In John’s post earlier today Jim, Foolish Literalist asked a question regarding the US Surge in Iraq, specifically whether if it wasn’t just the US paying off the Sunnis in Anbar. As someone who was assigned as the cultural advisor for a brigade combat team that was part of the Surge in 2008 (the second and final rotation of Surge brigades), I had a front row seat to what the Surge was and was not about. Jim is correct, but…
The US Surge in Iraq had the following components:
- A reversal in policy towards the Sunni tribes in Anbar that allowed a change in theater strategy so that US commanders could engage with the Sunni, and eventually some Shi’a, tribes involved in the Awakenings (Sawha).
- These engagements would leverage the Sawha and the tribes to create the Sons of Iraq program, where we paid Iraqis to serve as local security forces that were networked throughout each operational environment (OE).
- We Surged brigade combat teams (BCTs) into the city of Baghdad, as well as the agricultural areas surrounding the city of Baghdad in order to stop anti-Iraqi Government forces (al Qaeda/al Qaeda in Iraq, Jesh al Mehdi, etc). These are called qadas – the BCT I was assigned to was assigned first to Madai’an Qada, which was south and east of Baghdad and, by late 2008, also to Mahmudiya Qada, which is south and west of Baghdad.
- The Surged BCTs within the city of Baghdad were intended to restore order and normalcy after the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad in 2005 and 2006. The reality is that US forces in Baghdad did not so much as pacify the violence and stop the cleansing as stepped in after the cleansing had occurred, consolidated the Iraqi clearing into US forces holding. By doing so we basically blessed off on the results of the inter-sectarian cleansing and made it an irreversible fact on the ground and the de facto reality to this day in Baghdad. The Surged BCTs in the qadas were there to keep anti-Iraqi government forces from entering Baghdad to cause trouble.
- By 2008, as the first group of five surge BCTs was preparing to rotate home, and their replacements to rotate in, we began to more fully transition to working with the Iraqis to rebuild. Using counterinsurgency terminology we were moving from clearing and holding to holding and building.
- All of this was supposed to be done in a by, with, and through manner. Basically working with our Iraqi military, law enforcement, intelligence, governmental, community, and business partners. (This has worked far better in the fight against ISIS than it ever did prior to 2010. Some of this has to do with the Iraqis really wanting help this time, some of it is we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years.)
That is pretty much the reality of the Surge. But there’s a few additional caveats I want to make. The first is that we were not really doing counterinsurgency (COIN). Despite all the ink spilled and digits digitized between the COINTras and the COINDinistas from 2007 on, we were not doing COIN in Iraq! What we were doing was adapting concepts from FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency. With the exception of Special Forces and some personnel in joint, multinational patrol bases, US forces in Iraq were not living among the host country population. Sure, we took the real estate we thought made tactical sense, fortified it, built bases on it – from patrol bases (PBs) to combat outposts (COPs) to forward operating bases (FOBs) to camps, and then we would roll off them for missions and return to them to reside. This is not what FM 3-24 means by living among/with the host country populace. The Iraqis could not enter one of our bases without permission, without being screened.
We drove from place to place in heavily fortified vehicles because of the IED threat, dismounted armed and armored, and proceeded to do whatever business we had to do. I’m almost 100% convinced that the first patrol that I and two of my teammates went on through Jisr Diyala’s market in Spring 2008 is etched in the local memories as two security contractors (me and one of my teammates) and an Army patrol escorting a US senator or congressperson through the market (we still tease him about it 9 years later – we love you Larry!). The patrol leader in charge of our security, and properly wary of the bad guys looking to exploit our newness in theater and having improper knowledge, kept us moving through, which partially negated why I wanted to tour the market – to get an idea of how well stocked it was, where the goods were coming from, and who and how many locals were in the market. Technically we were following GEN Petreaus’s oft stated concept, adapted from MG Buford’s own cavalry directives during the Civil War, to move mounted, work dismounted. But it was only a technicality.
Finally, in regard to the US Surge in Iraq, the closest we got to actually doing counterinsurgency was trying to work by, with, and through the Iraqis. This covered everything from training Iraqi security forces to overseeing the Sons of Iraq programs to working with local leaders, elected and traditional tribal and religious leadership. Unfortunately, regardless of all the tactical successes from 2007 through 2009 we had no strategic success. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that a hallmark of a good COIN strategy, working by, with, and through the local population is that while you are working by with and through at the tactical (local) level you also have to do so at the theater strategic (national) level. The idea being that as you’re tactically building with the host country population you then pull that layer up to tether it to national government and attach the two. In Iraq, even when there was an effort to do this, the connection points always missed. This was the result of failures of the national command authority (Bush 43 Administration) in DC and their strategic priority of elections and a SOFA agreement, instead of reconciling the various Iraqi societal elements with each other, to their government, and their government to them. It also resulted from not listening to the Iraqis. Or listening, but not hearing. One of the things my teammates and I discovered after taking five months and doing in depth interviews with sheikhs, imams, and other local leaders, as well as more impromptu engagements with internally displaced Iraqis,* is that the Iraqis still had scores to settle with each other. This was also clear if one paid attention to the news reporting from Anbar and of officials from Maliki’s government between 2006 and 2009. The Iraqis were telling us that inter-sectarian violence was coming once we left. And when we did they proved that they weren’t just being hyperbolic.
I want to make a few, final remarks about counterinsurgency. Third party counterinsurgencies, which is what we’ve tried or approximated in Iraq and Afghanistan, are incredibly hard to do. Bordering on the almost impossible. Think back to the well known ones – the 117 year fight with the Moros in the Philippines, Malaya, the Japanese against the Dayeks in Borneo during WW II, Aden/Yemen, Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam (both the French and the US), and now Iraq and Afghanistan. How many victories are on that list? Just one: Malaya. And the British counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya was brutal. First party counterinsurgencies, such as the one the Nepalese fought, are much more likely to be successful. This is because both parties to that type of dispute live where they’re fighting. They both have a real, existential stake in where they are fighting. And, as a result, the preferred outcome of a counterinsurgency campaign – a negotiated settlement – is more likely to occur in a first party counterinsurgency like Nepal’s than a third party counterinsurgency like we’ve been pursuing.
There are also serious problems with FM 3-24. The historic example sections of the manual produced in 2006 is a mess. There was an attempt to fix it in the 2013-2014 revisions, but my understanding is that the inertia of staffing comments and revisions did them in.** The cultural section is also a bit of a mess and I don’t think it got any better in the revised document. But the biggest problem with all of this is the ahistoricity of the field manual. Despite referencing a number of historic insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, including confusing or conflating several terrorist campaigns as insurgencies, it seems to miss the forest for the trees. It fails to understand and state the specific context of various counterinsurgency approaches.
For instance, the discussion of the spreading ink spots that result from clearing, holding, building and ultimately linking an area to another that has been cleared, held, and built ignores the historical reality of the ink spot concept. Bernard Fall in his Theory of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency explains that the French developed the concept of the spreading ink spot in Algeria. The focus wasn’t to clear, hold, and build. Rather it was to take and hold the oases. Since everyone eventually had to come into the oases for water, this provided the French with the ability to make access to the water conditional on reconciling with French control and governance. Fall explains that the Vietnamese adaptation, the strategic hamlet, failed precisely because none of the Viet Cong had to come into the hamlets, so all the French did was fortify a border, inside of which the Viet Cong could move around with impunity, which they did. There were no oases to hold and connect in Vietnam, nor are there any in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria doesn’t need to come into any specific city. Similarly the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as ISIS-Khourisan and the Haqqani network. Instead they need to take and hold them as conquest, as part of a state building strategy, to extend their influence and control for their operations, or some combination of these objectives. This is a radically different context from what the spreading ink spot was developed to address.
What I think we’re seeing with the sparsely detailed announcement the President made last night is really Secretary Mattis and LTG McMaster trying to buy a little more time. Had LTG McMaster gotten his reported desire for 50,o00 more Soldiers it might have made a dent, but it also would depend on what we’re going to use them for and how long we’re going to keep those troops there. Basically Secretary Mattis and LTG McMaster are trying to mitigate and manage the slow motion loss we’ve been enduring in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years so it doesn’t turn into a rout. This isn’t just about optics or egos, there are no good military solutions in Afghanistan. There haven’t been over the past sixteen years and there aren’t going to be any popping up in the foreseeable future. However, if we can’t mitigate and manage the failures of strategy, despite the efficacy of tactics, then we have the potential of an actual localized ripple effect throughout the region. Where the problems within Afghanistan spread to Pakistan and India and Iran and some of the southern Stans. This would take a bad situation largely localized in Afghanistan and turn it into a regional mess with multiple, overlapping problem sets (India-Pakistan rivalry, Russian near abroad in the southern Stans issues, Iran feeling threatened by the failure of an American war, etc). Good and effective strategists recognize that there are often no good outcomes to the problems they face. As a result the strategic options they develop are intended to manage and mitigate these bad outcomes so that failure doesn’t become catastrophic and to buy time.
The last good suggestion we had for dealing with Afghanistan was Vice President Biden’s counter-terrorism strategy proposal from 2009. We would be far better off if President Obama had embraced that suggestion eight years ago.
* I apologize in advance for the lack of typesetting in my article that I’ve linked to. I sent a penultimate draft in to the editor while I was on temporary duty in an operational planning team. I never received any galley proofs to examine. And it appears they actually added commas so that many sentences have Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics, Kings College London, University of St. Andrews, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, and Trinity College Dublin commas!
** In 2009 I was asked to submit suggestions for improving the culture section of FM 3-24, which I submitted through my chain of command at the time. In 2013 I was asked by a colleague, who had worked on FM 3-24 in 2006, for suggestions he would submit for consideration in the revised manual. He has a PhD in military history and I recommended, and he concurred, that the history section/chapter needed to be fixed. My understanding is that his recommendations on this were ignored.