Re-Examining the Surge in Iraq


On January 11, 2007 President Bush announced in a nationally televised address a shift in policy for the war in Iraq.  He would augment the troops in Iraq with 20,000 extra troops.  These troops were assigned to provide security in the countryside creating the space necessary for positive political development.   Counter-Insurgency (COIN) tactics would now be adopted, aimed at wining the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.   Along with the new strategy came changes up and down the military and political leadership, the most important of which were General Petraeus—himself an architect of COIN—as head of military forces and Ryan Crocker as the new American ambassador.  Three years after the announcement of the surge, violence in Iraq has fallen significantly, American combat operations have ended, and the Iraqis are well on their way to establishing a new coalition government.

  • Conventional wisdom says that the surge was clearly a resounding success, but in this case conventional wisdom is, if not entirely wrong, certainly missing the bigger picture.  Policymakers would do well to heed the “lessons of Iraq” with great care when developing Afghan strategy.
  • The difficulty in assessing the true impact of the surge lies in the old statistical dictum: “correlation does not equal causation”.  Clearly, the timing of the surge correlates to reduced violence, but in order to infer causation other potential explanations have to be taken into account.  Alas, in Iraq there are at least two other major contenders to explain the precipitous drop in violence:

1. Political developments which left the insurgency without an obvious base of local support.

2. The establishment of a deadline for complete U.S. withdrawal.

The Importance of Popular Support in Fighting an Insurgency

A critical aspect of Counter-Insurgency tactics is the removal of popular support for the insurgency.  In Iraq this process had already begun by the time the surge was announced.  In a process known as the “Sunni Awakening”, as early as 2005, sheiks in Anbar province began to form armed militias in order to promote security.  Initially these forces formed part of the insurgency against U.S. occupation; however, starting in 2006 communities in Anbar province turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq and began aiding U.S. forces.   It is important to note that this movement developed prior to and independent from the Iraqi surge, largely in response to al Qaeda atrocities and overreach.

  • The Anbar Awakening was a decisive factor in the surge’s success.  According to General MacFarland: “70 % or 80 % of credit for the success of the counter-insurgency fight in Ramadi goes to Iraqi people who stood up to al Qaeda.”

Although the Sunni Awakening is the most obvious example of a political event leading to the development of improved security conditions, also significant was the disarmament of the Mahdi army which took place between August 2007 and March 2008.  Following brief incursions in May 2008, Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to take over positions in Basra, the center Sadr’s support.  The battle which lasted six days effectively decimated the Mahdi army.  Three months later Sadr ordered the disarmament of the Mahdi army, leaving only a small cadre of elites to continue the fight.   Increasingly Sadr has attempted to influence Iraq through supporters in parliament.

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