Thursday, May 08, 2008

Despite Its Successes the Surge Has Failed Its Tests

One of the most surprising things about the five-year course of the war in Iraq for someone who studies strategy, performance management, and learning in large organizations has been the readiness of the Bush Administration to set strategies without goals. And without goals, it’s impossible to tell what results are relevant to a strategy.

For example, when Senators asked General Petraeus at a hearing on Wednesday what conditions would let him withdraw troops, he basically replied he would withdraw troops when conditions were right – a circularity.

War opponents jump to the conclusion that the real goal must be to maintain a conflict posture somehow favoring Republicans in upcoming elections. The job of a loyal opposition is to jump to that sort of conclusion because the biggest political risk of an elective war is that it may really serve to distract voters from problems at home.

But defining a goal for the surge was no easy task. It’s had important salutary effects. Violence has fallen for half a year – especially among Iraqis – and every Iraqi life saved is as precious as an American’s.

Yet the U.S. could not have asserted a reduction in violence as the principal goal without empowering every force opposing the Iraqi government to undermine the case for an irksome U.S. troop presence. So whether you like it or not, the reduction in violence is not relevant to the question whether the surge is succeeding in meeting its goal.

Instead, Congress basically assumed the goal was to ensure progress toward political reconciliation. After all, it’s hard to justify any troop presence in Iraq without the possibility of political progress.

That explains why the eighteen benchmarks arduously negotiated with the Iraqi leadership and signed into law by the President on 25 May 2007 focus on the contribution Iraqis promised to make toward political reconciliation and their own security.

What makes benchmarks relevant is their power to test our plans for getting things done. We pursue results against benchmarks to learn how to improve a strategy. That’s why it’s critically important to ask whether the troop surge strategy has advanced political reconciliation in Iraq. It has not.

·U.S. efforts to bribe and wean Sunni groups like the Sons of Iraq away from insurgency have undermined the benchmark on disarming militias.

·Vice President Cheney's insistence – during a recent trip to Baghdad – on meeting the benchmark for provincial elections sparked something close to a civil war among Shia.

·Prime Minister al-Maliki's inability to pacify Basra, furthermore, has undermined confidence in the benchmarks on deploying security forces that the Iraqi government had supposedly met.

·Meanwhile, Iraqi observers hotly dispute claims of progress under the benchmarks on the security forces' freedom from partisan interference and the even-handedness of their operations.

·And Iraqis appear to have succeeded against the benchmark on reducing sectarian violence only because Sunni forces are regrouping in the north away from Baghdad – which just stores up trouble for the future.

It's tempting to cherry-pick these benchmarks and claim partial success. If a strategy fails any valid test in the form of a preponderance of relevant benchmarks, however, it fails as a strategy.

Imagine the folks at Bear Stearns claiming that even though their counter-parties lost all confidence in them the firm's treasury bills were still valuable. Or imagine an aircraft engine manufacturer arguing that although one of its turbine blades shattered the wing held up nicely and the plane landed.

What these benchmarks show is that the surge is failing because military reinforcement is not solving political problems. The potential of the surge to pacify parts of Iraq in the absence of such progress was never relevant.

David Apgar is the author of Relevance (Jossey-Bass, 2008)

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