The Petraeus Surge Narrative Is Back

With Gen. David Petraeus back in the media spotlight after being tapped to take control of the Afghanistan war following General Stanley McChrystal’s fall from grace, the corporate media are trumpeting the “successful” surge in Iraq (Extra, 9/10/08) that Petraeus oversaw and are looking to him as the man to turn around the Afghan war.

Columnist David Ignatius (Washington Post, 6/24/10) writes:

Gen. David Petraeus didn’t sign on as the new Afghanistan commander because he expects to lose.

That’s the boldest aspect of President Obama’s decision: He has put a troubled Afghanistan campaign in the hands of a man who bent what looked like failure in Iraq toward an acceptable measure of success. Obama has doubled down on his bet, much as George W. Bush did with his risky surge of troops in Iraq under Petraeus’ command.

Similarly, NBC (6/23/10) reports that the White House and the Pentagon are “hoping that by enacting this stunning change in leadership, by putting somebody like General Petraeus in charge, the one who engineered that successful surge operation in Iraq, that it could buy them some badly needed time.”

But as Middle East expert Juan Cole (6/24/10) notes, Iraq is hardly a success story. Over three months after Iraqi elections, their parliament remains deadlocked (Reuters, 6/24/10). Violence is a daily reality (New York Times, 6/24/10), and protests have broken out denouncing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for failing to deliver on basic services like working electricity (Reuters, 6/21/10).

Cole writes that, while there has been a decrease in violence compared to the height of the Sunni/Shiite civil war in Iraq, the surge was not the main reason for the decline in fighting:

The main reason for decrease in the virulence of the civil war (it is not over) was that the Shiites succeeded in ethnically cleansing the Sunnis from Baghdad. Based on U.S. military and NGO statistics, on patterns of ambient light from West Baghdad visible by satellite, on the on-the-ground investigations of journalists like AP‘s Hamza Hendawi, and on subsequent voting patterns, I donâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢t think Baghdad is now more than 10-15 percent Sunni, whereas it was probably about half and half Sunni and Shiite at the time of Bush’s invasion in 2003.

Also missing from the “surge turned around the Iraq War” trope is any discussion of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s role in the reduction of violence. While acknowledging that extra U.S. troops did play a role in the reduction of violence, a February 2008 International Crisis Group study states that “the dramatic decline in bloodshed in Iraq…is largely due to Muqtada al-Sadr’s August 2007 unilateral ceasefire.”

And as Cole notes, Iraq is not Afghanistan:

The Shiite victory in the Civil War was thus absolutely crucial as an Iraqi social-history background for what success Petraeus’ policies had.

No such major social-historical change has occurred in Afghanistan or is likely to. The Taliban and other insurgents primarily spring from the Pashtun ethnic group that predominates in the east and southwest of the country. Pashtuns probably make up about 42 percent of Afghanistanâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s some 34 million people. Pashtun clans provided the top political leadership to Afghanistan from the 18th century, through the Durrani monarchy, and they look down on the northern Tajik and Hazarah ethnic groups (who speak dialects of Persian). Although probably only 20-30 percent of Afghan Pashtuns view the Taliban favorably, more may admire the Taliban as a group that stands up for Afghanistan’s independence from the Western nations now occupying it.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are complex and multifaceted. But don’t expect corporate media to throw nuance into the debate; instead, look forward to more pronouncements like this one from David Gergen, a CNN political analyst (6/23/10): “[President Obama]…put in place the best general we have right now and a man who turned around the war in Iraq and possibly can turn around this war in Afghanistan, who can take over without losing momentum.”