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.