A Good Critique of the Unified Theory of the Surge

Robert Farley takes on two of the major proponents of the Unified Theory of the Surge, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack:

O’Hanlon and Pollack insist that this is “a war that we just might win” without pausing to indicate what “victory” means in this context; at best, it seems, we could hope for some temporary stability. They seem to define stability as a reduction of civilian casualty rates by “roughly a third since the surge began”. I’ve written before about the nonsensical efforts of surge advocates to claim success by pointing to Iraqi government casualty figures; no one believes that those figures are accurate, including the US military, the Iraqi government, and any sensible analyst. Nevertheless, lets take the argument seriously for a moment. If we take February 1 as the official start date (icasualties uses this date), then Iraqi casualties since the beginning of the Surge have amounted to 12741. Casualties in the six months prior to the Surge were 13462. That’s a drop of about 700 dead, assuming that the count for July 2007 doesn’t go up (it will). Okay, let’s compare this six month period (12741) with the same six month period in 2006. From February through July of last year, 6216 Iraqis are recorded to have died. Note that 12741 is a larger number than 6216. Also note that the Golden Mosque was destroyed in February 2006, which set off (apparently not) the worst sectarian strife since the fall of Saddam.
Okay, that’s not so super. I assume that Pollack and O’Hanlon are using “Surge Start Date Mojo”; you may have noticed that the “surge” has a magical start date that moves back and forth, depending on when the advocate wants to start counting from. So I’ll do them the credit of assuming that they’ve found a creative way of arguing that civilian casualties have dropped by a third. If you start from the worst month ever, then it’s not hard to find improvement. Unfortunately, this puts to the lie everything else they right about finding “stability” in Iraq; stability, it appears, does not include a cessation of bloody massacres, relentless suicide bombings, and an astonishing death rate. It’s about outcomes, people; if the country is stabilizing, then civilian death rates should go down. If the insurgency is being defeated, then its capacity to launch attacks on US forces should decrease. Statistically, these things aren’t happening. The same can be said for O’Hanlon and Pollack’s claim that “everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people.” That may be true, but it hasn’t revealed itself yet in outcomes; Baghdad receives less electricity that it did a year ago, and far less than it received under Saddam Hussein.
I can only assume that Pollack and O’Hanlon consciously decided to wander Iraq with rose-colored glasses; they make no effort to detect or describe any of the enduring difficulties in the country. They don’t, for example, note the continuing failure of the Iraqi political process, or the fact that the Iraqi prime minister apparently loathes David Petraeus. They don’t mention the increasing tensions between Turks and Kurds in the north, or between Kurds and Sunnis in Kirkuk. They wave away the difficulties of training and sectarian violence within the Iraqi Army by noting that its ethnic divisions roughly mirror those of the country, without making any apparent effort to determine whether this diversity is within or across units. That’s rather an important distinction, as diversity across units does not speak well for national unity. They don’t mention that the Iraqi prime minister strongly opposes the strategy of bringing Sunni insurgent groups within the umbrella of the security services. They ignore the fact that sectarian violence in Baghdad may be down (if indeed it is down) because Sunnis and Shias have, through murder and intimidation, effectively ethnically cleansed their neighborhoods. They recklessly conflate, as the Bush administration has, the Iraqi insurgency as a whole with Al Qaeda, without considering that Al Qaeda has become formidable indeed if it can carry out hundreds of attacks per day during the “Surge”.
In short, O’Hanlon and Pollack have set out to describe all of the positive aspects of the “Surge”, and none of the negative.

But O’Hanlon and Pollack are Very Serious People, even though:

I’m left thinking about the peculiar position that O’Hanlon and Pollack, among others, occupy with respect to the academy that produced them. Political science opinion, across the left-right spectrum and from all of the different schools of IR resolutely opposed the Iraq War and predicted that it would be a disaster. Rock ribbed realists, liberal institutionalist, and social constructivists disagreed as to why the war would be a disaster, but nevertheless stood against it almost to an individual. I have to wonder whether the continued advocacy of O’Hanlon and Pollack for disastrous policies in a disastrous war has something to do with the need to set themselves apart from the rest of academia, and to point out that they, unlike their Ph.D. holding brethren, have sensible and “serious” attitudes about military action.

But O’Hanlon and Pollack are Very Serious People because they appear at Heritage Foundation and AEI events that have really nice lunch buffets, so they must be serious. What the hell do a bunch of political scientists know anyway?

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4 Responses to A Good Critique of the Unified Theory of the Surge

  1. mark says:

    A description of “victory” in Iraq is as elusive as a description of the “theory” of Intelligent Design.

  2. QrazyQat says:

    I know it when I see it.

  3. Mark P says:

    At this point victory is obviously a situation in which the US can pretend that things are stable enough to get the hell out. Then we can blame someone else for the chaos.

  4. Andrew Dodds says:

    I have to point out that these casualty estimates are probably extremely low – given that the average *monthly* death rate in Iraq due to the invasion and occupation has been running in the region of 15,000 from the start.
    And that this figure was probably lower to start with.
    If you add dead, wounded and refugees together, you are looking at around 5 million people minimum, 20-25% of the entire population. In US terms, that’s something like depopulating by death or displacement ALL of the US west of the rockies.

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