Understanding the Iraq Surge

By: Greg C. Reeson

“We finally got the troops there. Americans have got to understand, it takes a while to mobilize additional troops and move them from the United States to Iraq. We got them there, and now we’re beginning to move.”—President George W. Bush, Speech at the Naval War College, June 28, 2007.

With these words President Bush reminded the nation that the new security plan for Iraq, the so-called “surge,” was only now really getting underway. Unfortunately, when the discussion concerns Iraq, many Americans tune the President out, his words no longer carrying the weight they once did. But perhaps the words of the senior counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq could prove insightful, or even useful, for those longing for an understanding of what’s really going on in and around Baghdad. I’m not talking about General David Petraeus, the man charged with executing the current strategy. No, the guy I’m referring to is David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer and one of the world’s foremost theorists on counterinsurgency strategy.

In a posting last month on the Small Wars Journal Blog, Mr. Kilcullen laid out for readers what he called a “basic understanding” of what’s transpiring on the ground right now, from the perspective of the top guy advising Petraeus on counterinsurgency operations:

“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…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…here is a field perspective on current operations.”

Addressing those who are already calling the “surge” a failure, Kilcullen says:

“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.”

Shortly after that comment, on June 15th, U.S.-led forces began a series of offensive operations in Baghdad and the surrounding areas, the true beginning of the President’s “surge.” Kilcullen then describes in detail in the post how the new strategy will work:

“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.”

Currently, the counterinsurgency efforts Kilcullen describes are taking place not just in Baghdad, but throughout Iraq. Ongoing operations across the country continue to net insurgents, terrorists, and weapons that are perpetuating the ongoing violence and the offensives are producing an environment conducive to winning the support of the population. As Kilcullen says, “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….”

And keeping with classical counterinsurgency theory, Kilcullen makes it clear that the Iraqi population is the true target of the “surge”:

“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.”

While I’m all for forcing the enemy to react to us for a change, I fear that Mr. Kilcullen is placing too much stock in Iraqi security forces that have thus far shown little willingness to put national well-being ahead of tribal or sectarian loyalties. But then he has far more expertise in counterinsurgency operations than I do, and I for one am willing to defer to his knowledge, experience and on-the-ground sense of what’s really happening in Iraq.

Kilcullen also gives readers a sense of what’s expected of the Iraqi government, and a realistic outlook for what lies ahead:

“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.”

While I don’t think there’s any doubt about the ability of American troops to give Iraqis some breathing space, there are serious doubts about the ability of al-Maliki’s government to do what is necessary to capitalize on our investment of additional American lives. Will the Iraqis, after more than four years of brutal fighting, finally put aside their differences and work together for a greater Iraq? I don’t know, and so far the signs have not been encouraging.

But that doesn’t mean we should just throw our hands in the air and walk away from the mess that has been created. The consequences of such an action are too severe, and too frightening, for us and for the rest of the world. Instead, we should stop the pointless partisan bickering and listen to experts like David Kilcullen. We have some very intelligent people in place in Iraq, and they know their business. Now is the time to let them do what they do best.

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