Small Wars Journal

The Right to Be Right: Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq Surge Decision

Mon, 04/18/2011 - 3:15pm
The Right to Be Right: Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq Surge Decision

International Security, issue 4, volume 35

by Peter D. Feaver, Duke University

Abstract. President George W. Bush's Iraq surge decision in late 2006 is an interest­ing case for civil-military relations theory, in particular, the debate between professional supremacists and civilian supremacists over how much to defer to the military on decisions during war. The professional supremacists argue that the primary problem for civil-military relations during war is ensur­ing the military an adequate voice and keeping civilians from micromanaging and mismanaging matters. Civilian supremacists, in contrast, argue that the primary problem is ensuring that well-informed civilian strategic guidance is authoritatively directing key decisions, even when the military disagrees with that direction. A close reading of the available evidence—both in published ac­counts and in new, not-for-attribution interviews with the key players—shows that the surge decision vindicates neither camp. If President Bush had fol­lowed the professional supremacists, there would have been no surge because his key military commanders were recommending against that option. If Bush had followed the civilian supremacists to the letter, however, there might have been a revolt of the generals, causing the domestic political props under the surge to collapse. Instead, Bush's hybrid approach worked better than either ideal type would have.

Full article is available here.


Publius (not verified)

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 11:07pm

Grant Martin:

Vietnam was never ours to lose. Despite our American predilection for pissing in the wind defying the tides of history, and despite the siren song of those who say, "It could have been different if only...." it just wasn't there.

Ain't gonna be there in Iraq or Afghanistan either.

G Martin

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 11:48am

It is interesting that even after more than 3 decades there is still debate on why we "lost" the Vietnam War. Id hate at this point to declare anything definitively or draw too many lessons from our experience in Iraq.

I think we can all agree on a few "facts": we "surged", we had a new doctrine, there were internal events that were definitely positive (Awakening, SoI, AQ stepping on themselves, etc.), there was a change in leadership, in aggregate units were doing more applicable pre-deployment training at about the same time as "the surge", there was at least a different message about what to focus on (if not an <EM>actual</EM> different focus) when the new leadership came in, units were put into different areas with different missions and different strengths, and units and individuals were rotating back in that had some experience in theater already.

I dont think that at this time we can discount any of these, hold one up higher than the rest, think that all of these were the only things that mattered, or not conclude the possibility that they all were necessary- but none were sufficient in and of themselves.

In other words, I'd hate to put money on going back in time and trying to get to where we are now without having all of the above going for us.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 9:48am


Me too my friend.

I have also learned over the years on SWJ that at a certain point in a discussion when arguments have been pretty well developed by multiple sides, sometimes it is best to just let it be, at least for a while!

talk to you soon


Christopher M … (not verified)

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 8:37am

Gian: I found the discussion interesting and useful in clarifying some of my own thoughts on the topic. One of the things I really like about SWJ is that the vast majority of posters know what they are talking about and want to contribute to the discourse, unlike other fora, such as and many others, where people just want to anonymously vent their emotions versus engage in intellectually productive dialogue.

Tequila: It was a news report on the upcoming meeting of the Arab League that will be held in Baghdad:…. I agree it's quite an overstatement, but illustrates the change in perception within the Arab world about conditions in Iraq.

(The other interesting thing in the video is how nice the former Republican Palace/MNF-I HQ/US Embassy looks after the Iraqis spent a few hundred million dollars to renovate it.) I had expected it to look like a disaster area within a couple years of the US handing it back to the GoI.

tequila (not verified)

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 7:05am

What al-Jazeera news report was that? Iraq the most stable country in the Middle East? I suppose that count must not include Israel, Turkey, or any of the Gulf states.

Iraq does combine nearly all the negative features of the countries that have seen unrest in the past months except that it also has regular mass suicide bombings and attacks on police and government buildings. It remains more violent than any Arab country in the ME. It is still more dangerous to be a citizen of Iraq than a citizen of Afghanistan. Unlike Afghanistan, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees, some 10% of the country's prewar population, remains outside the country. Iraq's trajectory, especially given the current government's paralysis, doesn't look any rosier.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 3:52pm


fair enough

good to have this discussion with you


Christopher M … (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 2:47pm

Perhaps "none of it mattered" wasn't the best paraphrasing of the penultimate sentence in your opening comments, but it is not far from your assertion that "...the trajectory of change in Iraq even if the Surge had not occurred in the way that it did would have very likely turned out the same." I'm trying to argue about strategy rather than semantics, but predicting the same outcome absent the surge is pretty darn close to saying the surge didn't matter.

You also seem to be setting up a strawman about arguments that Iraq would have come to "an abrupt end" without the surge. My recollection is that most of the thoughtful surge proponents argued that for Iraq it would be a slide into chaos rather than abrupt collapse of the GoI. (That was my own assessment in September 2006.) But for the US, they argued it would result in a rapid collapse of support for maintaining troop levels as happened with the Vietnam War.

Clausewitz wrote that "Tactics and strategy are activities that permeate one another in times and space but are nevertheless essentially different." According to his classification, "tactics teaches the use of the armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of the engagements for the object of the war." Using Clausewitz's defintions, the implementation of the surge under Petraeus changed both tactics and strategy by focusing on protection of the population as the means to create the stability that would result in an Iraq at peace with its neighbors and an ally in the war on terror.

But speaking of Clausewitz, you may have heard he wrote something about the relationship between the people, the army, and the government.

Hardly anyone who knows anything about American politics believes that public and Congressional support could have been maintained for the status quo or even the "surge light" two brigade increase that was proposed by Casey only after he recognized that a troop increase was inevitable. (Prior to October/November 2006, MNF-I planning was fixated on downward glide path for US troop strength.)

The American people and the Congress believed that things were not working and "continuity" was not a politically viable option. If not the surge, the most likely alternative was a relatively quick drawdown if not a cut off of funding and a rapid withdrawal. (Didn't Sun Tzu write something about "know yourself"?)

The amount of influence the surge had on the outcome is a much more debatable proposition than the argument that not much significantly changed between the operational frameworks of Casey and Petraeus.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I don't believe many people who were in MNF-I HQ or US Embassy Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, and thus saw first hand the "before and after" products such as the joint campaign plan, would agree that Petraeus essentially did more of the same thing that Casey had been doing. I clearly remember an email circulating in Baghdad when the final draft of FM 3-24 was released. It pointed out that at the time, MNF-I was engaged in almost none of "successful practices" and most of the "unsuccessful practices" shown in Table 1-1 on page 1-29. Under Petraeus, the predominate nature of operations shifted from the left side of the table to the right.

It's too soon to pass judgement on whether OIF was a strategic waste. An Al Jazeera news report recently said that, surprisingly, Iraq was now "the most stable country in the Middle East." Is there anything in the ME of strategic importance to the US?

It's interesting that pundits used to talk about winning the battle but losing the war. That was an excellent point. Talking about winning the war but losing strategically seems less insightful.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 11:32am


I never said "none of it mattered." I acknowledged agreement with Andrade that an increase of numbers south of Baghdad did have an effect as it interacted with the other changing conditions that were also occurring.

The Surge also had an important psychological effect on parts of the Sunni leadership that convinced them that the US was going to stay in force, at least for a little while longer, and cemented in their minds the need to turn on AQI and become allies with the American military.

I have also acknowledged the importance that the additional brigades had in the tactical reduction of AQI, that was fueled by human intelligence provided by groups like the SOI.

Red Herring? come on man, do you not read books like "The Gamble" or "Tell Me How this Ends" or hagiographic articles by writers like the Kagans or Clifford May or David Brooks. Your head must be buried in the sand.

Again, what I resist is the implied notion in your writings and others that if the Surge had not happened in the way that it did, Iraq would have come to an abrupt end, it would have imploded. That notion assumes that without the Surge the American military would have simply packed up and left Iraq's civil war to its own devices. What I am saying is that with Casey's strategic plan for the next two years (which included an increase of two more brigades) and the American military continuing its same operational framework, the other more important developing conditions would have continued and it is possible to argue, counterfactually, that those conditions would have driven Iraq to the same place it is now.

Lastly, in the end, the Surge, even if it was tactically significant as you think, doesnt really matter because Iraq has been a strategic waste. Even Tom Ricks argues that the Surge was tactically successful but failed strategically. If you read Sun Tzu or Clausewitz you might see that what is most important in war is not better tactics, but good strategy.


Christopher M… (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 10:03am

Casey's strategic guidance memo of 2007 does not reflect continuity. Instead, it reflects the fact that he lost the argument over the surge and had to produce a document that would change course and begin to implement the POTUS decision on increasing troop strength. It was a result of what he was told to do, not because he became a COINdinista sometime during 2006.

The language and key tasks are similar to the Kagan surge plan precisely because that was what Casey had been directed to do subsequent to the surge decision, not because it was what he had been doing all along. It was quite a shift from the 2006 Joint Campaign Action Plan, but not because HQ MNF-I had suddenly seen the light.

Also relevant is that it came in the wake of the 2006 Joint Campaign Plan Assessment, that as mentioned by Petraeus in his SEP 2007 testimony to Congress, had concluded that the campaign was "failing in virtually every line of operations."

Because of a combination of increased troop numbers and guidance to get into the neighborhoods, there was clearly an increased presence of US troops (higher troop density among the population both through more patrolling and a more widespread stationary presence).

The 2007-09 Joint Campaign Plan issued by Petraeus (and AMB Crocker) was significantly different than its predecessor document under Casey (and to a lesser extent, Khalilzad--who also opposed the surge). One of the reasons it took so long to be promulgated after the JSAT had made its very clear and detailed recommendations was that some of the senior officer holdovers from the Casey era continued to resist implementation of what was then official US Army-Marine COIN doctrine.

The allegation about a narrative of "better generals" coming to the rescue is a red herring. It's a question of a better plan. If it had been Petraeus who replaced Sanchez in 2004 instead of Casey, it is possible he might have implemented the same strategy with the same operational framework as Casey.

A better conclusion might be that sometimes the US military is indeed a learning and adaptive organization and when it became clear that the current plan wasn't working (and they were told by POTUS to do so), it changed what it was doing and found something that seemed to work.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Gian is correct and there wasn't much difference between Casey and Petraeus, doesn't that simply imply greater importance for 30,000 additional troops--i.e. the "surge" itself rather than that was done with it?

Instead, Gian perversely argues that none of this mattered. The Good Stability Fairy would have come along regardless: Sadr would have stopped trying to subvert the elected government purely out of the goodness of his heart; JAM would have been kinder to American outposts drawing down than they had been to the British pulling out of Basra; violent Shia extremists would have suddenly become satisfied with the chunk of Baghdad in which they had successfully conducted sectarian cleansing to date and not try to grab all of it; despite the ongoing sectarian battles elsewhere, the Anbar Awakening would simply trust the Shia-dominated central government to protect their interests in the wake of a US withdrawal at the peak of violence; simultaneously with drawing down, the US would have been willing and able to expand its engagement with the Awakening movement and been able to exercise sufficient leverage with the Government of Iraq to tolerate, if not facilitate, arming the Sons of Iraq; and the Government of Iraq would have been able to keep a lid on things with smaller, less capable Iraqi Security Forces while Coalition Forces were pulling out.

The surge and its implementation alone may not have been sufficient, yet to argue not only that it was not an important factor, but that it made no positive impact at all, is incredible.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 7:58am

Actually the facts do support such an argument of continuity rather than change between Casey and Petraeus.

Casey's strategic guidance memo, the last one he wrote in January 2007, looks in many ways very much like Fred Kagan's Surge plan. The language is similar, and the key tasks set out in each one or more alike than not. So what Christopher says about Casey as against "protecting the population" is just not true. There are numerous places in his strategic guidance where he explicitly states that the population must be protected, and that before transition can occur with the ISF the levels of civil war violence had to be brought down significantly, and that the US military would play a direct role in so doing. He was also not talking about leaving anytime soon either; in fact, and like the Surge plan, Casey was looking to stay in force in Iraq at least through the end of 2008, just like the Surge plan envisioned.

Moreover, if one views the orders and aars from the Casey years and the Petraeus years one again sees continuity rather than change, and in some cases they were better under the former.

The argument about significant change in operational framework by citing the so called move off "of the fobs" is way overstated. What does that imply as to what US combat troops were doing prior to the Surge, not leaving the fob? Most of the outposts that were established during the Surge were not neighborhood cops, but instead joint security stations (something that Casey had actually started under his watch) which were large, highly protected and walled-off security compounds that had formerly been Iraqi Police or Army compounds. The notion that a handful of neighborhoods cops somehow turned the local population to our side and represented some kind of significant change in the operational framework does not make sense.

I do think you can argue what Dale Andrade does that in certain areas, raw numbers of increase in troops under the surge did matter, but writ large across Iraq they were not game changing events.

This whole Surge Triumph Narrative is premised on themes of better generals rescuing failed armies which then are reinvented into something radically new. This narrative is used to explain the so called better war in Vietnam, the current American war in Iraq, and it is deployed continuously in Afghanistan. General Petraeus's use of the phrase "finally we have the right inputs in place in Afghanistan" portrays a deep adherence to the Coin narrative.

To be sure there were significant differences in leadership style between Casey and Petraeus, just as there was between McChrystal and McKiernan (and in Vietnam Westmoreland and Abrams too). But in each one of these wars the actual generalship--how these generals managed the war under their tenure--was more alike than not.

Yet the narrative demands radical difference; comparable to the actual difference between a Grant and McClellan or a Fredendall and Patton. But in these wars of counterinsurgency which are essentially area security operations four star generals in command simply are not as important--they are not game changing events in themselves--as the narrative makes them out to be.


Christopher M … (not verified)

Tue, 04/19/2011 - 6:05am

Maybe there is indeed some other, mysterious explanation for the significant increase in stability that followed the surge. True, correlation is not causation. It nonetheless remains the best explanation as there is no solid evidence behind any of the alternative explanations.

Regardless, the facts do not support Gian Gentile's assertion regarding the degree of commonality between the leadership of MNF-I under Casey compared to Petraeus. Especially in the aspects most relevant to COIN, there was a tremendous degree of discontinuity.

Although MNF-I staff in the Casey era frequently used the term "COIN," what they actually meant was counterterrorism. They were referring only to kinetic targeting of insurgents and other violent extremists, particularly those engaged in sectarian attacks upon civilians. (I'm not suggesting that this was a bad idea, but by itself, it wasn't COIN. They were continued under Petraeus but called counterterrorism or counter-extremist operations instead of COIN.)

MNF-I under Casey adamantly opposed the surge, opposed making protection of the population a specified task, and encouraged--if not specifically directed--greater consolidation of troops on FOBs and a reduction in patrolling.

They even opposed significantly increasing the size of Iraqi Security Forces to improve the Government of Iraq's ability to deal with the insurgency on its own. The justification for this opposition was that Iraq couldn't afford to pay for a larger army. (But of course, "afford" has little meaning if you would otherwise lose your country.)

They promulgated "trained and equipped" numbers for the Iraqi Security Forces as if equivalent to McDonald's advertising how many "millions served" and ignored relevant data such as how many troops and police were actually on duty. They even argued that an Iraqi Army battalion that mutinied rather than move to Baghdad to participate in operations there should be rated as trained and capable and thus proceeding smoothly along the path towards transition of security responsibility.

As one senior civilian in the US Embassy has described it, the 2006 intent of MNF-I was to "hand the bag of flaming feces to the Iraqis and get out as soon as possible." While establishing the right "conditions" was given lip service, Transition--regardless of conditions and the likely aftermath--was clearly the primary focus.

Under General Petraeus, besides the increases from the additional (and extended) surge units, troops were moved off the FOBs and operated from Joint Security Stations among the population and alongside Iraqi counterparts. "Secure the Population" became a specified task. The authorized end strength for Iraqi Security Forces was significantly increased and the unit assessment regime was changed to better reflect operational capabilities and Iraqi unit status reporting was changed to include AWOLs, Leave, and Present for Duty.

A COIN academy was established to train American leaders on US COIN doctrine and incoming leaders and senior staff were required to attend it. The joint campaign plan was re-written to specifically implement COIN principles. Petraeus brought out COIN experts, including Dave Kilcullen, to assess and advise HQ MNF-I, HQ MNC-I, and BCTs on COIN operations.

While the tribal engagements that led to "Awakening" began under Casey, they were largely ad hoc and uncoordinated initiatives at lower echelons. Under Petraeus, these efforts were aggressively encouraged and resourced from the top. Also different, under Petraeus they were closely coordinated with the US Embassy and Ambassador Crocker dedicated career diplomats to assist in the planning and execution of outreach efforts.

General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad had a very good working relationship (especially when compared to the poisonous atmosphere that had prevailed between LTG Sanchez and AMB Bremer). They promulgated the first "joint mission statement" that covered both the military efforts of MNF-I and the civilian efforts of US Embassy Baghdad (technically, US Mission-Iraq). MNF-I staff next wrote a "joint campaign plan" that had some input from the embassy side of the house but very limited involvement by embassy civilians during the writing process.

However, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker took this level of cooperation to a new level and set the gold standard for civil-military integration. They established a Joint Strategic Assessment Team (JSAT) to assess the situation and draft the basis for a new joint campaign plan. The JSAT was co-directed by military officers and State Department personnel. Roughly half of its members were civilians. The Embassy was fully integrated in writing the subsequent joint campaign plan and in the joint assessment boards that were established to routinely monitor its progress and recommend adjustments.

Also during the Casey era, MNF-I opposed providing military protection for US civilians in PRTs whereas Petraeus allowed this to a limited extent. Also, making more military protection available for US civilians was one of the driving factors behind the concept of the "embedded" PRTs.

I certainly don't mean to impugn the integrity, professionalism, or dedication of GEN Casey or his MNF-I staff. However, there were indeed very clear, significant differences between their approach to operations in Iraq at the end of 2006 and that of GEN Petraeus at the beginning of 2007.

An interesting test might be to look at an area where there indeed appeared to be a great deal of continuity during the period in question: the British Area of Responsibility in the south. How did things in Basra look compared to Baghdad in 2008?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/18/2011 - 5:14pm

Feaver said this in the opening to his essay:

"but it is clear that the new surge strategy changed, at least for a time, the trajectory of the war."

It is not at all clear that that is what the Surge did. Feaver, like so many other Surgedinistas, assume that if the Surge had not happened in the way that it did, that a "savior" general (to use Victor David Hanson's words) named Petraeus had not arrived onto the scene, that the place would have imploded, and would have come to an abrupt and violent end.

Yet the facts do not support such thinking. There was much more continuity between Casey and Petraeus than is commonly understood, and the operational framework of the American Army (aside from the additional five brigades) did not alter significantly either.

It was the other more critical conditions on the ground that were driving change (the Anbar Awakening, Shia militia stand down, the sectarian separation of Baghdad) rather than the Surge. When seen in that light the trajectory of change in Iraq even if the Surge had not occurred in the way that it did would have very likely turned out the same.

Feaver ironically makes the same mistakes as the experts from the Vietnam era did; they consume themselves with their own actions and what they did, but did not understand the more important changes that were occurring on the ground.