General David H. Petraeus, Pentagon Press Briefing, 2007
General David H. Petraeus, Pentagon Press Briefing, 2007

Iraq After the "Surge"

Nov 11, 2007

(Updated November 11, 2007)

Carl von Clausewitz in one of the most often quoted and infrequently read books, On War, concluded that "war is politics by other means". This is clearly his most frequently cited insight into the nature and prosecution of conflict. This dictum remains as true today in Iraq as it did in Europe during the Napoleonic era.

He had other observations about the nature of war that are less often used. One is that war is "like a chameleon" that changes over time, and a successful strategist must adapt his forces and efforts to meet this challenge.1

This idea has been reiterated throughout the study of conflict and, in particular, counterinsurgency warfare. For example, David Galula, the famous French counterinsurgency expert, observed:

Essential though it is, the military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population. The armed forces are but one of the many instruments of the counterinsurgent, and what is better than the political power to harness the nonmilitary instruments, to see that appropriations come at the right time to consolidate the military work, that political and social reforms follow through? A revolutionary war is 20 per cent military action and 80 per cent political is a formula that reflects the truth.."2

Consequently, in the case of the war in Iraq one must reevaluate strategy against both national objectives as well as conditions on the ground.

There can be little doubt that "chameleon" applies to this conflict as well as its overall political nature. Political and military conditions in Iraq are much different than they were 18 months or even a year ago. For example, throughout 2005 and early 2006, the United States promoted elections and the creation of a constitution, believing that democracy would serve to reconcile the disparate conditions in the country and also over time act as a catalyst throughout the Middle East. This spreading of democracy would serve not only to confront the challenge of militant Islam but also stabilize the country. While this resulted in the election of a government, it has not resulted in political progress towards reconciliation.

Combat conditions in 2007 are very different than when American and coalition forces invaded in 2003, but they are also quite different from six months or one year ago. The enemy in Iraq remains complex and varied. In reality the United States faces at least four different opponents in Iraq.

  • They include al-Qaeda in Iraq (often referred to as AQI). AQI still remains largely foreign-led, but over time has managed to recruit some young extreme Sunnis to its ranks.

  • America's opponents also include Shiite militia groups, most notably Jaish al Mahdi (frequently referred to as the "JAM"). According to Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the Multi-National Corps Commander, these groups may now account for more than 70 per cent of all attacks against coalition forces.

  • There are also Sunni insurgent groups. Some are Islamic extremists and are tacitly or actively aligned with AQI. Others may not be motivated by religion but in some cases have ties to the old regime and view the United States as occupiers.

  • Finally, there are large, well-organized and equipped criminal gangs that perpetrate violence on a daily basis.

This thumbnail sketch of the "enemy" in Iraq is also flawed, however, by the fact that there are many sub-groups under these broad headings which complicate military operations and efforts at reconciliation even further.

Consequently, the argument that has consumed many American commentators about whether there is an insurgency or a civil war in Iraq is misplaced. The sad truth is that both are occurring with varying intensities depending on what portion of the country is examined. Many observers have also portrayed Iran as an "enemy" to ongoing American efforts in Iraq, and there can be little doubt that the United States and Iran are involved in a "proxy war". Tehran is clearly providing money, weapons, and supplies to Shiite militia groups (in particular the JAM). This has included the so-called "explosively formed projectiles" or EFPs that have had a deadly effect on American forces.

General Petraeus and other military leaders in Iraq have stated that Iranian Quds forces are behind this effort, though the government of Iran has steadfastly denied this. Senior military officers have reported that the number of Quds force operatives present in Iraq is relatively small and has been reduced over the past few months. This is due to targeted American operations against Quds cells and a change in tactics whereby more Iraqis are going to Iran for training and equipping prior to returning. Still the most important point is that the weapons, training, and other equipment provided by Iran is employed against coalition forces by Shiite militiamen (in particular the so-called JAM special groups) and not Iranians. The actions of the Iranian government are reprehensible, and every effort should be made to halt this activity. Still the JAM might seek alternative sources if it was actually stopped.

Obviously, the most pressing question about this war is how is the "surge" strategy working to reduce violence and stabilize a country that in early 2007 seemed to be headed for full civil war? My travels to Iraq confirmed to me that the complete answer to this question requires an examination of four areas:

(1) political efforts particularly by the Iraqi government through legislation and other means to reconcile the main elements of the population—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd;

(2) military efforts that were manifest not only in the announcement by President Bush to increase American forces by 30,000 but also efforts to improve Iraqi security forces (both the Army and police) and increase their numbers particularly in Baghdad;

(3) diplomatic efforts inside the regime to get our "friends" to do more and our "adversaries" to do less;

(4) and finally, progress in economic reconstruction and development to expand opportunities for Iraqis and diplomatic efforts with Iraq's neighbors.

The "Surge"I imagine that most military planners cringe every time they hear the word "surge" used to describe the change in the military approach announced by President Bush in January 2007. There is no doubt that he directed an increase of roughly 30,000 troops to be dispatched to Iraq, but this did not happen immediately. Consequently, the "surge" announcement left a faulty impression in many minds that it would have an immediate effect. In reality the last of the expanded forces did not arrive in Iraq, secure its equipment, and deploy to new areas of operation until early to mid-June 2007. As a result, General Petraeus' celebrated presentation of the change caused by this increase in military forces to Congress are in reality only measured over a period of roughly 90 days.

Furthermore, the discussion largely ignores the fact that success militarily, while essential, is not sufficient overall. As suggested above, progress must also occur politically, economically, and diplomatically if the "surge" has any chance for success. Diplomatic efforts (at least publicly) seem marginally successful at best. They have included meetings between the United States and representatives of Iran which Ambassador Crocker described as of little real value, as well as plans for a large scale conference to attempt once again to try and find a settlement to the vexing problem of Palestine. In many ways, the diplomatic situation has worsened following attacks by Kurdish PKK terrorists against Turkish forces. This has exacerbated tensions between Iraq and Turkey while presenting the real possibility of a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to attack PKK bases.

Economic efforts in Iraq now focus primarily on assisting the Iraqi government to plan, organize, and execute reconstruction projects. Surprisingly the Iraqi government has had a significant problem in spending its own budget due to bureaucratic inertia, corruption, weak infrastructure, and so on. Consequently, for the current year the Iraqis have only spent slightly more than one half of their annual budget.

President Bush also announced a dramatic increase in the American-manned Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) as part of the overall "surge" effort. These PRTs are present throughout the country to assist local leaders in planning and executing economic recovery. This effort calls into question once again the use of the word "surge". The Department of State was required, consistent with the President's revised strategy in January, to provide an additional 350 personnel to man this expanded PRT effort. By July 2007 (six months into the "surge") the State Department reported that it hoped to accomplish this task by the end of the calendar year, giving a whole new definition to the word "surge".

Still in strictly military terms, one would have to conclude that the "surge" has worked, at least tactically. As General Petraeus described so eloquently before Congress, the level of overall attacks, sectarian killings, IED [Improvised Explosive Devices] attacks, indirect fire against coalition, and so on would suggest that the addition of 30,000 troops, coupled with a greater emphasis on counter-insurgency warfare, has resulted in reduced levels of violence.

More importantly perhaps, soldiers at patrol bases, particularly around Baghdad, told me that they believe they are making a difference. They are attacked less frequently than when they first occupied their bases and are (in the words of a young captain) "inundated by information from the local population" about the location of AQI or JAM elements, weapons caches, IEDs, etc.

This should not be surprising as one would expect 30,000 additional troops operating in areas that American forces had either rarely entered or had not entered in a long period of time would have a positive impact. Consequently, military planners are cautious in their assessment and frequently pointed out to me that this had only begun to occur in early August. They preferred to wait to insure this was an enduring trend. Still at this writing those trends seem to have continued. For example, experts in Iraq report the nation had the lowest levels of violence during Ramadan in several years. Previously the Muslim holy month had witnessed a dramatic surge in attacks throughout the country.

Still, history teaches us that counterinsurgency warfare is far from a linear calculation. Robert Komer suggested in a celebrated study on counterinsurgency published by the RAND Corporation in 1972 that the United States had consistently underestimated the enemy's resilience and capacity to adapt and recover in Vietnam. 3 As a result, American analysts may wish to consider other factors that have contributed to the reduction in violence in Iraq.

Ethnic cleansing has occurred in major portions of Baghdad, particularly on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, resulting in the dislocation of thousands of Sunnis from their homes. Frequently, the "eviction notice" is a death threat in the form of a note wrapped around a bullet that reads "leave tomorrow and do not take anything".4 Overall the number of Iraqis who have fled their homes and are now internally displaced people (IDPs) quadrupled between February and November 2007.5 The Red Crescent Society reported that by November 2.3 million Iraqis had been displaced. Over 83% of these refugees were women or children under 12 and most lived in Baghdad. This number increased by 16 percent between August and September 2007.

JAM militia groups were instrumental in this process, so one could conclude that having killed or expelled a large portion of the Sunni population in the Iraqi capital, there is less need for attacks. In many of these neighborhoods the JAM now not only provides essential social services to the population, but also serves as the "real estate broker" that allocates former Sunni homes and apartments to Shia families. The Iraqi government has indicated that it will reverse this effort, but so far at least that has only been empty rhetoric. In any event, any subsequent analysis of progress in Iraq must consider the vital question of IDPs.

Even though the military situation in Iraq is both complex and ever changing, there is one factor that has been constant. The American soldiers and Marines I encountered still maintain high morale and a positive attitude, despite 125 degree heat and continuous combat. The majority of the soldiers I met are on at least their second tour in Iraq or Afghanistan and at least one quarter are on their third or more. Their service can only be a source of pride for us all, and they justly desire the sobriquet of the "next greatest generation".

The "Awakening"
Political change in Iraq has been at both the national level and "grassroots". It has been "top down" as well as "bottom up".

The "Awakening"—a term used by Iraqis that describes the rising up of Sunni tribesmen who have rejected any affiliation with AQI and sought to cooperate with particularly American forces—has been nothing short of stunning. It began in Anbar Province that had been the hotbed of the Sunnis' insurgency and was largely written off as lost by American planners only a year ago. It has now spread eastward to the Abu Ghraib and other neighborhoods in western Baghdad, and it is reported that over 23 tribes are actively cooperating with the Americans. The 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Infantry Divisions reported to me that they now had over 17,000 "concerned local citizens" (CLCs) or volunteers who had stepped forward to work with coalition forces in the Baghdad area alone. By November Multi-National Force Iraq reported over 70,000 CLCs from over 20 tribes throughout the country. Ethnically they include roughly 10% Shia, 10% Sunni/Shia tribesmen, and 80% Sunnis. They are supported by American troops and receive approximately $300 per month but are not directly provided weapons from coalition forces.

This bodes well in two ways. First, within Iraq it clearly reduces the operational flexibility of AQI and has forced these terrorists to move their efforts elsewhere. Secondly, it is heartening to see moderate Sunni Arabs reject any affiliation with al-Qaeda and extreme Islam as counter to the longterm well-being of themselves and their families. This has been a stunning change, particularly in Anbar province, which only a year ago was considered lost. What we may see happening is the Sunni tribes now choosing "social order" over "social apathy", which characterized their immediate reaction to the defeat of Iraq following the American invasion in 2003.

Still, the United States may be more excited about this phenomenon than is the Shia-dominated Iraqi national government. The Iraqi government only directed its Army and police to work with these groups in October 2007. Clearly many in the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Maliki are concerned that the United States is now supporting and assisting Sunni groups that had previously opposed the government, and might do so again in future once AQI is driven from Iraq. Obviously, President Bush sought to underscore the importance of this effort by his stop in Anbar in August 2007, enroute to the Asia Pacific summit.

But two other points are worthy of consideration. First, though Prime Minister Maliki met the President upon his arrival in Anbar, it was only Maliki's second trip to the province since becoming Prime Minister of Iraq. Second, the leading tribal sheikh that President Bush met during his visit was Sattar abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Salvation Council. Sadly, he was assassinated a few days after their meeting. This is not only a setback for efforts in Anbar Province, but may also suggest a change in tactics by AQI to focus now on the assassination of key local leaders as an effort to further intimidate the population.

It's Politics, Stupid…..It is clear to every senior leader in Iraq, both military and civilian, that overall success cannot be achieved without efforts by the national government to promote reconciliation among the various factions in the country. In September 2006 I met with Prime Minister Maliki in the Green Zone. At that time he told us the following things were imperative to stabilize the country:

1) a hydro-carbon law that described an equitable (and acceptable) distribution on the nation's wealth;

laws governing amnesty for those who had opposed the government;

3) de-Baathification laws for those who had held positions in the former government;

provincial elections;

5) efforts to control militia groups in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution; and

6) amendments to the constitution that had largely been promised the Sunni population to get them to cooperate in the political process.

Sadly, the Maliki government has so far made little to no progress in any of these areas. This was underscored in October 2007 when the Kurdish provincial parliament announced that it had concluded a deal to sell oil to an American company, thus undermining the draft hydrocarbon law that the national government had worked on for many months. Furthermore, the government is beset by internal discord amongst the cabinet so that over half of Maliki's ministers refuse to attend cabinet meetings.

These facts call into question whether the United States and the Maliki government have the same objectives for Iraq politically. The Bush administration has clearly described its desire for a democratic, homogenous country that is inclusive for all groups with a market economy. It now appears that the Maliki government wants to rule Iraq with a Shiite majority. In many ways the ongoing civil war in Iraq is about the political and economic future of the country. It now encompasses not only the struggle between Sunnis and Shias, but also includes infighting between rival Shiite groups such as the Badr Brigade and the JAM. So Now What…..Many in Iraq believe the Maliki government cannot or will not make the changes required to enhance the chances for reconciliation between the various factions. One senior officer commented to me, "for Maliki to push those issues would require him to seek a change in his political oxygen", as he depends on the support of the major Shia parties to stay in power. Consequently, many argue that Iraq needs a change in its national leadership. Unfortunately, the political makeup of the parliament is such that the result would probably be another Prime Minister dependant on various factions and hamstrung from a serious effort to seek reconciliation.

Other observers have suggested that the United States should push for a new round of parliamentary elections. This proposal is based on the assumption that the Sunni population would turn out in greater numbers than they did previously, and it would lead to a more moderate secular regime. This could be true, but would be an enormous gamble. Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, determined after the last elections that he needed to not only expand the power and influence of his militia army, but also work to improve his grassroots political efforts. As a result,an election could result in the Sadrists holding many more seats in parliament.

Finally, some believe now would be the time for a "strong leader" to step forward, establish control, improve security, and temporarily suspend the democratic process. No one, however, seems to know who that Iraqi leader might be, and it is clear that the Maliki government carefully watches which senior Iraqi military officers are placed in command. A military coup would also likely touch off an expansion of the ongoing civil war in the country. Even if it were successful, it would still suggest that the United States has been hoisted on our "democratic petard". We seem to forget that the U.S. endorsed elections and the formulation of a constitution in 2005 and 2006 as the best way to unify Iraq. It was also widely believed that the resulting democratic Iraq would serve as a stimulus throughout the region.

The Way Ahead….

Professors of international affairs often implicitly suggest to their students that for every global problem or crisis a solution exists. The true strategist must analyze carefully the various factors that contribute to the ongoing issue, and the result will be good policy. Sadly, the truth is that often times government leaders are confronted with trying to select the least bad of several really bad alternatives. This would seem to be the case in Iraq at this moment.

In a way the arguments of "stay the course" versus "get the hell outa here" (that are the current bumper stickers for the supporters and opponents of the President's "surge" policy) are a false dichotomy.

Militarily, the recommendations made by General Petraeus to reduce American forces to 130,000 (which was the level prior to January of this year) by the summer of 2008 may just be that "least bad option" for the moment. In reality, however, senior Army officials know that they must start reducing the force in Iraq in 2008, since we have not increased the size of the Army or Marine Corps appreciably since September 11th, 2001. Otherwise we will face the prospect of telling soldiers who are currently on 15-month tours in Iraq that their tour has been extended to 18 months or two years.

It is also likely that we will see additional refinements to the tactics and operations employed in the coming months. First, most military leaders believe that AQI has been dealt a serious blow in Iraq, between the "Awakening" and concentrated coalition attacks. Consequently, now may be the time to test the sincerity of Muqtada al-Sadr's announced suspension of attacks against coalition forces by concerted efforts against those JAM elements that are responsible for continued attacks against coalition forces and repression in many Baghdad neighborhoods. It also appears increasingly clear that al-Sadr may not have complete control over all JAM elements. The so-called "JAM special groups" may be the recipients of large amounts of Iraqi aid, be responsible for a majority of recent attacks, and have their own agenda that has criminal as well as political objectives.

Second, there can be no doubt that the Iraqi Army must begin to shoulder more of the security load. The Jones Report that was released in September 2007 described significant progress in the development of an effective Iraqi Army, but it was extremely critical of the Iraqi National Police, which it described as overwhelmingly sectarian. There is no doubt that this is true, and several senior leaders confided to me that they believe the National Police should be incorporated into the Army in order to reverse this process.

Finally, as the Iraqi Army assumes a greater role particularly in the cities, U.S. forces should lower their overall profile from the 56 Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that we now have to perhaps ten or fewer. It would also be appropriate for coalition forces to bolster the security of Iraqi borders.

When I talked to leaders about redeployment (and they are planning for it…) they told me they believe the best they could accomplish would be one brigade per month in order to safely redeploy the force and its equipment. Some critics have argued that the force could withdraw more quickly and have suggested that the majority of the equipment should be left behind. This ignores certain operational realities and would be ill-advised for several reasons.

First, the character of the force has changed significantly with the "surge". American forces are no longer solely operating from large bases, but are present in the neighborhoods continually. As a result there are 56 FOBs and over 200 Joint Security Sites (JSSs) and combat outposts throughout the country.

Second, the cost of the war in Iraq will easily top one trillion dollars by the time U.S. forces are fully withdrawn. Abandoning tanks, Strykers, Bradleys, and so on will force Congress to face an even greater bill to re-equip the Army for future contingencies.

Third, if the enduring photograph from the Vietnam War is a Huey helicopter perched on top of the U.S. Embassy as South Vietnamese scramble in vain to fly out, the United States hardly wants the final photo from Iraq to be a Shiite militiaman dancing on top of an abandoned M1 tank.

Finally, all the ongoing debate over U.S. force levels in Iraq focuses exclusively on ground forces. This ignores the fact that the Iraqi Air Force really does not exist. The U.S. Air Force and Navy will continue to control Iraqi airspace for many years to come. While this may be accomplished from bases outside Iraq or from aircraft carriers offshore, the United States can hardly afford to allow Iraqi airspace to be unprotected, since it separates Israel from Iran. Furthermore, the U.S. will maintain a significant naval presence in the Gulf as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels.

Still, Clausewitz remains correct. War is politics by other means. The surge was only intended to provide the Iraqi government "breathing space", or a window of opportunity to make important political changes. It is unclear at this moment what further incentives are available to the United States to get the current Iraqi government to do so. Should the Iraqi government find the willpower to begin a real effort towards reconciliation, current or future American administrations might benefit from two concerted discussions.

The first would be an internal American analysis of the longterm interests of the United States in the region and what level of military force is required/feasible. This should begin immediately in order for a revised policy to be in place by the summer of 2008 or at the conclusion of the "surge". Unfortunately, in the almost radioactive partisan world we live in here in America, that is very unlikely to occur.

The second discussion would be with the Iraqis (our "ally in the war on terrorism" according to President Bush) on how many American troops "they" would find acceptable on "their" territory. American leaders speak freely about Iraq being the next "South Korea", which would suggest a 50-year military presence. So far at least, no Iraqi leader has publicly endorsed this proposal. In the final analysis, America must also be willing to accept the fact that political progress in Iraq, if it occurs, will only be at a glacial pace.

Thus "victory" in Iraq will in the final analysis be accomplished primarily by Iraqis. David Galula observed that victory in a counterinsurgency struggle is not solely

…the destruction in a given area of the insurgent’s forces and his political organization. It is that, plus the permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population, isolation not enforced upon the population but maintained by and with the population.6

These facts and potential difficult choices that lie ahead may cause us to reexamine carefully another strategist from the past who knew a great deal about the Middle East. T.E. Lawrence successfully galvanized the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he observed,

"Better to let them do it imperfectly, than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short."

1 Michael Howard and Peter Paret, editors, On War by Carl von Clausewitz (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976).

2 David Galula, Counterinsurgency: Theory and Practice, Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 1964.

3 Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy does its thing: institutional constraints on U.S.-GVN performance in Vietnam, Washington: RAND Corporation, 1972 pp. v-xiii.

4 Alissa J. Rubin, "Shiite Refugees Feel Forsaken in Their Holy City", The New York Times, 19 October 2007, p. A1.

5 Amit R. Paley, "Number of Displaced Iraqis Has Soared, Aid Group Says", The Washington Post, 6 November 2007, A14.

6 Galula, Counterinsurgency: Theory and Practice.

You may also like

JUN 17, 2024 Podcast

Linguistics, Automated Systems, & the Power of AI, with Emily M. Bender

In this episode, guest host Dr. Kobi Leins & University of Washington’s Dr. Emily Bender discuss why language matters in the development of technological systems.

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation