The US Surge in Iraq and Other Thoughts on Counterinsurgency

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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War Pigheadedness

“Any forces that would impose their will on other nations will certainly face defeat.”

I just read President Carrot top’s speech from last night, and the usual suspects are, predictably, participating in the usual “presidential pivot” mutual masturbation society after party:

Ugh. To the speech. What the fuck does this mean:

But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history. As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically in the following ways.

A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options.

We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.

I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome. Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.

Did I miss Bush and Obama announcing our attacks from a podium or something? And learning from history? How in the fuck is sending in a paltry force of 4k troops and expecting anything different learning from history. A refresher- Bush’s “surge” in Iraq was about 20k troops, but it may have amounted to more in theater briefly because they also extended the tour for folks already there. Trump is sending 4k more.

And just what does 4k troops mean?

Basically, nothing. Whenever you hear of troop numbers, you need to understand that sending 4,000 more soldiers somewhere does not mean you are sending 4,000 more trigger pullers. The vast majority of these 4,000 soldiers will be logo toads dealing with supply and logistics and maintenance and signals and what not. This probably amounts to about 800 actual combat troops being sent there. That’s basically a batallion. They’ll be able to do what- build another firebase? And you can’t have all of them on patrol at once, because soldiers need sleep and rest, they need to pull security, etc.

Again, I have not been in the military for almost twenty years, so I am not an expert and my numbers may be wrong, but from where I sit, this isn’t a fucking plan. It’s a blood sacrifice.

If the most abrasive, arrogant, and imperious President we have ever known thinks all he can get is political support for 4k more troops, it’s game over, man. I heard McMaster pushed for 50k more troops and was rejected, and that wouldn’t have been enough.

This is bullshit. After sixteen years, the American people have moved on. We have lost the will to fight in Afghanistan, as we should have. It’s just a waste of blood and money. All we are doing now is feeding the war pig. Stop sending Americans off to slaughter for no reason. Bring home the troops now.



Late Night Roundup: Statler, Waldorf & Groucho Review Trump’s “Afghanistan” Speech


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“Let’s Get This Over With” edition:


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Afghanistan Address Spoilers

Even if you don’t use Twitter, you’ve probably heard about the amazing predictive powers of Trump’s Twitter archive. For every stupid action Trump takes as president (and there are no other kind), there is an equal and opposite reaction tweet from the Trump Twitter archive. The many Trump tweets criticizing President Obama for golfing or vacationing are just the most obvious examples.

Tonight, Trump will announce a “new” strategy in Afghanistan. If the Nostradumbass principle holds true, Trump will follow the well-worn path of pouring yet more billions into the pockets of kleptocrats, war lords and contractors. Dan Eggen (@daneggenwpost) at the Washington Post pulled up some tweets from the archive:

Dickish backseat driving aside, these tweets express a fundamental break with both the Bush 2 and Obama administrations’ approach to Afghanistan. And while it’s likely that only a handful of certified idiots would have voted for Trump specifically to change those policies, he’s about to expose them for the suckers they are: Tonight, Trump will find a way to walk that shit back while making it all about himself.

Expect much praise for the sagacity of the generals and much more for the wisdom of Trump himself in tonight’s address, with emphasis on how past presidents were total losers but Trump will win because he’s a winner. It will, as usual, be a tapestry of lies. The only winners will be the kleptocrats, war lords and mercenaries, who have been winning all along.



Meanwhile in Ukraine…

It appears that Putin’s little green men are acting up in his other pet project.

It is going to be a long night in Charlottesville – things will get worse after dark. But it is also looking to be a long night in Ukraine.



Open Thread: At the Trump White House, It’s Always Worse Than You Expected…

Whoever invented the game of RISK has a lot to answer for…


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Interviewed By a Warmonger!

As in LTG McMaster was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt for his Saturday AM MSNBC show. I’m going to embed the videos, but you have to actually read the transcript that Hewitt provided on his website, read the words on the page, to really see just how much Hewitt wants the US to attack the DPRK. Or, failing that, Iran. And how gleefully unhinged he is by the idea of the US getting involved in a third and/or fourth war in under 20 years. The transcript follows the videos. Pay close attention to LTG McMaster’s answers if you want to see what the current national security strategy and policy thinking is.

The transcript is after the jump.

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