If there is one overriding consensus among Washington opinion leaders today, it is that Gen. David Petraeus is the perfect choice to turn around the failing war in Afghanistan because he supposedly already achieved such a feat in Iraq. But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong?
What if Petraeus’s takeover in Iraq in 2007 and President George W. Bush’s much-touted Iraq “surge” had little to do with the eventual reduction of violence in Iraq, that these were more coincidental than causal?
Then, the war in Afghanistan – where President Barack Obama authorized an Iraq-like “surge” last fall – is likely to drag on costing more lives and more money. There’s also the prospect that Petraeus will want another surge next year rather than admit personal failure.
At Consortiumnews.com, we have made a point of challenging the Washington “group think” when facts and objective analyses go in a different direction. That is because sloppy conventional wisdom, when it dominates the power centers of Washington, can get many good people killed.
The Iraq War has been a classic example of how false assumptions can lead to disastrous policies. That was surely the case before the invasion when nearly everyone of importance was onboard with the bogus intelligence about WMD and Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda terrorists.
That was followed by the premature victory celebrations, from MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews declaring “we’re all neocons now” to President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech.
When all these assumptions proved wrong – and the war in Iraq turned very ugly – there was almost no accountability for either the journalists or the politicians who had clambered onto the invasion bandwagon.
Then, in 2006, the situation grew even grimmer as ethnic warfare between Shiites and Sunnis ripped Iraq apart and the U.S. death toll continued to rise with no end in sight.
Still, there was an eagerness in Washington to find some silver lining in the Iraqi thunder clouds, if for no other reason than a desire of some very important people to salvage their tarnished reputations. That opportunity presented itself amid the carnage of 2006.
Despite the worsening violence, the commanding generals, George Casey and John Abizaid, stuck to their insistence on as small a U.S. “footprint” as possible ,to tamp down Iraqi nationalism. They also tried to make several other initiatives work.
For one, Casey and Abizaid successfully deployed a classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. They also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called “Awakening” in Anbar Province.
And, as the Sunni-Shiite bloodshed reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the defacto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves, thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult.
All this was occurring before Bush announced the “surge” of about 30,000 U.S. troops in January 2007, an escalation accompanied by the removals of Casey and Abizaid and putting Petraeus in charge. The “small footprint” strategy was discarded.
Without doubt, Petraeus also got lucky when radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr issued a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions.
As the extra U.S. troops arrived, the "surge" contributed to a spike in violence as both U.S. and Iraqi casualties reached some of the worst levels of the war.
Petraeus also tolerated or encouraged indiscriminate killings and roundups of Iraqi “military-aged males” (or MAMS). A well-documented example of that brutality was the leaked video of an American helicopter crew gunning down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, on July 12, 2007.
After mistaking a couple of cameras for weapons, the U.S. helicopter gunship got command approval to mow the men down as they walked along a Baghdad street showing no signs of aggression. The killings were accompanied by macho jokes and chuckling among the helicopter crew.
The American attackers also blew away several Iraqis who arrived in a van and tried to take one of the wounded newsmen to a hospital. Two children in the van were badly wounded.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one American remarked in the videotaped incident, posted on the Web by Wikileaks as “Collateral Murder.”
In other attacks on Iraqi MAMS, the Petraeus-commanded forces likely made similar mistakes in killing innocent civilians, but these actions also surely removed many actual militants from the streets.
After four years of America’s high-tech war, the Iraqi people also were certain to have been suffering from trauma and exhaustion. After hundreds of thousands were killed and maimed, the Iraqi population understandably was looking to its own survival.
Bush’s “surge” also claimed the lives of about 1,000 additional U.S. troops, nearly one-quarter of the war’s total.
As the levels of violence gradually declined in 2008, the influential neocons of Washington were quick to claim credit for the “successful surge.” The Washington press corps fell into line, with prominent anchors like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer parroting the talking point.
Yet, as this new conventional wisdom solidified, a few analysts who bothered to interview the war’s participants were finding a different reality. Even author Bob Woodward, who published best-sellers that fawned over Bush’s early war judgments, concluded that the “surge” was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.
In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, “In 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.”
Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as 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 continuing success.
But this more complex reality – and the dark side of the “successful surge” – were largely excluded from the U.S. political/media debate. Like before the invasion, the Washington press corps acted more as Bush’s propagandists than anything close to skeptical journalists.
Two other dangers from the “successful surge” myth were that Petraeus would be canonized for his brilliant leadership and that the rejuvenated neocons would insist that another “surge” should be applied to Afghanistan. Both dangers came to pass after Obama was elected.
Petraeus and another “surge hero,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates who was retained by Obama, pushed the new President to appoint special-operations commander Stanley McChrystal to command forces in Afghanistan with Petraeus looking over his shoulder from Central Command.
McChrystal, in turn, demanded a troop escalation in Afghanistan and objected to an alternative approach (favored by Vice President Joe Biden) that would have mixed a smaller U.S. troop “footprint” with aggressive counter-terrorism tactics, similar to what Casey and Abizaid had used in Iraq before the “surge.”
However, because of the media’s conventional wisdom about the “successful surge,” Petraeus and McChrystal – with the help of Obama’s hawkish civilian advisers Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – easily backed the President into a corner. He acquiesced to sending 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan, boosting the total to about 100,000.
Despite the fresh troops, the Afghan “surge” has failed to gain much traction – with a stalemate in the rural district of Marja and a postponed offensive in Kandahar. That was even before a freelance writer for Rolling Stone exposed how contemptuous McChrystal and his inner circle were toward the President and his White House advisers.
After the Rolling Stone article, the major press corps was at first ambivalent about what Obama should do. The ascetic McChrystal, after all, was a favorite, almost as much as Petraeus. (Many journalists had known about the insubordinate attitudes but had suppressed the information in the name of ensuring continued “access” to McChrystal’s team.)
However, when Obama fired McChrystal and replaced him with Petraeus, the Washington news media reacted with acclaim. The thinking was that no one could work magic on the battlefield of Afghanistan like David Petraeus could; the proof was in the pudding of Iraq.
What none of the big-time commentators was willing to rethink was whether the received wisdom of the “successful surge” – and Petraeus’s perceived genius for having pulled it off – might be no more accurate that the earlier "group think" about Iraqi WMD.
There also appeared to be one other lesson from Iraq that no one in Washington wanted to acknowledge: The most dramatic drop-offs in the killing of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians came after the United States accepted a “status-of-forces agreement” in late 2008 that called for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
It appears that people in both Iraq and Afghanistan don’t much like having foreigners occupying their countries. But that is not a reality that David Petraeus -- or the Washington press corps -- is likely to take to heart.
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 June 29, 2010.