Is the surge working? 

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered

It depends who you ask and how you define the words "is," "the," "surge" and "working."

If you define the words to mean "Is the daily level of violence in Iraq lower since the U.S. troop increase went into full effect last summer?" then the answer is yes-ish.

Surge working = lower violence.

According to the General Accounting Office, the U.S. Congress's auditing and investigations office, attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are down since summer. In October, 36 American troops were killed in Iraq, down from 126 in May.

And fewer Iraqi civilians are dying since the surge surged.

According to Iraq Body Count, which attempts to count the dead in Iraq by counting deaths reported in the media, around 1,200 Iraqi civilians died in October, down from 3,000 in July. Because it only counts deaths reported in the media, IBC's numbers are low estimates.

True, 1,200 is not as horrible as 3,000, but 1,200 is still a huge number. The highest estimate of Iraq's total population I've read recently is just 28.8 million. The same rate of civilian death in the United States would have left 12,400 American civilians dead last month – the equivalent of more than four 9/11 attacks. The rate of violence in Iraq is where it was in early 2006.

Listen to Bush partisans and they'll cite the above as undeniable proof that the surge is working (Google the words "surge is working" for many fine examples).

The reason I answered yes-ish instead of yes is because the lower civilian death rate since summer is not necessarily, as White House Press Secretary Dana Perino put it, "because of the surge."

The GAO's report citing lower violence also noted the massive outflow of refugees from Iraq. Roughly 15 percent of Iraq's citizens have left their homes since the war began. Around 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan, while another 2.2 million have gone elsewhere in Iraq.

The GAO suggests that violence is down in Iraq in part because a sectarian cleansing campaign has homogenized the mixed Sunni-Shiite areas where much of the violence was taking place. For surge supporters to turn around and take credit for the drop in violence is like a fire department high-fiving itself for extinguishing a fire in a house that has already burned to the ground. Fewer people are dying, in large part, because there are fewer people to kill.

Another factor to consider is the truce declared between Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and forces loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (which used to be known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – it used to be SCIRI, now it's just SIIC).

The two Shiite rivals clashed throughout the summer until al-Sadr declared a six-month truce so he could regroup and reassert his authority over his unwieldy organization. The biggest dip in violence in Iraq happened post-truce, so it's probably fair to conclude that some of the drop in violence is al-Sadr's doing, and not just Surgin' Gen. Petraeus' awesomeness.

If you define "is," "the," "surge" and "working" to mean that the troop increase has furthered the strategic goals of the war in Iraq, the answer is even more bleak.

The surge was never intended to be a strategy to win the war. The surge was presented to the American people by the president as a shift in tactics designed to lower violence so that Iraq's leaders can reach some sort of intersectarian and interethnic power-sharing agreement. To that end, the United States gave Iraq's leaders 18 political benchmarks to be met by Sept. 1.

There's hardly a mark on the bench. Of the 18 benchmarks, only three were met, according to the GAO. Iraq's leaders still haven't worked up an oil-sharing agreement, a constitutional reform agreement, or moved to disarm illegal militias. Even the always-full-of-crap-about-progress-in-Iraq White House only managed to give Iraq a passing grade on eight of the 18.

The surge is a means of helping achieve the benchmarks. If they're not met, the surge was all for nothing.

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