This post is not about whether current ops are "working" — for us, here on the ground, time will tell, though some observers elsewhere seem to have already made up their minds (on the basis of what evidence, I'm not really sure). But for professional counterinsurgency operators such as our SWJ community, the thing to understand at this point is the intention and concept behind current ops in Iraq: if you grasp this, you can tell for yourself how the operations are going, without relying on armchair pundits. So in the interests of self-education (and cutting out the commentariat middlemen—sorry, guys) here is a field perspective on current operations.
Ten days ago, speaking with Austin Bay, I made the following comment:
"I know some people in the media are already starting to sort of write off the "surge" and say 'Hey, hang on: we've been going since January, we haven't seen a massive turnaround; it mustn't be working'. What we've been doing to date is putting forces into position. We haven't actually started what I would call the "surge" yet. All we've been doing is building up forces and trying to secure the population. And what I would say to people who say that it's already failed is "watch this space". Because you're going to see, in fairly short order, some changes in the way we're operating that will make what's been happening over the past few months look like what it is—just a preliminary build up."
The meaning of that comment should be clear by now to anyone tracking what is happening in Iraq. On June 15th we kicked off a major series of division-sized operations in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces. As General Odierno said, we have finished the build-up phase and are now beginning the actual "surge of operations". I have often said that we need to give this time. That is still true. But this is the end of the beginning: we are now starting to put things onto a viable long-term footing.
These operations are qualitatively different from what we have done before. Our concept is to knock over several insurgent safe havens simultaneously, in order to prevent terrorists relocating their infrastructure from one to another, and to create an operational synergy between what we're doing in Baghdad and what's happening outside. Unlike on previous occasions, we don't plan to leave these areas once they're secured. These ops will run over months, and the key activity is to stand up viable local security forces in partnership with Iraqi Army and Police, as well as political and economic programs, to permanently secure them. The really decisive activity will be police work, registration of the population and counterintelligence in these areas, to comb out the insurgent sleeper cells and political cells that have "gone quiet" as we moved in, but which will try to survive through the op and emerge later. This will take operational patience, and it will be intelligence-led, and Iraqi government-led. It will probably not make the news (the really important stuff rarely does) but it will be the truly decisive action.
When we speak of "clearing" an enemy safe haven, we are not talking about destroying the enemy in it; we are talking about rescuing the population in it from enemy intimidation. If we don't get every enemy cell in the initial operation, that's OK. The point of the operations is to lift the pall of fear from population groups that have been intimidated and exploited by terrorists to date, then win them over and work with them in partnership to clean out the cells that remain -- as has happened in Al Anbar Province and can happen elsewhere in Iraq as well.
The "terrain" we are clearing is human terrain, not physical terrain. It is about marginalizing al Qa'ida, Shi'a extremist militias, and the other terrorist groups from the population they prey on. This is why claims that "80% of AQ leadership have fled" don't overly disturb us: the aim is not to kill every last AQ leader, but rather to drive them off the population and keep them off, so that we can work with the community to prevent their return.
This is not some sort of kind-hearted, soft approach, as some fire-breathing polemicists have claimed (funnily enough, those who urge us to "just kill more bad guys" usually do so from a safe distance). It is not about being "nice" to the population and hoping they will somehow see us as the "good guys" and stop supporting insurgents. On the contrary, it is based on a hard-headed recognition of certain basic facts, to wit:
(a.) The enemy needs the people to act in certain ways (sympathy, acquiescence, silence, reaction to provocation) in order to survive and further his strategy. Unless the population acts in these ways, both insurgents and terrorists will wither, and the cycle of provocation and backlash that drives the sectarian conflict in Iraq will fail.
(b.) The enemy is fluid, but the population is fixed. (The enemy is fluid because he has no permanent installations he needs to defend, and can always run away to fight another day. But the population is fixed, because people are tied to their homes, businesses, farms, tribal areas, relatives etc). Therefore—and this is the major change in our strategy this year—protecting and controlling the population is do-able, but destroying the enemy is not. We can drive him off from the population, then introduce local security forces, population control, and economic and political development, and thereby "hard-wire" the enemy out of the environment, preventing his return. But chasing enemy cells around the countryside is not only a waste of time, it is precisely the sort of action he wants to provoke us into. That's why AQ cells leaving an area are not the main game—they are a distraction. We played the enemy's game for too long: not any more. Now it is time for him to play our game.
(c.) Being fluid, the enemy can control his loss rate and therefore can never be eradicated by purely enemy-centric means: he can just go to ground if the pressure becomes too much. BUT, because he needs the population to act in certain ways in order to survive, we can asphyxiate him by cutting him off from the people. And he can't just "go quiet" to avoid that threat. He has either to come out of the woodwork, fight us and be destroyed, or stay quiet and accept permanent marginalization from his former population base. That puts him on the horns of a lethal dilemma (which warms my heart, quite frankly, after the cynical obscenities these irhabi gang members have inflicted on the innocent Iraqi non-combatant population). That's the intent here.
(d.) The enemy may not be identifiable, but the population is. In any given area in Iraq, there are multiple threat groups but only one, or sometimes two main local population groups. We could do (and have done, in the past) enormous damage to potential supporters, "destroying the haystack to find the needle", but we don't need to: we know who the population is that we need to protect, we know where they live, and we can protect them without unbearable disruption to their lives. And more to the point, we can help them protect themselves, with our forces and ISF in overwatch.
Of course, we still go after all the terrorist and extremist leaders we can target and find, and life has become increasingly "nasty, brutish, and short" for this crowd. But we realize that this is just a shaping activity in support of the main effort, which is securing the Iraqi people from the terrorists, extremist militias, and insurgents who need them to survive.
Is there a strategic risk involved in this series of operations? Absolutely. Nothing in war is risk-free. We have chosen to accept and manage this risk, primarily because a low-risk option simply will not get us the operational effects that the strategic situation demands. We have to play the hand we have been dealt as intelligently as possible, so we're doing what has to be done. It still might not work, but "it is what it is" at this point.
So much for theory. The practice, as always, has been mixed. Personally, I think we are doing reasonably well and casualties have been lower so far than I feared. Every single loss is a tragedy. But so far, thank God, the loss rate has not been too terrible: casualties are up in absolute terms, but down as a proportion of troops deployed (in the fourth quarter of 2006 we had about 100,000 troops in country and casualties averaged 90 deaths a month; now we have almost 160,000 troops in country but deaths are under 120 per month, much less than a proportionate increase, which would have been around 150 a month). And last year we patrolled rarely, mainly in vehicles, and got hit almost every time we went out. Now we patrol all the time, on foot, by day and night with Iraqi units normally present as partners, and the chances of getting hit are much lower on each patrol. We are finally coming out of the "defensive crouch" with which we used to approach the environment, and it is starting to pay off.
It will be a long, hard summer, with much pain and loss to come, and things could still go either way. But the population-centric approach is the beginning of a process that aims to put the overall campaign onto a sustainable long-term footing. The politics of the matter then can be decisive, provided the Iraqis use the time we have bought for them to reach the essential accommodation. The Embassy and MNF-I continue to work on these issues at the highest levels but fundamentally, this is something that only Iraqis can resolve: our role is to provide an environment in which it becomes possible.
All this may change. These are long-term operations: the enemy will adapt and we'll have to adjust what we're doing over time. Baq'ubah, Arab Jabour and the western operations are progressing well, and additional security measures in place in Baghdad have successfully tamped down some of the spill-over of violence from other places. The relatively muted response (so far) to the second Samarra bombing is evidence of this. Time will tell, though....
Once again, none of this is intended to tell you "what to think" or "whether it's working". We're all professional adults, and you can work that out for yourself. But this does, I hope, explain some of the thinking behind what we are doing, and it may therefore make it easier for people to come to their own judgment.
David Kilcullen is Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser, Multi-National Force—Iraq. These are his personal views only.