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.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
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:
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.