September 1, 2010  

The spark, oxygen and fuel

What made the Iraq surge work

In a nationally televised broadcast Jan. 10, 2007, President George W. Bush made a stark admission to a problem that had become painfully evident: “It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.” With this declaration, the wheels were set in motion to deploy five combat brigades to Iraq for what would become known simply as “the surge.” Though highly controversial at the time, it became clear by the end of 2007 that the surge had succeeded in dramatically reducing both civilian violence and U.S. military casualties. What is more difficult to divine, however, are the reasons for that success.

The popular narrative that has emerged in the three years since has been that the effort succeeded because:

• Then-Iraq commander Army Gen. David Petraeus implemented his FM 3-24 counterinsurgency manual, which taught combat soldiers how to properly conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

• U.S. troops moved off the large consolidated forward operating bases and out into the local neighborhoods to live with the people.

• Petraeus “paid off” insurgents to remove them from the battlefield.

• Once the people saw us living among them, they came to realize that their future lay with the U.S.-supported Iraq government — not with terrorists — and they turned against al-Qaida.

While there is an element of truth to all four points, they obfuscate the complexity of the issues and ignore entire categories of crucial factors.

In a letter Petraeus wrote to the troops on taking command in Iraq on Feb. 10, 2007, he explained how he intended to accomplish the president’s orders: “Our task is crucial. Security is essential for Iraq to build its future. Only with security can the Iraqi government come to grips with the tough issues it confronts and develop the capacity to serve its citizens. … Together with our Iraqi partners, we must defeat those who oppose the new Iraq. … In the end, Iraqis will decide the outcome of this struggle. Our task is to help them gain the time they need to save their country. To do that, many of us will live and fight alongside them.”

Translating those goals into success on the bloody-boot battlefield, however, would prove remarkably difficult. The security environment in Iraq at that time was probably the most complex, violent and seemingly intractable set of problems facing the U.S. military since Vietnam. Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was a member of the Council of Colonels on Iraq for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in late 2006, said of the fight in Baghdad, “We concluded that the conflict in Iraq had evolved beyond the current strategy and that the current strategy was actually in effect a rush to failure.” He based this assessment on the fact that “we were accelerating a transition to an Iraqi government that not only lacked the capacity, but also lacked the willingness to do what was necessary to provide basic services on a nonsectarian basis.”

Those views were not unique to American observers. The Sunni population was painfully aware that the Iraqi government was engaged in this type of behavior. Sunnis viewed the government’s actions as an existential threat, and this perception, along with a few other key factors, led them to engage in violence against the government.

A former al-Qaida leader named Mullah Nathem Jabouri, who is now a religious scholar and a political analyst doing commentary on Arab media, told me that most Sunnis did not intend to fight as insurgents at the beginning. “When the Americans invaded Iraq, there weren’t armed groups ready to fight, especially among the Sunnis,” he said. “Mujahedeen groups were small, and while the loyalists to Saddam were trying to rally people, they didn’t have much influence. The idea of resistance amongst the Sunnis didn’t really come until they started feeling the weight of a sectarian government supported by Iran.”

The majority of the Sunnis were in a “wait and see” mode as to what the U.S. would do. They began hearing rumors that the Americans not only wanted to de-Baathify Iraq, but to de-Sunnify it. Al-Qaida was exploiting these fears and spreading and intensifying the rumors. Though de-Sunnifying Iraq was never seriously considered by American policymakers, it didn’t matter because the Sunnis perceived it to be the case.

But the unity of effort between the Sunni Iraqis and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) would be short lived. Not long after these Sunni allies joined forces, al-Qaida leaders began to make a series of miscalculations that would later prove to be their undoing because, ironically, they helped to create the very conditions necessary for Petraeus’ strategy to succeed against them.

Although al-Qaida is ostensibly a Sunni Muslim organization, it is stridently religious in orientation, while the Iraqi Sunnis are more nationalistic. Al-Qaida leaders believed themselves to be superior to the “less pure” Iraqi Sunnis and as such believed the Iraqis owed them allegiance and submission. The Iraqis, meanwhile, began to privately grouse that al-Qaida came to Iraq to liberate it not from the Americans, but from the Iraqis.

As AQI leaders began making more intrusive demands on the Iraqis, many initially demurred and refused to comply. At first, al-Qaida tried to intimidate the Iraqis into following its orders, but as time passed, it moved to more physically coercive measures. Eventually, al-Qaida used outright brutality to force Iraqi Sunnis to do its bidding.

In 2006 the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, was then-Col. Sean MacFarland. He deployed his unit to Ramadi in Anbar province in June 2006 and began conducting COIN operations almost immediately. In a recent interview, now-Brig. Gen. MacFarland explained to me that when his unit first arrived in Ramadi, it began conducting some of the same types of COIN operations that had proven successful in Tal Afar, but with far more modest results. Al-Qaida was the dominant force in Ramadi as the civil government had all but ceased to exist. After several months of fighting, however, a seemingly small event occurred upon which arguably the success of Petraeus’ surge strategy would later hinge.

On Sept. 9, 2006, MacFarland met with a midlevel Iraqi sheik named Abdul Sattar Abu Risha at a council meeting. Sattar told MacFarland that if the U.S. would support him, he would rid Ramadi of al-Qaida. MacFarland decided to take the risk of working with the Iraqi leader — very much an unknown quantity at this point. Once Sattar and his men began operating in Ramadi, MacFarland said it had an immediate impact.

“It was like the difference between night and day. You see, it was an intelligence-driven war,” he said. “Once we got the people on our side, they provided us intel on who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. Often the tribes drove the enemy out by themselves because the terrorists could no longer hide in plain sight. Once a tribe flipped, overnight the security situation improved dramatically.” It was like opening the floodgates.

According to two Sunni Arab leaders, supporting the American military operation against AQI at that time was based on the fact that the Sunnis’ hatred of al-Qaida had finally eclipsed their hatred of America. Retired Maj. Gen. Najim Jabouri, the mayor of Tal Afar in 2005, told me that the Sunnis in 2006 Ramadi would have “worked with the devil” to get rid of al-Qaida.

“It wasn’t just that al-Qaida was stupid; they were,” Petraeus said. “It was that that we exploited their behavior with a very carefully targeted IO [information operations] plan. We hung three labels around their necks like millstones. One was their extremist ideology, which didn’t play well in predominantly secular Sunni sections of Iraq; the second was their indiscriminate acts of violence; and the third was the oppressive practices they forced on the Sunnis, actions like forced marriages, cutting off fingers for minor infractions, etc. We amplified their atrocities and broadcast them and saturated the media throughout Baghdad using TV, radio, Internet, billboards, you name it.”

MacFarland says the Iraqi people were a critical part of the turnaround: “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause. Without the intel provided by the awakening groups, our job would have been vastly more difficult.

“We could have gone into an area, and over time cleared it out and slowly but surely taken control. But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

But it was also essential to have American forces in place. “Make no mistake, there would have been no Anbar awakening without the U.S. forces. It’s like asking, ‘Which element is the most important component in making an engine run: the spark, oxygen or fuel?’ The answer is ‘all three.’ You can debate all day long over which is the most crucial, but without all three, nothing happens. It was like that in Anbar. Al-Qaida threats and atrocities were the spark, we provided the oxygen (or environment) to make it happen, but without the fuel provided by the various awakening groups, we would not have achieved anything lasting or widespread,” MacFarland said.

Former commander of U.S. Central Command, retired Adm. William Fallon, said that the demonstrated resolve of the U.S. to deploy the surge forces and our willingness to place tactical units directly into the neighborhoods were crucial to the overall success. “In the days leading up to the decision to surge, many in Iraq thought we were just looking for the quickest exit, to bail out. The Sunnis believed that if we bailed out, they would be at the mercy of AQI. When we instead signaled our increasing resolve to win, the Sunnis had motivation to work with us.”


As news of success in Anbar spread through the country during the first few months of 2007, Sunnis in Baghdad began to court Sheik Sattar in an effort to get him to use his influence with the Americans to bring a similar effort there. Petraeus said that one of the first trips outside of Baghdad he took in February 2007 was to Anbar to see what MacFarland’s Ready 1st Brigade had done with Sattar and the awakening movement. “From the first day I was on the ground, I began looking for ways to conduct some form of reconciliation because I had seen it work when I was commanding the 101st Airborne in Mosul. I knew what the potential was, but needed to find the right vehicle.”

The pointer came in the Amiriyah district of western Baghdad. 1st Squadron, 5th U.S. Cavalry, commanded by then-Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, was engaged in some of the most brutal, hellish fighting of any American unit in Baghdad. On May 29, 2007, Kuehl was approached by an Iraqi man named Abu Abed who presented him with an offer to clear al-Qaida out of certain areas of Amiriyah with the American’s help similar to what Sattar had done in Anbar. When Petraeus heard about the effort, he seized on it and encouraged 1-5 Cav to expand the operation. “As soon as we saw what was working, I directed the rest of our units to try to replicate it, recognizing that the dynamics were different in each area. In the late spring and throughout the summer, we got the breakthrough in Amiriyah, then another in Ghazaliyah, and then in other places in Baghdad.”

Army Col. Gian Gentile, director of the Military History Program at West Point and in 2006 a squadron commander in Baghdad, emphasized the symbiotic nature of the success of the surge. In a recent e-mail message, he wrote, “The surge did play an important role, but not particularly in terms of ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Iraqi citizens. It did, however, play a valuable role in the tactical application of military force in that the extra brigades under the superior tactical generalship of [Army] Gen. [Raymond] Odierno helped to reduce the irreconcilable opponents like al-Qaida much more quickly. But that reduction could have only taken place with the human intelligence provided by the awakening and later the Sons of Iraq. Without it 20 more brigades would not have stemmed the tide of violence.”

Four key points emerge from this analysis.

1. Living among the people works, but it may seem counterintuitive. Petraeus explained why it was necessary to move troops into neighborhoods in Baghdad: “It wasn’t enough to send patrols through the area. You had to live there to provide security to the people and to give them the confidence to talk to our troopers and, ultimately, to oppose the extremists. We explicitly recognized that the human terrain was the ‘decisive terrain,’ and living with them was a logical extension of that recognition.”

However, having U.S. troops living in their cities was the last thing the people wanted. Anbar is largely a homogeneous province where Sunnis did not want to see a U.S. troop presence in the cities. Even within the confines of the same COIN fight, the U.S. had to employ seemingly contradictory concepts in different cities to accomplish the same ends. In truth, there is no contradiction at all; the commander must employ the solution that best reflects the conditions in his local area of operations.

2. Whatever it takes, gain the support of the people. The primary objective must be to do whatever is necessary to detach the people from supporting the insurgency, even if they never view us in saintly terms.

Petraeus underscored this truth in Iraq when he said, “You had to re-establish incentives for the people to be willing to work with the government. That was my world, and one about which we’d learned from the early days after liberation in 2003. If you could get the people to reject al-Qaida and their philosophy, that would probably be enough to get them to work with us.”

Notice he said nothing about requiring them to consider us their best friends — only that his objective was to get the people to reject AQI in order to detach the insurgents from their support. In Tal Afar in 2005, U.S. forces were successful in gaining the trust, confidence and admiration of the people, while also separating them from insurgents; in Ramadi, many of the people continued to hate us. But, as MacFarland explained, while the Sunnis didn’t really want us there, they ultimately “recognized it was absolutely necessary,” which allowed his efforts to reach the minimal threshold necessary to convince the Sunnis to detach themselves from supporting AQI.

3. You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency — but you’d better be ready, willing and able to fight. In the early days of the insurgency, the U.S. military relied too heavily on kinetic operations while placing insufficient attention on winning hearts and minds. We must be careful that in the interest of correcting past mistakes, we do not completely reverse this imbalance. The key to an insurgency is convincing the people to cease supporting the insurgents, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there is an enemy out there who is willing to steal, kill and destroy to attain his objectives, and we must always be prepared to return the favor.

4. Time, resources and competing requirements, including domestic political realities, make winning counterinsurgency fights extremely hard for the U.S. The clock is always ticking. In the Iraq surge, the timings worked to our advantage. Had al-Qaida not worked at cross-purposes with what should have been their natural Sunni allies, there would have been little reason for the Sunnis to “awaken” and work with the coalition forces. When Petraeus went before Congress on Sept. 10. 2007, to report on the status of the surge, he was armed with three months of demonstrated reductions in both Iraq-on-Iraq violence and a dropping U.S. casualty rate. He could point to concrete reasons for having an optimistic view of the tactical situation and could logically explain why there was reason for genuine hopefulness over the coming months. Time proved him right, and every month of declining violence thereafter quieted down political opposition to the surge. Absent that awakening, and without reductions in violence to trumpet, public and political support for the war might have reached a tipping point for an immediate withdrawal.

It’s not hard to see that these findings have significant ramifications to our effort in Afghanistan. In the future, we may run into a situation where, despite our best efforts, the conditions necessary for victory might be beyond our ability to independently produce at an acceptable cost and within the time available. We must remain vigilant to avoid the hubris that suggests we can always win, everywhere, irrespective of the associated circumstances. AFJ

In the October AFJ, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis will assess the chances for success of the Afghanistan surge.

LT. COL. DANIEL L. DAVIS is an Army officer who fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and served in Afghanistan in 2005 and in Iraq in 2009. He is stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., and will deploy to Afghanistan in November. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.