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.