Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Principles of War have not changed, Pt II: the Surge edition

There are a number of now-accepted bromides about COIN generally and the Iraq Surge specifically that I've begun to question. There are a whole host of the pro-COIN types that have been, in my mind, disproven rather adequately. But there are some of the anti-COIN type that I'm beginning to question as well. I'll get to these in later posts, but I want to address a set that has been on mind and coined by Tom Ricks: the Surge succeeded militarily, but failed politically.

I used to think that statement was crap. Our objectives were by nature political, so what difference does it make if military gains were made. Iraq must have been a strategic failure. I can't possibly suggest that Iraq has been a success, but I think a more nuanced view is required from a U.S. perspective. I started down this thought-path after seeing this comment from COL Gian Gentile:
By saying that there can be no black and white, simple answers of yes and no with regard to the Surge you burry ourselves in a never ending discussion about its tactics and methods. But from the angle of strategy, it is clear that the Surge achieved no appreciable gains. If you have any doubt just read what Iraqis are saying about it and the last 8 plus years of war there.
Gian is an officer and thinker that I respect greatly, but I couldn't disagree more. Few things in this world are black and white - I am not the type of person who thinks that most anything falls into dichotomous categories. I also disagree with the idea that the Surge achieved no appreciable gains, even if the Iraqis disagree.

The fact of the matter is that from the perspective of U.S. interests, it doesn't much matter what the Iraqis think about this. Would we, from a policy perspective, have liked Iraq to become a Western-style democracy instead of what the past week is portending? Absolutely. But back in 2007 I suggest we would have settled for something much less. Specifically: the ability to disengage from this ill-advised war with some semblance of success without our tail between our legs, as it were. I don't remember it verbatim, but our military objective from the Surge (I was the planner for the fifth brigade deployed to support it) was to create the conditions to provide the Government of Iraq the breathing room necessary to find a political solution to the conflict.

There is no doubt that there is no viable political solution currently on the table to end the conflict. But can any of the Surge naysayers state emphatically that they were provided with breathing room to find and end to the fighting? Iraqis may not necessarily be better off now than they were in early 2003. But that is not the pertinent issue. The decision to execute the Surge is dissociated from the decision to invade Iraq in the first place. Of course they're in a worse place than they were. At the risk of understatement, it's been a bloody war. Especially for the Iraqi populace and that's a damned tragedy. The question pertaining to the Surge is: are Iraqis better off now than they were in late 2006 and early 2007? I would hazard that the answer is an emphatic yes.

What makes this all very complicated are the ubiquitous questions of causation and correlation. Many factors occurred between January 10, 2007 and the summer of 2008: realization of a nationwide Sunni uprising against AQI begun before the Surge, purging of Sunnis from Baghdad during that capital's barricaded segregation prior to the Surge, war-weariness amongst all factions, better border controls, to name a few. I do not believe that the addition of 25,000 troops to the war was the key to turning the tide, but I don't believe it was inconsequential either. But not necessarily for the reasons that Surge champions argue.

The reality is that addition of these 5 brigade combat teams was in itself a part of the relative pacification of Iraq (please note I said relative pacification - more on that to follow), not some vaporous notion of the application of COIN principles codified in FM 3-24. I will say that between my tour in 2005 and return to Iraq in May 2007 there were significant changes driven from GEN Petraeus: better intel coordination, better use and coordination of SOF units, more USG civilians and funds available. But these were peripheral changes in my mind. For whatever roll these additional troops played in providing the requisite "breathing room", it wasn't due to changes in doctrine or better use of the troops available. It comes back to the Principles of War that the U.S. Army has used for at least decades (for a full listing please see Appendix A to FM 3-0 (Operations)).

It comes down to the principle of mass in this case. From a COIN perspective and its (erroneous) counterinsurgent-to-population ratio the 25K extra troops couldn't make a difference. And it didn't from that perspective. But used in accordance with another principle of economy of force, the U.S. was able to achieve mass in the most militarily contested areas of Iraq: Baghdad proper and the areas surrounding the city from which car bombs were made and trafficked into the city. It wasn't the building of hospitals or canals or the establishment of impotent local councils that made this infusion of warfighting capability useful, it was the application of this force in time and space to dominate the situation. It was the use of these forces to set up these concrete cordons between factions that aided in stemming the violence within Baghdad, concurrent with the other more significant actions outside of the U.S. listed above. But equally important was what happened to stop the mass vehicle bombings of civilians in the much-maligned "belts" around Baghdad. Achieving mass to the south and west of the city - which fortified the disillusioned Sunnis' position - helped defeat AQI and prevent their ability to launch attacks against the capital and thus retard the cycle of violence so prevalent until then. We are all slaves to our own experiences, but we had a hell of a time (and so did Baghdad) until we were able to achieve mass in our battlespace in Arab Jabour and physically defeat AQI. Look at the statistics - already on a downward trend - between January and March 2008 and tell me that a difference wasn't made in the areas south of and within Baghdad.

So no, it wasn't COIN tactics that made the Surge useful to trends already occurring within Iraq in 2007. The Surge was useful because it allowed the coalition to mass on those areas the enemy used to catalyze the cycle of violence as well as their safe havens. But at this point, many of you will point out that Iraq is a less than a success. Car bombs are exploding all over Baghdad this week and the PM has issued a warrant for the arrest of the VP. Frankly, that just doesn't matter to the United States.

Again, you shouldn't examine the Surge through the lens of 2003. You need to look at it through the lens of 2006/7 when we were caught in a costly civil war and were attacked by virtually all sides. Of which there were many. The military objective of the time was to provide this so-called "breathing room" for the Iraqis to sort things out. It simply doesn't matter that they haven't sorted things out in a way we approve of. From a military perspective, breathing room was provided and in that way we did succeed during the Surge even if there were political failures. But the objective of Iraqi democracy exceeded our national ability to affect that change. We could only assist in providing the environment to gain a political solution through military means, not the political solution itself. These military successes throughout Iraq, with significantly lowered violence, gave us the political ability to say we've done our bit and that any other failures were Iraqi failures. What more could we have done?

It may be a correlative relationship strategically, but violence in Iraq decreased precipitously from the beginning of the Surge until its end and that cannot be argued. In my AO at least, it was quite causational (which I can discuss at length at request). But not because of some magical application of COIN principles. It was because, consciously or not, the U.S. military applied the tried and true principles of war to extricate itself from a foolishly-begun war with at least a semblance of having done its best at applying the untried principle of the Pottery Barn Rule. Not through mere coercion or indebting the Iraqis with gratitude to us did we play a part in fantastically lowering violence in Iraq, it was through applying mass and economy of force.


  1. Kind of ignoring the Anbar Awakening here, aren't we?

    I think the realization on the part of key Sunni actors (non AQI insurgents) that they would be destroyed if they had to fight the Americans, the Shia death squads, and AQI led to the abandonment of the fight on the part of the Sunnis.

    Sadr realized as well that he could not fight both the Americans and the Shia parties, leading to his ceasefire after major clashes in Najaf.

    The Surge helped with these trends because they lent fighting power at the right period in time to the American side, which made the U.S. an appealing ally to the Sunni insurgents and too powerful to fight to Sadr. At the same time, it was clear to all that the Surge was temporary, and thus Sadr could afford to wait it out and play for better prospects, while the Sunnis needed to ally quickly with the Americans if they were to destroy AQI. So the Surge played a role, but a supporting one, in the decisionmaking process of Iraqi actors which really decided the course of the war.

  2. Jason,

    I'm glad that you're writing again. Now, try to step away from what you and I did and look at the overall costs of the wars and the means and the ends.

  3. Are Iraqi's better off? No, and not in US interests. Look at number of currently externally displaced (600,000) and internally displaced (unknown). Look at total dead. Look at the money we spent from 2006-2012 and look at other courses of action. You're still focused too much on the Surge narrative. You got to step away to really examine this one.

  4. Jason, excellent post.
    I wonder though, how can we divide the number of troops from what they did?

    You are suggesting here that there was no big difference between the tactics of your unit in '05 and during the surge. A genuine question: what then do you make of the argument that mass required leaving the FOB, something that happened less often and on a less sustained basis prior to the shift in strategy?

  5. No Jason, I'm suggesting that you're looking at the rise and fall in the price of house insurance in 2005 while trying to forecast the stock market crash of 2008. It's relevant, but you have to look at the weighted values. Metz has already made this argument, but the fighting was going to happen anyways. We didn't have to surge. You're only looking at a very narrow piece of the puzzle.

  6. @Anonymous: I don't think I'm ignoring it at all. I didn't explicitly say it, but I firmly believe the two single most important factors in the decrease in violence were the Awakening and the Sadrist ceasefire. However, I also don't think they would have become as influential without the Surge - at least outside of their natural habitats (Anbar and Sadr City/Najaf).

    The Sunnis in the areas around Baghdad said they would not form if the U.S. wasn't there on the battlefield. We didn't talk to the Sadrists too much, but I got the impression that the infusion of troops in the right places influenced their decision to initiate the ceasefire. Not the primary reason, but a factor.

    So the point here is that it was not a primary factor in the relative "pacification" of Iraq, but it was underpinning the primary factors which makes it not irrelevant.

  7. Mike - And I don't think I'm focused on the Surge narrative. To me the Surge narrative tells us that more troops doing COIN under the leadership of GEN Petraeus is what changed things in Iraq. I'm suggesting this isn't true - it wasn't about COIN or GEN Petraeus. It was about placing the right combat elements on the field in the right place at the right time (although arguably years late...).

    And I disagree with the notion that violence would have subsided without surging - or at least as fast as it did. No, the Iraqis aren't better off given how many of them were killed, wounded, displaced, and traumatized. But if you get past the fact that we shouldn't have been in Iraq in the first place and want to leave with at modicum of regularity - the Surge helped bring that along. Or at least quicker than had we not. And frankly that's all we could really affect - we couldn't put the place back together (wouldn't that require rebuilding whole societies?) and we couldn't force their government to get its shit in one sock (also beyond military capability), but we could stop them killing each other and us for long enough for us to say we did our best.

    Finally (and before I go make the kids breakfast), I think if you look at this argument and apply it to Afghanistan and its dispersed society, it helps explain why the surge there has been ineffective. Of course, we have less moral impetus to return Afghanistan to normal than we did in Iraq based on how and why those wars were begun.

  8. On your last point, I tried to make a similar argument in the latest issue of PRISM - I don't know if you saw it: the surge was not the main factor, but important nonetheless, but its effects depended on the context for which it was conceived and as that context could of course not be replicated in Afghanistan, many of the same tactics have led to disappointing results.

    Go make breakfast but I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  9. David - your question is a good one and I would like to do more exploration of it. I would say though that placing the troops on patrol bases and off of the FOBs put them on the key terrain where the enemy was. Surging to the FOBs wouldn't have had much effect, so yes there was a change in tactics. Where I'm differing from some is suggesting that the change in tactics had little to do with FM 3-24 and more to do with FM 3-0. The Sunnis in my AO wanted schools and clinics and all that stuff, but what they wanted most were U.S. guns and protection where they needed it on the battlefield. An enemy-centric analysis of the Surge has been sort of done, but I'm trying to bring it back to foundational principles to help understand what all of this means for the profession of arms.

    And for you and Mike (and anyone else), I'm still working on this all in my head. There are many more things to examine from a causation/correlation perspective. And now before my kids starve, I'm off. Looking forward to engaging more later on this.

  10. Jason, now look at the data and see if we really did stop them from killing each other.

  11. Enjoying the posts here. Quite an earful on the future of COIN being batted around on these security blogs. Some great insights. I think Hew Strachan really explores this topic with a look at history from the 18th century to today here:

    If you wanna see his conclusions as they relate to Afgh/Iraq forward to the last 6 mins.

    This is my view of how Strachan sees it:
    -War is policy by other means until it becomes protracted war. Once protracted war begins, the military objectives make policy (not normative I know). While we surely did not invade Iraq to accomplish the objective of "breathing room" and a full withdrawal, the original policy ends (WMD or demo Iraq) were not still legitimate ends as the Surge kicked off. In fact, the ends became metrics like violence and CERP funds issued (funneling the entitlement blogpost).

    All of this results from a "just war" approach to determining strategic ends. We should have used a "desired peace" or "right effect" approach to going to war. I tend to agree with this, but think, like most Brits, Strachan's pragmatism ignores our schizophrenic need/desire/character to really believe in our idealistic ends. (not arguing the validity of this)

    @MikeF, as you try and go for a big picture view, I agree with your point in a monday morning QB kinda way. However, I think the cause lies in our fundamental refusal to address the goals/aims of AQ within a rational actor/limited framework. AQ wants to mobilize Muslims against us, drain our resources, and for us to go hands off in the ME. Our first strategic priority should have been to consider our strategy and actions with respect to the enemies strategy. Instead, we viewed the struggle solely through the lens of an attack on our way of life, values, democracy and worst case (WMD) at that. The result was an approach that ignored the significance of the economic considerations in our strategy (vise closer to unlimited in the only easy domestic way- $$$). So, do I agree with you that b/c of money we shouldn't consider COIN feasible in the future. No, I do not agree. In fact, I tend to think COIN should have a future, should have a structure, and it will cost less.

    @Jason, I love how you're questioning everybody. My point would be (especially considering how everyone is arguing so adamently that we now know for sure the significance of COIN- it is irrelevant or its significant) its still too early to tell.

    Look at all the violence in Iraq where people say it worked. So what? What has it been two days? No wait, its been 4-5 years. While we may have a good idea, stranger things have happened. Surely, if Iraq does make it through, then another cause will get/deserve the credit, but I will not be surprised if other factors trace back to the investment of the surge. Finally, what if Afghanistan (where the surge failed??) comes away with a working government/military ten years from now. Again, can anything be traced back to the surge. Maybe its the mentorship of one guy, who knows? Right now, while judgments are important, conclusions may be a little rash.

  12. Chris,

    Sometimes, in order to regain control, you have to stop trying to control the situation.

    Take your rational actor model a step further. Was AQ really ever the problem? Look around the region. Get out of the trees and look at the forest.

    Or are the Arabs and Muslims actually just on the final thrusts of their own self-determination for reformation in political, religious, economic, and social structures?

    This is not our fight. We have to let them find their own way.

  13. I'd really recommend that y'all quit talking about COIN for a while and take it a few steps higher.

    And with that, Inkspots, it's been real. I've appreciated my time here. I hope that as y'all think back to our discussions over the past four years, you'll realize why I chose to spend my time engaging with you.

  14. Good discussion of salient points.

    I still think this is an argument that will go on forever, sort of the way people still argue about Vietnam. Not a novel thought, but there it is.

  15. "It may be a correlative relationship strategically, but violence in Iraq decreased precipitously from the beginning of the Surge until its end and that cannot be argued. "

    Actually, violence had decreased precipitously across the republic long BEFORE the "Surge" kicked off and in the Baghdad governate it also had plummeted in late 2006.

    If you want to argue that the "Surge" sped up the pacification I guess you could try, but one would need to match theory with proof, something many of our COINtards have had trouble doing lately.

    And if you don't believe me, I know a math-challenged copy of "Prism" that is perfect for wiping.