In his latest missive on the U.S. endeavor in Iraq ("Misreading the Surge Threatens U.S. Army's Conventional Capabilities"), Army Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile claims that the Surge forces and the new U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine had little effect on the situation in Iraq. Rather, U.S. forces paid off the insurgents, who stopped fighting for cash. Once again, Gian Gentile misreads not just what is happening today in Iraq, but the history of the war.
To borrow a quote from Ronald Reagan, "Gian, there you go again."
Gentile's analysis is incorrect in a number of ways, and his narrative is heavily influenced by the fact that he was a battalion commander in Baghdad in 2006. His unit didn't fail, his thinking goes, therefore recent successes cannot be due to anything accomplished by units that came to Iraq during the Surge.
The facts speak otherwise. Gentile's battalion occupied Ameriyah, which in 2006 was an Al Qaeda safe-haven infested by Sunni insurgents and their Al Qaeda-Iraq allies. I'm certain that he and his soldiers did their best to combat these enemies and to protect the people in their area. But since his battalion lived at Forward Operating Base Falcon and commuted to the neighborhood, they could not accomplish their mission. The soldiers did not fail. The strategy did.
The "big base" strategy only changed when General Dave Petraeus and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno came to Iraq and implemented the new counterinsurgency doctrine in the recently published FM 3-24. Few U.S. Army units were implementing that doctrine as early as 2004, as Gentile claims. Some units were moving in that direction, as Colonel H. R. McMaster's accomplishments with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in 2005 attest. But these units were exceptions to the general rule. Most units were still more intent on finding and killing the enemy than they were on protecting the Iraqi people and making it impossible for the insurgents to survive in their midst.
The Surge succeeded on a number of levels. Lieutenant General Odierno brought the operational level of war back into play with his brilliant plan for securing Baghdad and eliminating Al Qaeda-Iraq sanctuaries in the areas surrounding the capital, the so-called "Baghdad belts." If the U.S. Army were doing so well in COIN operations from 2004-2006, as Gentile claims, then why wasn't Baghdad secured earlier? Perhaps it was because our forces were poorly positioned on large bases, unable to protect the Iraqi people, as claimed by "a senior Army officer who was [sic, is] a member of Gen. Petraeus's 'brain trust'."
Gentile's assertion, that we paid the insurgents off, does not stand up to a close reading of recent history. The fact is that the Surge was a success in securing Baghdad (and Al Anbar) well before we began to grant security contracts in large numbers to "Concerned Local Citizens." The sheiks and other community leaders turned against Al Qaeda-Iraq first, due to terrorist depredations on their communities and also due to their belief that they would be supported by U.S. forces —to live among their people to protect them. With this 24/7 support, they could get rid of the terrorists of Al Qaeda-Iraq for good. The additional U.S. forces positioned in their communities meant that the terrorists could not return to enact revenge on those who turned against them.
This scenario played out first in the fall of 2006 in Ramadi in Al Anbar Province, where Colonel Sean MacFarland and my old unit, the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, conducted a superb campaign to rid the city of Al Qaeda-Iraq. MacFarland positioned his forces in platoon and company strongpoints that slowly squeezed the area under enemy control. He also backed tribal auxiliary forces that supplemented the local Iraqi police. By the late spring of 2007, U.S. Army troopers and Marines along with local tribesmen eventually eliminated the Al-Qaeda-Iraq presence in Ramadi.
The success in Ramadi served as a template for other areas, to include the enemy stronghold of Ameriyah where Gentile and his battalion served. Once the Iraqi populace understood that U.S. forces would live among them, assist Iraqi security forces in battling the terrorists and other irreconcilable insurgents in their neighborhoods, and ensure their long-term protection, then a number of insurgents came forward to turn against their former allies who had gone too far in their intimidation of the local citizenry. Multi-National Force-Iraq applauded when these reconcilable elements of the insurgency offered to turn their weapons against the terrorists rather than continue to use them against us. They did so initially without being paid for their conversion -- that came later.
In short, the turning of the tribes against Al Qaeda-Iraq in Al Anbar came first, then the Surge provided forces to secure Baghdad's neighborhoods and eliminate enemy sanctuaries surrounding the capital, and then a number of insurgents turned against their former allies in Ameriyah, Ghazalia, and elsewhere. Only later did we start to pay money for the security offered by these reconcilable elements of Iraqi society.
The other cause to which Gentile ascribes the reduction in violence is Sadr's freeze on the operations of Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), which he presents without context. The freeze cannot be understood unless you acknowledge that it came a time when JAM was under tremendous and increasing pressure from U.S. and Iraqi operations enabled by the surge and the new COIN approach. By the late summer of 2007, the Iraqi people increasingly perceived less of a need for JAM to secure their neighborhoods, because U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces had supplanted the role of militias in this regard. The incident in Karbala in August 2007 -- when JAM militiamen killed several hundred people during a Shi'ite religious festival -- jeopardized much of the remaining popular support for Sadr's military organization, which Iraqis increasingly viewed as thugs and criminals operating under the otherwise honorable banner of Sadr's father. Again, the Surge and the operations it enabled came first, and they were causal factors in Sadr's freeze on JAM operations.
Gentile worries that the U.S. Army has lost the capability to conduct conventional warfighting operations. I disagree. The Army has not lost that capability; today's Army is the most experienced, professional, and capable combined arms force in our nation's history. Since 2003 the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have routinely engaged in conventional warfighting. Battles in Karbala, An Najaf, Fallujah, Tal Afar, Mosul, Baqubah, Baghdad, and elsewhere have proven the capabilities of our ground forces to engage in conventional combat operations. Combat units routinely use armor, artillery, mechanized infantry, attack aviation, close air support, and other assets to accomplish their missions. The fact that our units are doing non-kinetic operations doesn't mean they've stopped doing high-intensity kinetic operations or have forgotten how. Gentile also doesn't mention how much more capable our brigades are now in terms of command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance than they were when the war began in 2003.
The larger concern, in my view, would be if our senior leaders allow our newly developed counterinsurgency capabilities to lapse, and like Gentile, focus instead on preparing the Army to fight the next "big one." After all, why worry about fighting real wars in the Middle East and South Asia when we can instead keep our military forces in the United States to fight imaginary ones? Iraq and Afghanistan are a long way from being over. To paraphrase a certain high ranking former official, let's fight the wars we have, rather than the ones we want.
Colonel Peter Mansoor, USA, is the executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq. Previously he served on a "Council of Colonels" that assisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff in reassessing the strategy for the Iraq War, as the founding Director of the US Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, and as Commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, in Iraq in 2003-2004. He will retire this summer and assume duties as the General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair of Military History at The Ohio State University.
SWJ Editors Links
Iraq Success: Happy Confluence - Tom Barnett, Thomas P.M. Barnett
Does Iraq Really Prepare the Army for Everything? - Westhawk, Westhawk
Peter Mansoor Weighs In - Charlie, Abu Muqawama
Two Sides of the COIN - Phillip Carter, Intel Dump
Inside the Military's Civil War Over Counterinsurgency - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room
Getting the Strategy Right - Herschel Smith, The Captain's Journal
Reading Or Misreading The Surge? - Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic
Discuss at Small Wars Council