Why the “Surge” Isn’t Working

In studying military history, two truisms always leap out: victorious generals always refight the last war and the general public never understands the course of the war as it happens.

In 1942 and for several years afterward, the general public believed that Army B-17s bombing from high altitude destroyed the Japanese carriers at Midway. In 1968, the American public believed that the Tet offensive demonstrated that the Viet Cong was an effective and widely supported pro-communist organization in South Vietnam. Many still think that way even though conclusive evidence exists that the Tet offensive destroyed the Viet Cong and demonstrated their near complete lack of popular support.

Likewise, most in the general public believe that the tactic of the “The Surge,” i.e., saturating different regions of Iraq with overwhelming force, has itself improved the situation in Iraq. It hasn’t. The Surge represents merely the most visible portion of a long-term strategy that has finally began to bear fruit.

Firepower never defeats insurgencies. As long as the insurgents retain support among the population, they can simply hide their weapons and lay low in the face of overwhelming force. Once the force leaves, the insurgents resume where they left off.

Insurgencies face defeat only when they lose the support of the populations that shelter them. Counter-insurgency strategies focus on eroding this support. Liberal democracies accomplish this by a multi-layered approach of demonstrating the benefits of liberal institutions while empowering the majority against violent minorities. Only when a critical percentage of the population turns against the insurgency does overt military force begin to work.

We’ve reached this critical percentage in Iraq (and regions of Iraq) and that is why the tactic of the Surge works. If the quiet work of building civil institutions and discourse in Iraq had not been done, the Surge would have accomplished nothing. The Surge represents only the final icing on a large cake that has been years in the baking.

Many factors went into laying the ground work for the Surge’s success, but more than any other, I think training the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and police into an effective force triggered the realignment of the Sunni population. Throughout Iraqi history, the more urban and concentrated Sunni maintained military dominance over the more rural and diffuse Shia. Even when Saddam impressed vast numbers of Shia into the army, he made sure not to provide them effective weapons and training. This allowed him to maintain military dominance using a relatively small number of relatively effective loyal Sunni units.

U.S. training, however, focused on creating the most effective force possible. Within just a few years we turned Shia from little more than an armed mob into a fairly modern fighting force. In battles between Sunni and Shia, the Sunni began to lose badly for the first time in centuries. Realistic Sunni realized that they could no longer hope to dominate the more numerous and effective Shia and so began to seek accommodation.

Even the most cursory reading of the Surge demonstrates that it works solely due to the support of the general population in areas undergoing the Surge. The Surge provides the security and means which the population needs to enact a decision it has already made to evict the insurgents.

Yet it appears that most of the American public and their political representatives believe that the Surge itself caused the recent improvements in Iraq, and seem poised to take away the lesson that had we used more troops in the first place we could have accomplished the same results. They’re wrong. Yet this perception will undoubtedly strongly influence American foreign and military policy for decades to come, just as the widespread misperception that strategic bombing won WWII warped US policy well into the 1970s.

21 thoughts on “Why the “Surge” Isn’t Working”

  1. >Insurgencies face defeat only when they lose the support of the population that shelters them. Counter-insurgency strategies focus on eroding this support. Liberal-democracies accomplish this by a multi-layered approach of demonstrating the benefits of liberal institutions while empowering the majority against violent minorities. Only when a critical percentage of the population turns against the insurgency does overt military force begin to work.

    But that’s exactly what has happened to the ISI-led insurgancy in the Sunni areas.

    I understand your premise but I don’t see the reason/data to support it. Can you elaborate?

  2. The istake in the posted article is that we are not simply fighting popular or unpopular insurgencies but rather contending sub-groups (religious) within the population: Kurds, Sunnis, Shia. Thus we are far from acheiving a political settlement though numbers of killed and wounded have gone down because of additional troops sent for the surge. If 50% of our troops left soon, what would happen?

  3. Vince P,

    See Joseph HIlls comment that, “Thus we are far from acheiving a political settlement though numbers of killed and wounded have gone down because of additional troops sent for the surge.” That is the type of mistaken lesson I am arguing against. The additional soldiers would be worthless without the changing social and political conditions which we have been building since the Liberation.

    We seem to have a bias for crediting efficacy to tactics or strategies based on their visibility or drama. Increasing local troop concentrations is a visible, dramatic and easily grasped tactic so naive observers latch onto the increase in troop concentrations as the key factor while ignoring the invisible, boring work of building up the military capability of the Shia to provide a balance against the Sunni. (and other similar task).

    The best historical parallel I can draw is with the widespread belief in the effectiveness of strategic bombing in WWII. In the decade following, the US virtually gutted the army in favor of supporting air power even though in retrospect strategic bombing was not the decisive factor in winning WWII. In future conflicts, if we try to use saturation tactics without preparing the social and political landscape first, we will fail.

  4. So you’re specifically refuting the point that the violence is done soley because of the increase number of troops and their deployment in the towns and villages?

    If so, then yeah, I disagree with that too. The improvements isn’t due just to that, it’s attrubtible to the Iraqi people getting fed up with foreign muslims engaging in barbarism.

    So the Iraqis decided to end their support of the ISI and assist us in flushing them out, in the process at the local level, cooperation between Iraqis is finally starting to happen..

    So the Iraqis would have probably gotten fed up had their been no surge,.. but would we and they have been able to then have the forces in place to take advantage of that change had their not been a surge?

    In other words, the surge’s extra troop allowed this oppurtinity to be seized to maximum effect. Had there not been a surge then perhaps the rebellion against ISI would have failed.

  5. Vince P,

    My key point was that the Surge is just the last, and possibly the least important, component to a much broader strategy that relies on unflashy institution and community building as its core tactic. Simply adding more troops isn’t the key factor but I think that most people will believe that it is.

    The Sunni turned on Al-Quaeda but I think they fear the effective Shia even more. Al-Quaeda is just a gang of thugs, the Shia could, without hyperbole, wipe the Sunni out completely and might well do so given the least provocation in retaliation for centuries of brutal Sunni oppression.

  6. The Surge is working and did its most important job before the first soldier pulled into Iraq by the Surge ever arrived. Honestly, a working majority of the country including a majority of the Congress was morally broken by this war and looking for a way out. Backing the Surge was seen by a significant fraction of this group as a prelude to withdrawal, a necessary preliminary step in the kabuki dance to betray free Iraq. And if it worked? Well, even better, as we could do without this embarrassing losing business.

    By splitting the anti-war caucus into the die hards who wanted withdrawal now at any price and those who were persuaded to have a fig leaf of a “last chance” push before we threw in the towel, we gained critical time for the rest of the what was going on to mature and become visible.

    Our military circumstance is that we are unbeatable in the field. We can only lose moral cohesion and defeat ourselves by pulling back from the fight because we think it’s not worth it. Every scenario of US defeat has at its heart “and the Congress/President decide to end the war” and pull out supplies and troops necessary for its continuance.

    The fight in reality is domestic and in that fight, the Surge played a central role in our present much improved circumstances.

  7. TMLutas,

    The fight in reality is domestic and in that fight, the Surge played a central role in our present much improved circumstances.

    You make a good point but I am more concerned that people not draw the lesson that “the more troops” the better.

    In thinking about, I find myself concerned that in the future we will revert to the early Vietnam strategy of pouring more and more troops into the fight without paying attention to institution social building.

  8. Shannon

    I agree with the thrust of your post but your caption is unhelpful. It is misleading and counter productive. “It Wasn’t Just The Surge” would have better conveyed your meaning.

    A combination of circumstances turned things around. In addition to the things you mention are the fact that Sunnis saw the fanaticism of al Qaeda up close and personal and didn’t like what they saw. Secondly, Iraqi forces have now been built up to the point that a true COIN strategy of Clear, Hold and Build can be implemented.

  9. Suppose we had 1,000,000 boots on the ground instead of 150,000.
    There would have been six times as many American troops wandering around Iraq; 6 times as many targets for terrorists; six times as many Blackwater convoys shooting their way thru traffic and creating 6 times as much ill-will; 6 times as many deaths and dismemberments; and six times as much bad press in the US – plus an enormous groundswell of Hell No We Wont Go response to a Draft needed to support 1,000,000 boots on the ground in Iraq.

    The original plan was to use a small number of troops to overthrow Sadam; to have a very small footprint and a very small exposure to terrorist reprisals; to have Iraqis run Iraq with American vetoes of undemocratic actions. Our goals was Iraqi self-sufficiency and avoiding Iraqi dependence on American decision making.

    The war might be over now – or even two years ago – if we had been united behind Bush. But there are enough prominent people speaking out against the war that our enemies have prolonged the war in hope they will win by default. The last 2000 US deaths were caused by the anti-war fans. 2000 troops died protecting the anti-war fans freedom of speech – a freedom anti-war fans will never fight for.

    The war has been won – but sporadic bombings will continue in Iraq as long as there are news men willing to publicize these acts and anti-war fans to praise them.

  10. “As long as the insurgents retain support among the population, they can simply hide their weapons and lay low in the face of overwhelming force.”

    Support in this case doesn’t mean active, it means passive as in a means to survive. An English lexicon would translate to ‘cowed’. As long as the American operational tactic was to hunker down in harden locations, train locales to be targets beyond the wire, and saturate the information system with unmistakable signs that they were doing to depart the unfinished mess, why would the average Iraqi risk the life of his family or self?

    What changed was a strategy from minimizing military casualties and avoiding defeat, to one in carrying the fight into the streets, through the doors, and down the alleys carrying the fight to the face of the enemy to achieve victory. That’s what the boots did. And the arrival of decision makers in the organization that moved the operation from one of management to one of leadership. [Go read what Ridgway did to turn around the debacle in Korea – its leadership] As the big hits landed and were exploited as quickly as possible for an immediate follow on round of operations and pursuits, the enemy lost the ability to impose order and discipline not only on his own formations but also the population that it had up till then well under its thumb.

    Instead of feeling abandoned [I’m sure the image of the helicopter at the Embassy in Saigon while not literal was figuratively in their minds], the Iraqis saw that the new American leadership meant business. What they saw did not match the propaganda in the MSM and what would be expected of a force departing. What they saw initially was success against those who had demonstrated that they were indeed the greater threat to their lives and they now had a means to respond that had a possibility of working. Then each element feed upon the other, reinforcing the effectiveness of the other against a common foe.

    Had there not been a ‘surge’, the Iraqi would have kept down, kept quiet, and stayed out of the field of fire. It takes all the elements to make it work, just like conducting an orchestra. That is why, it is call the “Art of War”. And the artist in resident is Petreaus.

  11. Don,

    You make a good point. The success of the Surge has not been largely due to numbers but due to a fundamental change in engagement tactics. Another important lesson: numbers don’t count if you use them the wrong way.

  12. Slightly off topic but the reason that the general public thought that B17’s destroyed Japanese carriers at Midway were because they didn’t release the information that we had broken the Japanese and German codes. There are a lot of interesting immediate post WW2 books I remember finding from time to time as a kid that tried to explain various WW2 events without discussing our codebreakers or the significant advantages that code breaking brought to the Allied military efforts.

    This is similar to the thought that the B25 bombers that attacked Tokyo in 1942 came from “Shangri-La” rather than from the USS Hornet.

    Not trying to get off the thread and I don’t like it when people take my posts too literally but just my 2 cents.

  13. I would suggest that nobody here knows many basic facts about the war, even today. For instance, I would speculate that fewer than 10% of would guess the right start year within 2 years without a hint. Here’s the hint, OIF kicked off when the US withdrew from the then existing cease fire. We also have major inconsistencies in how we process what we believe to be true. If a criminal suspect tries to get everybody to think he’s armed and dangerous and is shot for his troubles because he talked a good game, the police are generally absolved of responsibility. But have Saddam try to run the same sort of confidence game and it’s “Bush lied, people died” for a significant portion of the free world polity.

    So long as we can maintain an adequate conventional forces overwatch on any military occupation and continue to promote free societies true to local conditions I think that errors in doctrine among civilians are tolerable. And I have reasonable confidence that the military isn’t going to be misled. They are too close to the problem to be fooled.

  14. Certainly sheer numbers of troops are insufficient for victory, but a number great enough to clear and hold territory is necessary prerequisite. It’s also a very elementary military principle, one that’s never forgotten in, say, the world of chess, but seems constantly in need of relearning by the US military and political establishments. Perhaps this chronic amnesia is an unavoidable conceit of power, I don’t know.

    Until Patraeus took over, we were just pushing AQI and the insurgency around the map. I’m just glad we figured it out (again) in time to prevail.


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