Fred Hiatt on parallels between the Iraq, Afghanistan troop surges

President George W. Bush, with Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. William Fallon, visiting Anbar province in Iraq in September 2007.
President George W. Bush, with Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. William Fallon, visiting Anbar province in Iraq in September 2007. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 7, 2009

No wonder conservatives are unhappy with the president. Imagine undermining an announced escalation of troops by simultaneously laying out a schedule for them to step back -- and suggesting that the mission will end if the government that America is trying to help doesn't shape up.

But wait -- it wasn't only President Obama who did those things but also President George W. Bush, in announcing his Iraq surge in January 2007. Those who say that Obama doomed his Afghan strategy with his promise to begin withdrawing in 18 months -- and who remember Bush's strategy as nothing but a clarion call for unambiguous victory -- should go back and read the speech.

No, Bush did not specify a date for beginning to pull out, as did Obama at West Point. And unlike Obama, Bush did talk about "victory."

But he warned that victory "will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony." More to the point, his announced surge -- of 24,000 troops, smaller than Obama's pledge to Afghanistan -- was hedged with benchmarks and conditions.

"I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended," Bush warned in his televised address from the White House Library. "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people. . . . America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

Bush declared that U.S. forces would cede primary responsibility for security in every Iraqi province by November -- a mere 10 months after his speech. The surge would not even begin, administration officials made clear, until Iraq fulfilled a commitment to deploy more troops to Baghdad.

Robert Gates, then as now defense secretary, was even more circumscribing when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee a day after Bush's speech. Asked how long the surge would last, Gates replied, "We're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years." In the end, as Gates pointed out in testimony last week, the Iraq surge lasted 14 months.

Like Obama last week, Bush had to deliver different, even contradictory, messages to multiple audiences. He wanted both to assure Iraq's leaders of U.S. steadfastness and prod them to actions that were politically painful. He sought to reassure U.S. troops of his commitment and warn America's enemies of his steadfastness. Yet he also had to convince a skeptical domestic audience that the U.S. mission would be limited in scope and duration.

It's easy to forget, in fact, how many leaders in Washington had concluded that the Iraq war was, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in April 2007, "lost." Today it's common to hear Democrats, including members of the Obama administration, talk about what a piece of cake Iraq was compared with Afghanistan. Iraq was a unified nation, they say, while Afghanistan is a ragged collection of tribes. Afghanistan is poorer, without oil and without the roads or infrastructure or middle class Iraq enjoyed.

Yet when Bush spoke, Washington was full of experts explaining that Iraq was a false construct, cobbled together by clueless British colonialists, and that Iraqis shared no sense of nationhood. The Sunni and Shiite Arabs were predestined to eternal enmity, and both would always hate the Kurds. You couldn't build a national army for a nation that didn't exist. The best hope was to divide Iraq into three quasi-independent states -- and that was the optimistic view. Others said America's only choice was to get out of the way and let a civil war play out, for however many years and lives it took.

As recent as it is, the history of the Iraq surge is remembered selectively by liberals and conservatives alike. And Obama himself is not eager to cite the parallels. That's why it is useful to have a defense secretary who can do so, as he pointed out last week on Capitol Hill, "since this is the second surge I've been up here defending."

"It is worth remembering that the security situation in Afghanistan, though serious, does not begin to approach the scale of violence that consumed Iraq and confronted our forces there when I was confirmed as secretary of defense three years ago this week," Gates said.

Of course, you can't assume that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan. But there is reason to recall how the explanations of experts tend to trail the facts, rather than the reverse. When things are going badly, it seems obvious that they will go badly forever. Iraq shows that forceful, strategic intervention can shape events and redefine inevitability.

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