The Iraqi government has announced that the civilian death toll for November – 88 – was the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, marking a two-year decline in killings that has corresponded with a less aggressive American military strategy and a pullback of U.S. troops to bases on city outskirts.
Yet how this welcome drop in bloodshed is interpreted – or misinterpreted – has become a troubling element in President Barack Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to support an offensive into Taliban-dominated Helmand Province.
The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that President George W. Bush’s decision in early 2007 to “surge” troops in Iraq – a policy implemented by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus of the Central Command – led to the decline in Iraqi violence. Therefore, the thinking goes, a “surge” should be tried in Afghanistan.
However, there’s an opposite way of reading the same data – that Bush’s “surge” increased the Iraqi violence in late spring 2007, including a spike in U.S. casualties, and that only a political-military decision to pull back from offensive operations that summer began the gradual reduction in the killing. That drop has grown dramatic since mid-2009 when U.S. forces withdrew to bases on the edge of the cities.
If one reads the data that way – seeing a correlation between fewer American troops on patrol and less overall violence – Obama’s Afghan decision could be viewed as likely to increase the disorder in Afghanistan, not tamp it down.
Clearly, in an endeavor as complicated as war, it is difficult, if not impossible, to dissect from recent events exactly what achieved a specific result. But there is logic behind the notion that pulling back U.S. and other occupying military forces could do some good in bringing greater stability to war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s widely recognized that nationalism – or at least hostility to foreigners – has been a powerful recruiting tool for insurgents throughout history, even for extremists who otherwise might have little appeal to a population.
Withdrawing occupying troops or at least making them less intrusive in the daily lives of the occupied population could logically be expected to weaken or eliminate this rallying cry.
In Iraq, the U.S.-led invasion, which purged many Sunnis from positions of influence in 2003, enabled radical Sunni Islamists from al-Qaeda to gain a foothold in the previously secular country. Sunni insurgents allied themselves with al-Qaeda to fight the occupying Americans, not because Sunni tribal leaders felt much affection for al-Qaeda’s bloodthirsty tactics.
Indeed, it may have been the widespread disgust at al-Qaeda’s excesses – as much as the U.S. payments to Sunni tribal leaders – that gave rise to the so-called Sunni Awakening in 2006. Even al-Qaeda leaders back in Pakistan were aware of how the brutality of al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was backfiring, according to letters intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Zarqawi, who spurred the Sunni-Shiite civil conflict by bombing Shiite shrines, was killed by a U.S. air raid in June 2006. But the sectarian killing raged on, causing many Iraqis to flee their old neighborhoods to seek safety in areas dominated by their Islamic sect, thus creating a de facto ethnic cleansing.
It’s possible that the combination of those factors – ethnic separation, Zarqawi’s death and the Sunni Awakening – would have caused the extreme violence of 2006 to burn out anyway. However, Bush decided to go with a plan devised by influential neoconservatives to dispatch more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops in a “surge” that would have American soldiers pushing into -- and staying in -- Iraqi neighborhoods.
Bush’s “surge” was accompanied by a further rise in violence. From April through June 2007, 356 American and coalition soldiers died, according to icasualties.org.
The soaring U.S. death toll had political consequences back home, leading Bush's commanders to a shift away from the more aggressive tactics. Over the next three months, U.S. and coalition fatalities declined to 247. (All told, more than 1,000 U.S. troops died during the “surge” – or roughly one-quarter of the total U.S. deaths in the Iraq War.)
Through 2008, as U.S. forces continued to refrain from major offensives and the other new facts on the ground – Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda and the ethnic separations – took hold, the violence in Iraq continued to decline. The U.S. and coalition death toll averaged about 27 a month in 2008.
Still, the most dramatic drop in violence has been seen in the last five months, since a new “status of forces agreement” required U.S. troops to stop patrolling in Iraqi cities and to withdraw to bases removed from population centers. The American death toll has fallen to nine soldiers a month and violence among Iraqis is also down dramatically.
Though statistics from the Iraqi Health Ministry surely undercount the full civilian death toll, the trends have been significant. The 88 civilian deaths in November represent the first time that the monthly body count has dropped below 100 since Bush unleashed the carnage with the March 2003 invasion.
Yet how those numbers are interpreted is having dramatic consequences for the war in Afghanistan. In Washington, Republican politicians and the ever-influential neoconservative pundits have sold the simplistic narrative that Bush’s courageous “surge” did the trick.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Obama first tried to make a more sophisticated argument, crediting the “surge” as only one factor in the decline in violence. But network anchors pummeled him in interviews, demanding that he accept that Republican John McCain – and President Bush – had been right about the surge and that Obama had been wrong to oppose it.
Unwilling to pay the price for challenging Washington’s conventional wisdom, Obama finally ceded the point and admitted that the “surge” had “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
That concession – and Obama’s decision to retain Gates and Petraeus – are now having real-life consequences for Afghanistan. Having bought into the “successful surge” conventional wisdom, Obama is now "surging" some 30,000 additional troops into the Afghan war zone on top of some 22,000 that he sent in the spring, more than doubling the force there when Bush left office.
If the Washington pundit class had tolerated a different analysis of the Iraq casualty figures – that the way to reduce violence is to pullback U.S. occupation forces, not launch new offensives – there might have been a different result in Obama’s Afghan deliberations.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on December 1, 2009.