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October 03, 2007

Petraeus and the Iraqi Surge: Brendan Simms asks, is Petraeus a Montgomery or a Manstein?

Posted by Brendan Simms

The Iraqi surge is showing very positive results. But will these successes prove to be lasting - or are they only an interregnum before future setbacks? This is the question posed by Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

In the late summer and autumn of 1942, General Bernard Law Montgomery first halted, and then "turned the tide" against the axis in North Africa. The allies never looked back. In the spring of 1943, after the disaster at Stalingrad, General Erich von Manstein rallied the German armies and inflicted a significant defeat on the Soviet forces at Kharkhov. The success proved shortlived, however, as the battle of Kursk that summer heralded the final end of the German advance.

I have been almost completely wrong on Iraq so far. I was convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I thought that democracy would put down roots far quicker than it has in post-war Iraq. I feared for much greater casualties during the - for the coalition - relatively bloodless invasion, but never in my worst dreams did I expect more than 3,000 coalition combat deaths after "mission accomplished" was proclaimed. Throughout 2003, 2004 and 2005 I believed that the Sunnis would come around sooner or later before Shia demography and US military might crushed them completely. I believed that the Iraq War could not be lost with seventy percent of the population and the world's most powerful army on one side.

But as Iraq descended into a quasi-civil war after the Samara mosque bombing in early 2006, and none of the various coalition military gambits seemed to make any difference, my faith was increasingly shaken. By the end of 2006, and the beginning of 2007, I was prepared to call it a day, or at least to agree with a timetable for withdrawal. Unlike many of those whose opinion I respect on both sides of the Atlantic, I was deeply sceptical of the "surge" strategy. I felt sadly confirmed in my stance by first news reports that although the injection of fresh troops had secured a modest reduction in violence, the Malicki government was failing to take advantage of the resulting "breathing space" to pursue a policy of national reconciliation.

Now, I have lost confidence not only in my judgment on Iraq, but also in my lack of judgment on Iraq.

Contrary to initial reports, the "surge" seems to be having a considerable and sustainable effect. Compared to six months ago, all the "indicators" of insurgent violence are down: fewer roadside bombs, coalition casualties, sectarian killings and the like. The transformation has been most remarkable in certain western areas of Iraq, especially Anbar province. In part, this reflects the intensity of the American military commitment there. Many of the first-generation insurgent cadres are dead, imprisoned or have been driven to find greener pastures elsewhere. In contrast to earlier strategies, which spoke of extending an "oil slick" of pacification outwards from a pacified Baghdad, stability seems to be encroaching on the capital from the provinces.

It is worth reflecting on what this may - may - mean for the history of Iraq in the long-run. The "Sunni-military complex" which ruled the country for so long has been uprooted. If lasting, it is a transformation which is comparable to the destruction of the East Elbian Junker class in post-1945 Germany.

But there has also been a profound political shift within the "Sunni triangle". The insurgency was always fragmented, but its component parts have begun to devour each other. The deadly synergy between Baathists, local tribes and religious fundamentalists such as al-Qaida has given way to a civil war pitting the first two against the latter. For many years now, the tribes had been edging towards a rapprochement with the new order; in recent months, fed up with the arrogance and Puritanism of the jihadis, they have teamed up with the Baathists to expel them. The Sunni elite is slowly coming in from the cold. They seem to have realised the magnitude of their miscalculation. And underlying it all, of course, is fear of Iran whose influence in Iraq the insurgency has only magnified.

In short, the Sunni elite has finally realised that they need the Americans more than the Americans need them; and that while the Americans are prepared to make concessions to bring them into the fold, they will not sell the democratic project in Iraq down the river in the process.

The prospect opening up is an intriguing one. Iraq may have turned a corner. If so, Gordon Brown has ironically begun to withdraw British forces at exactly the wrong moment, in order to send them to another war - Afghanistan - which is beginning to look more and more like Vietnam every day. The only British politician who has had the courage and counter-intuition to argue that Iraq is a more important front than Afghanistan is Iain Duncan Smith.

If all this happens, then the genius of the surge, General Petraeus will be rightly hailed as a saviour. He will be the new Montgomery, the man who held the line and ultimately turned the tide. We will say with Churchill - not quite truthfully - that until the surge we never had a victory, and that after the surge we never had a defeat. Of course historians will show that for one reason it was all much more complicated than that. But Petraeus will be rightly celebrated.

What haunts those of us who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein is that all this will prove a false dawn. This is not because, as some opponents of the "surge" allege, Petraeus is sacrificing truth and military realities to political expediency. Rather, the reservations stem from the fact that there have been short-term improvements in the security situation before, such as in February 2004 when the first phase of the insurgency had almost fizzled out. There have been political peaks before, for example after the successful elections in early 2005, and the constitutional referendum at the end of that year. It is perfectly possible that, as critics suggest, the "resistance" has simply been displaced into neighbouring areas, and that the enemies will simply wait out the "surge" and return to the attack next year. In that case, Petraeus will not be a new Montgomery, but a Manstein: a talented general who scored some spectacular victories for a losing cause.

But one way or the other, the war in Iraq is suddenly wide open again. It is - to use a questionable analogy - as if the coalition had scored an equaliser just before full time. Across Iraq, the penny is beginning to drop that the game being played against the Americans is not one of ninety minutes, which they might well have won, but a contest which will go into indefinite extra time until the right result.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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were i a sunni eager to kill shia, or a shia eager to kill sunnis, or a kurd eager to see shias and sunnis kill one another, or a salafi/wahabi sunni eager to kill enough of anybody to establish a safe zone for international terrorists -- i suppose i might have a coffee and wait for the gringos to leave.

Posted by: s j masty at October 3, 2007 07:06 PM
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