Opposition to Hagel and Revisionist History: The Surge in Iraq

070526-A-7666R-130Since former Senator Chuck Hagel’s name was floated and then was nominated for Secretary of Defense, most of the criticism coming from the right has been about Hagel’s positions on Israel. However, there has also been some criticism of his position on Iraq, and specifically the so-called “surge” by the Bush Administration. This criticism has come with a bit of revisionist history. The Wall Street Journal editorial page first noted that Hagel “supported the Iraq war before he opposed it and then opposed the successful 2007 surge,” and then again made the same statement adding that the surge “salvaged Iraq.” This is among many examples of conservatives opposed to Hagel’s nomination giving the surge credit for turning around the tide of violence in Iraq.

Lolita Baldor wrote at Fox News that Hagel “backed the Iraq war, but later became a fierce and credible critic of the Bush administration’s war policies” including the surge which was “a move that has been credited with stabilizing the chaotic country.” In a list of confirmation questions for Hagel, Jamie Weinstein at the Daily Caller wants to know if Hagel thought the surge was still a mistake, “considering what the surge was able to accomplish in Iraq? Or do you still believe the surge strategy in Iraq was an immense foreign policy blunder?” Daniel Halper at the Weekly Standard wrote that Hagel was “completely wrong” about the surge, “which turned around the war there.”

Wayne White, former Deputy Director of the State Department’s Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office, reminds us why it wasn’t the surge the stemmed the tide of violence in Iraq. Writing at LobeLog, White describes another policy change that lead to the Sunni Awakening:

When I served with the Iraq Study Group (ISG) led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton in 2006, many of its core Middle East experts felt the “troop surge” would fail because it was far too small. It increased US troops in Iraq by less than 20 percent. The situation, which included the robust Sunni Arab insurgency, widespread al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorism and rampant sectarian cleansing, had gotten too far out of control for so few troops to make a real difference. Some believed as many as five times the 21,500 troops the Bush Administration sent in were needed. After all, troop levels had risen and fallen modestly before with little change in what had been a grindingly indecisive anti-insurgency war.

Unknown to the ISG (and evidently most of everyone outside the executive branch) the Bush Administration had quietly made another decision truly capable of sparking a major improvement on the ground in Iraq. The White House agreed to a deal with the bulk of the Sunni Arab insurgents fighting US forces. The insurgents not only wanted to stop fighting US/UK forces, but also to partner with Coalition forces against al-Qaida in Iraq. Although holding their own and inflicting heavy casualties, the insurgents had tired of suffering heavy losses themselves, were appalled by damage to their own communities from the fighting, and had been angered by extremist AQI abuses in their home towns and villages.

In fact, insurgent leaders began approaching US forces over two years earlier with the same offer. But it was rebuffed by the Bush Administration (despite the support of many US military officers in Iraq) because the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government bitterly opposed such a deal. In late 2006, however, in the face of a severe spike in violence — and despite more objections from the Iraqi government — the US accepted the deal. That triggered what was called Iraq’s Sunni Arab “Awakening” (up to 100,000 Sunni Arab insurgents changing sides).

It took nearly two more years of hard fighting to bring most all Sunni Arab insurgents into the arrangement, weaken the power of AQI, and curb sectarian cleansing. The modest US “troop surge” improved tactics set in motion by General David Petraeus, and gains in Iraqi Army professionalism helped too, but these were not nearly as critical as what some called the far more sweeping “deal with the devil.”

Read more here.

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