Monday, August 22, 2011

Re-Thinking The Surge In Iraq

U.S. troops in Baghdad 2007 during Surge (New York Times)
In December 2006, President Bush decided on a new strategy for Iraq called the Surge. The policy was more than just an increase in troops; it also consisted of new counterinsurgency tactics. Since then there has been a lot of debate over whether the Surge was successful or not. Some writers have argued that the Surge has been misinterpreted, and that it was actually changes in Iraq prior to and during that time that were responsible for the dramatic reduction in violence, not what the U.S. did.

In December 2006, Bush decided that the U.S. should embark upon a new strategy in Iraq called the Surge. Just a few days before the Iraq Study Group had released its findings that America should follow a phased withdrawal, while building up regional and international support that would hopefully help stabilize Iraq. Bush rejected those suggestions and went with the Surge instead. The policy called for the deployment of six new brigades to Iraq, securing Baghdad as the center of the country, and new counterinsurgency tactics that emphasized protecting the Iraqi public. To head this new effort General David Petraeus was named commander of Coalition forces in Iraq replacing General George Casey. The debate over policy and tactics was driven by the widespread belief that violence was spiraling out of control in the country because of the ethnosectarian conflict. The number of deaths in Iraq eventually began to drop, and the civil war receded. The Surge was declared a shinning success, General Petraeus was considered a military genius, and some were ready to declare a U.S. victory in Iraq. That interpretation has begun to be questioned in the last couple years.

First, many have considered the Surge simply a troop increase. This is a popular opinion amongst those discussing President Obama’s Afghan strategy. Joshua Thiel disputed this view in an article in the Small Wars Journal. Thiel did a statistical analysis to see if there was a correlation between U.S troop levels in Iraq and the reduction in violence. He compared two time periods, 2006-2007 to 2007-2008 using security data based upon Significant Kinetic Events (SIGACTs), which were recorded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers from 2006-2008 and the overall troop numbers and battalions per province for those same years. He found a 0.14 correlation from 2006-2008. In such an analysis, the closer the correlation is to 1 the more there is a cause and effect relationship between the two variables, while the closer it is to 0 the less connection there is. 0.14 shows very little relation between troop levels and violence in Iraq.

The two time periods Thiel looked at showed divergent trends. From 2006-2007 there was an increase in attacks as the number of American soldiers increased in Iraq. In 8 of the 9 province that received additional troops in those first two years there was an increase in security incidents. This could have been because areas that received more units would have led to more fighting with insurgents or led to new resistance. Thiel didn’t believe either theory because from 2006-2007 13 of Iraq’s 18 provinces saw a rise in attacks whether they had a troop increase or not. In the second period, 2007-2008, the U.S. began drawing down its forces and there was a decrease in security incidents. In all seven provinces where troops decreased, attacks went down, and overall, in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces security improved. Rather than reducing attacks then, Thiel’s study found a correlation between increasing troops and decreasing stability.
Map of Thiel's first time period 2006-2007. Shows that in 8 of the 9 provinces that received troop increases, Ninewa (+62%), Tamim (+38%), Salahaddin (+26%), Diyala (+44%), Baghdad (+11%), Babil (+44%), Wasit (+39%), and Dhi Qar (+40%), violence went up. Only in Anbar (-48%) did attacks go down. In Basra, Coalition forces went down, but incidents went up (+49%), while attacks in Dohuk (+35%), Irbil (+320%), Sulaymaniya (+475%), and Qadisiyah (+171%) increased as well even though they received no new units. Click on image for larger view. (Small Wars Journal)
Map of Thiel's second time period, 2007-2008. Violence went down across the country whether Coalition forces were being withdrawn or not. Ninewa (-11%), Irbil (-41%), Sulaymaniya (-77%), Tamim (-58%), Salahaddin (-72%), Diyala (-69%), Anbar (-84%), Baghdad (-72%), Wasit (-71%), Babil (-82%), Qadisiyah (-90%), Karbala (-67%), Najaf (-66%), Muthanna (-74%), Dhi Qar (-45%), Basra (-74%) all saw reductions, while only Dohuk (+4%), and Maysan (+282%) saw increases. Click on image for larger view. (Small Wars Journal)
Thiel wanted to study his theory in more depth, so he added a third element, time. The U.S. came in with new tactics during the Surge, which would take weeks and months to implement. When Thiel compared troop levels and security incidents he found a lag time between cause and effect. He then re-examined his two periods, and found that security improved in 16 of the 18 governorates despite the troop levels. That meant attacks went down in 2007 independent of the number of U.S. soldiers deployed.

Thiel concluded that other elements than just a troop increase accounted for the changes in Iraq. Those could include General Petraeus’ strategy, environmental factors, the growing competence of the Iraqi security forces, the enemy’s strategy, the influence of neighboring countries, and more. Thiel didn’t argue which one of these issues was more important than the other, nor how they worked in Iraq since that was outside of the scope of his analysis. That didn’t mean that he didn’t think that troop levels were an important element in stability operations. He noted that conventional wisdom says that three to four times as many troops as insurgents is necessary for an effective counterinsurgency campaign. What he found was that the number of troops alone did not dramatically affect events in Iraq.

Douglas Ollivant in a June 2011 study, “Countering the New Orthodoxy” attempted to go into what other factors might have been important. Ollivant worked on the National Security Council and spent two tours in Iraq, including working on the Baghdad Security Plan during the Surge. More recently he was an advisor in Afghanistan. Ollivant asked what caused the end of the Iraqi civil war. The first thing he argued was that the conventional U.S. wisdom on the cause, namely the increase in U.S. troops, the adoption of a new counterinsurgency policy, and the leadership of General Petraeus, were too limited to explain what happened in Iraq. The major problem with this view is that it centers on the U.S. military, and ignores what was going on within Iraq at the time. Ollivant believes that the Iraqi political decisions were what ended the civil war. That didn’t mean that the Americans didn’t play a role, but rather the Surge simply facilitated events already underway in the country.

The major events that Ollivant pointed to as helping to end the civil war were a realization by the Sunnis that they were losing, the Shiites feeling that their hold on power was secure, and the emergence of the Iraqi security forces. First, by 2006 the Sunnis came to believe that they were not capable of winning the sectarian war. Many initially thought that they were a majority in the country, and could therefore wipe out the Shiites in the civil conflict. By 2006, those ideas began to fade as they were not only losing the fight, but were being cleansed from entire neighborhoods, especially in Baghdad. Writer Nir Rosen for example, interviewed a group of insurgent leaders in Jordan and Syria in 2006 that said that they were finished after being attacked by Shiite militias and being pushed out of the capital. Dr. Michael Izady at Columbia University also looked at maps breaking down the ethnosectarian composition of Baghdad from 2003-2008. He found a dramatic change in the demographics of the city going from a largely mixed metropolis to one largely divided between Sunnis and Shiites. UCLA did a somewhat similar study comparing satellite photos of Baghdad at night to look at electricity use before, during, and after the surge. The University report said that power usage fell in outer neighborhoods where ethnic cleansing was documented in the Report of the Independent Commission on Security Forces in Iraq. The change in fate for the Sunnis made their leaders more open to compromises with the Iraqi government, and to look towards the United States as mediators in that process. Ollivant believes that this realization led Sunnis to begin joining the Anbar Awakening and later the Sons of Iraq during the Surge, rather than other arguments that have been put forward such as the U.S. simply bought them off with money, or that Al Qaeda in Iraq had become too demanding upon the Sunnis, trying to enforce their strict ideas about Islam, taking over their businesses, and attacking those that did not cooperate with them. The second factor was that the Shiite parties wanted to consolidate their power over the state. To this end, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki played a direct role in the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. For example, he actively protected the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, which was carrying out the majority of attacks upon Sunni insurgents and civilians. That’s because Maliki and others felt like the insurgency and the return of Sunni rule were existential threats. By the time of the Surge however, the premier was finally realizing that the Shiites were winning. That allowed Malki to change his focus from fighting Sunnis to playing party politics to stay in power. Thus, by the middle of 2007 Maliki agreed to a new ruling coalition that excluded Sadr. (1) Before, the prime minister not only needed Sadr’s political support in the government, but his militia as well to fight the Sunnis. With violence decreasing however, he could cast away some of his former allies. By 2008, Maliki was ready to launch two offensives against Sadr’s militia. The final event was the emergence of the Iraqi army. By late 2006, it was ready to take on its own operations. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey also decided to create the Baghdad Operations Command, which gave the government autonomy and control over their own forces. The army still had plenty of problems, but eventually it was able to rebuild its image and standing with the public, which gave more legitimacy to the government. All of these issues fed into each other. The Sunnis willing to negotiate because they realized they had lost the civil war, was an important step to making Maliki feel comfortable enough to turn from cleansing them from Baghdad to consolidating his hold on the government. The emergence of the Iraqi security forces, also gave Maliki a feeling of security, and earned him legitimacy with the public. Together these are what led to the end of the sectarian war. That’s why there are still Sunni and a few mixed neighborhoods left in Baghdad, because the Shiites called off the fighting before they had completely finished with their cleansing.

Columbia University maps breaking down the sectarian make-up of Baghdad from 2006 (top) when the civil war was going full throttle to 2008 (bottom) when it was over. Shows that most of the mixed neighborhoods were wiped out by militias, and the Shiites took over control of most of the city in the process. Green - Shiite, Red- Sunni, Yellow - Mixed, Blue - Christian. Click on image for larger view (Columbia University)
Ollivant doesn’t discount the role of the Americans, but thinks they largely solidified trends that were already occurring in Iraq. For one, the counterinsurgency tactics and erection of blast walls to separate neighborhoods did help lower violence. By the time most of the walls were put up, the fighting was already subsiding and the push to drive Sunnis out was fading. The U.S. actually consolidated the divisions that had already taken place in the capital. For another, the Anbar Awakening was already going full force by the fall of 2006 before the Surge started. The new strategy gave them more support, and facilitated the creation of the Sons of Iraq in other Sunni areas of the country, but Ollivant already explained why they were ready to switch sides. Third, the targeting of Al Qaeda in Iraq, also eliminated militants unwilling to reconcile, and therefore opened up more room for Sunnis to talk with Americans and Baghdad. What Ollivant actually thought was the most important move made by the U.S. was President Bush’s unconditional support for Maliki. That put the Americans behind Shiite rule, and gave the Sunnis another reason to think that they could not win. Overall, Ollivant saw the U.S. as playing a facilitating role in Iraq during the Surge, rather than determining the country’s future.

The Surge has gone through a lot of mythologization and simplification over the last couple years. U.S. military tactics, leadership, and soldiers have been emphasized by many as the reasons for Iraq’s turn around. Americans reading and writing about Iraq obviously tend towards Americancentric views like these. Thiel and Ollivant challenged many of these beliefs. Thiel found that troop numbers alone were not enough to explain why violence went down in Iraq. Ollivant tried to change people’s focus from America’s actions, to those of Iraqis. Iraqi agency he argued, is often ignored. When he looked at them, he found the roots of the end of the sectarian war before and during the Surge. The Sunnis’ decision to give up their fight with the Shiites, and the Shiites realization that they were safely in power, both of which happened before the Surge started, were more important for Ollivant than anything the Americans would later do. Together, both believed that the U.S. had a role in ending the Iraqi civil war, but they were not as a paramount as others have argued. Ollivant’s argument was much more important and far reaching as he attempted to remind readers that Iraqis have played a role in shaping their future and that it is not all about the Americans. More time needs to be spent on this aspect of the Iraq conflict. As the U.S. presence winds down in the country hopefully that will give researchers the incentive to write more about what Iraqis have done, instead of only focusing upon what the Americans have wrought on Iraq.


1. Parker, Ned, “Sadr’s bloc quits Iraq’s ruling coalition,” Times of London, 9/16/07


Baker, James and Hamilton, Lee, “The Iraq Study Group Report, The Way Forward – A New Approach,”

Baker, Peter, DeYoung, Karen, Ricks, Thomas, Tyson, Ann Scott, Warrick, Joby, and Wright, Robin, “Among Top Officials, ‘Surge’ Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting,” Washington Post, 9/9/07

Bing, West, “Will the Petraeus Strategy Be the Last?” Atlantic, 9/17/07

Dickson, Elizabeth, “Study: Surge of violence led to peace in Iraq,” Foreign Policy Passport, 9/19/08

Eisenstadt, Lieutenant Colonel Michael, “Iraq Tribal engagement Lessons Learned,” Military Review, September-October 2007

Gordon, Michael, “Troop ‘Surge’ Took Place Amid Doubt and Debate,” New York Times, 8/31/08

Guler, Claudio, “Baghdad Divided,” International Relations and Security Network, 11/9/09

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Kahl, Colin, Brimley, Shawn, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Foreign Policy, September 2007

Manea, Octavian, “The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant,” Small Wars Journal, 7/24/11

Ollivant, Douglas, “Countering the New Orthodoxy,” New America Foundation, June 2011

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Parker, Ned, “Sadr’s bloc quits Iraq’s ruling coalition,” Times of London, 9/16/07

Partlow, Joshua, “Maliki’s Office Is Seen Behind Purge in Forces,” Washington Post, 4/30/07

Roberts, Dustin, “Some Baghdad blast walls removed,” Stars and Stripes, 4/24/09

Rosen, Nir, “The big sleep,” The National, 4/24/09
- “An Ugly Peace,” Boston Review, November/December 2009

Small Wars Journal, “SWJ Interview with Bing West (Part 1),” 8/14/08

Smith, Major Neil and MacFarland, Colonel Sean, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review, March-April 2008

Thiel, Joshua, “The Statistical Irrelevance of American SIGACT Data: Iraq Surge Analysis Reveals Reality,” Small Wars Journal, 4/12/11

Tyson, Ann Scott, “New Strategy Urged in Briefing to Petraeus,” Washington Post, 9/1/07


DJ Elliott said...

The real surge was the increase in IA, FP, and IP that the US forces were partnered with to train. MoI added ~150,000 personnel and the IA/FP added 6 divisions with our help...

Joel Wing said...

The emergence of the Iraqi forces was definitely a factor, and allowed Maliki to move against the Sadrists in 2008 after the Surge was over as well.