operations. John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, said in a late July interview with Hugh Hewitt that there is “no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference.” Burns noted that “crucial indicators of the war” have moved in a positive direction, including fewer car bombs, lower levels of civilian casualties, and strategic successes against al Qaeda in Iraq.
The single greatest turning point in public perception of the surge was probably an oped that Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution published in the New York Times on July 30. Their oped was noteworthy because, as O’Hanlon and Pollack state, they have both “harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” But they were “surprised” by the gains they saw in a recent visit, from troop morale to operations being tailored to local communities’ specific needs to improvements in Iraqi security forces. While they acknowledged that “the situation in Iraq remains grave,” O’Hanlon and Pollack concluded that “there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.”
Of course, O’Hanlon and Pollack met harsh criticism from some quarters. For example, Glenn Greenwald penned a scathing reply at Salon.com. He sneeringly referred to O’Hanlon and Pollack as “Very Serious Experts,” and spent the bulk of his piece arguing that previous positive assessments O’Hanlon made of the Iraq war show that the Times op-ed should be wholly disregarded. Much of the evidence Greenwald mustered is flatly misleading: He included several quotes from March and April 2003. O’Hanlon’s assessment at that point concerned the first three phases of the war, for which most everyone agrees that the military’s planning and execution was superb. The real problem was phase-four planning, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Like much of the response to O’Hanlon and Pollack, Greenwald’s column is an attempt to justify a predetermined conclusion rather than to seriously consider hard questions about what should be done now in Iraq.
Others who have been to Iraq recently — including Democratic politicians who are deeply skeptical of U.S. efforts there — have reached conclusions similar to those of O’Hanlon and Pollack. Rep. Brian Baird (D., Wash.) wrote in an Aug. 24 oped for the Seattle Times, “As a Democrat who voted against the war from the outset and who has been frankly critical of the administration and the post-invasion strategy, I am convinced by the evidence that the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), Congress’s first Muslim representative and a vocal critic of the war, said after he returned from Ramadi, “The success in Ramadi is not just because of bombs and bullets, but because the U.S. and Iraqi military and the Iraqi police are partnering with the tribal leadership and the religious leadership. What they’re doing is respecting the people, giving the people some control over their own lives.”
Advocates of withdrawal have been quick to pounce on Democratic representatives whose positions have shifted after seeing developments on the ground. Yet it is clear that minds have been changing about the surge over time — particularly as it has hit full force, and particularly by those who have actually taken the time to visit Iraq.