Afghan Lessons from the Iraq War

You don't have to go back 40 years to
the Vietnam War to feel the sting of deja vu. Returning to the Iraq War
just three years ago will suffice.

week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the administration's
dilemma on Afghanistan in a single question: "How do we signal resolve
and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that
this is not open-ended?"

You don't have to go back 40 years to
the Vietnam War to feel the sting of deja vu. Returning to the Iraq War
just three years ago will suffice.

week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the administration's
dilemma on Afghanistan in a single question: "How do we signal resolve
and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that
this is not open-ended?"

It is
the same question that policymakers and generals were grappling with
three years ago with respect to Iraq. Let's hope they learned the right
lessons from that experience, but it's doubtful since the Fawning
Corporate Media (FCM) has been no help in shedding light on what
actually happened.

If you
remember, President George W. Bush had been voicing lots of optimism
about the Iraq War and Vice President Dick Cheney had claimed the enemy
was "in its last throes." But it was becoming increasingly clear by
2006 that sectarian violence was ripping Iraq apart, that the death
toll of American troops was rising, and that U.S. defeat was looming.

Bush and Cheney were hell-bent on preventing defeat from happening, at
least on their watch. Nor did they want the neo-con dream of a
U.S.-dominated Iraq to die.

many in Washington - especially in the military - recognized that the
Bush/Cheney war couldn't be open-ended and that hard decision would
have to be made for a gradual withdrawal to begin.

his credit, Rep, Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, almost singlehandedly got
Congress to create the "Iraq Study Group," a blue-ribbon panel that was
to assess the situation in Iraq and determine what the United States
could still reasonably accomplish.

effort was not blessed by Bush and Cheney, who considered the idea of
second-guessing their judgments a nuisance or worse. But the panel
became more of a threat when high-profile figures - Republican elder
statesman James Baker and Democratic fixer Lee Hamilton - were picked
to chair it.

Though Baker had been the Bush family's consigliere
for decades, he was considered a possible wild card. As a hard-headed
pragmatist, he reflected Establishment thinking, which was coming to
believe that the war-hungry neo-cons around Bush had bitten off more
than they could chew in Iraq.

A New Course

fall 2006, the members of the Iraq Study Group were convinced that a
new course was needed for Iraq. And almost no sober thinker favored
sending more troops.

senior military, especially CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid and his
man on the ground in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, emphasized that sending
more U.S. troops to Iraq would signal leading Iraqi politicians that
they could relax and continue to take forever to get their act together.

for example, is Gen. Abizaid's answer at the Senate Armed Services
Committee on Nov. 15, 2006, to Sen. John McCain, who had long been
pressing vigorously for sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq:

McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps
commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, 'in
your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops
now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in

"And they all said no.
And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for
the Iraqis to rely upon us do this work. I believe that more American
forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more
responsibility for their own future."

Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad sent a classified cable to
Washington warning that "proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq
would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less,
not more, sustainable," according to a New York Times retrospective on
the "surge" by Michael R. Gordon published on Aug. 31, 2008.

was arguing, unsuccessfully, for authority to negotiate a political
solution with the Iraqis. Bush and Cheney would not allow Khalilizad to
do so.

Instead, Bush and
Cheney began to plan a purge of their top commanders - moving to
replace Abizaid and Casey - and easing Khalilizad out as well.

and his neo-con advisers also had a problem with Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, who was backing his generals. On Nov. 6, 2006, a day
before the mid-term elections, Rumsfeld sent a memo to the White House
that made many of the same arguments that Abizaid, Casey and members of
the Iraq Study Group were making.

first 80 percent of Rumsfeld's memo addressed "Illustrative Options,"
including his preferred - or "above the line" - options, such as "an
accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases ... to five by July 2007" and
withdrawal of U.S. forces "from vulnerable positions - cities,
patrolling, etc. ... so the Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks,
step up and take responsibility for their country."

Nov. 8, after Republicans were routed in the 2006 elections, Bush cut
loose Rumsfeld, replacing him with former CIA Director (and member of
the Iraq Study Group) Robert Gates. The Washington news media widely
interpreted the move as Bush's acceptance of a more realistic policy
for winding down the Iraq War.

A Misconstrued Firing

Rumsfeld's firing was completely misread. Behind the scenes, the
controversial Defense Secretary had been backing his commanders on the
need to keep the U.S. "footprint" as small as possible.

careerist Gates was a different story, willing to support an escalation
in exchange for a place again at the Washington power table.

his early days at the CIA, Gates was never one to let truth derail his
ambition. Though privy to the analysis emerging from the Iraq Study
Group - on the need for a gradual U.S. withdrawal - Gates was willing
to play ball with Bush on an escalation.

Dec. 6, 2006, after months of investigation and policy review, the Iraq
Study Group issued its final report, which began with the ominous
sentence, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." It called

"A change in the primary
mission of U.S. Forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to
begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. ... By the
first quarter of 2008...all combat brigades not necessary for force
protection could be out of Iraq."

the same day as the ISG report, Gates was confirmed by the full Senate.
In retrospect the coincidence was a supreme irony, since Gate's
Washington rebirth as Secretary of Defense facilitated the early death
of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

We were in for a "surge," not a drawdown of troops.

quickly deep-sixed the ISG recommendations, which his neo-con advisers
depicted as defeatist, a prescription for "losing Iraq" and - worse yet
- doing so on the Bush-Cheney watch. Bush made clear he was prepared to
stay in Iraq indefinitely and expand the fight against Islamic

At a news conference
on Dec. 20, 2006, Bush cast this wider struggle against Islamists as a
test of American toughness and perseverance, a demonstration to the
enemy that "they can't run us out of the Middle East, that they can't
intimidate America."

than scale back the neoconservative dream of transforming the Middle
East, Bush argued for an expanded U.S. military to wage this long war.

must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the
fight for a long period of time," Bush said. "I'm not predicting any
particular theater, but I am predicting that it's going to take a while
for the ideology of liberty to finally triumph over the ideology of

Neo-cons Planning

As Bush talked tough, neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute
were devising a plan to "surge" 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops
into Iraq, enough to stave off definitive defeat at least until January
2009 when Bush and Cheney could ride off into the sunset without having
lost a war.

The neo-cons even
found a retired general, Jack Keane, who had been Army Vice Chief of
Staff and knew how to work the Pentagon side of things.

announced the "surge" on Jan 10, 2007, and the escalation was phased in
through much of 2007. U.S. casualties skyrocketed, with more than 1,000
American troops dying, roughly a quarter of the total killed in the
Iraq War.

As author Steve Coll
put it, "The decision [to surge] at a minimum guaranteed that his
[Bush's] presidency would not end with a defeat in history's eyes. By
committing to the surge [the President] was certain to at least achieve
a stalemate."

Gradually, the
violence in Iraq did subside, from catastrophic to wretched. That
prompted the well-placed neo-cons and their friends in the Fawning
Corporate Media to hail the "surge" as a great success and a sterling
example of Bush's steely-eyed courage.

point of view congealed into a potent conventional wisdom among
Washington insiders. However, many military analysts believed the
"surge" was at best a minor factor in improving Iraq's security climate.

For his book, The War Within, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward interviewed a number of military officials and concluded:

Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple
view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At
least three other factors were as important as, or even more important
than, the surge."

reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar
province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of
radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire
by his militia were two important factors.

A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most
significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence
tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent
leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques
from his book so as not to undercut their continued success.

But there were previous glimpses of these classified U.S. programs that
combined high-tech means of identifying insurgents - such as
sophisticated biometrics and night-vision-equipped drones - with
old-fashioned brutality on the ground, including on-the-spot executions
of suspects. [For instance, see's "Bush's Global Dirty War" and "Iraq's Laboratory of Repression."]

Brutal Factors

Other brutal factors further explained the decline in violence:

--Vicious ethnic cleansing had succeeded in separating Sunnis and
Shiites to such a degree that there were fewer targets to kill. Several
million Iraqis were estimated to be refugees either in neighboring
countries or within their own.

--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas made
"death-squad" raids more difficult but also "cantonized" much of
Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even
more exhausting as they sought food or traveled to work.

--During the "surge," U.S. forces expanded a policy of rounding up
so-called "military age males" and locking up tens of thousands in
prison on the flimsiest of suspicions.

--Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian
bystanders for more than five years, had slaughtered countless
thousands of Iraqis and had intimidated many others to look simply to
their own survival.

the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and
many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society had been deeply
traumatized. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point
violent repression does work.

But this dark side of the "successful surge" was excluded from the U.S.
political debate in 2008, much as the illegality of Bush's original
invasion had been treated as a taboo subject during the early years of
the Iraq War.

During last
year's presidential campaign, when Barack Obama tried to make thd more
sophisticated argument about the "surge," he was badgered by prominent
journalists, such as CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC's "This Week" host
George Stephanopoulos.

instance, on Sept. 7, 2008, Stephanopoulos demanded of Obama: "How do
you escape the logic that ... John McCain was right about the surge?"

When Obama responded that he couldn't understand "why people are so
focused on what has happened in the last year and a half and not on the
previous five," Stephanopoulos cut him off, saying "Granted, you think
you made the right decision about going in, but about the surge?"

Unwilling to pay the price for challenging Washington's conventional
wisdom regarding the "surge," Obama finally agreed to cede the point
and "admit" that the "surge" had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

An Early Sign

It was an early sign that Obama was not prepared to take on
Washington's media/political elites over a factual issue, even one with
important national security implications.

Ironically, just as Obama was retreating on the "surge," Iraqi
officials were standing up against Bush's desire to have a "status of
forces agreement" that would grant the United States the indefinite
right to operate militarily in Iraq.

Instead, they insisted that Bush accept a phased withdrawal of U.S.
troops from Iraqi cities in 2009 and then from the country by the end
of 2011.
Bush, who had always rejected the idea of a withdrawal timetable, was forced to accept just such a timetable.

The timetable also appears to have had a beneficial effect on levels of
violence in Iraq. Since the SOFA was signed, U.S. military fatalities
in Iraq have dropped by more than half, to 142 in 2009 from 314 in
2008, according to The U.S. death toll was 904 in 2007.

However, after winning the presidency, Obama continued to finesse the
powers-that-be. He kept on Gates - a Washington favorite - as Defense
Secretary. He also appeared eager to score some points by describing
the Afghan conflict as "a war of necessity."

However, these decisions by Obama - bowing to "the myth of the
successful surge," retaining Gates and exaggerating Afghanistan's
strategic importance - have all served to box the President in on what
to do next about that eight-year-old war.

The lazy Washington analysis has remained that the "surge" worked in
Iraq, so why not do one in Afghanistan? Plus, a "surge" has been
recommended by two of Bush's favorite generals, David Petraeus and
Stanley McChrystal. They want Obama to send at least 40,000 more troops
to Afghanistan, while Gates is reportedly on board for 30,000.

If Obama is to resist the pressure to escalate in Afghanistan, he will
find himself tacking into the stiff wind of the FCM's "successful surge
myth" and having to maneuver around the recommendations of his field
commanders and his Defense Secretary.

Democratic officials are notoriously disinterested in history, Obama
may find that his acceptance of a false history for Iraq has real-life
consequences in Afghanistan.

least on the Vietnam War, thanks to Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the
Pentagon Papers, Americans have a relatively clear understanding of how
they got dragged into that mess.

if the "successful surge" myth weren't so deeply engrained in
Washington, a case could even be made that the expectation of a U.S.
withdrawal from Iraq in 2008 and the actuality of the U.S. military
pulling troops out of the center of Iraqi cities in 2009 have had the
most dramatic effect on tamping down violence, compared to all other

Looking at the
sharp decline in U.S. casualties in 2008 and 2009, one might even
hypothesize that it was the presence of a foreign occupying army that
provoked many Iraqis to take up arms.

Now that would be a lesson that President Obama might want to take to
heart as he weighs his options for an escalation in Afghanistan.

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