By Juan Cole, JuanCole.com. Alternet, July 29, 2008.
The bloodbath in Baghdad has resulted in fewer ethnically mixed neighborhoods, leading to the recent drop in violence.
Editor’s note: John McCain’s latest stumble in discussing Iraq — in which he muddled the timeline of the so-called “surge” — was treated by most of the press as an unfortunate gaffe, rather than further proof that the aspiring commander in chief does not know what he’s talking about when it comes to the war and occupation. (One CNN report actually ran the headline: “McCain Broadens Definition of the Surge.”) Meanwhile, the Republican nominee’s recent attacks on Barack Obama for failing to admit the success of the “surge” was widely reported by the same members of the media, whose dominant and uncritical narrative has long been that, as McCain and Bush contend, the “surge” has been an unqualified success. “Why can’t Obama bring himself to acknowledge the surge worked better than he and other skeptics thought that it would?” a USA Today editorial asked last week.
In the article below, Juan Cole takes a closer look at the “surge,” weighing the troop increase alongside the numerous other contributing factors to the decline in violence. At the same time, he reminds us that, regardless of the relative decrease in bloodshed — and what may be behind it — the country is still a frightfully unstable place for Iraqis. “Most American commentators are so focused on the relative fall in casualties that they do not stop to consider how high the rates of violence remain,” he writes. Few people would consider Afghanistan, where last year an average of 550 people were killed per month, a safe place. Yet, “that is about the rate recently (in Iraq), according to official statistics.” — AlterNet War on Iraq editor Liliana Segura
I want to weigh in as a social historian of Iraq on the controversy over whether the “surge” “worked.” The New York Times reports:
Mr. McCain bristled in an interview with the CBS Evening News on (July 22) when asked about Mr. Obama’s contention that while the added troops had helped reduce violence in Iraq, other factors had helped, including the Sunni Awakening movement, in which thousands of Sunnis were enlisted to patrol neighborhoods and fight the insurgency, and the Iraqi government’s crackdown on Shiite militias.
“I don’t know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened,” Mr. McCain told Katie Couric, noting that the Awakening movement began in Anbar Province when a Sunni sheik teamed up with Sean MacFarland, a colonel who commanded an Army brigade there.
“Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others,” Mr. McCain said. “And it began the Anbar Awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history.”
The Obama campaign was quick to note that the Anbar Awakening began in the fall of 2006, several months before President Bush even announced the troop escalation strategy, which became known as the surge.
And Democrats noted that the sheik who helped form the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, was assassinated in September 2007, after the troop escalation began.
But several foreign policy analysts said that if Mr. McCain got the chronology wrong, his broader point — that the troop escalation was crucial for the Awakening movement to succeed and spread — was right. “I would say McCain is three-quarters right in this debate,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The problem with this debate is that it has few Iraqis in it.
It is also open to charges of logical fallacy. The only evidence presented for the thesis that the “surge” “worked” is that Iraqi deaths from political violence have declined in recent months from all-time highs in the second half of 2006 and the first half of 2007. (That apocalyptic violence was set off by the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006, which helped provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war.) What few political achievements are attributed to the troop escalation are too laughable to command real respect.
Proponents are awfully hard to pin down on what the “surge” consisted of or when it began. It seems to me to refer to the troop escalation that began in February 2007. But now the technique of bribing Sunni Arab former insurgents to fight radical Sunni vigilantes is being rolled into the “surge” by politicians such as McCain. But attempts to pay off the Sunnis to quiet down began months before the troop escalation and had a dramatic effect in al-Anbar Province long before any extra U.S. troops were sent to al-Anbar (nor were very many extra troops ever sent there). I will disallow it. The “surge” is the troop escalation that began in the winter of 2007. The bribing of insurgents to come into the cold could have been pursued without a significant troop escalation, and was.
Aside from defining what proponents mean by the “surge,” all kinds of things are claimed for it that are not in evidence. The assertion depends on a possible logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc. If event X comes after event Y, it is natural to suspect that Y caused X. But it would often be a false assumption. Thus, actress Sharon Stone alleged that the recent earthquake in China was caused by China’s crackdown on Tibetan protesters. That is just superstition, and callous superstition at that. It is a good illustration, however, of the very logical fallacy to which I am referring.
For the first six months of the troop escalation, high rates of violence continued unabated. That is suspicious. What exactly were U.S. troops doing differently from September than they were doing in May, such that there was such a big change? The answer to that question is simply not clear. Note that the troop escalation only brought U.S. force strength up to what it had been in late 2005. In a country of 27 million, 30,000 extra U.S. troops are highly unlikely to have had a really major impact, when they had not before.