As The Iraq War Ends, Reassessing The U.S. Surge

As The Iraq War Ends, Reassessing The U.S. Surge by Tom Bowman, NPR.

Here's the conventional wisdom about the U.S. troop surge in Iraq: By 2006, Iraq was in chaos. Many Americans called for the U.S. to get out. Instead, President Bush sent in 30,000 additional troops. By the end of 2007, Iraq started to stabilize, and the move took on an almost mythic status.

In 2008, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke at the Republican National Convention about the U.S. presence in Iraq, saying that, "by every measure, the surge of troops into Iraq has worked."

And in a 2007 speech to Congress on the situation in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus said, "The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met."

But Doug Ollivant, who was an Army planning officer in Baghdad, took part in putting the surge troops on the street. And he disagrees with the idea that the surge fixed things…

Your rating: None


One thing that I think would be interesting to look at here is the use of Joint Special Operations Command under Stanley McCrystal/ MG Flynn, whose direction of thousands of night raids against AQI and Special Groups removed thousands of sectarian killers from the battlefield, helping create a temporary gap in the revenge cycle much the same way as the JSS positioned on sectarian fault-lines.

More important than that for study are the failures made by the CPA who helped create the adverse conditions that required a surge, in their bizarre attempt to rapidly privatise Iraq, rather than create a viable political system and restore basic services (privatisation should happen eventually, but not in the middle of a disaster zone!)

Far more important than that is how not to find ourselves in such an absurd situation. For that, I am going to read Meghan O' Sullivan's book on sanctions- she advocated smarter sanctions on Iraq instead of invasion. Also, I want to read up on Walt Rostows plan to get the UN to police the Ho Chi Minh trail in the early 1960's- he essentially was trying to prevent escalation in South east asia.

Personally, I think the surge, the anbar awakening and the JSOC raids created the arena for Iraqi politicians to build a viable state that Iraqis would support. Because they have so far failed to do that, it does not mean politics has failed in Iraq. But it could yet mean the surge was a waste of time and we should have left in 2005 if politics is once again supplanted by violence. That would mean the surge was like Manstein's tactical success in Russia in 1943: excellent but doomed.

For now, I hope the diplomats and politicians in Libya are thinking, "ok, how can we PREVENT an insurgency."

And I'm hoping Assad's Generals have no grasp of COIN, which looks to be the case.

Merry Christmas everyone,


Bill M,

If people are really going to start reassessing the Surge, perhaps they will start reading the first hand accounts published nearly four years ago!!!

For instance, The Break Point :)

MikeF---it would be interesting to go back and dissect the internal fighting between ISI and the Islamic Army in Iraq late 2006 early 2007 which set the stage for the Anwakening movement as the IAI had a great deal of influence in the majority of the Sunni insurgent groups not tied to the ISI.

They are still at it today and webwise still just as slick as they were in 2007 and have been on an internal rebuilding of a Sunni defense capability designed for the day that we leave---still rumored to have Saudi support-and still in the Sunni triangle.

Reference Robb's OSW he would assert---AQI violated one of the core standing tenets of an OSW movement---do not fork the insurgency---AQI never recovered from the internal dispute with the IAI.

Just a thought.


Great article that explains the truth about how insurgencies are waged, and why excessive focus on development will do little to defeat it. It is a fight like any other fight, but different. In this case the ISI did not represent the Iraqi people, and their victories had little to do with ineffective governance and everything to do with effective insurgent strategy and tactics to separate the people from the State and attack the State's levers of remaining power.

There was a typo, because I know you know Takfiri means infidel (because their victims were Shia) and Allah Akbar means God is Great. It is interesting they used the Takfiri cheer instead of Allah Akbar, but not surprising because it supported their strategy of divide and conquer.

I didn't follow your last paragraph in regards to the surge? There is another COIN model that seems relevant called something along the lines of the equivalent response model which describes a zone of acceptable actions, and when either the government or insurgents act beyond these boundaries they're at risk of turning the populace against them (this includes both over and under reacting). Seems to me that once ISI killed the popular Sheik they invited a backlash that was reinforced/enabled by our surge. Could the backlash against ISI actually have materialized without our surge? I don't know the answer, but I suspect it would have been much more difficult at a minimum.

I'd have to look back to April 2008, but some analyst published their version of the Surge and claimed that the ISI in Diyala Province was a reaction to our Surge. I can't remember who off-hand, but every analyst always (see the trend) ties every Iraqi action to American ones.

This was my first attempt ever at publishing. I like it b/c it reads like an unclassified intel summary with little American actions. Yes, I made a lot of typos, but in cases like the beheadings, I actually still have the confiscated videos (we found them during SSE after killing the regional bomb maker which by the way is the best Counter-IED method out there!!!).

I'm holding on to this and will package it all together when the time is right. Around 3000 of the 10000 folks in Zaganiyah still can't go home. I keep in touch with several of them.


For a first attempt (one more than me) or a 20th attempt it was a great article and once I get past my writer's block I hope to publish something half as good. I may even ask your permission to quote from your article.

As for tying every Iraqi action to an American one, that is common place in all of our operations. We take credit where credit isn't due way to often, and when things go south we find someone else to blame. Reminds me of the adage that a good operation is due to good planning and execution, and a bad op is due to bad intelligence, never poor planning and execution :-).

I think it is great that you stay in touch with the Iraqis you met. I did for a while, and now I rely on my translater to keep me up to date. Unfortunately not much good news.

Your comment on C-IED is correct, but unfortunately this once specialized knowledge is now common knowledge, so there is still a lot of killing required if that is the approach we're going to pursue. I didn't keep the videos, but we found our share of them. The terrorists find them useful for fund raising. They're beyond R rated, but these are videos the American people need to see so they have a better understanding of what the real war is all about, versus the sanitized version they get from our public affairs people.

Bill M,

I have no doubt that your story will come when it is ready, and we'll be here to help edit. Time is on your side. And, quote away if it helps!

For now though, for both of us, our help may be better focused in helping explain the bigger picture strategy stuff as the experts try to sort through new strategies and COIN methods. Who knows. This time around, they may actually ask the opinion of the practitioners.


Bill M:

Let me try to clarify the point that i was making with my analogy to the german command structure in world war II. It was not a comparison of conditions and events between the two, but rather a simple comparison to point out that even in complex situations (like the German Army in Normandy, and in the Surge of Troops in Iraq) one can still draw yes or no answers to certain questions. To say that we cannot then committs us to never ending obfusaction over critical questions that need sometimes to be answered with a simple yes or no. That was only the point i was trying to make, sorry if it ended up being confused.


It is too bad he is punching out of the discussion since finally, after three plus years, there seems to be a real discussion emerging over the Surge and Coin. Prior to this, there was mostly only absolute acceptance that the Surge worked and that coin made sense.

My point in the above post on whether or not the Surge worked had to to with achieving stragegic and policy gains and in that sense the answer is still no. Now did it produce tactical and operational effects or accomplishments, yes to be sure it did, but this is different from saying that it was a strategic game changing event, it was not.

Again, i would hope that Dr Ucko remains engaged in this discussion.

Instead of focusing on causation of a civil emergency, it might be better to figure out how to avoid it all together.

David Ucko,

In this thread, you attacked NPR as absurd and unhelpful. Now, you are attacking Gian Gentile for asking a logical question?

What is going on?


I think David Ucko makes valid points, and in this case I think Gian's comparison between Germany's dysfunction command and control system and the strategic factors that influenced reduction of violence in Iraq is absurd. We're not analyzing a campaign, we're attempting to make sense of multiple social, political, economic and security factors (including the surge) that led to a reduction of violence in Iraq post surge.

I think is impossible to determine specific cause and effect in this case, and agree with author's nuanced opinion on the topic. Perhaps one way to look at it is to consider if we surged in say 2004, before the ethnic polarization was complete, would the surge have worked then? Would it have prevented the subsequent Civil War? I think the answer is that is doubtful because the Iraqis were not ready to cooperate with us at that point. They weren't tired of the violence yet. At the same time would the Iraqi solution worked if we didn't surge? I think that is also doubtful, so I suspect multiple factors have to be considered.

The surge didn't (at least yet) have the same effect in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, why?

Bill M,

We have to look way past the American experience in Iraq to understand the Iraqi's war.

1. Look at the internal fighting and deaths. I believe the most accurate number right now is 100,000.

2. Look at the most current number of displaced refugees- 600,000 who are still afraid to go back to Iraq.

Once we start expanding past just what we did, then we'll have a better understanding. Personally, for those that want to understand it, then I would recommend looking at the rise and fall of the Sunni insurgency and Sadarists.

Agreed, and sorry for beating my worn out drum, but I going to beat it again. It is the EBO mindset that promotes the idea that our actions are the only ones that create effects, which is nonsense. We "measured" the observable violence, and then claimed it was the surge that resulted in the measurable violence being reduced (as you know there was a lot of violence and coercion that was invisible to us).

In reference to Gian's newest post I agree that the surge didn't lead to a strategic victory, but it did change the strategic context of the war/conflict, just as our troops leaving now is changing the strategic context once again.

We achieved the strategic objective we ousted Saddam and confirmed there was no WMD. Our national leadership then told us to build a democracy after their ready made government was rejected by the Iraqi people. It can be argued either way on whether we acheived that strategic objective.

Bill M, when you think about it, kind of makes you wonder why we are trying to apply "timeless" lessons from Vietnam and Malaya to Afghanistan?


Wait a minute David, are you saying we cant provide a simple yes or no answer to the question of if the Surge did or did not work?

I think we can, and historians do such things all the time. For example, did the German Army in Normandy in summer 1944 have a dysfunctional operational command structure that simply did not work? Answer in turn is simple, yes.

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.

There was no significant shift operationally with the Surge; to be sure one can argue about differences in degree, but not in kind. The operational framework for the American Army remained the same throughout the war from the start: armed nation building. Therefore one sould not look to the tactics and methods of the Surge as some kind of decisive act that, as Petraeus often likes to say, "saved Iraq from a desperate situation."

The point is not did it work or not but was its effect all or nothing. Clearly neither. Was it successful? I won't even bother trying to convince you as you will never agree with anything I say. At the very least, you may be able to agree with yourself from 3 weeks ago:

well to be honest if the additional brigades led to a quicker American withdrawal from an already a failed war then I can accept that as a method

I'm out. Merry Christmas.

One cannot have a productive discussion about the effectiveness of "the surge" in Iraq if one focuses on the logistical aspect of sending in an additional 30,000 troops.

Focus on how the operational design changed, focus on how missions changed, focus on how the populace and threats were engaged differently, etc.

I was not there, but my understanding is that coincidental with surging in more US forces we also, and far more importantly, reached out to the Sunni populace and convinced them that they were part of the future of Iraq, thereby turning the corner on their resistance and gaining their support.

Consider for a moment if we had similarly reached out to the non-Northern Alliance populaces of Afghanistan coincidental to our surge of troops there. Stability does not come from exercising greater control over the popualce or the land they live upon; or from bringing in more capacity to pit against the combatant elements of the resistant populace. It comes through the inclusion of those who have to that point felt excluded. In Afghanistan we dedicate ourselves to the perpetuation of such exclusion, in Iraq were open to inclusion.

If we only talk logistics, or threats or ideologies, we will never draw the proper lessons from our participations in insurgencies.

While D. Ollivant would obviously be better placed than I to comment on this, this NPR piece seems so desperate to create a neat triptych of 'yes', 'no' and 'a little bit of both' that it distorts the more nuanced take that Ollivant presents in his own writing (of which I am a big fan). In 'Confronting the New Orthodoxy', he rightly highlights the local factors at play, just as in this piece, but importantly also comments on the effects of the 'surge':

'The situation was also defused by the separation of the warring parties. The intervention of the United States, both in the form of troops in Joint Security Stations (JSS), often strategically placed on sectarian fault lines, and the oftmaligned concrete barriers, reduced the violence and stopped the cycle of revenge that had engulfed Baghdad. ... the new strategy linked these actions into support for the political strategy of protecting the population—protecting the remaining Sunni enclaves wherever possible, while limiting AQI access to Shi’a targets—in a way that had not been clearly articulated in 2006, while the increase in troops did make the change in strategy more viable"

Trying to boil this down to a yes or no answer is absurd and unhelpful.


It depends on how you look at it. Can the US military intervene and secure? The answer is yes as Ollivant's passage highlights and past history shows (1-64 AR in Somalia after BlackHawk down is another quick example). The military has always known it can force security for a period of time.

It's not that it's absurd or unhelpful, it is irrelevant because security is not an ends within itself.

So, what's missing from the quote you showed that we really need to know?