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Ilan Goldenberg

Ilan Goldenberg

Posted: July 22, 2008 07:13 PM

Not a Gaffe: A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Iraq


John McCain made a mistake this evening, which as far as I'm concerned, disqualifies him from being president.  It is so appalling and so factually wrong that I'm actually sitting here wondering who McCain's advisers are.  This isn't some gaffe where he talks about the Iraq-Pakistan border.  It's a real misunderstanding of what has happened in Iraq over the past year.  It is even more disturbing because according to John McCain, Iraq is the central front in the "war on terror."  If we are going to have an Iraq-centric policy, he should at least understand what he is talking about.  But anyway, what happened.

On Katie Couric tonight McCain says:

Kate Couric: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says, while the increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What's your response to that?

McCain: I don't know how you respond to something that is as -- such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane [phonetic] was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history. Thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. I mean, to deny that their sacrifice didn't make possible the success of the surge in Iraq, I think, does a great disservice to young men and women who are serving and have sacrificed.

One problem.  The surge wasn't even announced until a few months after the Anbar Awakening.  Via Spencer Ackerman, here is Colonel MacFarland explaining the Anbar Awakening to Pam Hass of UPI, on September 29, 2006.  That would be almost four months before the President even announced the surge.  Petraeus wasn't even in Iraq yet.

With respect to the violence between the Sunnis and the al Qaeda -- actually, I would disagree with the assessment that the al Qaeda have the upper hand. That was true earlier this year when some of the sheikhs began to step forward and some of the insurgent groups began to fight against al Qaeda. The insurgent groups, the nationalist groups, were pretty well beaten by al Qaeda.

This is a different phenomena that's going on right now. I think that it's not so much the insurgent groups that are fighting al Qaeda, it's the -- well, it used to be the fence-sitters, the tribal leaders, are stepping forward and cooperating with the Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda, and it's had a very different result. I think al Qaeda has been pushed up against the ropes by this, and now they're finding themselves trapped between the coalition and ISF on the one side, and the people on the other.

And here is the NY Times talking about the Anbar Awakening back in March 2007.

The formation of the group in September shocked many Sunni Arabs. It was the most public stand anyone in Anbar had taken against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was founded by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And here is Colin Kahl in Foreign Affairs:

The Awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007. Throughout the war, enemy-of-my-enemy logic has driven Sunni decision-making. The Sunnis have seen three "occupiers" as threats: the United States, the Shiites (and their presumed Iranian patrons), and the foreigners and extremists in AQI. Crucial to the Awakening was the reordering of these threats.

This is not controversial history.  It is history that anyone trying out for Commander in Chief must understand when there are 150,000 American troops stationed in Iraq.  It is an absolutely essential element to the story of the past two years. YOU CANNOT GET THIS WRONG.  Moreover, what is most disturbing is that according to McCain's inaccurate version of history, military force came first and solved all of our problems.  If that is the lesson he takes from the Anbar Awakening, I am afraid it is the lesson he will apply to every other crisis he faces including, for example, Iran.

This is just incredibly disturbing. I have no choice but to conclude that John McCain has simply no idea what is actually happened and happening in Iraq. 

Update: It gets even better. Marc Lynch points me towards an article (PDF) that Col. MacFarland wrote summarizing his experiences in Anbar and how they helped turn the war in the Sunni parts of Iraq and started the Anbar Awakening. This is essentially the official military history. The timeframe he discusses is June 2006-February 2007. The first surge troops were just arriving as MacFarland and his men redeployed out of Anbar.