The Complex Success of the Surge

The "surge" in Iraq sure appears to have worked.  There are some who say President Bush should have listened to voices such as Senator John McCain and then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki in the first place, rather than taking the foolish advice of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other "neo-con" hardliners.

But before we give all the credit to the "more boots on the ground" stompers and all the blame to Rumsfeld and the neo-cons, let's take a second look at the surge.

To set the stage, let's look at the results to date.  (In the following, my reference is the Brookings Institute's "Iraq Index" dated July 17, 2008.  )

  • US troop and Iraqi civilian fatality rates are at their lowest points since the war began in 2003.
  • Today Iraq has legitimate elections, a constitution and a functioning parliament.  It is considered more politically free than virtually any country in the Middle East, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait.
  • Gross Domestic Product has almost tripled, from $20.5B (US dollars) in 2002 to $60.9B in 2008.
  • Oil production in each of the last three months (May-July 2008) has exceeded the peak pre-war estimated rate of 2.5 million barrels per day.  Oil exports now bring in about $7 billion per month, and rising.
  • Pre-war, only 4 to 8 hours of electricity were available per day nationwide, on average.  In July 2008, electricity was available an average of almost 12 hours per day, an improvement of 50% to 200%.
  • There are more than twice as many registered cars, more than 10 times as many telephone subscribers and more than 50 times as many internet subscribers.
  • Under Saddam, Iraq had no commercial TV or radio stations and no independent newspapers or magazines.  Zero.  Today it has dozens of TV stations and hundreds of radio stations, newspapers and magazines.
  • More children are in school, and more doctors, judges and security personnel have been trained and are being trained.

In addition to the above, the White House has reported that the Iraqi government achieved "satisfactory" progress on 15 of 18 political benchmarks as set by Congress and the President.

With results like these, who can deny the "surge" is working?  I will, to a certain extent.

It's not that the surge isn't working -- something sure is working.  It's that giving all the credit to the "surge" is a vast oversimplification.  It gives too much credit to the "more boots on the ground" advocates and too much blame to Rumsfeld and his "neo-con" cohorts.  The surge probably needed certain conditions in place beforehand; it almost surely would not have worked at just any time since March 2003.

How big was the surge?  The surge was announced in January 2007.  In 2006 the number of US troops in Iraq peaked at 144,000 in September and October.  The US troop level peaked about one year later, at 171,000 in October 2007.  That is a 19% increase.

However, some of those US troops were making up for a loss of non-US troops.  Total coalition troops went from 162,000 in September 2006 to 182,668 in October 2007.  An increase of less than 13%.  That was the "surge" in terms of coalition troop levels - 13 %.

To put these numbers in perspective, General Shinseki estimated that 400,000 or even 500,000 troops would be needed.  At the very peak of the surge, the actual number of US troops was barely over a third of that.

Of course the "surge" meant more than simply more boots on the ground.  This April 2008, General Petraeus gave testimony to Congress saying

"A number of factors have contributed to the progress... You are well aware of the US [troop] surge.  Less recognized is that Iraq has also conducted a surge, adding well over 100,000 additional soldiers and police to the ranks... A second factor has been the employment of Coalition and Iraqi Forces ... deployed together... Another important factor has been the attitudinal shift among certain elements of the Iraqi population."

Look at what was needed, according to the General in charge of the surge, in addition to more coalition troops: large numbers of Iraqi forces, Iraqi forces capable of fighting, Iraqi forces willing and able to work together with US troops, and a major shift in attitudes in the Iraqi population.

These conditions simply did not exist at the beginning of the war.  We had to create them.

In May 2003, there were only about 8,000 Iraqi Security Forces.  By the end of 2003 they had grown to 100,000.  By January of 2007, when the surge was announced, there were 323,000 Iraqi forces.  Today there are almost 500,000.  And as those numbers grew, those forces were being trained by people like General Petraeus.  They worked more and more with coalition troops.  They took control over more areas of Iraq.  They gained combat experience.

In short, you can't go from 8,000 rag-tag troops accustomed to the Baathist Army's corrupt chain-of-command to 500,000 soldiers willing and capable of working with the modern, professional US military overnight.  It took years.  In fact, I'd say it took about four years.

And what about the "attitudinal shift among certain elements of the Iraqi population?"  You think holding three successful and honest elections (remember the purple fingers), a functioning parliament and an accepted constitution might have had something to do with it?  Those things didn't happen overnight, or painlessly, either.

You can say the surge worked, but it only worked because of what came before it.  And what came before it took a good four years of pain and cost.  President Bush told us long ago it would be "hard work" that would take "patience."  To all those "told you so" types, please repeat after me:  "President Bush was right."

If we had put something like 400,000 troops in Iraq from the outset, we would have had to reinstitute the draft.  You think opposition to the war was bad as it was, what if 19-year-olds were being forced into that desert death zone against their and their parents' will?  Then you would have had a repeat of Vietnam.

Also, what would those extra 250,000 troops have done?  I'm not a military strategist, and I will not play one here.  But even I know that deploying troops is more than a matter of numbers.  Those troops need missions.  If they had marched into cities and towns in large numbers, shot who they thought should be shot, and governed the populations without benefit of Iraqi government or forces, that Iraqi "attitudinal shift" might have been in an entirely different direction.

As it was, the violence was not widespread throughout Iraq.  Five of the 18 provinces accounted for 87% of insurgent attacks.  Six of those 18, combined, accounted for less than 1% of the attacks.  That means much of Iraq was actually fairly pacified all that time. 

Would going overboard with the occupation have radicalized those relatively pacified 13 provinces?  What if the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani had advocated violence against the US coalition instead of cooperation with it?  What if the Kurds of the north preferred civil war to being policed by non-de-baathified security forces?

You think the Iraq war was bad?  It could have been worse.  In fact, let's look at how much was accomplished before the surge.

  • Saddam's regime was ousted in about one month, with relatively few US fatalities and limited Iraqi civilian fatalities.  Since April of 2003, the operation has been one of countering the ruthless insurgents, often foreign and al-qaida, while assisting the greater Iraqi population to be self-governing.
  • Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries were not drawn into the conflict.  The war did not spread throughout the region.  In fact, the conflict was largely confined to five provinces within Iraq.
  • The two months of highest US troop fatalities occurred in 2004 and the rate appeared to be falling until about 2006 (an election year -- coincidence?).
  • Multiple Iraqi elections were held by the end of 2005.  The transitional authority was replaced with an Iraqi-run government elected by the Iraqi people under an Iraqi-written constitution.
  • Iraq's GDP grew from $20.5B (US dollars) in 2002 to $34.5B in 2005, an increase of 68% in those first three years of US presence, despite the setback of the initial war itself.
  • Crude oil production was back above 2 million barrels per day by October 2003, or at least 80% of the pre-war peak, and would remain at or above that level for most months thereafter.
  • Electricity generation exceeded pre-war levels by 2004.  Nationwide, the average hours of electricity available per day would be higher than the pre-war level by early 2004.
  • The number of registered cars more than doubled from pre-war to October 2005.  Telephone subscribers went from 833,000 pre-war to over 4 million in 2005.  Internet subscribers went from 4,500 pre-war to over 147,000 by March 2005.
  • Commercial TV, radio and independent newspapers and magazines went from zero pre-war to 44, 91, and 294, respectively, by December 2005.
  • The number of children enrolled in middle and high schools increased by 27% from 2002 to 2005.
  • The number of Iraqi security troops went from under 9,000 in May 2003 to over 200,000 by the end of 2005, and in increasing states of readiness.

All in all, the time period between the March 2003 invasion and the beginning of the "surge" in January of 2007 (in short, Rumsfeld's tenure), was one of great accomplishment.  It set the stage for a successful surge.  I would go so far as to say the pre-2007 accomplishments were necessary conditions for a successful surge.

Nothing is ever perfect, but how much better could anyone have expected it to be?  Moreover, how can anyone with an ounce of humility think he knows how to have done it better?  After all, this is war.

By all means, let's praise General Petraeus to high heaven.  But let's also recognize the much-maligned Donald Rumsfeld et al for what they did with their thankless assignment.

And all this -- pre-surge, surge, and post-surge -- are necessary conditions for pulling our troops out of Iraq while also leaving it reliably safer than before 2003.  In fact, things seem to be going so well that Barack Obama's and Prime Minister Maliki's wish of a pullout in 2010 might very well be possible.

What a shame if Obama would get the credit for a "pullout" that could only have been possible because of the decisions of President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and David Petraeus and the lives of over 4,000 US troops.

Randall Hoven can be contacted at or  via his web site,