WASHINGTON — With support for President Bush’s policy in Iraq eroding among Republicans in the U.S. Senate, two of the leading architects of the surge strategy argued on Monday that it was already showing signs of success, but needed more time to achieve its objectives.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, resident scholar Frederick W. Kagan and former acting Army chief of staff General Jack Keane cautioned against a rush to brand the surge strategy a failure, because it only began being fully implemented three weeks ago and is already yielding progress.
But defense analyst James Miller of the Center for a New American Security offered himself up as “the skunk at the AEI surge garden party,” arguing that the strategy could not achieve its goals within a period of a few months, and the political fallout from staying the course could lead to a catastrophic precipitous withdrawal. Instead, as he wrote in a recent report, he believes that the U.S. should drawdown its troop levels and boost the number of advisers training Iraqi police and military.
In his opening remarks, Keane was dismissive of those who argued that the solution had to be economic and political rather than military, arguing that security was a precondition of any other goal. He described the current strategy as “a military operation designed to stabilize and secure the contested areas of Iraq to permit political progress and economic development.”
The surge strategy, which Keane said should more properly be called a “counteroffensive,” represents a stark contrast from the strategy being pursued between 2003 and early 2007, during which time the U.S. military decided not to protect people or fight insurgents, but to train the Iraqis, who were not prepared to protect themselves. Now, he said, U.S. troops are offering protection and fighting insurgents, buying time for Iraqis to reach the point at which they can handle their own security.
Keane was in Iraq in February and May, and said all the neighborhoods he visited had improved, even though the surge didn’t go into full effect until last month. He said he spoke to hundreds of Iraqis who said security is better now than it was in 2006.
The turnaround in Anbar province, which just last year was considered an Al Qaeda stronghold, has been especially impressive, with sheiks and tribal leaders cooperating with Americans because their people don’t want to live under al Qaeda’s stringent Islamic rules. “People are fed up with it,” Keane said. The progress in Anbar has even been noted by the New York Times.
Keane also noted a drop in sectarian deaths in June and a decline in the number of suicide bombings.
“The thought of pulling out now makes no sense militarily,” he said, predicting that a withdrawal would lead to a return to 2006 levels of violence.
In contrast, Miller suggested an alternate strategy that would involve reducing the number of troops in Iraq to 60,000 by the end of the Bush administration, while boosting the number of advisers from 6,000 to 20,000.
He argued that there had not been any political progress in Iraq, with no agreement on oil, large blocs of Sunni members still boycotting the parliament, and the whole legislature taking off the month of August. While he acknowledged the success in Anbar, he argued that the turnaround had happened concurrently with the surge, but not as a result of it, because the changes began to occur before the surge was implemented.
Another mistake supporters of the surge have made, Miller said, is that they don’t take into account that there is more to Iraq than Baghdad. “Al Qaeda and insurgents have brains and they have feet,” he reminded the audience, and said that they could adapt and take the fight elsewhere.
Kagan countered that Iraq “is not a limitless space,” and that there is a “fairly confined area where al Qaeda can operate.” For instance, the Sunni terrorist group cannot expect to establish bases in the Shiite south or the Kurdish north.
Responding to Miller’s other points, Kagan said that while the surge may not have caused the shift in Anbar, it assisted it. He argued that political progress will be a “trailing indicator,” and will only occur once basic security is established. In the meantime, it isn’t meaningful for the U.S. Congress to set arbitrary benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Transforming the U.S. mission to an advisory role as Miller suggested would represent a return to the failed strategy that we employed for nearly four years, Kagan said.
WHILE MUCH OF THE DEBATE focused on conditions in Iraq, a cloud that loomed over the entire discussion was the political climate in Washington, which is becoming increasingly anti-war. In recent weeks, Sens. Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, and Pete Domenici have broken with President Bush in Iraq, to varying degrees.
In introducing the panel, AEI’s Danielle Pletka lamented the fact that America could be facing the possibility of “victory abroad, defeat at home.”
That is one of the arguments that Miller offered in favor of his policy — that it would avoid a scenario under which a 2008 presidential candidate wins on a platform of getting out of Iraq.
Kagan, meanwhile, said he feared that the lack of political will would prevent the surge strategy from being given a chance to work, and expressed disappointment in those lawmakers whose support for the war effort was waning. “I’ve always thought, naive guy that I am, that the role of political leaders is to lead, and not simply to slavishly follow whatever public opinion polls there are going to be on a given subject.”