After the Surge

The surge was not going to work. But the surge has worked.

Everybody from the Brookings Institution to the Washington Post has gotten around to admitting that. Even such an inveterate war opponent as Rep. Brian Baird, who voted against virtually every bill supporting the war, has reversed his stance to accept the simple, undeniable fact that the surge is working.

But that doesn't matter anymore. The surge is irrelevant, because there's no "political settlement". Iraq Shi'ites and Sunnis are still at loggerheads. None of the "benchmarks" has been reached, none of the crucial questions concerning representation and division of oil resources and revenues has been dealt with. Surge or no surge, Iraq's sectarian nightmare rolls on.

Except that on August 26, leaders of Iraq's three major sectarian groups, Sunnis, Shi'ites; and Kurds, laid down the basis for a settlement by clearing away the most galling issues preventing reconciliation: provincial autonomy, the status of ex-Ba'athist party members, and the release of Sunnis in custody without charge. This may well be the first step toward a lasting political order.

Need it be added that it was reported virtually nowhere in the U.S.?

But why should it have been? It's too late for that. Now, we're told, we only need wait until the surge is over for Al-Queda to come roaring back in to undo all the good work accomplished with such sacrifice and expense. Surge, political reconciliation, it makes no difference. There's nothing to be done. The Jihadis are invincible. Just wait and see.

That's what certain elements of the media and the loyal opposition would like us to believe -- that all the achievements of the surge will simply evaporate once the troop level is pulled down. And despite the source, it's a question worth considering. After all, that's how things went the first three years of the war. Coalition troops would subdue an area, clean out insurgent forces, whether Al Qaeda or freelance, and turn the town or neighborhood over to Iraqi forces only to find that the Jihadis had climbed in through the back window as we were leaving by the front door. Is there any guarantee that this process won't be repeated after the surge winds down?

The problem with guerilla war is forcing the enemy to admit defeat. In conventional warfare there comes a point where defeat becomes inevitable, for any number of material, tactical, and psychological reasons (John Keegan's first book, The Face of Battle, deals with this question in detail). There's even a catchphrase referring to it, revealing that the concept is part of common wisdom: "staring defeat in the face".

This factor is simply not in play in guerilla or insurgent warfare, at least not to the same extent. Insurgents expect to be defeated -- so they avoid occasions where defeat can be made manifest. They're already operating on a level where none of the standard military criteria means anything. So why should the final criteria, involving who wins and who loses, ever arise? This is precisely what we've seen in Iraq. The Jihadis have essentially spent the past four years being kicked from one end of the country to the other, losing their command cadres, being rousted from villages, neighborhoods, and entire cities, and taking heavy casualties every time. It meant nothing. They simply slunk back in as soon as the Coalition forces left, strongly aided by an external source of manpower that was dumb, fanatical, and easily manipulated.

Can they pull off the same thing after the surge ends? And if so, how can this possibility be met? How can Gen. Petreaus, who has executed the surge with a mastery unmatched by previous commanders fighting guerilla forces, deal with this final facet of Jihadi resilience?

Three major elements are involved in winning a guerilla war: creating a sense of security (a situation where legitimate forces actually exercise complete control is of course preferable, but even the impression of security can be all-important), gaining the loyalty of the populace to assure that the guerillas obtain no support, and constricting enemy actions to make it difficult for him to interfere with the first two factors.

The surge is accomplishing all three. Enhanced security has led to a drop in overall violence. Major attacks have fallen nearly 50% in the period between February and August. Sectarian killings have dropped an incredible 75%.  A little over a week ago, the AP was reduced to running a story concerning a single woman being shot during the pilgrimage to Karbala, an event that has been notorious for mass slaughter during the past three years. (The Shi'ite militias stepped in at the last minute to pull the media out. Fortunately, they were only shooting each other.) While there are areas north of Baghdad that are still dangerous, security across much of the country has improved dramatically.

Befriending the local population is the next crucial step. During the Vietnam War, the Marines, lacking the manpower and heavy divisions of the Army, had to fight smarter. The result was the Combined Action Program. A squad of Marines would settle into a village, living alongside the Vietnamese and taking over the training and command of the village's Popular Force unit -- essentially a citizen militia. These Combined Action Platoons (CAPs) patrolled the area around the village, preventing infiltration and disrupting enemy activity. If a fight broke out, the Marines could call in artillery, air support, and reinforcements. The Viet Cong were unable to penetrate CAP villages, and as a result the Marine area of operations, I Corps, was one of the most secure districts of the country, even though it bordered on North Vietnam itself.

A variant of this strategy is being employed in Iraq. Instead of moving on once an area is secured, small units of troops set up an outpost (called a "Joint Security Station" in city neighborhoods, where they are shared with Iraqi units), and work with the local people,  providing medical care, general assistance, and interceding with higher government officials. Once a relationship is established, recruitment can begin for home defense units much like the CAPs, usually working through the local sheik.

By this time, most Iraqis have developed a loathing for Al-Queda unmatched by anything felt by the Vietnamese (the Viet Cong, after all, were their countrymen), and are eager to come to grips with them. (Sometimes too eager, as this story
 reveals.) This program, which played a large role in subduing Fallujah and Ramadi, has been extended by Gen. Petreaus throughout Iraq under the name "Concerned Citizens" (perhaps not the best coinage). By this means entire regions of Iraq are being brought under control.

Both these elements play a large role in squeezing the Jihadis. An insurgency can't operate without sanctuaries. Deprived of places where they can rest and refit, they have no choice -- they must abandon that area. Once they leave, their influence ends. As a kind of bonus, they become targets while fleeing to safety. Large bands of armed men are easily tracked and engaged, more so in Iraq than in Vietnam.

These factors act synergistically -- a more secure area produces locals willing to cooperate with Coalition forces, which in turn puts more pressure on the Jihadis, making the area more secure and assuring yet larger numbers of people coming over to the government side. A true counterinsurgency operation, while requiring considerable effort and thought, possesses an elegance that the thud and blunder style of anti-guerilla operation lacks. It can also be extraordinarily effective. One piece of history lost until recently (and now being recovered by historians such as Mark Moyar) concerns the fact that during the last years of the Vietnam War, most of South Vietnam was under full government control. The country was not overrun by an insurrection but by a full-scale Warsaw Pact-style invasion by the People's Army of North Vietnam.. The Viet Cong, essentially a ghost organization by that time, played very little part.

The problem facing the Coalition is how to extend the effects of the surge even after high troop levels are finally drawn down. (We have no idea when that will be -- but neither does Al-Qaeda. Yet another method of applying pressure.)

The point lost on most observers is that Gen. Petreaus' strategy appears to be creating the conditions to meet post-surge requirements. The Concerned Citizens units will remain, trained and armed, after the troops leave. But how good will they be without the stiffening provided by a professional military unit? An item mentioned only in passing in a number of news reports involves local sheiks in Anbar who have been strongly encouraged to send their tribesmen to join the police forces. These men get training and equipment, while lacking the loyalty and dedication problems that crippled previous police units. While little mention of this has been made in other areas of Iraq (another sign of how observant all those reporters are),  there's no reason to doubt that it's happening all across the country. These are the units that will replace Coalition troops when the drawdown begins.

It must be kept in mind that not all U.S. forces will be pulled out when the surge ends. A large number will remain into the foreseeable future, ready to reinforce and support loyal neighborhoods and villages.

Next spring or summer, Al-Qaeda may well attempt to return to the towns and villages they ravaged so brazenly until only a few months ago. But they will discover, in place of the cowed, frightened populace that they left behind, a trusted police force and an armed and trained citizenry, with the willingness and ability to call on U.S. troops  they have come to know and respect.

This will work. It is the fabled CAP program in all but name. It is fully in line with the teachings and experience of Robert Thompson, Edward Lansdale, and other masters of counterinsurgency warfare. And there may well be a lot more in store for the Jihadis. Petreaus, after all, wrote the book on U.S. counterinsurgency tactics. And he has, for the past six months, had the assistance of Australian lieutenant colonel David Kilcullen, one of the world's leading experts on this style of warfare.

This strategy does not represent a complete answer. Nothing does in guerilla war. We may have seen the future in the grotesque recent attack on the Yazidi: a war of the villages, with the most helpless and remote of the Iraqi people victimized out of little more than sheer spite. Something similar occurred in the 90s in Algeria, when the government fought a long, drawn-out civil war with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). 

The GIA's idea of "war" involved wiping out the most isolated mountain villages in an endless series of massacres. Up to 100,000 were killed. But at last the GIA was subdued, and the Algerian government -- for what it's worth -- survived.

The GIA were also Islamists, like Al-Queda and the rest of the Jihadis. They had very close relations with Al-Qaeda. It's easily possible that members of the GIA are fighting in Iraq at this moment.

But as we've pointed out before, one of the basic rules of insurgent warfare, formalized by Mao in his dicta for revolutionary troops, is to make yourself one with the peasantry. Al-Qaeda and its allies have never obeyed that dictum, and they've begun to pay the price. An insurgency reduced to terrorizing the people is not on the road to winning anything. It is one step above banditry.

(Another factor overlooked in Iraq is the curious status of the Jihadis as an invading insurrectionary force. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is made up of Saudis, Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Yemenis -- just about anything but Iraqis. This means that they will be viewed as an occupation force by people unfortunate enough to fall under their control -- quite a different thing from homegrown guerillas. To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has happened before.)

Whatever the Iraq conflict mutates into, we can say with certainty that those who are predicting - perhaps even hoping - that the situation will once again flip to the low point of 2006 will be disappointed.

That leaves us to deal with Moqtada, (whose recent unilateral "truce" of six months might be taken as something of a surrender note) and the Iranians, if that is in fact a separate problem -- but they will wait for another time.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.
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