How The Surge Worked

By Peter Mansoor
Sunday, August 10, 2008

Given the divisive debate over the Iraq war, perhaps it was inevitable that the accomplishments of the recently concluded "surge" would become shrouded in the fog of 30-second sound bites. Too often we hear that the dramatic security improvement in Iraq is due not to the surge but to other, unrelated factors and that the positive developments of the past 18 months have been merely a coincidence.

To realize how misleading these assertions are, one must understand that the "surge" was more than an infusion of reinforcements into Iraq. Of greater importance was the change in the way U.S. forces were employed starting in February 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus ordered them to position themselves with Iraqi forces out in neighborhoods. This repositioning was based on newly published counterinsurgency doctrine that emphasized the protection of the population and recognized that the only way to secure people is to live among them.

To be sure, some units conducted effective counterinsurgency operations before the surge, including Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tall Afar in 2005 and Col. Sean MacFarland's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, in Ramadi in 2006. More generally, however, the coalition approach before 2007 was focused on rapidly shifting security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. As sectarian violence spiraled out of control, it became increasingly evident that Iraqi forces were unable to prevent its spread. By the fall of 2006, it was clear that our strategy was failing, an assessment courageously stated by Gen. George Casey and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in their year-end review of the Joint Campaign Plan.

The arrival of additional U.S. forces signaled renewed resolve. Sunni tribal leaders, having glimpsed the dismal future in store for their people under a regime controlled by al-Qaeda in Iraq and fearful of abandonment, were ready to throw in their lot with the coalition. The surge did not create the first of the tribal "awakenings," but it was the catalyst for their expansion and eventual success. The tribal revolt took off after the arrival of reinforcements and as U.S. and Iraqi units fought to make the Iraqi people secure.

Over time, in areas where there were insufficient forces to provide security, U.S. commanders extended contracts to Sunni (and some Shiite) tribes that volunteered to stand up against al-Qaeda in Iraq. These payments ensured that tribesmen could feed their families until the economy recovered and services improved. Payments generally followed the commencement of tribal rebellions and were not, as some claim, their cause.

As U.S. units established smaller outposts and destroyed al-Qaeda havens, the area under Iraqi and coalition control expanded. Security improved dramatically after the last surge units arrived and the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, under Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commenced a relentless series of operations to drive insurgents out of their long-held sanctuaries.

Improved security led to greater Iraqi confidence and lessened the need for, and acceptance of, Shiite militias that for too long held sway in many neighborhoods. When the Mahdi Army instigated a gun battle in Karbala last August that forced the cancellation of a major Shiite religious observance, the resulting public pressure compelled Moqtada al-Sadr to declare a unilateral cease-fire. Without the improved security conditions created by the surge, this cease-fire would not have been declared; nor could it have been observed, because the militia would still have been needed to protect Shiite communities from terrorist attacks.

The increase in U.S. forces, moreover, was dwarfed by the concurrent expansion of Iraqi forces by more than 140,000 troops. Over time, Iraqi units grew more capable and increasingly took the lead in providing security, backed by coalition advisers, ground forces, intelligence and air power. Operations this spring in Basra, Baghdad, Mosul and elsewhere -- though not always smooth -- have demonstrated the growing effectiveness of the Iraqi army. Without the change in strategy and additional forces provided by the surge, the effort to improve the capabilities of Iraqi forces would have died stillborn, swallowed by the sectarian violence that was ripping Iraq apart by the end of 2006.

The Iraq war is not over, but our war effort is on a firmer foundation. In the end, the Iraqis, appropriately, will determine their future. The surge has created the space and time for the competition for power and resources in Iraq to play out in the political realm, with words instead of bombs. Success is not guaranteed, but such an outcome would be a fitting tribute to the sacrifices of the men and women of Multi-National Force-Iraq and their ongoing efforts, along with their Iraqi partners, to turn around a war that was nearly lost less than two years ago.

The writer served as Gen. David Petraeus's executive officer in Iraq from February 2007 to May 2008. He holds the Gen. Raymond Mason Chair of Military History at Ohio State University and is the author of the forthcoming book "Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq."

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