Richard Fernandez (Wretchard) of the Belmont Club brings a historian’s perspective to some of the more simplistic thinking being put about by both left and right regarding the unfolding of events in Iraq. The whole thing, as they say, is well worth a read.

Without detracting a whit from the unique contributions of General Petraeus and his staff, I believe historians will find that the Surge was the expression of the ground force’s developing doctrine and not some kind of Castor Oil that had to be poured reluctantly down its throat by a revolutionary leadership.

Without the changes and leadership associated with the Surge Iraq might well have been lost. It was not as if nothing new [emphasis in original ed.] had happened. But the Surge was also built on a lot that was old; the Iraqi political structure which, however imperfect, was nevertheless elected by a population who showed (though it now chic to deride their purple fingers) great courage. It was founded on Iraqi Security Forces who were already being trained by US trainers. It was built on intelligence networks which, as everyone knows, take years to build. It was built most of all, I think, on the collective experience of US officers and NCOs, many of whom were on their second and some on their third tours. The previous tours were not valueless. They were infinitely valuable in providing experience, cultural knowledge, language fluency.

As someone who follows the war closely I completely agree with Wretchard that the success of the surge has evolved out of what the military has been learning and that the situation the surge is addressing successfully now began to ripen well before the actual surge by mid 2006 – which I wrote about here. Wretchard again:

…it’s possible that the Surge could come only when it did. Might it have come earlier with better leadership? Perhaps. Might it never have come at all? Certainly. It’s an open question whether another General other than Petraeus may have come upon an equivalent or even better strategy.

I want to add that it is not just the American military that has been changing. Everyone involved is learning and adapting to the limits of their abilities in response to events. I see three fairly obvious dynamic processes going on among the Iraqis that brought the war to its current state.

The Sunnis needed time – about 3 years – to recognize that their alliance with al Qaeda wasn’t going to work. The civil war al Qaeda provoked to destroy the chances for democracy convinced many in the US and elsewhere in the West that Bush’s policy had failed utterly, but it backfired for the Sunnis who saw their number drastically reduced by death and displacement. al Qaeda’s corruption – executing people for crimes as trivial as smoking while forcing marriage on the sisters and daughters of their indigenous allies – finished them with Iraq’s Sunnis.

Like wise it took time for those initially attracted by totalitarianism, Shia and Sunni, to recognize the alternative presented by the Kurds who simply got on with making the most of the opportunity afforded by the overthrow of Saddam. I think there has been a ‘silent majority’, perhaps even a numerical majority among the Shia who have preferred this course all along but who have been pushed toward despair by the apparently endless continuation of the violence they endured under Saddam. The example of the Kurds holds up the choice between peaceful economic activity and a struggle for absolute dominance. The Sunnis I think have decided to settle for what they can get, while many Shia are still sitting on the fence.

Finally, there is the least developed of these three major dynamic processes, the long persecuted Shiite majority deciding how it will exercise its new found power. There seems to be clear evidence that they are less inclined than they were at first to simply install a Shiite strongman like Sadr, or an Iranian theocracy but both remain real dangers. The sitting government is a problem because it is the result of an election that is a snapshot of conditions in 2004. Consequently, I think they have been slow to adapt to the rapidly evolving situation. Part of the strategy of the surge is to pressure the Iraqi government by presenting it with a functioning local government. The surge – to put it bluntly – is the exact opposite of the 2003-4 strategy of imposing democracy from the top down. At the beginning of the surge Maliki and Petraeus were getting into shouting matches because Petraeus was empowering the newly anti al Qaeda Sunni militias. Now Petraeus is empowering Shiite militias prepared to take on the Rogue Mahdi Army and the Iranian Special Groups. It is an audacious strategy and it might just work. It will certainly make the next Iraqi elections more interesting, to say nothing of the American ones.

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