Neocons’ Fateful Iraq ‘Surge’ Myth

After provoking the Iraq War debacle, America’s neocons found themselves on the defensive but soon came up with a “theme” to salvage their reputations the  myth of the “successful surge” what might be called the last lie of Iraq War I or the first lie of Iraq War II, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the most persistently voiced myths about U.S. foreign policy of the past several years, and because of that persistent voicing, one apparently already entrenched in the minds of many Americans, concerns the status as of about five years ago of the big experiment in regime change and nation-building known as the Iraq War.

According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were needed to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

It is easy to see the motivations for promoting the myth. Probably the leading motivation is to relieve the cognitive dissonance and the blow to personal reputations of those who promoted or strongly supported the war itself, the grandest neoconservative project ever and the biggest foreign policy endeavor of the George W. Bush administration, only to see it materialize as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

Also rough on amour-propre, and in a way more worthy of understanding and even respect from the rest of us than is the case with the war-promoters, is how those in uniform who were given the task of carrying out the project have not been able to claim honestly that their efforts and sacrifices resulted in a victory. Yet another obvious motivation, which arises whenever Barack Obama’s political opponents find a stick they can employ to beat him, is to use the troubles of Iraq today as one more such stick.

With regard particularly to that last motivation, it always has been puzzling how the part of the myth relating to Obama’s policies gets propagated even though it was the Bush administration that established the schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government.

In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn’t try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it? But the myth has more significant consequences than its effect on the partisan scorecard.

A reflection of the discrepancy between the myth and Iraqi reality arose in a public debate in which I participated a couple of months ago, the topic of which concerned the efficacy, or lack thereof, of additional applications of U.S. military force in the Middle East. One of my opponents on the pro-efficacy side (a prominent neocon pundit) asserted that Iraq was “at peace” in 2009.

As one measure of what this supposedly peaceful state looked like, consider the statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project, which show 5,309 civilian deaths from the continued violence in Iraq in 2009. For comparison, that is more than total U.S. combat deaths for the entire war. It also includes only documented civilian deaths, which are basically collateral damage, and does not reflect either undocumented casualties or the full toll among government forces and militias who were the principal combatants.

The civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Iraqi regime has had an unbroken history, from then through today. Like most wars, its intensity has ebbed and flowed. The surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and 2008 was one factor, but only one, involved in one of the ebbs. And if there are more than 160,000 U.S. troops in a country, as there were in Iraq at the peak of the U.S. occupation, we certainly should expect some effect on the ebb and flow.

Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled, fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed.

There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests, which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities, that underlies the violence in Iraq today.

There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS, which is the same group with a new name and a new leader, that is such a preoccupation today.

There never has been a logic accompanying the myth. If eight-and-a-half years of U.S troops in Iraq were not enough, then why should we expect a few more years (or would it turn out to be only a few?) of a troop presence to be sufficient? And if 160,000 troops were not enough, then why should we expect a smaller number (or would it re-escalate to a large number?) to be sufficient?

The myth seems to be predicated on some strange process of telepathic osmosis by which democratic thoughts in the minds of American troops in Iraq would somehow have gotten former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to have turned away from his sectarian and authoritarian habits and nourished an inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional democracy.

What else exactly could U.S. troops in Iraq have done if they had lingered longer in Iraq to have made such a political difference? Threaten to overthrow Maliki, through a kind of U.S.-led military coup, if he didn’t get with the program? If U.S. forces instead would have been helping to provide security against the extremist groups and Sunni insurgents whose support has been rooted all along in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, that would only have reduced rather than increased Maliki’s incentive to reform and to be more inclusive.

If telepathic osmosis was not expected to work and whatever good U.S. troops would have done would be in spite of the unhelpful ways of Iraqi politicians such as Maliki, then the job would never be done, if the job is defined as making way for a stable Iraqi democracy standing on its own.

Or at least it would not be done on any time scale less than generational, a time scale, measured in decades, long enough for a new political culture to evolve. Until then, U.S. troops would have been sitting forcefully and indefinitely on the ingredients of a volatile stew, a little like how Saddam Hussein sat on top of it in a much more brutal way, before the U.S. removed him and the stew boiled over.

No, we never won, or almost won, the Iraq War. One of the uniformed leaders who was given the task to try to do that, now retired three-star general Daniel Bolger, has painfully, but honestly, and not buying into myths that would be soothing for him and his colleagues, acknowledged this by writing:

“The surge in Iraq did not ‘win’ anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fever patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away.”

The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful.

The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.

George Kennan made a somewhat similar observation about an earlier set of myths and recriminations concerning developments in another faraway country that has been a preoccupation of Americans. The belief that we “lost China,” wrote Kennan, “seriously distorted the understanding of a great many Americans about foreign policy, implying that our policy was always the decisive mover of events everywhere in the world; that in any country of the world, including China, we had it in our power to prevent the rise to positions of authority of people professing Marxist sympathies…”

The ideologies that Americans fear the most now are ones other than Marxism. And the myth involving Iraq is a more extensive one than the one involving China in that it posits the United States having “won” Iraq before “losing” it. But the damage Kennan identifies, the mistaken belief that if U.S. power and especially military power is applied with sufficient determination and persistence, the governments of other countries will be composed of people who are to our liking or at least act in accordance with our liking, is the same.

For more on this topic, see’s “Reviving the ‘Successful Surge’ Myth.”]

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Neocons’ Fateful Iraq ‘Surge’ Myth

  1. Matt
    November 30, 2014 at 13:16

    20,000 troops can do nothing, what they can do is secure a buffer zone inside Iran and then the ringed security inside Iraq. Safe havens cross borders, you have to push them back. We were not going to occupy Iran but bomb the hell out of them and push them back. Hedgehog pattern and buffer zone. First you call them and warn them. And by hell you want back up what you say and have to mean it.

  2. fred.reade
    November 19, 2014 at 13:06

    Watch The War You Don’t See by John Pilger, longtime reporter on war, including Vietnam. It’s quality information.

  3. MrK
    November 18, 2014 at 11:15

    The Surge was conceived by Frank Kagan, and it’s history is being written by his wife, Kimberly Kagan. Prof. Kimberly Kagan created The Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

    Dr. Kagan is the sister in law of Robert Kagan (PNAC), and Victoria Nuland (Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs, at the US State Department).

    Our History

    Dr. Kimberly Kagan founded ISW in May 2007, as U.S. forces undertook a daring new counterinsurgency strategy to reverse the grim security situation on the ground in Iraq . Frustrated with the prevailing lack of accurate information documenting developments on the ground in Iraq and the detrimental effect of biased reporting on policymakers, Dr. Kagan established ISW to provide real-time, independent, and open-source analysis of ongoing military operations and insurgent attacks in Iraq. General Jack Keane (U.S. Army, Ret.), the Chairman of ISW’s board, also played a central role in developing the intellectual foundation for this change of strategy in Iraq, and supported the formation of the Institute

    Dr. Kagan has a website called Understanding The Surge:

    About the Documentary

    The Surge: the Untold Story is the only documentary of its kind offering audiences a look into the real story of the Surge in Iraq, as told by top U.S. military commanders. These never-before-seen interviews move beyond Washington politics to tell the ground truth of a failing mission transformed into one of the most successful military operations in a generation of war fighting. This documentary honors the sacrifice, courage and ingenuity of military members in nearly impossible circumstances.

    “A grant from the National Philanthropic Trust was provided to the ISW at the recommendation of Ambassador Marilyn Ware.

    • Sar Casm
      November 18, 2014 at 17:33

      Well that does it! Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike have me sold.


    • Abe
      November 18, 2014 at 18:13

      Because “top U.S. military commanders” ALWAYS tell “the real story” about how they were in charge of “one the most successful military operations in a generation of war fighting.”

    • Abe
      November 18, 2014 at 18:24

      Seeing Iraq as a stepping stone to war with Iran Kimberly once wrote a bizarre opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Second Iran-Iraq War” which repeated the Petraeus claim that Iran was responsible for most of the violence in Iraq and then went on to assert that the “US must recognize that Iran is engaged in a full-up proxy war against it in Iraq.” In her piece on the “Patton of Counterinsurgency” Kimberly shamelessly flattered Petraeus and his colleague Ray Odierno, “Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.” The deceased generals whom Kagan cites won their laurels by fighting against enemies who were as well armed, well equipped, and numerous as their own forces. They didn’t earn their stars and garters by bombing Fedayeen irregulars or arming and then bribing the insurgents to cease and desist as was done during the surge in Iraq. Far from being a respected battlefield tested soldier, Petraeus has only one decoration for valor, a somewhat dubious Bronze Star awarded when he was already a general. He has never seen combat at a close and personal level. Nor has Odierno.

      The Forever Wars of Frederick & Kimberly Kagan
      By Philip Geraldi

  4. Abe
    November 18, 2014 at 03:27

    ISIS: America’s Terrorist Mercenaries

  5. Abe
    November 17, 2014 at 20:53

    Ray McGovern said that he planned to ask General David Petraeus, “Will you come out of retirement and try to do it better this time to train the Iraqi forces?”

    With all due respect to Mr. McGovern, the forces that “nobody does it better” Petraeus trained and equipped performed exactly as directed.

    Over the past decade, Petraeus was been involved at key stages of the destruction of the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan civil societies.

    In June 2004, Petraeus was promoted to lieutenant general and became the first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq in June 2004.

    This newly created command had responsibility for training, equipping, and mentoring Iraq’s growing army, police, and other security forces as well as developing Iraq’s security institutions and building associated infrastructure.

    Acclaimed as a counter insurgency expert, Petraeus “built relationships and got cooperation” by training and equipping the Iraqi ministries of Defense and Interior. These units became notorious for their secret prisons, torture centers and mass killings.

    Training and weapons distribution was haphazard, rushed, and did not follow established procedures, particularly from 2004 to 2005 when security training was led by Petraeus. When Iraq’s security forces began to see combat, the results were predictable.

    Petraeus continued to fail upwards. In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced that Petraeus would succeed Gen. George Casey as commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq.

    Based on the Petraeus Doctrine that “more terror is better,” the good General implemented a massive security crackdown in Baghdad combined with the infamous “surge” in coalition troop strength.

    Petraeus’ “surge” was credited for a reduction in the death rate for coalition troops. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior reported similar reductions for civilian deaths.

    However, a September 2007 report by an independent military commission headed by General James Jones found that the decrease in violence may have been due to areas being overrun by either Shias or Sunnis. In addition, in August 2007, the International Organization for Migration and the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization indicated that more Iraqis had fled since the troop increase.

    In short, Petraeus’ vaunted counter insurgency strategy to “secure the population” had succeeded by further depopulating and ethnically polarizing Iraq.

    Thus Petraeus was instrumental in advancing the US plan to effectively divide Iraq into three states: a Sunni state across wide swaths of central Iraq and Syria, a Shi’ite state in the south, and a Kurdish state in the north.

    Where monumental failure was the goal, Petraeus kept succeeding brilliantly.

    After serving as CENTCOM commander (2008-2010), commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan in Afghanistan (2010-2011), Petraeus was nominated by Obama to become the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency .

    During Petraeus’ tenure as CIA Director (September 6, 2011 – November 9, 2012), was well-positioned to coordinate a “new way forward” in the Libya and Syria.

    Petraeus allegedly ran the CIA ratline, transferring Libyan arms (and possibly Al-Qaeda forces) to southern Turkey so the terrorists could launch attacks into Syria.

    At the same time, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda re-boot, rapidly expanded.

    In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, began sending Syrian and Iraqi ISI guerillas across the border into Syria. Led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, this group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country.

    On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra, more commonly known as al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra grew rapidly into a capable fighting force with popular support among Syrians opposed to the Assad regime.

    In July 2012, al-Baghdadi released an audio statement online announcing that the group was returning to the former strongholds from which US troops and their Sunni allies had driven them prior to the withdrawal of US troops. He also declared the start of a new offensive in Iraq called Breaking the Walls, which was aimed at freeing members of the group held in Iraqi prisons. Violence in Iraq began to escalate that month.

    Jihadists who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were recruited to overthrow Gadhafi in Libya. Weapons had been shipped to these forces through Qatar with American approval.

    According to multiple anonymous sources, the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was used by CIA as a cover to smuggle weapons from Libya to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

    Seymour Hersh cited a source among intelligence officials, saying that the consulate had no real political role and that its sole mission was to provide cover for the transfer of arms. The attack allegedly brought end to active US involvement, but did not stop the smuggling.

    The September 11-12, 2012 attack on this hub of CIA activity demonstrated the volatility of U.S. intelligence operations throughout the Middle East.

    When the Rattenkönig resigned, purportedly due to the FBI’s discovery of the Broadwell affair, Petraeus was scheduled to testify under oath the following week before power House and Senate committees regarding the attack on the Benghazi consulate.

    Had the majestic rat king squeaking about how the US as “all in” with Al-Qaeda in Libya, Syria and Iraq, that would be a truly “riveting insider’s account.”

    Petraeus’ resignation was necessary because his official actions as CIA Director, not his personal indiscretions, were a political liability to Obama during the 2012 election.

    Pillar’s silence on the CIA history of support for al Qaeda/al Nusra/ISIS contributes to the “Neocons’ Fateful Iraq ‘Surge’ Myth”.

  6. Zachary Smith
    November 17, 2014 at 20:48

    Nowhere in this piece did I see any mention of money. Or cash/dollars/bribes.

    Now I sure don’t claim to know much about the Iraq war, but didn’t the “troop surge” coincide with a “dollar surge”?

    The US flew nearly $12bn in shrink-wrapped $100 bills into Iraq, then distributed the cash with no proper control over who was receiving it and how it was being spent.

    The staggering scale of the biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve has been graphically laid bare by a US congressional committee. (2/2007 )

    U.S. Is Paying Off Iraq’s Worst War Criminals in Attempt to Ward Off Attacks (11/2007 xxxx://

    Only, “success” in Anbar is really just a return on U.S. financial inducements to tribal sheiks. Instead of dropping bombs in Iraq, we’re now dropping bundles of cash in the laps of insurgents who without the crude bribes would no doubt return to ambushing our troops.

    If the surge has worked, it’s due in large part to a surge in bribes, not troops. And that kind of success cannot last. (11/2007 xxxx://

    Send in the soldiers and send in plane-loads of cash, and the Generals take credit for the soldier part of it all. Only it was the cash part which worked.

    If you were a tired insurgent fighter and somebody told you that you could have $10/50/100,000 if you took a break from the fighting, what would you do? Quite a few of them took the money and hunkered down, waiting for the next round.

    I was very afraid for a while there was a President Petraeus in my future. That would have been VERY bad, worse than even Hillary, if such a thing is possible.

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