Pulse on Iraq: The Surge Still Isn’t Working

Conservatives are still insisting the surge has worked. But a growing consensus among experts indicates otherwise.

With the resignation of the military’s top Middle East commander last week, the five-year anniversary of the beginning of combat operations in Iraq this week, and Gen. Petraeus’s upcoming congressional testimony, it’s not clear that the Bush administration has a plan for addressing the political future of Iraq. The surge that begun over a year ago was supposed to fix that by giving the Iraqi government breathing room to achieve real progress on President Bush’s 18 benchmarks.

It’s now 13 months later, and we’ve seen few signs of progress. If anything, the situation is more precarious. An event today at the Center for American Progress will feature experts debating the surge and its effects on the security situation in Iraq, its effect on Iraq’s political process, the indirect costs of the war, and where the United States should go from here.

We’re not the only ones who’ve evaluated the evidence only to find that the surge has failed to meet its primary objectives of political progress. Even Gen. Petraeus is admitting that the surge may have failed in that regard. A sampling of other experts, politicians, and journalists shows a widespread consensus that the surge isn’t working where it matters most.

’No one’ in the U.S. and Iraqi governments ‘feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,’ or in the provision of basic public services. (Gen. David Petraeus, Washington Post, Mar. 13, 2008)

“No, I think it’s absolutely a failure, the surge. I think that less violence is actually a sign of the failure of the surge. The violence during a civil war was very logical. It was an attempt to remove Sunnis from Shia areas and Shia from Sunnis areas, and it’s been incredibly successful. There are virtually no mixed areas left in Iraq.” (Nir Rosen, journalist, Mar. 11, 2008)

"The surge hasn’t accomplished its goals," Reid said. "… We’re involved, still, in an intractable civil war." (Harry Reid, Dec. 3, 2007)

“Unfortunately, according to the President’s own measure the surge has failed. The troops have performed bravely and violence in Iraq appears to be diminishing. But there is still no political plan to turn the recent tactical gains into lasting strategic success or a plan for bringing our troops home.” (National Security Network, Jan. 9, 2008)

“Judged on the terms in which the president presented it, the surge has not worked.” “The purpose was to improve security, but to improve it to lead to a political breakthrough, and that political breakthrough has not happened.” (Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Pentagon reporter, Jan. 10, 2008)

The troop escalation has not succeeded in prompting the Iraqi government to make the hard choices or meet the benchmarks laid out by this Administration. As General Petreaus told me in Baghdad, this surge can only be won politically, not militarily. But on national reconciliation, oil-sharing, and the other key issues that will allow U.S. forces to eventually withdraw without a return of widespread violence, the evidence is bleak.” (Sen. Bob Casey, Jan. 18, 2008)

“By shifting the conversation to tactics, they seek to divert attention from flagrant failures of basic strategy. Yet what exactly has the surge wrought? In substantive terms, the answer is: not much…As the violence in Baghdad and Anbar province abates, the political and economic dysfunction enveloping Iraq has become all the more apparent.” (Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of History, Boston University, Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2008)

"The surge has sucked all of the flexibility out of the system," Army Chief of Staff George Casey said in an interview this week. "And we need to find a way of getting back into balance." (Gen. George Casey, Jan. 17, 2008)

“2008 and beyond will be a success, the surge will be a success, if the gains in security can be translated into gains in stability…if I had to put a number to it, maybe it’s three in 10, maybe it’s 50-50, if we play our cards right.” Mark Kimmitt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs, Jan. 8, 2008.

“Administration strategy (at least since last January) has been that security gains would provide breathing room for democracy and good governance to take hold. If you reread Bush’s speech announcing the surge almost exactly a year ago, you’ll see a number of fairly explicit political events that he said would happen in Iraq. Haven’t happened, for the most part.” (Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2008)

"The violence came down for four reasons: what we’re doing, the decision the Sunni combatants made to turn against al-Qaeda, Moqtada Sadr’s ceasefire and the prior ethnic cleansing of 2006 and early 2007. All those things could unwind. We’re unsurging. The talk is that for the next couple of months, if the Maliki government doesn’t do enough to appease the Sunni groups [that have turned against al-Qaeda] and incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces, they could go game-on again. This kind of—pick your metaphor—ticking clock, or closing window, gives a reason to believe that if there isn’t a series of political compromises by when the surge brigades leave we’ll be in real trouble." (Colin Kahl, Center for a New American Security, Washington Independent, Jan. 31, 2008)

Kahl’s comments confirm what Brian Katulis and Peter Juul have called four ticking time bombs to watch in Iraq, several of which are beginning to draw attention:

  • The collapse of “bottom up” reconciliation among Sunnis
  • Increased instability in northern Iraq
  • The continuing plight of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis
  • Continued deadlock among Iraq’s national political leaders

The consensus is clear. Despite the best efforts of our military men and women in creating a temporary lull in violence, substantial progress toward a sustainable and independent Iraq has not been made. It’s time to implement a Strategic Reset in Iraq so that the United States can take control of its own national security interests in the country and in the greater Middle East.

For more on the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq from CAP, please see our War In Iraq page.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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