The politics of the surge beyond Iraq

A Guest Post by Daniel Luban

The current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is based, in large part, on bringing to bear on the Taliban the “Awakening” strategy used in Iraq. The Awakenings, of course, were the process by which former Sunni insurgents (beginning in Anbar province) turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and allied with the U.S. in return for cash payments and the promise of political power. In the estimation of many experts, these defections were as or more important than the concurrent “surge” of U.S. forces in diminishing violence in Iraq. Similarly, in Afghanistan the U.S. hopes to split off the “moderate” Taliban (who Vice President Joe Biden claimed in March make up 70% of the total insurgency) from their “incorrigable” brethren (estimated by Biden at 5% of the insurgency).

On Saturday in Baghdad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview in which she extended this logic to encompass Hamas as well. Her statement is interesting in its own right as an explanation of U.S. policy going forward. But it is also interesting as an example of how the perceived success of the Iraq surge — a success that is widely accepted as a fact in mainstream political discussion, even if it is contested by many experts — has been appropriated by both hawks and doves to frame their preferred policies.

First, what Clinton actually said (via Foreign Policy‘s Laura Rozen):

FOX NEWS REPORTER JAMES ROSEN: Without getting hung up on the name that is attached to it, do you and President Obama subscribe to the Bush doctrine, by which I mean, roughly speaking, for the purpose of our conversation, the view that if you harbor, clothe, feed, or otherwise materially aid a terrorist, then you, yourself, are a terrorist? Is that a doctrine to which you and President Obama subscribe?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you’ve heard from us in the last nearly 100 days we will not deal with Hamas unless they renounce violence, recognize Israel, and agree to abide by prior Palestinian Authority agreements. We do not in any way support the kind of extremists that you see. What we are looking for is to separate out those who are, as we found in Iraq, part of an armed campaign for political reasons that can be reconcilable.

We began to turn Iraq around, as you remember, under President Bush, even with that doctrine, when the military began to work with groups of people, particularly the so-called Sons of Iraq, and The Awakening, who, months before, had taken up arms against Americans and other Iraqis. And the thinking was, we need to separate out those who are there for reasons having to do with their own political and cultural and historic ties, as opposed to the hard core extremists and terrorists.

I think that the general principle that we don’t associate with these people is absolutely the same. But the opportunity, as we found under the Bush administration, in Iraq, is worth exploring with those elements of the Taliban that are there because they pay better than the Afghan police force pays, for example.

So, what we’re attempting to do is to follow what turned out to be a smart strategy in Iraq and other places, with the same level of caution, the same level of skepticism, but understanding that we don’t do business with the terrorists, but we may do business with people who got swept up in some kind of move that doesn’t necessarily define their attitude toward the United States, or the use of violence.

Although Clinton’s statement seems to open the door to members of Hamas participating in talks with Israel, the actual policy implications of the statement are quite ambiguous. The primary issue on the table at this point is whether the U.S. will accept Hamas participation in a unity government alongside Fatah. But will Hamas officials themselves have to meet the three conditions (renounce violence, recognize Israel, abide by previous PA agreements) as individuals in order to be deemed “moderate,” or will it be enough for them to agree to participate in a unity government that meets the three conditions as an entity? Clinton’s statement does not make this issue clear, but it could be the critical question determining the viability of a unity government. Similarly, Clinton’s statement could be read to imply that Hamas members will only be deemed acceptable provided they leave Hamas — something that is highly unlikely to occur. Or, alternately, she could simply be saying that the U.S. will be willing to work with elements of Hamas that are de facto moderate, whether or not they formally distance themselves from the group or meet the three conditions. (Of course, all this could be irrelevant since, as Marc Lynch notes, the prospects for a unity government appear increasingly slim in any case.)

Regardless, what is equally notable about Clinton’s statement is how she frames the question of dealing with Hamas around the “lessons of Iraq”. This is an interesting sign of how the perceived (and widely-assumed) success of counterinsurgency in Iraq is having a lasting influence — not merely in how American generals fight wars on the ground, but on how American politicians frame foreign policy debates in Washington.

As I noted in a piece for IPS earlier this month, hawks (of both the liberal and neoconservative variety) have unsurprisingly seized on the idea that “the surge worked” to argue for a more aggressive U.S. strategic posture in general. On their reading, the failure of the war effort in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 was due merely to a lack of commitment to victory, and the surge teaches us that in the face of adversity the U.S. must simply double down and fight harder. In this way the “lessons of the surge” dovetail neatly with the alleged “lessons of Munich” and “lessons of Vietnam” that have become cornerstones of neoconservative foreign policy thinking. The basic lesson, as Bobby Jindal would have it, is that “Americans can do anything” when we put our minds to it. It is not the goal of “benevolent global hegemony” that needs to be reevaluated; rather, the U.S. must simply be willing to commit more resources to this goal.

It may not be surprising that hawks have seized upon the surge to argue for their favored policies. But what is more interesting is how the apparent turnaround in Iraq has been used to argue for relatively dovish positions as well. Whereas for the hawks, the central fact of the turnaround is the surge itself (that is, the addition of 30,000 troops and the switch to “clear, hold, build” tactics), for the doves, the central fact is the Awakenings (that is, the decision to stop treating the insurgency as a unified bloc and start reaching out to moderate elements within it). For the hawks, the lesson is “fight harder,” while for the doves, it is “reconcile with the moderates.”

The Obama administration has embraced the Awakening model in a way that is, I think, quite shrewd politically. By presenting each new diplomatic outreach (to the Taliban, to Hamas, or to anyone else) as modeled on “how we won the Iraq war,” the administration has given an imprimatur of hawkishness to what would otherwise be caricatured as appeasement. The reliance on surrogates who are holdovers from the Bush administration (Petraeus, Gates, Mullen) as spokesmen is part and parcel of this strategy as well. If Obama had campaigned on the promise that, if elected, he would make peace with most of the Taliban and bring them into the Afghan government, he would have been shouted down for being naive or cowardly. But by framing the same actions as part of a Petraeus-style counterinsurgency campaign, Obama has been able effectively to counter attacks from his right on national security. (Counterinsurgency is, in any case, such a broad-ranging concept that it encompasses a fair amount of what we would traditionally regard as diplomacy. Applying the counterinsurgency label to diplomatic measures helps reconcile hawks to them, by reassuring the hawks that this diplomacy is really a form of warmaking, after all.)

As stated, I think the administration’s use of this rhetoric is highly effective in terms of Washington politics, but policy on the ground is another matter. While Obama has skillfully avoided accusations of being “soft” on national security, it remains to be seen whether this domestic political prowess will translate into success on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and elsewhere.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. I don’t know how you take such a charitable reading of Hillary’s comments. She sounds like she’s unwilling to talk to Hamas, she’s gonna play the same tired game of legitimating Abbas. Abbas’ silence during GAZA will never be forgotten.

    This is no genius, it is continuation of group think. I don’t see where you get such optimism. We will keep trying to project power, when we’re toothless or rotten to the core with corruption.

    We’re owned by the banks and the military industrial complex. Our media are wholly corrupted as well. Where will the good word come from? The people are not informed, nor are the media, politicos and corporate heads. The corporate heads are just the managers, the politicos just managers, the media managed and hoping to ingratiate themselves to the managers.

    Our debt is growing around us. We could be brought to our knees by China, Russia, Europe, Japan or the Saudis. We’re bailing out bankers, bad companies, and looking to continue our global hegemony.

    *Stockholders are the owners of companies, the CEO, the board are JUST managers. Yet, they get to pick their own pay, lobby on behalf of the firm… What restaurant owner would let the managers set their own pay. John Bogle has written compellingly about this inmates running the asylum problem in corporate America.

  2. Ambiguous? The Obama Administration is not going to start talking to Hamas, at least not before the 2012 election. Of course, Hamas could surprise us and knuckle under to the conditions we’ve set them, but I doubt it.

    70% percent of the Taliban are “moderates” according to VP Biden. Well, consider the source. There’s no evidence from the people on the ground (at least none that I know of) that the Taliban can be splintered. We have to face the fact that these people have to be defeated. Unfortunately, a counterinsurgency strategy (including encouraging an Afghan “Awakening”) is unlikely to produce results — again, according to knowledgeable opinion that has no ax to grind.

    This is a big problem. Afghanistan is a special kind of place (I don’t mean that in a positive sense). You can’t turn it into a modern democratic state. And Pakistan too is slipping away. Because the Pak nukes could fall into the bad guys’ hands, we need to clean up the whole area. To do so would require military operations of a nature that no “responsible” soldier or politician has the guts to contemplate. So we’ll spend years and perhaps decades with our fingers crossed, hoping that a Taliban state with nukes doesn’t emerge in Pakistan. The longer we let things drag on in Afghanistan, the more likely that outcome becomes.

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