The Patraeus effect

“The only thing this surge will accomplish is a surge of more death and destruction.” That was the prediction of blogger and anti-war activist Arianna Huffington last December — one month before the Senate unanimously confirmed Gen. David Petraeus as commander in Iraq.

“I believe … that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything.” That was the judgment of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in April — two months before the reinforcements that Petraeus needed to fully implement his new “surge” strategy had arrived in Iraq.

In mid-June, just as troop strength was reaching the level needed to carry out the revised mission, Reid added: “As many had foreseen, the escalation has failed to produce the intended results.”

But now those intended results are being seen — as even some critics of the war, to their credit, are acknowledging. “More American troops have brought more peace to more parts of Iraq. I think that’s a fact,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters.

“My sense is that the tactical momentum is there with the troops,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said to PBS’s Charlie Rose.

The debate over the war in Iraq is shifting, though more slowly than is the war in Iraq, thanks to a well-funded and determined anti-war movement and too many in the media for whom good news is no news.

A few days ago, CNN’s Kyra Phillips interviewed Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’ top deputy. She might have asked whether his troops now have both the will and a way to defeat al Qaeda suicide-bombers and Iranian-backed death squads. Instead, her inquiring mind wanted to know: “Do you think that this job that you’ve taken on could be career suicide?”

Because of scant media interest, most Americans don’t even realize that the so-called surge is a new and different strategy, implemented by Petraeus because the approach of his predecessors — not least former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield — failed.

Rumsfeld wanted a “light footprint” in Iraq, not an intrusive military occupation. He thought more troops would mean more targets for our enemies. He pushed hard for Iraqis to provide their own security as quickly as possible.

Under the Rumsfeld strategy, most American forces spent most of their time in Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Cut off from the local population, they received little intelligence. And since they were providing security for themselves but not for Iraqis, Iraqis turned to sectarian militias that grew larger, stronger and more violent.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in Iraq deployed suicide-bombers to mass-murder civilians as a way to stoke sectarian violence. Al Qaeda calculated — not unreasonably — that Americans would withdraw rather than remain in the crossfire of a civil war.

Petraeus, the Army’s top counterinsurgency expert, decided it was time for a different approach. He moved troops out of the Forward Operating Bases and put them into Iraqi cities and villages where they have been providing security for Iraqis, who have shown their appreciation by providing intelligence that spy satellites can’t retrieve.

He is targeting al Qaeda, as well as the Shia militias trained, funded and equipped by Tehran — their cells, strongholds and bomb factories. And with added troop strength, he has been able to hold the neighborhoods he has cleared.

It also is true that most traditional Iraqi leaders have been repelled by al Qaeda’s brutality and extremism. Americans, by contrast, have shown the local sheiks respect while training and partnering with Iraqis — making it clear they would like nothing better than to see Iraqis take charge of their own security as soon as they are ready.

On top of all that, U.S. soldiers have been doubling as diplomats: helping to reconcile Sunni and Shia tribal groups, and even bringing insurgents — those not affiliated with al Qaeda or Tehran — into line with the Iraqi government.

This week, Odierno launched Operation Phantom Strike, a new offensive that aims to pursue the al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian-backed militias displaced from their safe havens by this summer’s earlier actions: Operation Phantom Thunder and Operation Fard al-Qanoon (the Baghdad Security Plan).

Operation Phantom Strike, if successful, will mean more “death and destruction” — mostly for America’s sworn enemies. No doubt, the anti-war crowd will both oppose that and pronounce it a failure even before it’s fully under way. But other Americans — if they learn what is really happening in Iraq — will support the troops. Most will favor giving them the time and resources they need to complete their mission.

(Clifford D. May is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)


  1. SnowCrash7

    As a retired combat arms soldier with both combat and counter insurgency experience I have very strong opinions on this fool’s errand that is currently decimating our warriors while at the same time recruiting, and training Islamic radicals in combat operations. The ‘Surge’ is only a tiny shift in the paradigm as the bottom line is that the local populace still sees the American forces as intruders and occupiers. As such, you could put a million troops on the ground in a massive surge and all the insurgents would do is to go to ground and rebuild and reorganize. That is exactly what they did when we rolled into Baghdad.

    The Surge ignores the fact that for every insurgent killed we create 5 more to take his place. It ignores the fact that the president is sacrificing American lives just so he can pass off this mess to the next administration. It ignores the fact that the radicals are massacring both Iraqis and Americans in an effort to influence public opinion as the September ‘deadline’ (which will be anything but) approaches. It ignores the fact that as long as we are there they will fight. This fact puts to lie the absurd McLain bleating that if we leave ‘they will follow us home’. The twin towers came down because we occupy Saudi Arabia…not because we have a Super Bowl.

    This is precisely why we need folks like Jim Webb to hold public office. So those who know and understand combat will ensure that more American lives aren’t wasted by the living room commandos like the author of this article.

  2. vietnam vet

    vietnam vet
    I’m really sick of all these lies. More of our troops are killed and wounded than being reported.All you need to do is vist Walter Reed Army Hospital and see the shame of this war. Wake up America and don’t believe everything you read, it’s all lies, lies, lies, and more lies.

  3. bjiller


    I’ll take anything Mr. May says with a big block of salt after this.

    I agree almost completely with SnowCrash7. One difference is that I estimate that ten new insurgents/terrorists are created for every Iraqi civilian we kill. This is a tribal revenge culture, after all, so the whole extended family is duty-bound to seek blood revenge for the killing of a relative. That’s why we have child suicide bombers appearing now.

    All this stay-the-course, don’t-lose-face, we’re-turning-the-corner B.S. is what got an extra 50,000 killed in Vietnam after McNamara knew it was a lost cause. The really sad thing is that we actually have national interests in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, unlike the marginal interests in Vietnam.

    The fact is that, even with the surge, we are still about 200,000 troops short of the 350,000 to 380,000 (I can’t remember the number) the army said was needed to maintain the peace after military victory. That was their estimate, before we went in, based on ten years of planning, and expressly in light of the possibility, if not probability, of sectarian strife after we took out Saddam. Shinseki told Congress we would need hundreds of thousands of troops, and was shunted off to the side by the Bush administration. Of course, it is probably too late now to force “peace” even with that number of troops.

    It makes me wonder how those supposed geniuses in charge could be so wrong about so many things for so long. Or maybe they haven’t been wrong. Maybe the current situation is exactly what they wanted. It comes very close to convincing me that Greg Palast is right, and the whole exercise was to ensure that Iraqi oil never made it to the market in large quantities, and certainly not for euros rather than dollars. Nothing better to prevent that than a fractured Iraq with different sects blowing up the oil infrastructure.

    Now, a huge upswing in euro-traded oil certainly could have devastating effects on the American economy (at least on big oil, with repercussions throughout the economy). At least THAT would have been a strategic issue worthy of debate, but the American people were never been told that is why we were going in and why we need to remain there. My guess is that the public wasn’t told because big oil, errrr, I mean the Bush Administration, knew that the American people wouldn’t send their sons and daughters to fight and die for big oil, and certainly not on a permanent(oops, I mean “enduring”) basis. Hence, the big oil administration scared the public with the obviously bogus WMD claims and the ludicrous claim that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda, lured the public with the “war will pay for itself and be over in six months” claim, and topped off the snow job with the laughable “spreading democracy” and “overthrowing a tyrant” frosting. The snow job would not have worked if there had been a build up to the 300,000-plus troops Shinseki and the Army called for, hence the “light footprint” of troops (supplemented by lots of private mercenaries). The gamble was that the American people could be kept in line behind the war (and even expand the commitment to the size needed for success) because, hey, we are a militant, warlike culture and wouldn’t want to lose ANOTHER war, plus anyone who criticized the war (or its conduct)could be marginalized by calling them naive, liberal, cowardly, traitorous, and anti-Christian. AND, SO FAR THEY HAVE PRETTY MUCH BEEN RIGHT! While there is some opposition to the war, it is nothing like the Sixties opposition to Vietnam.

    The tragedy is that the loyalty, lives, limbs and minds of our troops are being sacrificed on this alter of greed and cynicism. Not to mention our national treasure and international prestige–so much for the era of American invincibility. Sooner or later even the most diehard among the troops will realize they’ve been sold a bill of goods, just as David Hackworth and John Paul Vann did in Vietnam. Will the troops, and the public, answer the call next time, when there might be a true threat to our national security? Or, will they sit the next one out, having been burned so badly on this one, only thirty years after Vietnam ended. Fool us once, fool us twice, but fool us a third time?

    And now, the Democrats are just as much to blame as the Republicans, because the Democrats don’t have the courage to cut off funding for this war, instead choosing to play politics in the hope that it helps them in the 2008 elections. All the while, the troops go on dieing.

  4. Klaus Hergeschimmer

    The Democratic Party has betrayed us.

    If the Jack-Ass party had campaigned on passing non-binding resolutions to end the war, do you think they would have re-taken the house as they did!

    Hairy Reed & Nancette Pelosi are
    the real Double Wimp Twins of the Democrats as well as craploads of other Jack-Ass-Crats. Congressman Carl Levin has money invested in the defense industry.
    Diane Feinstein’s husband is a war profiteer.

    Nancette refuses to put impeachment of the Chimp and Big Dick Cheney on the table.

    Hairy & Nancette might as well stick both their heads up their appropriate orifices for all the good they’re not doing.

    I’ll send a donatin to Cindy Sheehans run against
    Nancy Pelosi for congress, anything to try to motivate Nancette to do something to get our troops home.

    Bush is willing to bankrupt this country and sacrifice
    lives of our troops and the population of Iraq for the greed of McHalliburton & other useless corporations.

    Greg Palast is right about the intention in Iraq is to restrict oil production in order to rape America with high gas prices.

    Bush is a traitorus psychopath whose Daddy never taught him how to deal with pain other then to shut it out and pretend it dosent exist.

    In the book, ‘Bush on the Couch’,the Georgetown Psychiatrist, Justin Frank MD really goes into the
    delusional dysfunctional pathology of the Chimp.

    We are going to hell in a handbasket, and not enjoying the ride, the chimp is f*cking poison for this country.

  5. SEAL

    Great analysis and factual rundown by all of you. I have nothing to add. You guys said it all. WELL DONE!

  6. fritzer

    Is this Clifford May related to the cold-war Air Farce general of the same name, who wanted to provoke a nuclear war? I thought so…..


    You fail to mention the state of the political system in Iraq which, if it cant get it’s act together, makes any military progress the surge may produce moot.

    “No doubt, the anti-war crowd will both oppose that and pronounce it a failure even before it’s fully under way”

    Didn’t the surge start in Mid February? How could it not be fully underway yet?

    Are anti-war folks just supposed to sit back and have faith in leaders that have bungled this oil grab from day 1? Or should we continue to apply pressure that, since the Democratic gains in congress last fall, fomented a change in strategy that has yielded the only promising results we have seen since the occupation began?

    We on the left are not sheep, we ask tough questions that the mouth breathing bushbots are afraid to ask and we will not kick back and relax with a buttwiper and a cigarette until we bring the boys back home.

  8. kanawah

    You failed to mention that al Qaeda virtually annihilated two villages in northern Iraq.

    As with Viet Nam, the “local enemy” will strike how and when they wish. They will win (have won) this fight by attrition. It is just a matter of when will our leaders admit defeat, and get our troops and resources out of Iraq.

    The entry into Iraq was based up on lies. al Qaeda was not in Iraq, thanks the the animosity between ben Laden and Saddam. We removed Saddam, and al Qaeda moved in.

  9. VietnamVet

    Yeah, and that latest attack that killed some 500 Iraqis and wounded a like number certainly proves the point that the surge is working. We don’t need people like Mr. May, who see success everywhere they look in Iraq, telling the American people how grand and successful the so called “surge” is succeeding. We can judge that for ourselves by what information numerous sources provide on a daily basis. By the way, how about telling us readers how many trips YOU made to Iraq that involved talking with the troops on the ground and the Iraqi people? Those that were NOT orchestrated by the military is all we are interested in, because we know about what happens when the military “conducts” an itinerary?