Small Wars Journal

Don't confuse the "Surge" with the Strategy

Fri, 01/19/2007 - 6:29am
Much discussion of the new Iraq strategy centers on the "surge" to increase forces in-theater by 21,500 troops. I offer no comment on administration policy here. But as counterinsurgency professionals, it should be clear to us that focusing on the "surge" misses what is actually new in the strategy -- its population-centric approach.

Here are the two core paragraphs from the President's speech, outlining the strategy (emphasis added):

"Now let me explain the main elements of this effort: The Iraqi government will appoint a military commander and two deputy commanders for their capital. The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort, along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations -- conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints, and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.

This is a strong commitment. But for it to succeed, our commanders say the Iraqis will need our help. So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them -- five brigades -- will be deployed to Baghdad. These troops will work alongside Iraqi units and be embedded in their formations. Our troops will have a well-defined mission: to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs."

What matters here is not the size of forces (though the strategy will not work without a certain minimum force size), but rather their tasks. The key element of the plan, as outlined in the President's speech, is to concentrate security forces within Baghdad, to secure the local people where they live. Troops will operate in small, local groups closely partnered with Iraqi military and police units, with each unit permanently assigned to an area and working its "beat".

This is different from early strategies which were enemy-centric (focusing on killing insurgents), or more recent approaches that relied on training and supporting Iraqi forces and expected them to secure the population.

The new strategy reflects counterinsurgency best practice as demonstrated over dozens of campaigns in the last several decades: enemy-centric approaches that focus on the enemy, assuming that killing insurgents is the key task, rarely succeed. Population-centric approaches, that center on protecting local people and gaining their support, succeed more often.

The extra forces are needed because a residential, population-centric strategy demands enough troops per city block to provide real and immediate security. It demands the ability to "flood" areas, and so deter enemy interference with the population. This is less like conventional warfare, and more like a cop patrolling a beat to prevent violent crime.

This does not mean there will be less fighting -- indeed, there will probably be more in the short-term, as security forces get in at the grass-roots level and compete for influence with insurgents, sectarian militias and terrorist gangs. But the aim is different: in the new strategy what matters is providing security and order for the population, rather than directly targeting the enemy -- though this strategy will effectively marginalize them.

Why the focus on Baghdad? Because about 50% of the war in Iraq happens inside Baghdad city limits. Improving security in the capital therefore makes a major difference. (Not that the enemy will meekly roll over and accept this -- hence the need for more troops and a reserve to deal with the inevitable enemy response, which will probably see spikes of activity outside Baghdad even as security in the city improves.)

There are no guarantees in war, and there is no guarantee that the new strategy will work, or that success will happen overnight if it does work. Iraq is an extremely complex and difficult problem, as all of us know -- if there was a "silver bullet" solution we would have found it by now. All that the new strategy can do is give us a fighting chance of success, and it certainly does give us that.

All of this represents a true departure from previous strategy, but the "surge" is not the strategy -- the switch to population security and a residential, high-force-density, long-term approach is what matters here.


I am convinced that the global insurgency strategy you are advocating is one that will work, all things being equal. If it had been applied even a year ago, I would be very hopeful of a positive outcome. Today, I am not. The reason is that I fear all things aren't equal, and it is a strategy for 'the last war.' No doubt, there are still parts of Iraq where it will work. But, the conflict(s) in Bagdad seem to have fundamentally changed to a struggle between Shia and Sunni militias to wrest overall political control of the country by armed force. To my mind, that is no longer an insurgency. Most of what I have seen of the Baghdad plan in open sources contains elements of your prescription. I can only hope that Gen Petraeus' plan will defeat the militias.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 01/23/2007 - 9:00am

There is an interesting article in today's New York Times about one of the first units to implement the new strategy.

It states the unit is familiar with the area they are starting to live in because they have spent some time patrolling the same neighborhood in vehicles and then returning to a remote base. Now they don't leave the "hood".

It seems a pretty important and fundemental change to me when our forces implement one of the very basic "counterinsurgency best practices"; namely, staying in the neighborhood overnight, every night.

I want to re-iterate Jcustis1 as well as comment on several previous posts that seem to all call for this question to be answered.

In a previous post, you showed a model with three circles and then indicated in a further discussion that "criminal violence" was part of the underlying problem, but only added to the other three (sectarian, insurgency and terrorism).

However, I've wondered the concept of crime as a real underlying or equal security risk has not been addressed. Why, in fact, have we not used the "Broken Windows" theory as it was originally used in New York? This is the model that was used in New York to deter violent crime. In practice, a neighborhood was flooded with police officers and money was allocated to "clean up" the neighborhood (such as repairing broken windows - hence the name "broken windows theory". I believe Malcolm Gladwell explained the theory and the process by which it works.

According to the history of this project, in previous activity, police officers would spend most of their time focusing on the "big crime". Investigating murders, rapes, organized crime, etc. The broken windows project turned that on it's head and the officers who flooded the target area would detect and stop the "small crimes".

In the past, a j-walker or turnstile jumper or graffiti painter would be ignored while the officers worked on or, more often, waited for the "big crime" to occur. In the new program, officers were directed to stop every j-walker, turnstile jumper, graffiti painter, loiterer, etc and write them a ticket or arrest them as the crime determined. When these "small time" criminals were stopped, they would also be run through NCIS and outstanding warrants, regardless of what the crime was, would have the person picked up immediately.

In many cases, these folks were hardened criminals or had known connections to gangs, drug traffickers, etc and stopping them for the smaller crimes got them off the street, even if it was only long enough to harass or break the larger criminal ring/activities.

In the targeted neighborhood, this had several effects:

1) Criminals knew they could be picked up at any time for any outstanding warrant or activity so they decided to leave the neighborhood and seek greener pastures.

2) "Hangers on" or "wannabes" got the message that joining the criminals and acting even remotely criminal could get them a fine and/or time. In short, crime doesn't pay.

3) The cleaned up areas meant that someone cared and, more importantly, people were watching and would not except criminal activity as the norm, thus the police were more likely to be called and the criminals arrested. Thus, reaction in item #1, criminals chose not to frequent the area.

4) Because the cops were there and the residents could see "progress" being made, their security seemed important so they became more interested in their own security and cooperating with the police. They felt more secure.

5) Because the area was cleaned up and secure, the residents felt pride for their neighborhood, took better care of it, and, again, were more apt to cooperate because they felt they had a stake in the outcome.

Now, all of this may seem like the basics of COIN. This is what it is supposed to engender. The problem, as I see it, is the area which it is being applied and the inconsistency. In fact, our efforts to date remind me of an old circus act I once saw where the man was trying to spin ten plates on sticks, having to run back and forth to give them a spin to keep them going and not falling off the sticks. Well, lots of our plates in Iraq have fallen off the sticks and lay shattered and nearly unrepairable.

I see the troop surge as a potential for getting the Baghdad plate spinning again. However, I don't see where flooding the area with more troops, even along with the IA and IP will be effective if their purpose is to "stop insurgents" or even "meet and greet". it has to be more than that.

It also should have been coupled with substantial funds and services to the specific area. Provided directly to the affected resident or use it to pay for supplies and bring in volunteer IP or IA and even US troops who would go through the neighborhood and paint houses, repair windows, doors, sinks, clean the street, pick up the trash, etc, etc, etc. Every house, every building, every citizen should feel it's effects.

Secondly, the IP/IA/US forces should concentrate on the smallest of criminal activities: loitering, graffiti, petty theft, domestic violence, etc, etc, etc. mainly because these are often connected to known criminals (ie, insurgents, terrorists, sectarian militias). it would give us the ability to identify more people and their potential connectsion. It would give us the ability to pick up criminals/terrorists/insurgents, etc that we may know about or suspicion but don't have the "man power" to investigate for the potential bigger crimes/acts of violence/terrorism. Plus, we pick them up under less "violent" situations (example - loitering) so they are potentially less likely to act violent thus reducing risk to our forces and the IP or IA.

One of the most frustrating parts of the iraq strategy and tactics has been watching the "crime" go unaddressed as if crimes such as theft, hijacking, black market, smuggling, car theft, etc. have little to do with terrorists, insurgents or militia. As in the US, these crimes are usually linked to much bigger crimes and criminal rings. It cannot go unknown that smugglers are likely bringing in money, weapons and even fighters to all three spheres that Kilcullen indicated.

It's also likely that these criminal rings selling blackmarket goods are using the money to fund all three of the spheres (insurgent, terrorist, sectarian violence) or being "shook down" for "protection money" that also goes towards larger acts.

Men and boys loitering on the streets, painting graffiti, etc are most likely to either a) be part of the local criminal/terrorist activity or b) susceptible to blandishments or money to participate in some small way including acting as look outs, transporting money, weapons and people, etc, etc.

Those are just a few things that come to mind in addressing this issue.

New York did hire more police officers. However, even they knew they could not flood all of New York. it was simply logistically, financially and humanly impossible. Instead, they opted for a rolling effect, concentrating in one area and completely overhauling it through both police and repair activities until it reached a more than acceptable level. Of course, they had to commit to go back to that area with some forces and money to keep "repairing" the "broken windows", but it often took less and a few repeated rolls to the neighborhood re-enforced the "we're here to stay" attitude.

It seems that this would be a more appropriate process in Baghdad. Even with the "troop surge" and Iraqi brigades it doesn't appear that the ratio is effective when spread across the entire populace and area of Baghdad.

In effect, I would have preferred to see an overwhelming swarming effect that rolled from neighborhood to neighborhood, pushing criminals and the rest of the violent activity into a corner and finally out or destroyed.

If nothing else, it would seem to be more effective to the local populace if the everyday activity that affected them was addressed.

So, having said all that, I am disappointed that even your analysis and presentations seem to treat criminal activity, including criminal violence, as less than equal to all other activity or less than important to the over all ability to impact the three spheres of insurgents, sectarianism and terrorism.

jcustis1 (not verified)

Sun, 01/21/2007 - 11:05am


Does the CF have the array of personnel required to perform a "beat-cop" function in support of a population-centric strategy? If not, then what needs to be done to rectify the deficiencies?

I've routinely argued that we need more than just CIVPOL trainers, but experienced law enforcement members embedded with the CF, especially in Baghdad.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sat, 01/20/2007 - 4:42pm


I can't discuss the specifics of future operations here, for obvious reasons. But I think we can gain some idea of the likely answer to your questions from what the President already said publicly in his speech.

From the speech, it seems that what he is proposing is that CF and IA (with Iraqi Police units) go into the city in a partnered arrangement where CF are embedded in Iraqi formations. This would also suppress sectarian tendencies among some Iraqi units by putting them "under the eye" of international scrutiny, hence lowering the risk of death squad-type activity while CF are present.

Also from the speech, the President indicates that IA forces will ultimately have the responsibility to stay in the area to secure it alongside Iraqi Police. This suggests that that as areas become more secure, CF will shift position within the city to other places and hand over control to IA/Iraqi Police (probably retaining an overwatch mission).

That's all public info from the President's speech....but I think it gives some idea. And again, although there are no guarantees here and the problem is incredibly tough, this seems like a reasonable approach -- providing we stay agile as it is executed.

marct (not verified)

Fri, 01/19/2007 - 4:40pm


I think you are right about it being a new strategy, but I do have concerns as to who will actually stay in the local areas. I really don't think that having US units in that role makes much sense given the political equation in the current house. Are IA units going to stay there? It would make more sense but, we are still dealing with a question of their "loyalty".

I'd be interested in your thoughts on a) who should stay t provide security and b) what role CF troops should be playing in the overall Baghdad offensive.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Fri, 01/19/2007 - 3:44pm


I think we will have to wait until operations develop to be sure of how they will differ tactically on the ground from previous efforts. There's no doubt that it's an extremely tough problem and, as I say, there are no guarantees of success here.

But I do think the strategy is different. The examples that Gwynne cites are good illustrations of this, actually. "Forward Together" involved a much lower force concentration than we are talking about here, and as such there was no "clear and hold" because, once cleared, areas could not be held. In this case I think we're more likely to see an oil-spot expansion from more permissive areas of the city, and the residential approach (which is new) will improve the ability to hold once cleared.

And the fighting against the Mahdi Army in 2004 was pretty much an enemy-centric assault into Sadr City. In that instance, and a couple of others, the local Shia population actually stood to one side and waited for us to secure them, but once they saw we weren't planning to stay permanently they were too exposed to support us. In this case, we are talking about extending influence and governance into the city by gaining and building on the population's support -- more Tal Afar than Fallujah.

Also, of course there is no purely military solution here, and no one is suggesting there is. This is just part of an overall political/military/economic effort where political strategy has primacy.

Is there really that much of a change? The contrary position is expressed <a href="
" rel="nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow">here</a> by Gwenne Dyer:

<blockquote>As for the tactics, it's the same mix as before: block-by-block "clear and hold" operations in Baghdad (last tried unsuccessfully last summer); a major offensive against the Mahdi Army (tried twice without success in 2004); and nothing much beyond trying to keep the roads open in Anbar province in western Iraq, the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency. There are no surprises, no new approaches -- and the alleged "surge" in U.S. troop numbers is meaningless in military terms.</blockquote>

Certainly your expertise and knowledge about this matter is greater than mine, but I'm inclined to believe that these tactics are not really all that new, and that they are unlikely to result in any change of the strategic atmosphere, which is one in which the US is in an ever weaker position.