The Surge Revisited
Joseph J. Collins
The Surge in Iraq was a highly successful adaptation to a changed strategic context. After a troubled year-long occupation, coalition troops had become bogged down in Iraq. The situation later improved under a new commander, General George Casey, but the theater exploded in sectarian violence after the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, a Shia holy place, early in 2006. Al Qaeda was on the march, and the Sunni majority was alienated from the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. The government was powerless to control the fighting, and Iraqi security forces --- ill-trained, relatively few in number, and often caught up in sectarian rivalries --- were clearly inadequate to the task before them.
There have been a number of good books about the Surge in Iraq. Among my favorites are Bob Woodward’s, The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008 , which chronicles President Bush and his advisors, coming to grips with need for change in Iraq. Tom Ricks’s The Gamble (2009), was a more favorable assessment of the war than his first book, The Fiasco (2006), whose title aptly characterized the occupation and its aftermath. Linda Robinson’s book, Tell Me How this Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (2008) was notable not just for its strategic perspective but also for its stirring accounts of early Surge battles. Peter Mansoor’s book --- Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War [i] --- adds to the list of impressive works about the Surge. His niche is the view from the command post.
Colonel/Doctor/Professor Mansoor is not only an important eyewitness but also a trained historian, who now holds the prestigious General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. As an Army Colonel, he commanded an armor brigade during the occupation,[ii] and his unit earned 230 Purple Hearts during its year in downtown Baghdad. He was later the founding director of the Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, which played an important role in the development of our new counterinsurgency doctrine. Mansoor was also one of a handful of colonels on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Council of Colonels special study group on Iraq futures. This important book is entirely his own, but it includes many insights by the theater commander, including a 16-page foreword by Petraeus himself. This is one of Petraeus’s longest statements on his third command in Iraq and adds greatly to the value of this book, as do the numerous documents included in the text and the appendecies.
Mansoor lays out his book in a way that any strategist would appreciate. He starts with the strategic context for the Surge, recounting the errors and missteps of the occupation period. For the author, American proconsul Jerry Bremer had “created the military basis for the insurgency” by disbanding the Iraqi Army, and “the political basis” by de-Baathification (pp. 8-9). [ To be fair, however, both of these poorly staffed programs came from Washington and were only brought to Baghdad by Bremer, who promptly executed them.] Our ground forces in Iraq were also flat-footed, undermanned, and trained for “rapid, decisive operations and quick victories by high-tech fighting forces …. Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7) [the coalition military command under LTG Rick Sanchez] lacked a coherent strategy and a defined operational plan to achieve the ends of policy“(p. 13).
Mansoor reserves his most severe judgment for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is tagged with creating a “best case” war plan, a refusal to “approve more troops to secure Iraq,” a gross misestimate of the enemy and a “denial of the existence of an insurgency … [that] contributed to the dysfunction of the American military effort”(p. 17). Rumsfeld resigned not after the debacle at Abu Gharib, or because of problems on the battlefield, but only after the crushing Republican defeat in the 2006 elections. [Mansoor does point out that Rumsfeld had previously tendered his resignation which was not accepted.]
The author then turns his attention to the post-occupation period. Initially, General George Casey and his diplomatic partners, Ambassador John Negroponte and later, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad improved organization and made many politico-military advances. On the military side, Casey put in an extra headquarters, created a refined campaign plan, established a counterinsurgency academy, and accelerated the training of Iraqi forces. After the six-week, second battle of Fallujah, Casey realized that combat in the cities was not the answer to the insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, his own staff later concluded that “there is little objective evidence that a wedge is being driven between the insurgents and the population of Iraq.” In 2005, the command’s emphasis shifted to turning “the war over to the Iraqis” (p. 21). President Bush confidently noted in August 2005 that “as Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down” (p.22). The outline of an exit strategy began to appear through the fog of battle, but reality again intruded: in addition to an insurgency, the war had become a sectarian conflict, and an occasionally kinetic fight inside the Shia community for dominance, all of which were increasingly complicated by a large and powerful al Qaeda presence. In December 2006, the command’s own review noted that its “ends, ways, and means are out of alignment” (p. 32).
President Bush, his NSC staff, outside consultants, such as retired Army General Jack Keane, and the CJCS’s Council of Colonels all knew that something had to change. While the command in Iraq argued for staying the course, and the prestigious Iraq Study group focused on increasing security assistance, President Bush agreed with his NSC staff and the recommendations from the American Enterprise Institute: more troops, different techniques, and a new battle plan were necessary. After months of study, the President and his team decided to double down, reinforce units in the greater Baghdad area and al Anbar province, and move to a more population centric strategy, one with a renewed emphasis on living-with-the people counterinsurgency tactics. At the same time, the command stepped up its counterterrorism efforts and accelerated the training of Iraqi security forces. It was not just a case of more means, but also different ways. For President Bush, it was a rigorous assessment, open decision-making, and perseverance, perhaps the finest decision of his eight-year presidency.
Mansoor played a key role in these developments. Following Field Marshal Montgomery’s observation about Malaya, the President needed a new man and a new plan. In this case, based on the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, President Bush chose General Petraeus to be his new commander, and, in turn, Petraeus chose Colonel Peter Mansoor as his Executive Officer, confidant, and the senior member of what Newsweek would later call the “Brainiac Brigade,” a squad of smart, experienced, and well-educated officers who advised the new commander. Their first battle together was Petraeus’s confirmation hearing, where he won over a reluctant Senate.
Once in Iraq, Petraeus rushed forward the five reinforcing brigades and focused his new command on a new way of doing business. “The goal … would be to secure the Iraqi people against ethno-sectarian violence and intimidation, a goal wholeheartedly shared by Lieutenant General Ray Odierno and his team already on the ground” (page 68). Securing the people would be job one, and living with the people and “joint security stations” with Iraqi forces, would become key techniques. All of this was meant to provide trade space for Iraqi government-led reconciliation.
The first few months of the Surge were characterized by the toughest fighting and highest casualties that our forces had ever suffered, but better doctrine and tactics showed results. At the same time, the Sunni Awakening took place. Sunni tribes and militias turned their backs on al Qaeda and moved into league with the government, aided and abetted by Petraeus and his subordinate commanders.
By the summer of 2007, casualties had begun to come down. It was obvious that the Surge was working, but not to everyone. Admiral Fallon, the CENTCOM commander, sent a team lead by Rear Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, USN (now Admiral and Vice Chairman, JCS) on an inspection tour of Iraq. After three weeks there, the team briefed General Petraeus that it “would recommend a significant reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq and a shift in focus to training Iraqi security forces” (p. 179). In other words, he would recommend abandoning the Surge and returning to the previous policies that had cease to work. Nothing came of this effort, but it was a distraction for the command and proof positive that the resistance to the Surge had not disappeared within the high command.[iii]
In September 2007, testimony by Petraeus and Crocker met with deep congressional skepticism and the horrid “General Betray Us” ad by the leftist organization, Move On.org. To further complicate the setting, posturing for the 2008 presidential elections had begun. The Surge was criticized by Senators Biden, who recommended a division of Iraq into three countries, by Senator Chuck Hagel who rejected the command’s statistics, and then by Senators Barbara Boxer, Barack Obama, Russ Feingold, Teddy Kennedy and others, some of whom used their time to make speeches, rather than asking questions. Senator Hillary Clinton later added salt to the criticism by saying that the Crocker-Petraeus reports “required the willing suspension of disbelief” (p. 206). In the end, the Congress did suspend its disbelief and did not move to end the Surge or set a date certain for withdrawal. The command had weathered its final political storm and continued on course to its completion in the summer of 2008.
One of the final acts of the Surge was Maliki’s surprise decision to use Iraqi Army forces, unilaterally, in Basra to break the control of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi shia militia. Mansoor’s detailed account of this operation, along with new information on the extent of Iranian operations in Iraq, add much to this excellent and important book.
The Surge, when coupled with the Sunni awakening and a tough counterterrorism program, turned the tide of the war and devastated al Qaeda in Iraq. In Mansoor’s view, none of these collateral aspects of the Surge, by themselves, would have been sufficient. Certainly, the Sunni Awakening would have faltered if the United States were pulling out combat troops and heading for the exit. By the spring of 2008, security incidents across Iraq had been reduced to a mere 15% of what they were at their pre-Surge high point. A war had not been won, but a strategic campaign had succeeded beyond the fondest hopes of many of its civil and military architects.
Does the success of the Surge in Iraq offer lessons for future operations? Lessons learned --- or “lessons encountered,” as the British prefer --- are not cookie cutters, useful in every situation. They often take years to unfold. With that caveat, the Surge experience leaves one with a few observations that one day may evolve into lessons.
First, the Surge was an initiative within one of the wars making up what, overall, has been called the war on terrorism. As Mansoor himself notes, “the conflict in Iraq was a war of choice begun badly for vague strategic reasons and then nearly lost” (p. 261). The Surge put the conflict back on the right track, but it did not end it. A few years later, negotiations for a follow-on force broke down over the issue of immunity for US forces in Iraq. After the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraq was left to its own devices, and the Maliki government --- to be kind --- has not lived up to its promise. As of the fall of 2013, more civilians die every month in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Iran has broad influence in Iraq. Al Qaeda is back in force, and the civil war in Syria has created instability to the point that Maliki has recently asked the United States for security assistance. Clausewitz reminded us that the results of war are not permanent, and the same can be said for successful strategic initiatives.
Second, tempting fate, the next Administration decided to do a time-limited Surge in Afghanistan. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the local security forces benefitted from the time that the Surge provided for their development, but in Afghanistan, there was no “awakening.” Progress in Afghanistan has been slower than in Iraq. The US and Afghan governments are now debating an advise- and-assist force to stay behind after ISAF combat forces depart in December 2014. Again, immunity of US forces from local prosecution is a sticking point. Time will tell if the Afghans are smarter than the Iraqis were on that score. The Afghans clearly have fewer resources than the Iraqis. That should argue in favor of prudence, but that item often disappears from the menu in Afghanistan.
Finally, the Surge was a successful counterinsurgency effort. That doctrine is now under fire and the Pentagon ---while interested in counterterrorism and some aspects of counterinsurgency --- has said that it will not build forces for extended stability operations. All of this is understandable, but if it means that once again we build high-tech conventional forces only for rapid, decisive operations, we may end up again with an Army trained for one thing and employed to do another. Irregular conflicts are still the most likely forms of conflicts that we will encounter, and combat is much more likely to come in the Middle East and parts of Africa than in the Asia-Pacific. In the next decade, Air-Sea Battle is likely to remain a thought exercise while the COIN manual will be used every day in overseas contingencies.
On the issue of futures, it is hard to argue with Professor Mansoor’s parting shot at both our officer corps and the American civil and military educational systems:
Our mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan were the result of a pervasive failure to understand the historical framework within which insurgencies take place, to appreciate the cultural and political factors of other nations and people, and to encourage the learning of foreign languages. In other words, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we managed to repeat many of the mistakes that we made in Vietnam, because America’s political and military leaders managed to forget nearly every lesson of that conflict. (p. 275)
In the end, Mansoor agrees with David Kilcullen’s observation in the Accidental Guerrilla:
The Surge worked: but in the final analysis, it was an effort to save ourselves from the more desperate consequences of a situation we should never have gotten ourselves into. (p. 275)
Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001-04, he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. This review is his work and does not represent the opinion or assessment of the US government or any of its departments or agencies.
[i] Mansoor’s Surge was published by the Yale University Press in 2013. It contains xxxiii pages of front matter and 323 pages of text and notes.
[ii] Mansoor’s account of his time in command on his first tour can be found at Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008)
[iii] Admiral Fallon resigned his position as CENTCOM commander in March 2008 after he made inappropriate remarks in an interview.