John McCain Does Not Understand the Iraqi Surge Campaign

John McCain’s knavish interrogation of Chuck Hagel yesterday reveals not only that he has a poor conceptual understanding of the foreign policy “credential” he made the centerpiece of his failed 2008 Presidential campaign, but more broadly that he does not seem to grasp the concept that military campaigns have strategic, i.e. political, objectives in the first place.

What is a military campaign? What was the objective of the Iraqi Surge Campaign? What were the components of the plan? Did it succeed in its aims? What other factors were significant during this time period?

While doctrinal jargon changes with the seasons, a military campaign can be generally defined as a series of interrelated operations acting in pursuance of a common strategic goal, the key word being strategic. Warfare being defined in Western thought by von Clausewitz as “the continuation of politics by other means,” strategic goals are fundamentally political in nature rather than being strictly military. A classical example of the distinction between national strategy and military tactics would be the Roman General Scipio’s strategic imperative to destroy Carthage itself rather than simply destroying his opponent Hannibal’s army in the field. Drawing on more recent history, while it could be said credibly that the U.S. never lost a major battlefield engagement during the Vietnam War, it clearly failed at the strategic goal of preserving the Republic of South Vietnam.

So what was the Iraqi surge campaign and what was its goal? In short, it injected 30,000 additional troops and a new emphasis on “counterinsurgency” principles already at work in select areas of the country, most notably  Anbar province. As stated by President George W. Bush, the military objective (which John McCain seems to mistakenly view as the overall objective of the campaign) was “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security.” In a nutshell, to protect the Iraqi civilian population from Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads that were then terrorizing the country, the more of a Iraqi leading role the better.  This would be accomplished, in large part, by moving American troops out from large bases and into smaller outposts distributed throughout Iraqi cities to establish a 24/7 footprint amongst the civilian population. This military component of the strategy was designed to buy time for a comprehensive political and resource sharing arrangement to be developed amongst Iraqis that would lay the groundwork for a stable-ish future for the country.

What was the time period of the Iraqi surge campaign? The first “surge brigade” (2 BCT/82nd Airborne) began deploying to Baghdad in January 2007, and the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement effectively granted “independence” to Iraq on January 1, 2009.

Did the security situation in Iraq improve during this time period? Unequivocally, yes. The “why” of this question is the complicated part that John McCain doesn’t seem to like thinking about. Highly respected analysts have pointed to factors ranging from a “we’re not gonna take it anymore” revolution against Al Qaida affiliates in Anbar province, to Stanley McChrystal’s colossal, interagency kill/capture campaign targeted at insurgent and death squad leaders, to our outbidding Al Qaida on the insurgent labor pool with the creation of the “Sons of Iraq,” to the disturbingly simple notion that the ethnic cleansing in Baghdad was complete and the Shia succeeded in their aim of driving Sunnis out of town. Others, most notably Tom Ricks in his seminal work “The Gamble” very credibly argue that the Anbar Awakening which proved so crucial in turning the political tide would not have been possible without the implementation of counterinsurgency techniques in that province which bolstered our credibility amongst Iraqi civilians, with the 30,000 surge troops building on its success in an “ink blot” strategy across the country. In reality, of course, all of these factors complemented one another.

So, in short, Chuck Hagel is very much correct. While many fewer people were dying in Iraq at the end of the surge campaign, as John McCain seems to focus on, the jury is still very much out as to exactly why that is – and particularly whether the gruesome combat American troops endured during the implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy in Baghdad could have been avoided. History will indeed be the judge, and as is often the case it’s verdict will likely remain ambiguous.

Now, most importantly, did the Iraqi surge succeed in its strategic objective of establishing a sectarian power and resource sharing arrangement, and a nation that could effectively combat terrorism within its borders? At least one indicator within hours of the American withdrawal on New Years 2012 illustrates how tenuous the balance remains: Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki famously sentenced his Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi to death on charges of running a death squad. It was later determined that al-Hashemi was given shelter by President Jalal Talabani, who believed the charges to be politically motivated. Resource sharing arrangements remain elusive. And Al Qaida in Iraq has emerged as a major player in the constellation of insurgent groups vying for dominance in the fight against Bashar al Asad in Syria.

So yes, less Americans and Iraqis were indeed dying at the end of the surge campaign, defined as complete on December 31st, 2008. Does that change the fact that 4500 American service members were killed and nearly 40,000 grievously wounded in a war that was fought under false pretenses and disgraced the U.S. on the international stage? That 100,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence and an estimated 3 million refugees were displaced from their homes, creating textbook conditions for the rise of a new generation of jihadists? That insurgent groups which arose in this conflict as a direct result of the U.S. intervention are presently destabilizing the region beyond Iraq, most notably in Syria? That the only clear strategic “winner” of the Iraq War was Iran, which now benefits from the removal of its chief regional adversary and greatly diminished U.S. leverage in the region? Does it change the fact that Senator Chuck Hagel had every objective reason to believe that Generals Petraeus and Odierno would mismanage this massive new allocation of resources in the same manner that their predecessors had?

Was John McCain “right” about the Iraq surge and Chuck Hagel “wrong”?

It’s safe to say that as of 2013 John McCain no longer possesses the ability to be “right” about anything. But was Hagel “wrong”? Hmmm…it’s funny, there is still some debate amongst Civil War historians as to whether Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, the one that was blunted at Gettysburg, could be considered a narrowly defined military success.

Why are you laughing? Don’t be so rash.

It did, after all, accomplish its aim of keeping rapacious Yankees out of the Shenandoah Valley for an entire harvest season.

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Author: The Blue Route

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