Iraq: Surge or Split?

An Issue Primer

What's Up

In 2003, America was debating whether or not we should’ve gone into Iraq. 2004-2007 switched to discussions of how well/poorly regime change and troop surges were going.

Now, with most people agreeing Iraq is on the - still slow - path toward stability and a new administration promising a quick withdrawal, the big Iraq question is how how fast we can get out?

Troops surge and purge

In January 2007, the president first proposed increasing troop strength in Iraq with the idea of creating enough security in Baghdad to get political progress and development back on track. The surge would spell 20,000 more troops (which could translate to a total increase in military personnel of 30,000 (WP) to 48,000 (CBO)), which started trickling in in February with the last troops arriving in June (WP).

A May 2007 progress report (pdf) from the Pentagon and July report from the White House said early results were, at best, a mixed bag. A much anticipated September report from General Petraeus (pdf) was slightly rosier, but didn't convince everyone, including the GAO which gave a less optimistic report card around the same time. (See our comparison of both reports.) The general word by the end of '07, however, was that surge was bringing down violence - although political progress wasn't necessarily following as quickly as planned. Regardless, troop levels started dwindling in late '07 from a high of 171 thousand, down to 142 thousand by the beginning of '09.

In February '09, President Obama announced his much anticipated plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Pleasing neither cautious generals or eager anti-warists, the administration set a goal of removing all "combat" troops by August 2010, with about 45 thousand "non-combat" troops sticking around until the end of 2011 for training and counter-terrorism purposes. (WP)

Congressional skirmishes

Dems were no fan of the surge; they'd rather see the war come to an end, and - in '07 - took every opportunity they could get to vote for a withdrawal.

Round 1: After playing around with symbolic votes against the surge (WP and WP) in early '07, Congress tried using a $100 billion supplemental war funding bill (which bloated up with sweeteners to $124 billion - WP), to set goals for progress in Iraq and a timeline for the US's departure. That bill got vetoed by the president, who objected to its price tag as well as to its forced timeline for withdrawal. Congress ended up meeting the White House half way, okaying a war funding bill for '07, HR 2206, that only included benchmarks that the Iraq government would have to meet in order to keep getting reconstruction funds. (WP)

Round 2: In July, the House voted again to set a timeline for withdrawal (but with numbers that couldn't override an almost certain veto - WP), while Senate leaders pulled all-nighters to try to pass a bill that would bring most troops home by May, 2008 (they failed, but at the same time they didn't bring less far-reaching bills to the floor which may have had a better chance at passage - WP).

September: The benchmarks set in HR 2206 came up in September, when the administration gave Congress an optimistic report on the success of the surge, at the same time saying it would start bringing troop numbers down. Congressional Dems were unimpressed and quickly volleyed back with new measures - to tack on to the defense authorization bill - that would bring troops back faster and/or alter the US mission in Iraq. The stumbling block to any action, though, was still the Senate, where any controversial bill needs 60 out of 100 senators' votes to pass. So far Dems and moderate Republicans have failed to find a bill they can both vote on. The most promising action lined up would require troops get equal time home to Iraq duty, but that failed the week of September 17.

November: After taking a break from Iraq skirmishes in October, Congress tried to use a $50 "bridge fund" for Iraq to demand that Bush outline a plan to bring back the troops by December '08 (except for troops needed to fight terrorism and train Iraqis). Even though the measure was milder than earlier bills - setting a "goal" instead of a "deadline," it was killed in the Senate. (WP) Congress similarly wimped out when they ultimately gave Bush $70 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in December. (WP)

2008: With a shaky economy eclipsing the country's attention, Iraq has fallen out of the spotlight on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, senators debated a couple of - symbolic, sure-loser - Iraq measures in February, one which would've stopped funding troop deployments in four months time and another which would ask the president to come up with a plan within 60 days to fight global terrorism. (WP) The House also tacked on troop withdrawal timelines and mandatory soldier downtime onto a May war funding bill, but those measures got skimmed out by the Senate and didn't make it into a final bill. (WP, WP, NYT, WP, WP, WP, WP)

2009: The incoming administration has promised that all US combat troops would be out of Iraq within 16 months. That timeline may shift as President Obama sits down with the Pentagon to talk logistics. For the time being at least, while lawmakers seems to be enamored of the president, there shouldn't be anything happening in Congress to interfere with the new president's actions.

The debate

A couple of years ago politicians, theorists, military specialists and pundits are all over the map on the Iraq question. Some said the political and moral consequences of leaving were so dire – civil war, possible regional war, ethnic cleansing, increased terrorism, etc. – that the US has to pull out all the stops to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Others said our presence in Iraq only made the situation worse and that we should get out as fast as we can. Most fell somewhere in between.

As a new administration takes up the reins in DC, the question is no longer whether we should be withdrawing - now it's a question of how fast. Obama promised voters he'd have combat troops out by mid-2010, but a US-Iraqi agreement says they can stick around until 2011. US generals may push Obama to take a slower track, but perhaps not slow enough to get anti-war protesters up in arms. (NYT)

When the "split or surge" debate was raging, cJ thought it would be handy lay out the problem – to help our readers put the debate in perspective. The links above provide a cheat sheet on the state of Iraq, mostly cribbed from the Iraq Study Group, but also with bits from the International Crisis Group and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We haven't updated this overview since early 2007, so our readers may also want to check out the White House's September update (pdf), as well as the GAO's progress report and the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq (see the WP's summary and our comparison of the White House and GAO reports). The Defense Department also supplies quarterly updates on progress in Iraq - although much of that progress continues to be doubted by the GAO.

in a nutshell (the debate in 2006 and 2007)

Everyone agreed Iraq was a mess. They also agreed Iraq had three mammoth problems – a political one, a security one and a governance one.

Politically, three main ethnic groups (and factions within those groups) were far from being on the same page when it comes to where their government was and where it should be going. Those political problems were almost impossible to grapple with while insurgents, militias, terrorists, criminals and even average Iraqis all added to escalating violence and division within the country. The political and security messes made the third problem – providing services and supporting development for Iraq’s people and economy – almost a non-starter.

On the following pages, we spelled out the political, security and governance situation. But since most – if not all – political divisions and violence in Iraq fall along ethnic lines, the first step to grasping the state of Iraq is getting the ethnic who’s who.

next > the ethnic divide

Updated December 18, 2008

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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this info is useless!

this info is useless!

a random Joe (not verified) | April 21, 2008 - 11:16am