The Iraq War ‘Surge’ Myth Returns

Exclusive: To win Senate approval as Defense Secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel likely will be forced to bow before Official Washington’s cherished myth of the Iraq War’s “successful surge.” To tell the more nuanced truth would open Hagel to another round of neocon attacks, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

At confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, Official Washington will reprise one of its favorite myths, the story of the “successful surge” in Iraq. Politicians and pundits have made clear that the Senate Armed Services Committee should hector Hagel over his opposition to President George W. Bush’s 2007 “surge” of 30,000 troops into that failed war.

These “surge” lovers, who insist that Hagel be taken to task for his supposedly bad judgment over the “surge,” include MSNBC’s favorite neocon, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and conservative columnist George F. Will, who said Hagel should be asked, “If the surge had not happened, what would have happened in Iraq?”

Most likely, former Sen. Hagel, R-Nebraska, will judge that discretion is the better part of valor and admit his “mistake” rather than challenge such a deeply entrenched Washington myth. However, an honest answer to Will’s question would be that the “surge” sacrificed nearly 1,000 additional U.S. military dead (and killed countless innocent Iraqis) while contributing very little to the war’s outcome.

Any serious analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the “surge” and were implemented by the U.S. commanding generals in 2006, George Casey and John Abizaid, who wanted as small a U.S. “footprint” as possible to tamp down Iraqi nationalism.

Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid ran a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called “Awakening” in Anbar Province.

And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves protected by concrete barriers thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the “surge” or not.

Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military’s occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush, who finally capitulated.

Woodward’s Analysis

Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush’s early war judgments, concluded that the “surge” was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.

In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”

Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders.

Beyond the dubious impact of the “surge” on the gradual reduction in violence, Bush’s escalation failed to achieve its other stated goals, particularly creating political space so the Sunni-Shiite divisions over issues like oil profits could be resolved. Despite the sacrifice of additional American and Iraqi blood, those compromises did not materialize.

And, if you’re wondering what the “surge” and its loosened rules of engagement meant for Iraqis, you should watch the WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which depicts a scene during the “surge” when U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked down a street in Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters then killed a father and wounded his two children when the man stopped his van in an effort to take survivors to the hospital.

However, in Washington, the still-influential neocons saw an opportunity in 2008 when the numbers of Iraq War casualties declined. The neocons credited themselves and the “successful surge” with the improvement as they polished up their tarnished reputations, badly stained by the blood of the long and disastrous conflict.

As the neocons pushed the “successful surge” myth, they were aided by the mainstream news media, which also had promoted the ill-fated war and was looking for a way to bolster its standing with the public. Typical of this new conventional wisdom, Newsweek published a cover story on the “surge” under the title, “victory at last.” To say otherwise brought you harsh criticism for not giving credit to “the troops.”

The Myth’s Consequences

Thus, the myth grew that Bush’s “surge” had brought Iraqi violence under control and the United States to the brink of “victory.” Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as a military genius. Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the encomium of “wise man” for implementing the “surge” after Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006 for standing behind his field generals and suggesting a faster U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq.

With the new conventional wisdom firmly established in 2008, media stars pounded Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for his heresy regarding the “surge.” In major televised interviews, CBS News’ Katie Couric and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos demanded that Obama admit he was wrong to oppose the “surge” and that his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, was right to support it.

For weeks, Obama held firm, insisting correctly that the issue was more complicated than his interviewers wanted to admit. He argued that there were many factors behind Iraq’s changed security environment. But ultimately he caved in while being interrogated on Sept. 4 by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

“I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,” Obama confessed to O’Reilly. “It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Much as Hagel is likely to do, Obama judged that continued resistance to this Washington “group think” was futile. But candidate Obama’s surrender on the “successful surge” myth had long-term consequences.

For one, it gave Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates inflated reputations inside Official Washington and greater leverage in 2009 to force President Obama into accepting a similar “surge” in Afghanistan, what some analysts now regard as Obama’s biggest national security blunder.  [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Iraq War’s “surge” also did nothing to change the trajectory of an eventual American defeat there. Perhaps the only real accomplishment of the “surge” was to let President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney enjoy a decent interval between their departure from government in early 2009 and the unceremonious U.S. departure from Iraq in late 2011.

In the final accounting of the neocon adventure of conquering Iraq, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had died; some 30,000 were wounded; and an estimated $1 trillion was squandered. What was ultimately left behind was not only a devastated Iraqi population but an authoritarian Shiite government (in place of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian Sunni government) and an Iraq that had become a regional ally of Iran (rather than a bulwark against Iran).

The hard truth is that this bloody folly was not “salvaged” by the “surge” despite what the likes of Michael O’Hanlon and George F. Will claim. The “surge” simply extended the killing for a few more years and bought Bush and Cheney their “decent interval.”

But none of this reality has persuaded Official Washington to rethink its “successful surge” orthodoxy and more likely than not, Chuck Hagel will be forced to genuflect before this conventional wisdom to win his Senate confirmation.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

15 comments for “The Iraq War ‘Surge’ Myth Returns

  1. ninjamedic210
    January 29, 2013 at 23:04

    Failed war. #1 goal of invasion of Iraq=Remove Saddam Hussain from power. Saddam Hussain was rapidly removed from power. Agree, or disagree with invading Iraq, the only logical conclusion is, success. Now, are there unintended consequences? Of course. Was it worth it? Only time will tell.

  2. Mark
    January 27, 2013 at 23:05

    Robert –

    You can call the success of the surge a ‘myth’ a thousand times, it won’t make you correct. As someone who was on the ground in central Baghdad from late 2006 to early 2008, I can personally attest to the success of our re-commitment to the country of Iraq. Of course it was one of many factors working in our favor, but the fact remains that if we hadn’t committed ourselves to victory – to helping the Iraqi people – none of the other factors would have mattered.

    This article is what happens when you are a journalist with an agenda that you can’t let go of – this website claims to be ‘independant’, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    The surge worked, period. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, but it wasn’t designed to.

    Get over it.

  3. JDmysticDJ
    January 21, 2013 at 15:12

    Apparently Mr. Parry can foresee the future; knowing what Hagel will say and do. Hagel might give the answers the Senate wants to here in order to be confirmed, but no one can be certain about what Hagel will do, and what he will believe.

    Personally, I believe that there are better more progressive candidates for the job, but those candidates would face an even more difficult confirmation process. Obama has chosen a candidate he finds acceptable and has the best chance of being confirmed.

  4. James DiEugenio
    January 21, 2013 at 12:37

    Very nice piece Bob. The so called “success” of the surge has been a pernicious myth that the right has deemed necessary to justify the disastrous war in Iraq.

    I truly regret Obama giving into O’Reilly on that one. Because, as you outline, it simply is not an accurate statement of what really happened. What really happened was much more complex and subtle.

  5. Scott
    January 21, 2013 at 11:47

    Winning wars is not the point.
    Collective punishment and projecting power is “”winning” for the MIC.
    Using new technology (drones,cyber,weapons) and techniques (torture,surveillance,indefinite detention)
    are also important to the MIC.

  6. ghouri
    January 21, 2013 at 05:38

    There is no doubt in my mind that he will be forced to bow on every policy matter so that senate approves him. He will have to support every action against Palestinians.

  7. madadam
    January 20, 2013 at 11:38

    S.L.A. Marshall once stated that the way to defeat an insurgency is to oppose it with a counter insurgency of at least a ratio of 10:1. It worked for the British in Malaysia. Of course there are differences between Iraq and Malaysia, the most obvious being a lack of ground cover in Iraq, (desert as opposed to triple canopy jungle in Malaysia.) The most obvious sin in Iraq was the American military’s inability to secure Iraqi supply depots scattered through out the country (remember the one at al Qaqa?) Would the surge have worked any better if it had come during the initial phase of the invasion? It certainly could have provided much needed security, and denied the Iraqi’s a necessary ingredient to manufacture I.E.D.s Instead we waited for the Sunnis to exhaust their means of sustaining an armed resistance? But, then why admit mistakes when you can blame Iran, and begin prepping for the next one … :)

  8. F. G. Sanford
    January 17, 2013 at 23:54

    “Peace with honor” = “Successful surge”. We’re back to “kicking the Viet Nam syndrome”, because if we don’t, it will be difficult to sell the next war, presumably with Iran. Image management is a tactic, not a strategy. So is true of the surge. We’re still trying to pretend this looks like anything but defeat.

  9. Jhoover
    January 17, 2013 at 19:56

    to tamp down Iraqi nationalism?

    GW Bush side in his speech to nation, also his letter to Iraqis before the war, that US attentions is to remove the dictator! All the world told US have no attentions whatsoever with Iraqi citizens.

    Nevertheless, in this article it has clearly pined out that the surge is to tamp down Iraqi nationalism, not sectarian matter.

    So was it tamp down Iraqi nationalism by creating sectarian war or something different highly doubtable will be accurate.

  10. Hillary
    January 17, 2013 at 19:28

    The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not about oil but all about Eretz Israel, the land from the Nile to the Euphrates in Iraq;
    “Israeli strategies are aimed at establishing a hegemony over the entire Middle East, conceived as extending from India to Mauritania….Israel clearly prepares itself to seek overtly a hegemony which it has always sought covertly, without hesitating to use for the purpose all means available, INCLUDING NUCLEAR ONES. (emphasis mine)…By insisting on its nuclear monopoly, Israel aims at reducing all other Middle Eastern states to the status of its vassals.”PP. 32, 45, 153.
    Dr. Israel Shahak , former President of the Israeli League for Human Rights , from his book “Open Secrets”.
    A Zionist PNAC media is preparing the American people to accept an attack on Iran to destroy it as it did with Iraq ,Libya ,Syria etc etc.on Israel’s behalf.
    Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, parts of Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all part of Eretz Israel.

  11. gregorylkruse
    January 17, 2013 at 17:04

    I’m still not sure that the invasion of Iraq was unsuccessful. It’s been awhile since I read it, but I seem to recall from Greg Muttitt’s book, “Fuel On the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq”, that the goal of removing Saddam and getting a better deal on the oil was largely met. Granted, it took much longer and cost much more in wealth and death than they (the oil companies, Bush Admin., and the neocons) expected, but they weren’t paying the bills. Pretty much everybody seems to be happy with the outcome, messy as it is.

    • Jeff
      January 17, 2013 at 17:24

      You think that all the killing ,dying , maiming, and suffering resulting in a better oil deal was ethical, wise, and just.?… Hm…..
      I think that you must consider what it would have felt like if you and your family had been in the middle of that. Human life is about more than what is in the best interest of business interests

      • cá»™ng đồng
        January 17, 2013 at 18:16

        Right on, Jeff! As a war veteran, I can tell you that wars may end but they are never “won” – even the so-called “Good War” — it simply set up the conditions for the next phase of killing…

    • incontinent reader
      January 18, 2013 at 04:33

      Gregory- You forgot Gen. McChrystal’s claim that the Iraq War led us to Osama bin Laden. On balance it was worth it? (Are you Madeleine Albright’s ventriloquist, or is she yours?) What are we left with? An estimated one million dead, who knows how many wounded, uranium poisoning and birth deformities that have shown up in the Iraqi population and may remain present in future generations, four million displaced, a balkanized nation currently in an undeclared civil war with reports of daily mass killings, an estimated $3-5 trillion dollar war cost to the United States, and of course our great success in winning oil concessions- by the latest count, the U.S. oil companies (Exxon Mobil is the only one left in Iraq) came up in spades….. with one concession, which they may end up losing. (See: ) And where does Exxon Mobil want to go next? Afghanistan, of course.

      As for Greg Muttitt’s book it was solidly against the war in Iraq and the foreign plunder of Iraq’s oil.

      Wars are messy. So are facts.

      My apologies if your comment was intended to be sarcastic.

  12. incontinent reader
    January 17, 2013 at 13:36

    Like the old ad, “Promise them anything but give them Arpège”.

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