The Surge and Other Popular Neocon Myths

by James Russell

As the Senate prepares for what will be contentious confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense, it is important to debunk some of the popularized narratives that are being offered by neoconservative commentators as they attempt to seize control of important issues that will likely come up during the confirmation process.

Hagel was one of the few who had the guts to question the Iraq invasion when it was politically unpopular to do so, was right about the disastrous consequences of the invasion for US power and prestige, and rightly raised questions about the increase in troop levels committed as part of the so-called “surge” in 2007. As noted by Wayne White in this blog, there are many misconceptions and myths perpetrated about the surge and its relationship to America’s experience in the war.

Neoconservative commentators have successfully shaped a popular narrative suggesting that the surge helped spur the famous Anbar Awakening that turned the tide in Iraq and somehow helped “win” the war. There are grains of truth in these assertions, but these half-truths have been used to support wholly unfounded and full-blown myths that are still spouted in print by columnists like Charles Krauthammer, Elliott Abrams and others.

My book on ground operations in Iraq from 2005-07 in Anbar and Mosul deals extensively with local politics in Anbar during the period and provides an entirely different picture of the awakening and its circumstances that had little to do with the surge. Like all complex phenomena, the awakening occurred in a particular context and with a history that has been largely omitted from popular narratives about the war.

The first of the so-called tribal “flips” started in 2005 in Al Qaim due in part to a dispute involving the Albu Mahal tribe and its interest in controlling border and smuggling operations. The Albu Mahals subsequently became the “desert protector” force in 2005; Marines issued them uniforms and installed them in local police stations to start directing traffic and performing other constabulary duties. In a pattern that would be repeated elsewhere around the province, the Marines turned a blind eye to the Albu Mahal’s smuggling operations in exchange for this support — so long as the smuggling did not support insurgent activities. The Marines initially tried to set up local militias in 2004 in the city of Hit in Anbar — efforts that failed miserably as the units disintegrated when insurgents attacked them.

The Awakening spread from western Anbar in 2005 and culminated in Ramadi in the summer/fall of 2006 — before the surge had even begun. By the time the surge happened in the spring of 2007, there were already over 1,000 former Sunni tribal and nationalist insurgents manning police checkpoints in and around Ramadi.

The tribal flip had to do with many factors — national-level political developments and the rising power of the Shi’ites and the realization by Sunni tribal leaders that only the US could protect them from the ascendant Shi’ites. They grasped the obvious in late 2006: their continued alliance with the jihadists would lead to their destruction. They had also become disaffected with the non-Iraqi jihadists and their brutal methods of intimidation. They also resented the way these jihadists had seized control over the smuggling routes in Anbar that had supported Sunni tribes for decades.

In the fall of 2006, US commanders in Ramadi stood by as the 1920s Brigade and other Sunni nationalist insurgents dragged the jihadists out of the mosques on Fridays and blew their brains out. Importantly, the improved tactical proficiency of US units — a proficiency driven by desperation and willingness to learn and adapt — played a role in supporting the awakening process. US brigade and battalion commanders deserve great credit for forming personal relationships with tribal leaders like Abdul Sittar Abdu Risha that helped immeasurably as the awakening process gathered momentum in the fall of 2006.

Contrary to popular myths now being offered up on the airwaves, the White House and Gen. David Petraeus were not involved in decisions by brigade and battalion commanders to start forming these local alliances. My research on this period of the war shows that these commanders took these steps out of desperation and because they couldn’t think of anything else to do to reduce insurgent violence.

Many myths surround the Awakening and the surge – myths popularized by the neocons and the mainstream media, as well as by fawning narratives in books by Paula Broadwell and others about how brilliant senior leaders engineered this change in the landscape of Iraq. Like all narratives, however, their stories contain only grains of truth.

The increase in US troop numbers were important in tamping down violence in Iraq, and the bloody and brutal campaign undertaken by the Joint Special Operations Command in 2007 in Baghdad eviscerated the insurgent networks in and around the capital. But, the surge was not responsible for the Awakening and it did not “win” the war, as asserted by the neoconservatives.

The net result of the surge was to help create circumstances to cover the US retreat so the neoconservatives and others could assert we had in fact achieved something worthwhile in Iraq. The problem with this is that there are still those out there that believe the information operations (IO) campaign that was itself part of the surge. We ended up believing our own invented press releases — a process now repeating itself in Afghanistan.

This IO campaign regrettably succeeded, and there is today no national-level debate over the disastrous US experience in Iraq. That absence means that columnists like Krauthammer and other neocons can make unsupported and unchallenged assertions about the “surge” and its circumstances.

Importantly, it means that the same neoconservative figures who helped sell the Iraq war in the first place can also, with straight faces, go after figures like Chuck Hagel, who, whatever his faults, turned out to be right about Iraq. If Hagel was right about Iraq, maybe it says something about other judgments he might have to make as our next secretary of defense.

Maybe this country would be better off with senior leaders willing to take politically unpopular positions on important questions and have the strength of their convictions to carry those arguments into the senior reaches of government.

Photo: President George W. Bush makes a statement to reporters about the war in Iraq after his meeting with senior national defense leaders at the Pentagon May 10, 2007. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.