Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Surge is.... SSDD

Last Sunday Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post that Bush's "surge" was "succeeding". That has caused others to jump on that bandwagon declaring "success" without being so brash as to declare outright victory, all the while claiming that the "truth" isn't being reported.
Leading journalists have been reporting for some time that the war was hopeless, a fiasco that could not be salvaged by more troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy. The conventional wisdom in December held that sending more troops was politically impossible after the antiwar tenor of the midterm elections. It was practically impossible because the extra troops didn't exist. Even if the troops did exist, they could not make a difference.

Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted. The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq. And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.


There is still violence, as Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda seek to prove that the surge is not working. However, they are striking at more vulnerable targets in the provinces. Violence is down in Baghdad. As for Sadr and the Mahdi Army, it is possible they may reemerge as a problem later. But trying to wait out the American and Iraqi effort may be hazardous if the public becomes less tolerant of their violence. It could not be comforting to Sadr or al-Qaeda to read in the New York Times that the United States plans to keep higher force levels in Iraq through at least the beginning of 2008. The only good news for them would be if the Bush administration in its infinite wisdom starts to talk again about drawing down forces.

No one is asking American journalists to start emphasizing the "good" news. All they have to do is report what is occurring, though it may conflict with their previous judgments. Some are still selling books based on the premise that the war is lost, end of story. But what if there is a new chapter in the story?

Right. So, Kagan, with less than half of the forces promised General David Petraeus in place says that things have turned around. This despite the fact that Petraeus himself is not reporting such a turn-around at all. He says it's too soon to be able to report that kind of result.

Kagan also decries the lack of journalists reporting the "good news" by suggesting they are not reporting what is actually happening on the ground. This, despite the fact that it is journalistic reports from which he is gathering his information on the improvements in Baghdad.

His commentary also chastizes the media for repeating Pentagon reports that the number of troops required for Bush's plan did not exist when, as he points out, there they are. He fails however, to add precision to his comment. Two out of five brigades have arrived and a survey of US Army and Marine Corps strengths has already revealed that units are being extended, units are returning much earlier than promised, units are being deployed without proper training and their equipment is well below standard. You can have a million troops but if they are not kitted-out properly for the job, if they are not properly trained and prepared, and they are suffering from exhaustion, they do not represent a viable force.

Even so, Kagan says it's succeeding.

That assertion was countered by Justin Logan with unbelievable ease.

The job of neoconservative writers analyzing the Iraq war has largely been to obscure objective analysis and provide talking points for war supporters. Robert Kagan's column in Sunday's Washington Post (promptly distributed by the Bush administration in its "Iraq Update" email early Monday) fulfills that role with aplomb. Simultaneously smearing opponents of the war (not to mention journalists) as praying for failure and proclaiming that "the surge is succeeding," Kagan adds to his regrettable legacy of undue optimism.
Logan goes on to point out Kagan's most egregious misdemeanors of journalistic punditry. The fact is, Kagan, who criticized journalists for not reporting what they saw, actually did just that without taking note of actions all around him which would suggest there is something either wrong or the lull in Baghdad is not steeped in the permanence he would like us to believe.
The more troubling aspect of the Kagan piece, however, is the substantive claim: that the surge is working. The first problem with this argument is that the surge has hardly gotten underway yet. Earlier this month, none other than General David Petraeus remarked that "we've just started" with the surge and that only two of the five projected brigades had even arrived. The claim that two brigades (less than 10,000 troops) have transformed Baghdad is either mendacious or simply daft. A more sober view comes from President Bush, who recently announced his plan to send almost 5,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq on top of the 21,500 already promised.
Kagan, as Logan points out, is jumping the gun - by miles, and ignoring events. And he's also ignoring history. The US has been in Iraq for long enough now to be able to predict the cyclical nature of the insurgency.
But the most damning fact about the "surge is working" narrative is that the violence in Iraq always has been cyclical, with dips in violence occurring every year in the months from January through March or April. So, in fact, the decline in violence Kagan observes was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted. The Pentagon's own "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" report pointed out that by the end of 2006, the violence in Iraq had reached its highest level since the war began, and so the downtick should be viewed in that context. But what appears likely to happen is what has happened since the beginning of the war: these temporary downticks do not stop the overall upward trend of violence in Iraq.
Using Kagan's logic to assess the results of Bush's escalation is comparable to a small investor watching the stock market rise slowly for one week and declaring an income from investments that just hasn't happened yet. Kagan is simply repeating a talking point that we were warned about. It's a success that hasn't occurred yet.
The president and supporters of the war protest that we should "give the surge a chance to succeed" before criticizing it. But since the plan in place defies, for one, the joint Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual authored by General Petraeus himself, this is akin to wishful thinking. By the metric of Petraeus and countless others, to run a serious counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, we would need 500,000 troops; if we could somehow sequester Baghdad and only fight there, we would need roughly 120,000 troops.
Kagan's column doesn't even reference Petraeus' publication. Instead we are admonished to develop a sense of greater optimism. Elsewhere, out in the war-bloggers box, some headers have been declaring just that. Optimism abounds, with at least one daring to title a post, The Surge Is Working, based on this BBC report by Andrew North:
Baghdad diary: Relative lull
That's the headline and apparently that's enough to convince the war-bloggers. Like Kagans commentary, it is a notorious act of cherry-picking. What North reports is likely true and he tempers any unfounded enthusiasm with this:
Even though some pro-war commentators in the US are already jumping on these positive signs to attack the anti-war lobby, the reality is that it is far too early to say.

There are plenty of reasons for caution. Many of the insurgents and militia fighters are simply lying low.

While the violence may have dropped off in the city, it has risen in the volatile mixed areas bordering Baghdad.

And as the rash of dreadful bombings aimed at Shia pilgrims last week showed, some groups are as determined as ever to commit mass casualty attacks.

They still see sparking a civil war as one of their best hopes of bringing down the government.

Over the past four years, it is the pessimists who have usually been right here, not the optimists. So Iraqis are hoping for the best, but still in their minds ready for the worst.

So, despite Kagan's admonition for optimism, even the journalists which are reporting the facts, and there is no denying that is what they are, are hesitant to suggest that this is an actual turn-around.

I think everyone, for the sake of the Iraqis, who have had their lives shredded, and the troops in Iraq, who are now the longest serving American troops committed to combat since 1865, would hope for some form of success if only to end this fiasco.

Kagan doesn't help matters by ignoring events, discounting historical trends and wishing for ponies. The race isn't won until the finish line is crossed. And where, Mr. Kagan, is the finish line?

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