This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.
In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new approach to the war in Iraq. At the time, sectarian and insurgent violence appeared to be spiraling out of control, and Democrats in Washington -- newly in control of both houses of Congress -- were demanding that the administration start winding down the war. Bush knew he needed to change course, but he refused to, as he put it, "give up the goal of winning." So rather than acquiesce to calls for withdrawal, he decided to ramp up U.S. efforts. With a "surge" in troops, a new emphasis on counterinsurgency strategy, and new commanders overseeing that strategy, Bush declared, the deteriorating situation could be turned around.
More than a year on, a growing conventional wisdom holds that the surge has paid off handsomely. U.S. casualties are down significantly from their peak in mid-2007, the level of violence in Iraq is lower than at any point since 2005, and Baghdad seems the safest it has been since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime five years ago. Some backers of the surge even argue that the Iraqi civil war is over and that victory on Washington's terms is in sight -- so long as the United States has the will to see its current efforts through to their conclusion.
Unfortunately, such claims misconstrue the causes of the recent fall in violence and, more important, ignore a fatal flaw in the strategy. The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.
Despite the current lull in violence, Washington needs to shift from a unilateral bottom-up surge strategy to a policy that promotes, rather than undermines, Iraq's cohesion. That means establishing an effective multilateral process to spur top-down political reconciliation among the major Iraqi factions. And that, in turn, means stating firmly and clearly that most U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Iraq within two or three years. Otherwise, a strategy adopted for near-term advantage by a frustrated administration will only increase the likelihood of long-term debacle.
THE SURGE'S FALSE START
After the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, the White House started to become increasingly concerned that there were too few U.S. troops in Iraq. A network of retired army officers led by Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, had been pushing from the outside for an increase in forces, and Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) kept up a drumbeat of criticism of what they saw as a lackluster military effort. The November 2006 congressional elections, which handed the House and the Senate to the Democrats, added to the sense that a new strategy was needed. In a December 2006 memo, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, somewhat gingerly noted that the United States might "need to fill the current four-brigade gap in Baghdad with coalition forces if reliable Iraqi forces are not identified."
On December 13, 2006, Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon to persuade them to allocate more troops to Iraq. It was not an easy sell. U.S. ground forces are not configured to fight such a long war, and the repeated deployment of the same active-duty and Reserve units had taken a toll. The reenlistment rate of young captains, for example, had fallen to an unprecedented low; about half of the West Point classes of 2000 and 2001 had decided against an army career. The pace of unit rotations and the tempo of operations had also taken their toll on equipment, which was wearing out at nine times the normal rate, faster than it could be replaced. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear his concern about the army being stretched too thin. A shortfall of 10,000 company-grade officers meant that the Reserve units would have to rob both people and materiel from other units. Meanwhile, the mounting expense of the war was crowding out the procurement of new combat systems for the navy and the air force, and there was a growing risk that the military might find itself without the capacity to meet other strategic challenges, whether from Afghanistan, Iran, or elsewhere.
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