Evaluating The Surge In Iraq

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations talks with host Scott Simon about elements that made the military surge in Iraq effective.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

If you measure mayhem in Iraq by the deaths of civilians, the deaths of U.S. troops and the number of attacks, violence in Iraq is down by 80 percent from the highest levels in 2007. After Bob Woodward, we now turn to Stephen Biddle, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us from Yale University in New Haven. Mr. Biddle, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Mr. Woodward, of course, seemed skeptical that the surge of troops has been as important as it's sometimes portrayed. You're one of a cadre of outsider advisers to both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. How critical do you think it's been?

Mr. BIDDLE: I would characterize it as necessary but insufficient to bring about the violence reduction that we've seen. I think if you did not have the surge broadly defined, meaning to include the change in strategy that went along with the troop increase, I don't think the other things that were happening in the country at the time would have been sufficient to bring the violence down and keep it down.

SIMON: What about some of the other changes in U.S. strategy or perhaps, as you mentioned, things that for which the United States wasn't responsible at all? How did they contribute?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I think there were three key changes in the course of the latter part of 2006 and 2007 that together explain what happened here. Two of these were mistakes by al-Qaeda that we had very little to do with. Al-Qaeda and Iraq bombed the Golden Dome Mosque in Askaria in February 2006. That had the effect of taking Shiite militias that had mostly been fighting passively on the war defending their own population centers and bringing them into the war en masse and on the offensive in ways that al-Qaeda hoped would create enough chaos in Iraq to force the Americans out.

And they didn't like what they saw. Instead of victory, what they got was defeat. So the first key change was a big sea change in the Sunnis' appreciation of the strategic reality of Iraq brought about by al-Qaeda and Iraq's mistake in bombing the mosque and bringing the militias under the war.

The second big enemy mistake was al-Qaeda and Iraq's brutality toward its own allies. What those two things did was to create a desire on the part of Iraqi Sunnis to realign away from al-Qaeda and towards somebody else who could actually protect them, and we were essentially the only candidates. Now enter the surge. What the surge did was not to suffocate resistance in Iraq by blanketing every street corner in Iraq with Americans troops. It wasn't big enough to do that. What the surge did accomplish, though, was to protect Sunni tribes who wanted to realign from counterattack by al-Qaeda so that this time the realignment could stick. That's why I think it was necessary but it wasn't sufficient.

If the Sunnis hadn't been beaten in the streets of Baghdad, for example, and concluded en masse rather than one or two tribal leaders that they needed realignment, an additional 30 to 40,000 troops in Iraq wasn't going to create any fundamental change in the situation.

SIMON: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow on foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks so much.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thank you.

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