Friday, June 29, 2007

Understanding the Surge, Pt. 2

Much has been written about "the surge" in US troops that began these past few months. Pundits on both sides weigh in arguing that the surge is or isn't working. Investor's Business Daily provides a nice example of the former position, arguing that most domestic media are not reporting the successes in Iraq:

This year, for instance, the U.S. has killed roughly 650 terrorists a month, according to published reports and Defense Department estimates. That compares with about 37 U.S. combat deaths per month, through May.

The ratio, thus, is about 18 terrorists killed in combat for every allied soldier killed. And that doesn't include the current offensive in Diayala Province, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, which dispatched 159 enemy combatants in just the first five days.

Since the war began, we've lost about 70 troops a month. This compares with 526 a month in Vietnam, more than 900 a month in Korea and 6,639 a month during World War II.

In other words, by any meaningful metric employed, the U.S. is winning this war. But it will never be reported that way.

On the other position, for example, is my co-columnist at The Internationalist, Una Hardester who argues that:

The “surge” is not working. Violence is going up, not down. Every day brings news of another bomb in a marketplace, another dozen bodies found. Attacks on places of worship continue, and sectarian death squads roam the streets of Iraq’s cities, killing their victims with medieval brutality and instilling terror in the civilian population.
Neither argument, nor the larger arguments for which each is a proxy, is sustainable and largely for the same reasons: Both lack any theoretical framework in which to assess the surge and rely only on casualties as their critical metric.

It is clearly wrong to look at enemy body counts, as does IBD, and conclude that the US is winning. Just as that was not the way to judge progress and success in Vietnam, it is not sufficient in Iraq today. This is not a traditional war; what matters is not how many of the enemy our forces kill, but who controls the political situation on the ground, and that can't be measured with body counts.

Nor can one point to the recurring violence against either Iraqi civilians or US troops as evidence of the surge's failure. It is simply to easy too kill large numbers of civilians. True, the violence might be a symptom of a larger problem that indicates that surge isn't working (more on this later), but the numbers don't provide that in and of themselves.

So, how to judge the surge? Two of our most esteemed military analysts discussed this issue this week before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (and a former professor of mine at Georgetown) and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute testified on how to judge the surge.

In his testimony, Cordesman focused on the connection between the tactical and strategic goals of the surge, arguing that "it is all too clear that the US, its Coalition allies, and the Iraqi government cannot win any form of security and stability if insurgent movements can keep large areas of Iraq unstable and constantly provoke Iraq’s civil conflicts." While the current surge may be working tactically, Cordesman warns that "there are serious serious issues regarding its strategic value," largely because, as he sees it, there's not as much progress on the strategic front: "none of this matters unless the Iraqis can move towards political conciliation – or at least a relatively stable form of coexistence."

What needs to happen? According to Cordesman, "giving tactical victories lasting meaning requires the following additional elements:"

  1. Iraqi Army forces must begin to take over meaning operations without US embeds and US partner units, and dependence on US reinforcement and support. There does seem to be increasing Iraqi Army capability here, but Coalition reporting does not provide a meaningful picture of progress – merely grossly inflated figures on areas of responsibility and total numbers of battalions in the lead.

  1. Iraqi police and local security forces must establishing a lasting security presence in the areas where tactical victories are won, and do so credibly in ways that give ordinary Iraqis security. There can be no “win” without “hold.” So far, the US has made claim after claim to have secured cities after winning tactical battles to control them, and has never actually established lasting security in even one of them. The most critical problem has been the lack of active, combat-capable police, without corruption and sectarian and ethnic ties. Falluja and Samara are only the most obvious cases of such failures.

Coalition reporting so far talks about the number of police posts established or with US embeds. It has not said a word about the ability provide lasting security using Iraqi police in parts of Baghdad or anywhere else. It also has not talked about the ability to support police efforts with an effective local criminal justice and court system or to screen detainees in ways that do not breed local hostility.

The Coalition also needs to start talking about who actually does provide local security, and stop treating militias, local security forces, and police hired locally without Coalition training, as if it was always hostile or did not exist. In the real world, these forces and not the “trained and equipped” police are the real local security force in most of Iraq. There has to be a credible plan to use, absorb, or contain them.

  1. The Iraqi government must follow-up security with a meaningful presence and by providing steady improvements in services. “Winning hearts and minds” doesn’t come from public information campaigns and propaganda. It comes from providing real security for ordinary Iraqis, and showing the government cares, is present, and can steadily improve services. Once again, promise after promise has been made in past campaigns, and the central government has not yet shown it can follow up in even a single case. If this is happening even in the “secured” areas of Baghdad, no one has yet said so. How it can happen in Diyala or other high threat areas is even unclear.

  1. There must also be effective local government. The liberation of various areas often has seen the emergence of local leaders willing to work with the Coalition – although often with little faith in, or ties to, the central government. In most cases, however, they have become targets, and the effort has broken down in local faction disputes or because of a lack of effective government support and problems in Coalition civil affairs efforts. Once again, if there is progress in creating stable, survivable, effective local government; none of the details are clear.

  1. There has to be economic aid and progress. Iraqis have to give priority to physical security and key services, but unemployment , underemployment, and shut or failed businesses affect some 60% or more of Iraqis nationally and the figures are even higher in high threat and combat areas. The strategy President Bush advanced in January 2007 advanced proposals for accomplishing such an effort in Baghdad. Once again, there has been no meaningful Coalition reporting on broad progress in such efforts in the secured areas of Baghdad, and past promises such aid would be provided in “liberated” cities like Samara and Falluja were not kept.

  1. There must be an end to sectarian and ethnic cleansing and displacement. There is no near and perhaps midterm answer to suicide bombings and atrocities, to attacks on sacred shrines and critical facilities. No mix of security forces can stop even small cadres of extremists from occasional successes. No tactical victory has meaning, however, unless Iraqis can be secure in neighborhoods and areas where they are in the minority, and can reach across ethnic and sectarian lines and barriers in ordinary life.

One of the greatest single failures of the current approach to fighting in Iraq is that it does not track sectarian and ethnic separation and displacement and make ending this on a local and national level at least as important as halting major attacks and killings. It may take years to make Iraqis secure from Islamist extremists and the worst elements of Shi’ite gangs and militias. There can be no meaningful tactical success, however, unless Iraqis can be safe from their own neighbors and begin to lead ordinary lives in their own neighborhoods.

Regardless, Cordesman warns that it is far too early to judge the surge: "both the media and outside analysts need to focus far more on the full range of actions it takes to win, and do so with patience and objectivity. No strategy or campaign could possibly achieve significant success in all of these elements by this fall, or even ensure a successful start." Furthermore, "The odds are bad enough given the problems in Iraq; they are hopeless if the political environment in the US offers no hope of the necessary time and bipartisanship."

Kagan makes a similar argument, claiming that while "the early signs are positive in a number of respects, difficulties and challenges clearly remain. But it is too soon to evaluate the outcome of an operation that is just moving into the first of several phases intended to produce significant positive change in the situation overall." Kagan focuses on the surge itself, describing its aims and goals:

This new approach focuses on establishing security in Baghdad and its immediate environs as the prerequisite for political progress. It recognizes that American forces must be in the lead in many (but not all) areas, and that they will have to remain in areas that have been cleared for some time in order to ensure that security becomes permanent. The aim of the security strategy is to buy space and time for the political process in Iraq to work, and for the Iraqi Security Forces to mature and grow to the point where they can maintain the dramatically improved security situation our forces will have helped them to establish.


The purpose [of the first phase] was instead to establish positions within those key areas and to develop both intelligence about the enemy and trust relationships with the local communities that would make possible decisive clear-and-hold operations subsequently. During this phase of the operation, additional Iraqi Security Forces deployed to Baghdad in accord with a plan developed jointly by the U.S. and Iraqi military commands.


The purpose of [the second phase] operation—Phantom Thunder—is to disrupt terrorist and militia networks and bases outside of Baghdad that have been feeding the violence within the city. Most of the car bomb and suicide bomb networks that have been supporting the al Qaeda surge since January are based in these belt areas, and American commanders have rightly recognized that they cannot establish stable security in the capital without disrupting these networks and their bases.

But even this operation—the largest coordinated combat operation the U.S. has undertaken since the invasion in 2003—is not the decisive phase of the current strategy. It is an operation designed to set the preconditions for a successful clear-and-hold operation that will probably begin in late July or early August within Baghdad itself. That is the operation that is designed to bring security to Iraq’s capital in a lasting way that will create the space for political progress that we all desire.

The U.S. has not undertaken a multi-phased operation on such a large scale since 2003, and it is not surprising therefore that many commentators have become confused about how to evaluate what is going on and how to report it. Sectarian deaths in Baghdad dropped significantly as soon as the new strategy was announced in January, and remain at less than half their former levels. Spectacular attacks rose as al Qaeda conducted a counter-surge of its own, but have recently begun falling again. Violence is down tremendously in Anbar province, where the Sunni tribes have turned against al Qaeda and are actively cooperating with U.S. forces for the first time. This process has spread from Anbar into Babil, Salah-ad-Din, and even Diyala provinces, and echoes of it have even spread into one of the worst neighborhoods in BaghdadAmeriyah, formerly an al Qaeda stronghold. Violence has risen naturally in areas that the enemy had long controlled but in which U.S. forces are now actively fighting for the first time in many years, and the downward spiral in Diyala that began in mid-2006 continued (which is not surprising, since the Baghdad Security Plan does not aim to establish security in Diyala).


To say that the current plan has failed is simply incorrect. It might fail, of course, as any military/political plan might fail. Indications on the military side strongly suggest that success—in the form of dramatically reduced violence by the end of this year—is quite likely. Indications on the political side are more mixed, but are also less meaningful at this early stage before security has been established.

Both analysts see that the surge is producing tactical results. The real question is whether the tactical successes can be connected to the larger strategic victory. It's clearly far to early to determine whether the strategic picture is coming together, but the bits and pieces we do see are mixed. What is clear is that more time is needed to let the surge continue to improve security around the country.

The US is an impatient country. We like our results quick and clearly decisive, like the invasion of Iraq. But the rebuilding of the country will not be like that at all. But rash and uninformed judgments from either side of the argument do not help matters. We shouldn't put blind faith in the Bush Administration to get it right. Hardly. But nor should we simply assume things are doomed to fail. We need to sit back and think carefully about what constitutes success, and then determine whether US military and political operations are creating those conditions. And, above all, we need to be patient.

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