In one of the more dramatic exchanges on Thursday during the confirmation hearings of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of defence, the former Senator was peppered with questions from Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) about the 2007 Iraq surge.In Iraq at that time, the insurgency had reached deadly new heights as violence swelled throughout the country. President Bush then surged an additional 20,000 U.S. troops with a strategy of “protecting the population” under the leadership of General David Petraeus.
In McCain’s opening question, he grilled Hagel — who opposed the surge — asking him about his statement at the time, in which he said the surge “represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
As Hagel tried to explain why he said that, McCain interrupted, saying, “I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.”
McCain, an adamant supporter of the surge strategy, wanted to hear that the surge was the reason behind the turnaround in Iraq with a simple yes or no answer.
“The beginning of the surge also factored in what General Allen had put into place in Anbar province, the Sunni Awakening,” said Hagel in an attempt to answer. “We put over, as you know, a hundred thousand young,” before McCain interrupted.
“Senator Hagel, I’m very aware of the history of the surge and the Anbar Awakening, and I also am aware that any casual observer will know that the surge was the fundamental factor, led by two great leaders, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.”
But a casual observation is very different from what actually happened on the ground.
In an extremely well-researched report from Army Lt. Col Daniel Davis, he writes, “When the full facts are examined, however, it becomes very clear that the surge of troops in 2007 was instrumental at best and according to one senior ground commander who led much of our fight in the Anbar province, ‘75% to 80% of the credit’ for the surge’s success lies elsewhere.”
In the forward to another official historical account from Marine Corps University Press, Maj. General John F. Kelly writes, “at a certain point, al-Qaeda’s agenda became too much for the average Anbari to bear. It was increasingly directed at the sheikhs themselves, and just as importantly, it began to have an impact on the business interests of tribal leaders.”
Simply put, the brutality of elements of al Qaeda in Iraq against the Sunni populace hit a breaking point, and led to the Anbar Awakening, where Iraqis finally fought back with the help of U.S. forces. “The surge of troops in 2007 did play a role, so there is no attempt to suggest it had no place,” Davis writes. “But in case some may charge that the Iraqi view downplays the US role and overemphasizes its own, I’ll explain.”
Davis interviews both Iraqis and American ground commanders in his report, and concludes that the surge did help, but the shift of the populace against al Qaeda — their awakening — is the biggest reason for the deescalation in violence.
In an interview with the commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st armoured Division, Col. Sean MacFarland said:
“I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaeda. Maybe 75-80% of the credit for the success in the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaeda and joined us in common cause. But, make no mistake, there would have been no Anbar Awakening without the US Forces. It’s like asking, ‘Which element is the most important component in making an engine run: the spark, oxygen, or fuel?’ The answer is ‘all three.’ You can debate all day long over which is the most crucial, but without all three nothing happens. It was like that in Anbar. Al-Qaeda threats and atrocities were the spark, we provided the air (or environment) to make it happen, but without the fuel provided by the various Awakening groups, we would not have achieved anything lasting or widespread.”
Sen. McCain may have wanted a yes or no answer to whether the surge worked, but it’s not that simple, and Chuck Hagel knows it.
“No single personality was the key in Anbar, no shiny new field manual the reason why, and no ‘surge’ or single unit made it happen,” writes Maj. Gen. Kelly. “It was a combination of many factors, not the least of which — perhaps the most important — was the consistent command philosophy that drove operations in Anbar from March 2004 forward. “
You can see the full exchange between Sens. Hagel and McCain here:
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