zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » The Surge, Rigor, Yardsticks and Mediums

The Surge, Rigor, Yardsticks and Mediums

Andrew Exum said the Surge succeeded. Dr. Bernard Finel says “prove it“.

From Abu Muquwama:

Just Admit It: The Surge Worked

….We can argue about how many other factors aside from U.S. diplomatic and military operations led to the stunning drop in violence in 2007. There was a civil war in 2005 and 2006, tribes from al-Anbar “flipped” in 2006, and Muqtada al-Sadr decided to keep his troops out of the fight for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Those are just three factors which might not have had anything to do with U.S. operations. But there can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. Acts of heinous violence still take place in Baghdad, but so too does a relatively peaceful political process.

From BernardFinel.com:

Did the Surge Succeed?

….Violence was a problem for Iraqi civilians and for the U.S. military.  Reducing violence has unquestionably served humanitarian purposes in Iraq and has also saved American lives.  But that has nothing to do with “conceptual space” or the broader “success” of the surge.

I mean, come on, if you’re going to write a post that essential expects to settle a debate like this one, snark and assertions much be balanced with rigorous analysis.  But Exum doesn’t demonstrate any real understanding of the dynamics of violence in civil conflicts.

My suggestion is that you first read each gentleman’s posts in their entirety.

The first part of the dispute would be what is the standard of “success” that we are going to use to evaluate “the Surge”. I’m not certain that Exum and Finel, both of whom are experts in areas of national security and defense, would easily arrive at a consensus as to what that standard of measurement would be. Perhaps if they sat across from one another at a table and went back and forth for an hour or so. Or perhaps not. I have even less confidence that folks whose interests are primarily “gotcha” type partisan political point-scoring on the internet, rather than defense or foreign policy, could agree on a standard. Actually, I think people of that type would go to great lengths to avoid doing so but without agreement on a standard or standards the discussion degenerates into people shouting past one another.

In my view, “the Surge” was as much about domestic political requirements of the Bush administration after November 2006 as it was about the situation on the ground in Iraq. In my humble opinion, COIN was a better operational paradigm that what we had been doing previously in Iraq under Rumsfeld and Bremer, but the Bush administration accepted that change in military policy only out of desperation, as a life preserver. That isn’t either good or bad, it simply means that measuring the Surge is probably multidimensional and the importance of particular aspects depends on who you are. An Iraqi shopkeeper or insurgent has a different view from a USMC colonel or a blogger-political operative like Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga. Ultimately, the standard selected involves a level of arbitrary judgment. I can say the Surge was a success because the US was not forced to execute a fighting withdrawal from Iraq as some, like William Lind, was likely to happen but that’s probably not a narrow enough standard to measure the Surge fairly.

The second part of the dispute involves methodological validity, or “rigor” in making the evaluation, which was raised by Dr. Finel. I agree with Finel that in intellectual debate, rigor is a good thing. Generally in academia, where social scientists frequently suffer from a bad case of “physics envy”, this means unleashing the quants to build a mathematical model to isolate the hypothetical effects of a particular variable. I freely admit that I am not certain how this could be done in a situation as complex as the Iraqi insurgency-counterinsurgency in 2007 and still retain enough reliability to relate to reality. The act of isolating one variable is itself a gross distortion of the reality of war. There would have to be some kind of reasonable combination of quantitative and qualitative methods here to construct an argument that is comprehensive, rigorous and valid. I think Bernard should propose what that combination might be in approximate terms.

The third part of the dispute involves the medium for the rigorous argument over the Surge. I’d suggest that, generally, a blog post is not going to cut it for reasons intrinsic to the medium. First, blog posts have an unspoken requirement of brevity due the fact that audience reads them on a computer screen. While you can say something profound in just a few words, assembling satisfactory evidentiary proofs in a scholarly sense requires more space – such as that provided by a journal article or book. Blogging is good for a fast-paced exchange of ideas, brainstorming, speculation and, on occasion, investigative journalism. It’s a viral, dynamic medium. While there are examples of bloggers rising to levels of greater intellectual depth, these are exceptions rather than the rule in the blogosphere.

This is not a dispute that is going to be resolved because the parties are unlikely to find a common ground on which they can agree to stand.

12 Responses to “The Surge, Rigor, Yardsticks and Mediums”

  1. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I tend to agree with noted COIN expert Chou En-lai: it’s too soon to tell. Give it 3o years and by then you might be able to tell if the Finel answer is true.

  2. T. Greer Says:

    The AM comment section was actually pretty good on this. I would highlight the response of Gulliver (comment 7 – presumably <a href="http://tachesdhuile.blogspot.com/">the Gulliver who writes over at Ink Spots</a>):


    I’ve always thought that Rick’s prevarication on this was completely ludicrous. So long as we’re defining "the Surge" as an addition of troops and a change of emphasis in CF’s method of operation, then how in God’s name could one ever imagine that political reconciliation — an event that can only take place in the hearts of men — could be achieved by that? It took a century for the ethno-sectarian rift to heal in the American South, and anybody thought "the Surge" could do that in fifteen months in an alien culture? Be serious, people. The objective of the Surge was to stem the rising tide of ethno-sectarian violence and end the Iraqi civil war. That objective was accomplished, both through the efforts of CF and the other environmental developments listed above (as we’re so often reminded by COL Gentile, who inexplicably seems to think that there’s a big group of COINdinistas out there denying the influence of ethnic cleansing or the Sadrist stand-down). The Surge worked, end of.</blockquote> Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

  3. Ski Says:

    Exum’s analysis is sloppy and overly simplistic.

    Massing troops within Iraq was a single factor of the temporary success from 07-09 (defined simply by decline in violence – which seems to rising slowly again).

    The ethnic cleansing of Shi’i enclaves, the Sunni Awakening (bolstered by large amounts of cash donated by the US to their shiekhs), the more aggressive Shi’i groups going to ground to regroup and refit, and a new operational/tactical plan all contributed as much if not more to the "success" of the "Surge."

    As Mr. Greer correctly notes, the rifts in Iraqi society are deep and cannot be judged to have healed over the last two years. In fact, I would state that these wounds will only heal once the US leaves the country and the ethnic/religious groups either:
    1. Come to an agreement to leave each other alone (unlikely)
    2. Iraq splinters into three substates (possible in Kurdistan, unlikely anywhere else)
    3. They continue to fight each other (probable)

    The surge is a blip in time. Nothing more, nothing less. It was not sustainable and as we slowly withdraw from Iraq, there seems to be an increase of violence. Not surprising in the least, this is Sun Tzu 101.

  4. Smitten Eagle Says:

    Exum is probably the last person who would ever define the surge as "massing troops within Iraq."  The increase of troops was actually rather modest–a few percent of what already existed.
    The actual surge, in actuality, consisted of a change in the disposition and activities of most of the troops in Iraq.  I say "most" because the change in disposition and activities was already well underway in Anbar, as the Anbar Awakening predated the Surge.  And much of the change in disposition and activities actually involved much protracted, bloody fighting that naysayers were using as evidence in 2007 that the Surge was failing.  In actuality, the Surge was an offensive seizing of territory–most of which surrounded the Baghdad suburbs.  Casualties usually initially rise, then fall, during offensives.
    Describing the Surge as a mere increase in troops in Iraq is misleading, but is not at all uncommon, as that’s how a body politic as disconnected from military affairs as ours is, is likely to interpret it.
    As far as the greater questions of whether the Surge was successful…Zen is very correct in that’s a judgment of aims.  Even more difficult is that War Aims change throughout conflicts and offensives, and legitimately so.  From a distance, it would appear that the Surge was something of a success based on the fact that we’re even having this conversation now, and instead not arguing about the tactical success/strategic failure of Lind’s Fighting Retreat, and there aren’t calls for Petraeus and Odierno to be Court Martialed.
    Semper Fidelis,

  5. democraticcore Says:

    Barnett recently used the Zhou Enlai quote with respect to an assessment of the Iraq War in general.  http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=5373  As for the surge, it strikes me that there is pretty strong evidence that it was the right move in 2006, regardless of whether or not you supported the Iraq War at the get-go.  I have speculated that if Obama wants to make a bold move in the direction of bipartisanship, he should figure out a way of acknowledging that he was wrong and Bush was right about the surge in 2006, even though he still believes that it was a mistake to start the war in the first place.

  6. onparkstreet Says:

    Stirred the hornet’s nest of commenters, didn’t he? That’s our AM.
    I must be a simpleton, but I sort of thought AM’s post was a blog response to a blog problem: Andrew Sullivan and other bloggers that he might read are continually shifting goalposts. If we are doing blog "gotchas" it might be better to pull an exerpt where said author stated violence would go up, and then post the graph next to it.
    I agree with others, however, that it is complicated, the data isn’t all in, and only time will tell yada yada yada. Not being flippant, but, well, history will make its own judgments.
    I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a pundit’s batting average, so that if pundit A predicts X, then we should keep track of that as a percentage. But what kind of pedantic, misanthropic, "lives-in-mom’s basement," obsessive jacka&s would take time for a website like that? Come on, people, there’s gotta be one on the internet.

    *Skeptics like me who think everything’s gonna be screwed up all the time would have a much higher percentage because most things don’t work out as planned, do they?
    – Madhu
    Oh wait. What was the topic of the post again? Oh yeah: violence went down and not up as predicted by some of the bloggy pundits….that’s my take on it!

  7. Ski Says:


    Perhaps that is the case, but Exum does not specifically define what constituted the "Surge" in this article.

  8. M1 Says:

    Excellent– and most welcomed/longed for post in these climes. I look forward to a ‘shrooming of commentary.

    Really–well done ,Count de Z!!

    (And Hey–If We didn’t say so before: "You make us proud, Son")

  9. zen Says:

    Superb comments gentlemen!
    Yes, terms are undefined in this debate – as in many important debates, clarity means increasing the probability of resolution which means somebody loses the argument 🙂
    Much thanks M1, o’ master of the message discipline!

  10. Abu Nasr Says:

    Public Law No: 110-28 AKA the 18 Benchmarks. This was the entire point for the surge.


  11. JohnB. O'Rielly Says:

    "In fact, I would state that these wounds will only heal once the US leaves the country and" …Good luck with that! 

    First, where are we getting our numbers for this increase in violence and what the attributing factors?  Is the increase due to crime, political instability, indigenous or international terrorism and/or waring factions? .What’s been done by COIN Operations to ensure there is a functional Iraqi National Police Force?  .Perhaps we need to look at other locations in the world that are dealing with post conflict issues /increasing violence, like Liberia for the answers we seek? .The last Civil War in Liberia ended in 2003.  Today, there are still over 10,000 UN Peace Keeping Troops in Liberia..What makes us think that Iraq will heal any faster, in the long run, than Liberia? 

  12. Daniel McIntosh Says:

    Excellent point that one can’t have real discussion until the terms of debate have been defined.  Perhaps there is one way a blog can be of service here.  A useful system is to require each participant to reflect in his own words what he thinks the other is saying, subject to confirmation (or rejection/modification) by the original speaker, before going on to reject it and offer his own position  A series of short posts in a structured forum might be a way to go.  It’s a pain in the ass, and not the sort of thing that the punditocracy wants to engage in, but it might actually lead to some understanding.

Switch to our mobile site