The Thing No One Is Saying

Common debate: Has the Surge been successful or hasn’t it?

Uncommon response: This is the wrong debate.

Perhaps it’s just the oversimplification of the way we discuss things in this country, but I’m dismayed at how misguided the entire Iraq troop surge argument has become.  The question has been boiled down to the simplest possible terms.  Did adding more troops crush the terrorists, or was it simply a coincidence?  The fact is, neither of those choices are the right one.  Adding more troops is not a reliable way to crush a guerrilla insurgency, as has been proven in multiple wars throughout this century.  Yet, following the influx of American soldiers, violence did decline in Iraq.  So what happened?

Both sides in the debate about the Surge seem to assume that the addition of troops was the only variable introduced into the violent morass that Iraq had descended into.  Understanding what effect the troop surge had on the violence requires looking at more than this one change in the game.  If all we had done was add in troops and stirred, maybe asking “Did it work?” would make sense.  But that isn’t all we did.  In fact, it’s very likely that the surge merely supported another initiative that had far more to do with the reduction in violence than new combat brigades.

In short, we paid them to stop killing us and to start killing our enemies.

The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq’s central government.

If you don’t read an awful lot of foreign policy rags, you may not have even heard of this.  Even when it’s mentioned, it’s glossed over as unimportant or irrelevant.  Even my candidate of choice, Barack Obama, talks about the surge in purely military terms.  Don’t you think the fact that we’re giving people money and weapons to convince them not to kill us is an important detail?  Don’t you think that might have something to do with the reduction in violence?

The military strategy employed by General Petraeus was certainly a sound one.  Mixing troops with the civilian population to a greater degree and emphasizing the protection of those civilians was something we should have done from day one.  One of the primary causes of the later Iraqi violence was the madness that overtakes groups that have been allowed to kill each other unimpeded.  From the day we stormed Baghdad, we allowed looting and violence to continue so long as it didn’t affect our military objectives.  The bitterness that gives rise to in the hearts of the everyday person is hard to quell.  Using troops to block further violence against civilians was the right move.

Still, that only works if the civilians you’re defending aren’t also killing you, and for a long time that was happening.  It’s what occurs any time you use the military to become a long term police force in hostile territory.  You stand still amongst your enemies at your own peril.  Unfortunately we forget that, given enough time and regardless of intent, an occupying force will become the enemy of the people of that nation.   To be protected those citizens needed to stop strapping on the bombs themselves.

The payments we began making to the Sunnis in the Anbar Province were intended to do exactly that.  The fear and bitterness of the Sunni population had led them to support al Qaeda in Iraq.  It was desperation.  It was all that could protect them from Shiite violence.  To root out al Qaeda in Iraq, we had to separate the desperate from the truly converted.  The firearms we supplied the Sunnis came with a pricetag: point them at al Qaeda.  Two foreign forces were trying to occupy the same land and angering the Sunni citizens.  We just turned out to offer better benefits than the other guys.

The reason the ignorance of this situation bothers me is that it undermines our ability to move forward.  A military victory is a very different thing than a peace sustained by monthly payments.  What happens when we fall behind on the mortgage with these militias?  If their loyalty and discipline are largely or even partially the result of a pay to play contract, what will they do with the goods and training we’ve given them when the contract ends?

These are not cowardly liberal rantings against the war.  These are real, potentially dangerous problems that could hurt us if we’re not careful.  If you don’t believe me, go look at what happened to the people who inadvertently provided the venture capital for the Taliban.  That would be us.

At the time, we decided we needed those Afghani rebels to battle our mutual enemies, the Russians.  Honestly, we were probably right.  In assuming that we could just stop payments and move on with our lives, though, we left an unfriendly force armed with our weapons and funded with our money to do whatever they wanted for the next twenty years.  Eventually, they did this:

Let’s not kid ourselves and allow ourselves to believe that just because violence is down that it’s through the awesome might and cunning intelligence we posesses.  We gave a lot of people monetary incentive to stop killing us and our friends.  It worked, because people are greedy and will happily accept your money to not punch you in the face.  What it does not do is convince them they do not want to punch you in the face.  Lunch money today does not a beating tomorrow avoid.

We can use the fruits of our bribes and payments to enact real change in Iraq if we don’t, as we did in Afghanistan, blow the end game.  That can only happen with a serious, complete analysis of what happened, what worked and what didn’t.  Treating the Surge itself as if it occurred within a vacuum will just lead us away from the peace we all desire.

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