The Surge in Iraq created a huge controversy in American politics when it started in 2007. There were arguments about whether the U.S. should send in more troops or withdraw its forces to solve Iraq’s increasing chaos. Since then there has been a lively discussion about how much of a factor the Surge was in combination with other events such as the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad, the Anbar Awakening, the Sons of Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr’s cease fire, and more in reducing the violence in the country. To provide an inside view of the Surge is Professor Peter Mansoor the General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University and General David Petraeus’ former Executive Officer from 2007-2008. He recently published a book about his experience during that time entitled Surge, My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War.
1. The Surge was proposed out of a sense of desperation in Washington about the situation in Iraq. In 2005 sectarian fighting had broken out, but after the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine things quickly descended into a full-scale civil war. President Bush heard several proposals about what to do and decided upon the Surge. He said he was “doubling down” and not only changed the military approach but his own handling of Iraq. Can you explain how the president dealt with Iraq before 2007 and its consequences?
President Bush believed that his subordinate commanders should be given wide leeway to prosecute the war as they saw fit. In my view, he believed this was a proper reading of the lessons of the Vietnam, a conflict in which President Lyndon B. Johnson was accused of running the war from the White House. Bush erred in the other direction by supporting his commanders with inadequate supervision from above and nearly suffered defeat in Iraq as a result. The civilian and military leaders in Baghdad developed a strategy and operational concept—focused on killing and capturing terrorist and insurgent operatives while transitioning security responsibilities to the nascent Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible—that allowed the insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to embed themselves among the Iraqi people, while creating a security vacuum that nearly caused Iraq to break apart in 2006. By mid-2006, President Bush sensed that something was wrong and he sought a way to reverse the downward spiral in violence. The result was the Surge.
2. On the ground in Iraq General George Casey ordered Operation Together Forward in 2006 try to secure Baghdad. How was the plan executed and what were its faults?
There were two iterations of Operation Together Forward, which were cordon and search operations in the heart of Baghdad intended to clear the city of insurgents. In these two large scale operations a significant number of buildings were searched, weapons caches confiscated, and suspects detained. The problem was that once complete, there were not enough forces left behind to secure the areas ostensibly cleared of insurgents. In time the insurgents and terrorists returned, and the security situation continued its downward spiral.
3. Around that same time you were called to the Pentagon to join the Council of Colonels, which was originally organized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the War on Terror, but eventually came to focus upon the Iraq War. What did that group come to see as the main problems in Iraq, and what were its recommendations to solve it?
“We are losing because we are not winning, and time is not on our side,” is how the Council of Colonels announced to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the United States and its allies were losing the Iraq War. This was a revelation and a shock to them. The main problem in Iraq that we saw was an ethno-sectarian competition for power and resources, exacerbated by the intervention of outside powers such as Iran and the injection of jihadists into the conflict. In our view, the United States had three options: Go Big (mobilize its military power to overwhelm the insurgency), Go Long (configure its support to Iraq to prevail over the long haul), or Go Home (withdraw from Iraq and manage the consequences). President Bush chose a combination of Go Big and Go Long, resulting in the Surge.
4. The Iraq Study Group suggested that the U.S. gradually withdraw its forces while reaching out to Iraq’s neighbors as the best way to stabilize things in the country. Why did you disagree with that approach?
Iraq’s neighbors were part of the problem. As long as states such as Iran thought that they could achieve their aims in Iraq through proxy warfare, negotiations with them were a dead end. We proved this during the Surge when the United States and Iran held three negotiations in Baghdad (Ambassador Ryan Crocker was the U.S. representative) that went nowhere. Furthermore, outside powers could not solve the fundamental issues inside Iraq, which were ethno-sectarian in nature and required a resolution from within.
5. Retired General Jack Keane and the American Enterprise Institute argued for an alternative strategy of a population centered counterinsurgency campaign. Why do you think that approach won over President Bush?
President Bush wanted to win the war in Iraq. Not lose. Not tie. Not exit the conflict gracefully. I don’t think General George Casey, General John Abizaid, or the Joint Chiefs ever understood the determination of the president in this regard. As the situation in Iraq worsened, President Bush understood that something had to change, but as he pressed his commanders for solutions, the same stock answers came back. Stay the course. Transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqis. The strategy is working, but will take more time. As 2006 progressed, the president realized something had to change. The surge seemed the only viable alternative strategy, and he adopted it as his own.
6. Even before the Surge started in December 2006 a raid upon an Al Qaeda safe house discovered a treasure trove of documents about the group’s strategy for Baghdad. What did those papers reveal about the organization, and what kinds of plans were made to counter it when the Surge began?
The raid revealed the importance of the “Baghdad Belts,” or the regions around Baghdad that were in effect insurgent and terrorist sanctuaries. From these regions the insurgents and terrorists could inject violence into the capital city at will. As the document made clear, to control Baghdad, we had to control the Baghdad Belts. As a result, more than fifty percent of the extra combat power provided by the surge ended up being deployed outside Baghdad in al-Anbar Province and the Baghdad Belts.
7. Many have tried to simplify the Surge down to a troop increase, counterinsurgency tactics, and a dynamic leader in General Petraeus. In fact the new strategy was made up of many different elements. Can you go through what those were and how they worked together?
General Petraeus has done a wonderful job of describing the new strategy in his Foreword to my book, adapted as an article in Foreign Policy, which can be accessed at here. The surge was a holistic strategy to change the war in Iraq. It featured a new (or at least, one evenly applied across the force) operational concept that stressed the overriding need to protect the Iraqi people from insurgent, militia, and terrorist violence. More forces were needed to realize this goal. Gen. Petraeus also realized that to contain the violence in Iraq, the reconcilable elements of the insurgent and militia opposition (including detainees in coalition custody) needed to be brought into support of the Iraqi government, so outreach to these groups was part of the strategy—bringing the Awakening into play and resulting in the creation of the Sons of Iraq. Targeted strikes to kill or capture irreconcilables were also part of the surge—to eliminate from the equation those who refused to be part of the solution to the conflict. To give the Iraqi people hope for the future, nation building aspects to improve the economy, provide jobs, and deliver essential services were also stressed. If strategy is defined as the provision of ways and means to secure an end, then the Surge was most definitely a new strategy.
|PM Maliki was fine with the Awakening as long as it stayed in Anbar but when the US started the Sons of Iraq program he was opposed (AP)
8. After General Petraeus found out about the Awakening in Anbar, he decided to try to replicate it throughout the country with the Sons of Iraq (SOI). He was hoping that this would lead to local reconciliation and eventually be connected to the central government. A major barrier to that was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What were some of the struggles Coalition officials went through trying to convince Maliki of the advocacy of the SOI, and did he ever seem to fully accept the program?
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki welcomed the Awakening as long as it was confined to al-Anbar Province, a region of little concern to his government and the Shi’a constituency which he represented. When the Awakening and its offspring, the Sons of Iraq, approached areas of greater concern to Shi’a Iraqis, such as Diyala Province or Baghdad, then Prime Minister Maliki and his administration were reluctant to embrace the movement. Gen. Petraeus attempted to assuage Prime Minister Maliki’s concerns by pointing out that it was better to have former insurgents inside the tent, as opposed to outside the tent trying to tear it down. Furthermore, we could gather biometric identification (fingerprints, retina scans) of the Sons of Iraq, along with their personal information, which would make them vulnerable to reprisals should they backslide. Gen. Petraeus also realized that whoever paid the SOI would have control over them. Initially, the paymaster was Multi-National Force-Iraq, but later it was the Iraqi government. This gave Maliki great control over the Sons of Iraq. Despite these certainties, he never warmed to the program, although he is probably now regretting his decision not to do so.
9. One reason that Sunnis seemed willing to join the Sons of Iraq was that they realized that they were losing the civil war. You quoted one U.S. Army Colonel that worked on reconciliation that said, “The Sunnis recognize that they’ve lost, and they’re coming to the table.” The Anbar Awakening also expanded at this time from its start in Ramadi to across the province. Moqtada al-Sadr announced a cease-fire in the middle of 2007, and Premier Maliki eventually went after his militia with the 2008 Charge of the Knights campaign in Basra, Maysan, and Baghdad. This has created a debate within the United States over whether the Surge was the main catalyst for security improving in Iraq or whether it was a combination of the Surge and those other developments in Iraq. What are your thoughts on the matter?
The Surge was the catalyst that brought to fruition a number of factors that influenced the outcome of the war in Iraq. Without the Surge, the Awakening would have remained a local movement confined to Ramadi or, at most, al-Anbar Province. Without the improved security conditions in Baghdad created by the Surge, Muqtada al-Sadr would never have offered a cease-fire after the gun battle between his militia and the shrine guards in Karbala in August 2007. Without the Surge, Prime Minister Maliki would not have felt emboldened to confront the Jaish al-Mahdi in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan Province. On the other hand, the Surge would not have had the same results had it been attempted earlier in the war. It needed the other elements at play in Iraq in 2007 to succeed.
10. President Bush went from delegating Iraq policy to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Pentagon from 2003-2006 to being hands on during the Surge. Why did you believe this was the proper approach for all presidents to take when it comes to conducting a war?
In his book Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen analyzes the war leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion, and concludes that hands-on executive leadership is required to ensure success in war. President Bush read Cohen’s book early in his presidency, but didn’t internalize its lessons regarding what kind of leadership was required in difficult endeavors. For the first six years of his presidency, President Bush empowered his key subordinates to wage the war in Iraq without a lot of supervision from the White House. Finally in 2006, Bush realized that he needed to take a hands-on approach to fashioning a strategy to win the war. The resulting concept, the Surge, would not have succeeded without his involvement and support. This example, along with many others, shows the need for presidents to be intimately involved in the details of the strategy for waging war.
11. From late-2007 into 2008 Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) started concentrating more and more on Shiite militias and Special Groups that were run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force commander General Sulaiman. There have been many stories about these operations and some of the interactions between Sulaiman and General Petraeus. Can you speak about what MNF-I’s strategy was to counter the Iranians and whether it was effective or not?
MNF-I realized that Iranian support of Jaish al-Mahdi Special Groups was a destabilizing factor in Iraq. Part of Gen. Petraeus’ Surge concept was the even-handed treatment of Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militia operatives. Petraeus pushed very hard to ensure the targeting of extremists of all sects, with excellent results. After the capture of a number of Iranian Qods Force operatives in Iraq, Iran withdrew most of its personnel from the country and moved the training of proxy forces back to Iran. Although MNF-I was able to reduce the effectiveness of Iranian backed operatives, it could not eliminate Iranian influence on the war in Iraq.
12. Throughout the entire Surge there was great skepticism about its effectiveness. That was seen when General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had to testify before the American Congress. Less well known was the fact that sectors of the military such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral William Fallon who was commander of the Central Command at that time were opposed to the new strategy as well. What were their concerns, and how did they attempt to affect policy?
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned that the provision of the Surge forces to Iraq would cause deterioration in the readiness of U.S. ground forces due to the excessive strain put on the Army and Marine Corps by the Iraq War. President Bush gave an excellent reply to these concerns in his meeting with the Joint Chiefs in the Tank in the Pentagon in December 2006 by pointing out that the worst thing that could happen to the U.S. military would be to lose the war in Iraq. All other considerations, in the president’s mind, were secondary. But the Joint Chiefs were lukewarm at best about the Surge, a mindset bolstered by the elevation of General George Casey, the former commander of MNF-I, to be the Army chief of staff in February 2007. Casey didn’t believe the Surge was the right strategy for Iraq, and his presence on the Joint Chiefs dampened what little enthusiasm they had for the new way forward.
Admiral Fallon likewise did not believe the Surge was the right strategy for Iraq. Like Casey, Fallon believed that U.S. forces should slowly withdraw from the conflict and allow the Iraqis to fight it out among themselves. He put sand in the gears of the process of providing reinforcements to Iraq to slow it down, much to the consternation of General Petraeus.
13. One of the main goals of the United States from 2007-2008 was to reduce violence so that Iraq’s elite could focus upon politics. Do you think that was achieved by the end of the Surge, and if so what were some examples you saw?
The Surge accomplished its goal of enabling the competition for power and resources in Iraq to move back into the realm of politics, at least the kind of politics that doesn’t use bombs and bullets to make its point. In the winter of 2008 the Iraqi Council of Representatives passed a number of laws, such as amnesty legislation, de-Ba’athification reform, and an annual budget, that showed that Iraqi legislators could make deals with one another. After the Charge of the Knights operation in Basra and the clearing of Sadr City in the spring of 2008, all but one of the political parties in Iraq gave a vote of support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The provincial elections of 2009 brought a large majority of Iraqis of all sects and political persuasions to the polls and brought the Sunnis back into the political process. The wheels started to come off the bus after the presidential election of 2010, when the United States backed Maliki’s candidacy for another term as prime minister instead of supporting the winner of the elections, Ayad Allawi. After that election the Sunnis lost faith in the political process and the jihadists were once again able to make inroads among them. The current violence in Iraq dates to that ill-considered decision, not to the outcome of the Surge, which ended in July 2008.