The Surge: Another View

It is clear that the "Surge" is dealing a deathblow to terrorists in Iraq, but let's not run out with our bowl of dates and start lounging about on the banks of the Euphrates just yet.  The most we can say is that we are witnessing a highly successful tactical level offensive operation against a selected group of bad guys - namely Al-Qaeda - that by any measure are still minor players in the "insurgent" enemy order of battle.  Many more potent adversaries are both in and around Iraq, so it would be unwise to rush to judgment on the overall strategic value of the current campaign.

Consequently, J.R. Dunn's article that tries to tie in history and how we have adopted the latest counter-insurgency theories, needs some critical analysis in light of the military command's continuing practice of bartering with the enemy which can hardly be called it a "new" strategy.  But first, I must address some misconceptions about Dunn's interpretation of previous campaigns and their relation to affecting a change in warfighting doctrine.

Correcting the Record

Yes, it does take time to revise strategy to be successful in war, but our defeat at Kasserine and the bloodbath at Tarawa as cited by Dunn were not directly related to any overall strategic deficiency.  The Kasserine debacle had more to do with poor tactical positioning, green combat troops, and poor leadership at the higher tactical levels (including a Corps Commander who put his CP in a cave 70 kilometers from the front) than with any flaw in theater-level strategy.  If there is anything that can be contrasted with North Africa and the situation in Iraq, it's that our troops today are far superior in small unit tactics and leadership than were the rookies at Kasserine.  Hence, we would expect that US troops will be victorious in any engagement in Iraq regardless of the ethnic and religious make-up of the adversary or how they organize to fight.

Tarawa, as Dunn notes, was certainly a matter of Navy overconfidence, but it was also a conscious decision to divert needed resources - in this case additional AmTracs - to the Southwest Pacific.  It so happened that coral reefs off the landing beaches stopped conventional landing craft cold and the follow-on waves of Marines had to wade in to the beaches under murderous machinegun fire.  Inattention to the makeup of the ocean floor, and a flat out stubborn attitude, proved that it was a bad decision not to have had the additional AmTracs - but this happens in war.

How this changed the island hopping strategy, for example, Dunn doesn't say.  In other words, refinement of tactics and techniques, and prioritization of resources based on the hard lessons learned in battle made for successful engagements to support our relatively unchanging strategy, but did not result in any massive changes.  Rather than 2006 being compared to our 1943, it's more likely that 2004 - 2006 in Iraq will be seen as the Western Front Sitzkrieg of 1939 - 1940.

The nature of the "insurgency"

If there is an issue concerning the Iraq campaign that has been the subject of more deceptive reporting and deliberate obfuscation by the media and national security and DoD agencies it's the composition of the enemy in Iraq.  While there can be no doubt that Iraq is the Central Front for the War on Terror, this doesn't mean Al-Qaeda now or in the past has provided the bulk of enemy forces.  I showed almost two years ago how three administrations and their military chiefs continued to depend on the flawed strategy of "regime change" while ignoring the forces of the dictator used to subjugate his own people.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, while spectacularly successful at causing Saddam and his cronies to flee the capital, was not carried through to completion, and the leadership brushed off the successful exfiltration of tens of thousands of Saddam's Special Republican Guard, intelligence services, and Saddam Fedayeen to prematurely transition to stability and support operations.  In fact, troop deployments for the occupation were maximized for an equally rapid withdrawal at the direction of the CENTCOM commander.  The axiom that "nations fight wars" so fondly repeated by military thinkers had been disregarded by those hell-bent on giving the American people a low-cost, clean-cut victory that in reality, was a massive punitive raid.

In an overlooked but stunning intelligence analysis in the Jan - Feb 2007 issue of Military Review, Captain Travis Patriquin describes the extent to which Saddam's Baathist forces were embedded in Iraqi civil society.  This was done to extinguish minority identity and to promote Iraqi secular unity while squashing any religious movements.  Other than plain old brutal oppression, Saddam actively recruited minorities into the armed forces in order to spit out loyal Baathists at the end of their term of service.  In Tal Afar, Captain Patriquin says,

It was no accident that a community of Ba'athists of proven loyalty, consisting mainly of highly skilled military technicians who could be readily mobilized, was built on key terrain overlooking the vital Mosul-Sinjar Highway.

So not only did a significant portion of Saddam's Republican Guard and intelligence services run like hell to fight another day, he already had a loyal and ethnically diverse ex-military force to call upon in times of strife.  As the good Captain saw it, is somewhat surprising that in the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow in 2003, various coalition leaders expressed astonishment, confusion, and even denial over how quickly a fairly well organized insurgency emerged.  Some coalition figures still refuse to acknowledge the obvious, and assert instead that the insurgency is in the main a terrorist conspiracy fueled by foreigners working for Osama bin Laden.  [...] Outsiders are certainly playing a role, especially as suicide bombers, but hardly in the numbers one would expect if they were to be regarded as the driving force of the insurgency.

Speaking of numbers, I estimated a few years ago that around 90,000 Iraqi regulars, Special Republican Guard, and Saddam Fedayeen were still roaming the countryside after OIF.  I must admit now that I was wrong - the number was much higher.  According to Patriquin, his analysis,

...leads to a politically ominous conclusion: the insurgency numbers not in the thousands or tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands [emphasis added].

While units in the field understood that they were fighting Saddam's guerilla army, some of our intelligence agents in the field were already contacting Sunni Baathist die-hards whom the military command was more eager to placate by cutting deals for a return to power, rather than conducting follow-on operations to thoroughly trounce their guerilla units.  The failure to defeat the enemy was blamed on often vague generalities, including using the cynical tactic of bashing Iraq Country Administrator L. Paul Bremer for among other things, disbanding a non-existent regular army; a criticism that has been shown time and again to be utterly without merit.*

The counter-insurgency bugaboo - again

Against the backdrop of the unwillingness to undertake offensive operations against the forces of the previous regime came the now often-heard lament that we didn't prepare for counter-insurgency operations in the mold of our more enlightened British brethren.  The insurgent moving "amongst the people as a fish moves through the sea" is used as an excuse by those too enamored with post-modern warfighting theory and developing new field manuals to gain favor with militarily ignorant media.  Denying that the Iraqi guerilla army was not an instrument of the former Sunni Baathist regime would prove to be just as fatal as failing to understand that the Vietcong were a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hanoi and its Soviet sponsor.

Therefore, Dunn repeats popular myths concerning Westmoreland's and Abrams' strategies in Vietnam.  As I wrote last year, Westmoreland's "War of Big Battalions" is maligned without any consideration of what he or US forces faced in South Vietnam at the time.  Counter-insurgency tactics and hearts and minds operations were well established under JFK and implemented by over 16,000 Green Berets and advisors in South Vietnam.  What most people fail to understand is that these forces were gradually being rolled up by huge numbers of NVA regulars and their VC auxiliary forces.  This necessitated an adjustment to our strategy to not to go smaller, but to deploy large numbers of conventional troops.  It's obviously not the refinement that the present day small war advocates want to acknowledge.

[Another historical correction is needed concerning Abrams.  Patton's favorite armored commander was likely not Abrams, who as a tank battalion commander would have limited interaction with Patton.  Patton's favorite was undoubtedly Abrams' 4th Armored Division commander, Maj. Gen. John Shirley "P" Wood, even though Patton would later relieve Wood in the Lorraine campaign over issues unrelated to his competence as an armored force commander.  Wood had the reputation of being the only commander who could "out-Patton" Patton.]

The problem with Westmoreland's strategy was not his strategy at all, it was that the large scale operations were never followed through, which allowed US units to spend more and more time in their base camps.  This was of course, a familiar pattern that would be repeated during our own Iraq Sitzkrieg, and even between multiple campaigns in Fallujah and Najaf in 2004.  As Edward Luttwak puts it, counter-insurgency is "military malpractice" meant to cover for our inability to prosecute wars to their violent conclusion and to brutally govern the conquered peoples if the situation demands it.

As Dunn notes, Abrams was more open to suggestions from advisors, but the "secure and hold" strategy was certainly not a novel counter-insurgency idea as much as it was an adaptation of standard tactical principles he used in WW II while part of Patton's Third Army.  It's simply occupying the towns they had liberated with any unit available to prevent stay-behind fanatics from establishing a base of resistance.  Gen. Petraeus' counter-insurgency advisor, Dr. David Kilcullen says this about his COIN methodology [along with my translation]:

  • The population is fixed, because people are tied to their homes, businesses, farms, tribal areas, relatives etc.  Therefore-and this is the major change in our strategy this year-protecting and controlling the population.  Translation: Occupy and defend the towns.
  • We can asphyxiate him (the enemy) by cutting him off from the people.  Translation: Occupy and defend the towns.
  • We know who the population is that we need to protect, we know where they live, and we can protect them without unbearable disruption to their lives.  Translation: Occupy and defend the towns.
It is true that Abrams had chased a large portion of the enemy into Cambodia and Laos by use of his secure and hold operations, but he didn't stop there.  His multi-division conventional offensive into Cambodia in 1970, while politically divisive at home, was one of the most successful large-scale operations in history and set back Hanoi's timetable by at least one year.  Unfortunately, it was an operation that should have been conducted in 1965, and its value in 1970 was to ultimately provide breathing room to get ARVN forces up to speed, while continuing a phased withdrawal from South Vietnam.

Defining the enemy down

Prior to Petraeus assuming command in Iraq, Ralph Peters reminded the powers that be that sitting on the middle of the fence is not the way to be victorious in war.  He rammed home the point that the Sunnis were the enemy in Iraq before OIF, during OIF, and during the occupation just as Patriquin told us.  It's just that no one would admit to being bested by Baathist guerillas, but that's a difficult thing to do when from the very start, the US attempted a Bill Clinton-type triangulation by executing a surgical "regime change" that resulted in making Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia equally miserable non-victors.

In order to gain some modicum of security, Petraeus and his advisors have chosen a course of action that at the eleventh hour has at least some chance of attaining some concrete objectives.  But to succeed he has to focus combat power and public opinion on the relatively few AQ present in country and away from the main Sunni battle force.  To this end, his prowess at negotiating with the enemy and appointing former Baathist leaders to high level posts makes him the ideal choice to make progress within a precise set of politico-military conditions.  But we shouldn't call this "counter-insurgency" or a vindication of post-modern warfighting theory.

In other words, the tactical surge itself is on its way to being hugely successful, but we have intentionally down-selected the enemy to make it so.  Nevertheless, we shouldn't make a rush to judgment on the effectiveness of the surge, because events that transpire after the Coalition victory will be the real barometer of the overall strategic value of current operations.  There are two possibilities.

As was the case with Abrams in Vietnam, the surge may be designed to provide a buffer for intensifying the training regimen to build up Iraqi forces and to increase security for a Coalition withdrawal.  There are rumblings that certain aspects of James Baker's Iraqi Study Group will be implemented in this regard, and if US eventually repositions forces over-the-horizon to Saudi Arabia, then we will know that we have conducted a large scale spoiling attack to buy time for our retreat.  That is, we will have adopted the 20 percent solution, as Charles Krauthammer calls it, and will have cut our losses, thereby signaling our inability to deal with Saddam's guerillas and our failure to harshly govern a conquered people.

If however, we remain in Iraq and take advantage of our position and continue to develop forward bases to deal with Iran and the other bad actors in the region (as I believe was the initial intent), then it will be a huge strategic victory and it will usher in a sea-change in the geo-political make up of Central Region and Mid-East the likes of which we have never seen.

Let's hope and pray it's the latter.

* The myths promoted by some in the military and the media concerning Bremer's tenure continue to this day.  In December 2006, Captain Patriquin was killed in action as a result of an IED attack in Tikrit.  The editing of his article was nearly complete, but the staff of Military Review had not received his final approval for the piece, and had to edit the published version without the Captain's input.  I question the addition of the sidebar on page 20 which is an extract from Rajiv Chandrassekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City.  It describes Jay Garner's confrontation with Bremer over the de-Baathification Order.  Garner's assertion that the order would drive 50,000 Baathists underground and it's juxtaposition in an article that effectively makes the case that hundreds of thousands of Baathists with military experience were already primed to form a guerilla army is puzzling to say the least.  See Bremer's book  for the other side of the story.

Douglas Hanson is National Security Correspondent of American Thinker