The Blog

McCain on the Surge

8:37 AM, Jul 23, 2008 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

John McCain is drawing criticism for the following exchange with Katie Couric:

COURIC: Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama says, while the increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What's your response to that?

MCCAIN: I don't know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening.

As Frederick Kagan wrote in September 2007: "Anbari tribal leaders did begin to turn against AQI in their areas last year before the surge began, but not before Colonel Sean MacFarland began to apply in Ramadi the tactics and techniques that are the basis of the current strategy in Baghdad."

If McCain was saying that Col. McFarland's counterinsurgency approach "began the Anbar Awakening" then that's pretty much on the mark. The "surge" after all is often shorthand for both the addition of U.S. troops as well as the adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy.

Of course, the official "surge" was ordered by President Bush in January 2007--four months after the Awakening began. Some are pointing to this statement as proof that McCain gets "his facts all wrong", as Matthew Yglesias writes.

But Yglesias's colleague Marc Ambinder writes that a charitable reading of McCain's statement is "that the surge helped the Anbar Awakening to succeed because the shieks could actually be protected."

Indeed, the surge did not midwife the Anbar Awakening--it kept the Awakening from being strangled in the crib. Here's how the Washington Post characterized a November 2006 Marine intelligence report on Anbar:

The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there [...]

Moreover, most Sunnis now believe it would be unwise to count on or help U.S. forces because they are seen as likely to leave the country before imposing stability.

So two months after the Awakening began, Anbar looked hopeless. Yet Yglesias contends that the surge was not largely responsible for the progress in that province:

This specific timing issue aside, we can see here the larger point that McCain doesn't actually seem to know what the surge was. But the surge troops were overwhelmingly sent to increase the level of manpower in Baghdad (i.e., not where the Anbar Awakening happened)

But Fallujah--in Anbar--is about 30 miles west of Baghdad. That's the distance between Washington D.C. and Dulles airport. Might not U.S. forces killing terrorists in Baghdad have reduced the level of violence in Fallujah as well as 30 miles farther west in Ramadi?

Furthermore, two additional Marine battalions were sent to Anbar, and it wasn't until they were deployed and the counterinsurgency implemented that the Anbar Awakening flourished.

The Awakening, Kagan wrote,

proceeded slowly and fitfully for most of 2006 and, indeed, into 2007. But when Colonel John Charlton's brigade relieved MacFarland's in Ramadi and was joined by two additional Marine battalions (part of the surge) elsewhere in Anbar, the "awakening" began to accelerate very rapidly. At the start of 2007 there were only a handful of Anbaris in the local security forces. By the summer there were over 14,000. [...] The fact is that neither the surge nor the turn of the tribal leaders would in itself have been enough to turn Anbar around - both were necessary, and will remain so for some time.