The Magazine

Victory in Iraq

How it was won, how it may be lost.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By BARTLE B. BULL
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Most Americans know the turnaround of 2007 simply as “the surge.” In fact, there were two main themes of that year in Iraq. There was the surge itself, George W. Bush’s commitment of an additional five combat brigades (roughly 20,000 troops) to be deployed under General Petraeus according to the doctrines of counterinsurgency, an approach that focuses mainly on the protection of the civilian population. And there was the Awakening, the phenomenon that saw much of the former Sunni insurgency join our side of the fight. 

Parts of the Awakening began before the surge had even started, and the initial planning and articulation of the surge had never envisaged anything like the Awakening. There is debate over which movement mattered more; such controversy, however, is beside the point. Without large numbers of additional American troops on the ground, a more engaged and intelligent American tactical posture, and a strong sense of the depth of American commitment, the Awakening would not have moved very far past the outskirts of Ramadi, where it began.

From the Iraqi perspective, The Endgame is strongest where it matters most to current policy. The final moments of the story relate how the Obama administration threw away the achievements of a generation of U.S. policy-makers and war fighters that will long be remembered for extraordinary seriousness and courage. There is no doubt that, in 2011, the Iraqi government wanted American troops to stay, and stay in significant numbers. As Gordon and Trainor point out, the concern on the Iraqi side was merely to make the legal fine points acceptable to the Iraqi electorate. These technicalities were not difficult to resolve, and the Americans knew that even 20,000 U.S. troops would be acceptable to the Iraqi prime minister. 

But the new administration was not serious about a commitment to Iraq, which it signaled in the clearest terms by proposing a residual troop number—5,000—that was 50 percent
lower than what its own generals believed to be the safe minimum, and by insisting on a wholly unnecessary (and constitutionally meaningless) ratification of any agreement by the Iraqi parliament. The Iraqis were stunned, the negotiations fell apart, and the United States withdrew completely. 

In 2003, General Petraeus, leading the 101st Airborne north with the initial invasion, famously, repeatedly, asked an embedded reporter, “Tell me how this ends.” The Endgame’s title comes not from the dispiriting end to the story but from America’s search, from the beginning, for victory’s elusive formula. The title gains its poignancy from the wastefulness of the conclusion we chose once that winning strategy had been found and successfully implemented.

Bartle B. Bull, former foreign editor  of Prospect, manages an Iraq-focused investment fund.