[W]hat should really be taken away from the US military's experience over the past ten years is not that the United States understands how to fight and win population-centric counterinsurgencies but that counterinsurgencies are as violent and inconclusive as any other conflicts, and that the United States should avoid such wars at all costs.
This is not the triumphalist view that currently guides US strategy in the Afghanistan War. I'll cite Peter Bergen's article, The Generals' VictoryNew Republic 12/16/2010, once more here. Because he is writing from the triumphalist framework. A key piece of the current counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare approach of the US is the The Surge of 2007-8 in Iraq brought victory:
If one ghost hovering over the discussion of Afghanistan was that of Vietnam, where an earlier Democratic president had come to grief by escalating a war in Asia, another ghost was that of the "surge" in Iraq, which had been opposed by the key officials presiding over the Afghan review, including the president himself, the vice president, and Secretary of State Clinton. Of course, the surge in Iraq had succeeded for a number of reasons, including the Sunni Awakening, but Obama had never publicly conceded that he had been wrong about it. At a meeting late in the review process, Obama said, "I'm not saying it'd be the exact same plan as Iraq, but I am looking for something that is a surge to create the conditions for a transition." [my emphasis]
Bergen writes about the early months of the Obama Administration and its Afghanistan War policy:
... the tension between the military officers who wanted a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan for as long as it was going to take—in effect, well past the presidential election of 2012, and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars — while the president and much of his political team (at least initially) took the position that they wanted something far more modest. This tension was compounded by the fact that the new president had never served in the military and was a vocal opponent of both the Iraq war and the surge, while the Pentagon had gotten pretty much whatever it had wanted from Bush in the latter years of the Iraq war. [my emphasis]
Nir Rosen in a recent interview with Glenn Greenwald (Transcript: Nir RosenSalon 12/13/2010) gives a more real-world view of The Surge than Bergen's comic-book version:
It is really, really important for Americans to understand what happened in Iraq during the surge. ... There is the notion that the surge was a success in Iraq. Petraeus and the surge was a success in Iraq, so Petraeus and the surge will be a success in Afghanistan. Now, the surge, strictly speaking, was just an increase in troops by 30,000 people, which began in 2007.
But the surge has come to mean a lot more than that, and it now signifies a period from late 2006 until 2008 in which a complex synergy of primarily Iraqi dynamics interacting with some changes in what the Americans are doing ended up reducing violence from the terrible terrible levels of 2006-2007, to the just really, really bad levels of today. Even calling what you have in Iraq today a success is deeply offensive because violence in Iraq today is still worse than it is in Afghanistan; people are being blown up and assassinated every day. The government is brutal and ugly and torturous and corrupt.
But violence did go down. It went down primarily not because of the American surge, primarily you had a civil war and the Shias won. It wasn't so much that the Americans defeated the Sunni Arab insurgency, it was that Shia militias brutalized the Sunni population. Shias were the majority, so they had that numerical superiority, and they had the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army working for them too, those were acting for the first three years basically as Shia death squads, and they had the American military on their side. So they brutalized the Sunni population until Sunni militiamen began to realize by summer 2006 that they had lost. [,y emphasis]
Rosen has more to say about The Surge and US policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan in that interview. But that's the key thing about The Surge: the US forces allied with Sunni militias against "Al Qa'ida in Iraq", a mostly Iraqi group with little if any meaningful operation connection to Bin Laden's organization. And this was made possible by the Shi'a militias' bloody victory in the Iraqi civil war, largely supported by US forces.
As Rosen puts it, "Now, you no longer had any more mixed areas to speak of in Iraq; Sunnis and Shias were separated." Later in the interview, he summarizes The Surge this way:
So once the Iraqi civil war had sufficiently devastated its population, the Americans came in there, kind of froze the gains of the civil war with these massive walls, in a way that reminded me of the way that the Dayton accords froze the Serbian gains in the Bosnian civil war.
He means literal walls, in the case of Baghdad:
Iraq was also much easier [than Afghanistan]in the sense that the battle was an urban one for the most part, and you could build these immense walls around different neighborhoods. It was very oppressive, it was like Palestine; it disrupted the social fabric, it made life hell, but it allowed you to control the people and control who went in and who went out of neighborhoods. You could conduct a census and determine who belonged. You could prevent arms and bombs from going in a neighborhood because you controlled the only entry and exit point to it. You could prevent militias from going into a neighborhood. [my emphasis]
In 2003 U.S. military forces destroyed the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and installed a Shiite regime in its stead. The Sunnis predictably launched a military resistance, and the U.S. military began its own war against Sunni insurgents. The presence of a U.S . military occupation force in an Islamic country with some of Islam's holiest sites predictably incited much greater popular support among Sunnis, both within Iraq and in neighboring Sunni countries, for jihadi extremists aligned with al Qaeda.
Thus al Qaeda, which had practically no support in Iraq in 2003, quickly became a major force in 2003 and 2004. By 2005, however, the tensions between al Qaeda and the predominantly Baathist nationalist Sunni insurgents had reached the point of open warfare. That warfare had become even more violent during 2006. The main non-al Qaeda Sunni resistance groups tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States in 2005-2006, but Bush refused.
By 2007, however, the Bush administration had changed sides in Iraq. It was more concerned with Shiite forces they associated with Iran than with the Sunni resistance. The United States finally began allowing them to police their own cities - something the Sunnis themselves had been proposing since 2005 but which Bush had refused to approve. The nationalist Sunnis have shown they were perfectly capable of taking care of al Qaeda themselves if the United States would only stop attacking them and get out of the way, which is what they had been saying all along.
In a more recent assessment, Leaked Report, New Iraqi Alignment Reveal U.S. War FailureInter Press Service 10/25/2010, he writes about information from Wikileaks published in the New York Times, that shed new light on dealings between the Shi'a Prime Minister al-Maliki and Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The short version is, they teamed up to thwart US efforts to crush the Mahdi Army and maneuver the Cheney-Bush Administration into a withdrawal agreement:
Iran prevailed on Sadr to agree to a unilateral ceasefire in September 2007 and to end fighting in Basra and Sadr City in late March and early May 2008. The latter two agreements prevented U.S. troops from carrying out major offensives in both cases.
The quid pro quo for Sadr's agreement to those ceasefires appears to have been the promise of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Maliki's renewal of the alliance with Sadr on the way to forming a new Shi'a government has brought strong protest from the Barack Obama administration. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffries has repeatedly said in recent weeks that Sadr's inclusion in an Iraqi government is unacceptable to Washington.
But that protest has only underlined the fact that the United States is the odd man out in the Shi'a-dominated politics of Iraq.
Yet in the mythology of Afghanistan War hawks like Peter Bergen, The Surge in Iraq of 2007-8 was a brilliant triumph of American arms and strategy.
To those of us not among the Serious People, it looks an awful lot like our generals, including our Savior-General Petraeus, taking credit in the name of The Surge for the results of a bloody civil war set off by the American invasion and by the inability of the military under Rummy's leadership to maintain order in occupied Iraq. And accepting the more-or-less unavoidable option of agreeing to a troop withdrawal schedule.