The Surge Can Work

Virtually everyone agrees that the president’s proposal for Iraq is doomed to failure, a hopeless effort to save the lost cause of nation-building in the Middle East. Whether this view is driven by ideological opposition to the war or fear … Read More

By / January 19, 2007

Virtually everyone agrees that the president’s proposal for Iraq is doomed to failure, a hopeless effort to save the lost cause of nation-building in the Middle East. Whether this view is driven by ideological opposition to the war or fear of a Vietnam redux, the truth is that the surge holds out the very real promise of resolving what might otherwise come to be the most catastrophic foreign entanglement in American history.

The “surge” is not just an increase in troops. It involves a complete overhaul of military strategy and a transition from conventional warfare to strategic counterinsurgency. These changes should have been made after George Bush’s notorious “Mission Accomplished” photo op, when battlefield combat metamorphosed into a basic defense of the Iraqi populace from insurgents, Baath Party nationalists, and assorted gangsters and vigilantes. The surge aims to recapture key areas targeted by these groups while simultaneously training Iraqi forces to police these areas once the coalition withdraws.

The most common mischaracterization of the new war plan comes from a basic misreading of a paper by American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan. In Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, Kagan argues that we would need 150,000 additional troops to contain all of Baghdad.

Pundits such as Frank Rich and Joe Klein gleefully assert that the surge's proposed escalation of 21,500 troops thus falls farcically short of the recommendations in Choosing Victory. Yet Kagan explicitly states that we need not retake all of Baghdad, but only Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods. Thus, as he points out in a Weekly Standard piece published yesterday, his figures and those of the president do achieve a rough parity.

So why are we targeting only Sunni and mixed neighborhoods? Because engaging Sadr City, the fortified Shia slum in northeastern Baghdad controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, is not worth the expense in blood, treasure or regime legitimacy. Indeed, given that Iraq’s premier Nouri al-Maliki is Sadr’s marionette, any attempt to militarily confront the cleric can only lead to a collapse of central government and a widening of sectarian violence.

Sadr, for all his messianic posturing, is a shrewd politician. He dismisses attacks by Mahdi guerrillas against the coalition as the acts of “splinter” groups no longer under his control. In other words, he wants to avoid another Najaf and Karbala, as do we.

But even if troop levels are consistent with informed recommendations, and the most parlous sectarian ghetto need not be stormed, doesn’t the surge simply toss more human kindling onto the flames of an inevitable civil war? No. In 2005, when a joint American-Iraqi force successfully retook the town of Tal Afar, whose population is half Sunni and half Shia, we learned that “clear-hold-build” missions do indeed work in Iraq—when they’re organized properly.

The newly appointed commander of multinational forces, General David Petraeus, literally wrote the book on this type of campaign for the U.S. Army Field Manual. Petraeus is the anti-Rumsfeld. His commitment to “soft power” helped stabilize Mosul after the invasion, and reflects the Democratic establishment’s conventional wisdom on national security—a fact which makes the Congressional leadership’s hue and cry over the surge rather amusing.

In Counterinsurgency, Petraeus describes an effective clear-hold-build mission as more akin to urban policing than battlefield combat: Think New York City’s “broken windows” anti-crime initiative. The central paradox of counterinsurgency is that it applies proportionately less force with greater numbers. The goal is to safeguard the native population from pitiless and desperate aggressors without actively hunting down and killing them. For this reason it’s known as “war at the graduate level.”

Here’s how it will work: In the “clearing” phase, Iraqis and Americans will share planning and reconnaissance responsibilities. They’ll establish surveillance routes together and then “sweep” local housing and apartment blocks searching for signs of insurgent activity. Civilians prefer to have their doors knocked on by Yanks than by fellow Iraqis, who may moonlight as sectarian partisans or death squad riffraff. Iraqi troops will serve as cultural and linguistic liaisons and learn the delicate art of questioning civilians. Peace, in other words, will have to be a polyglot phenomenon.

“Holding” is the most sensitive phase, judging by how badly it’s been botched in previous campaigns. The first attempt to retake Baghdad, last summer’s Operation Together Forward, failed because we prematurely fobbed off all counterinsurgent tasks onto the Iraqis.

This time around, we’ll follow the Tal Afar model: Joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols will scour neighborhoods on foot and in vehicles, setting up permanent positions in abandoned factories, homes and government buildings. After about two weeks, they’ll begin to cultivate intelligence and informant networks. Bombs will continue to go off, but there’ll be a heightened sense of vigilance and the Baghdadi man-on-the-street will be more inclined to inform on the perpetrators.

Keeping the violence down allowed the Army to rebuild Tal Afar’s infrastructure, with the cooperation of non-military organizations like USAID, the State Department and NGOs. Petraeus has emphasized managing Iraqis’ so-called “man on the moon” expectations: Why can’t a country that can put a man on the moon restore basic services?

The commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment that secured Tal Afar noted residents’ dramatic response to the swift reactivation of utilities. They saw “that this was an operation for them—an operation to bring back security to the city” and soon began cooperating with the authorities by offering intelligence and responding to recruitment efforts for municipal police and civil services. Many of Tal Afar’s refugees subsequently returned home.

The lessons of Tal Afar, Petraeus’s expertise in clear-hold-build tactics, and Kagan’s proposals as to the necessary number of troops and where those troops should be focused—all of these are crucial planks of a program that has been dismissed as uninsipired and feckless rather than honestly assessed.

Still, when the president warned that the year ahead would be “bloody and violent,” he acknowledged the grim reality that the emergence of a viable post-Saddam state will require extreme forbearance on the part of the American and Iraqi peoples. And so it will.

Al Qaeda will increase its attacks in the clearing phase, then go to ground to corral its resources and test the stamina of the redoubled troop presence. Violence will inevitably escalate during Ramadan, so if additional forces are deployed by March we will doubtless see an increase in IEDs and car and suicide bombings through next September and October.

That violent season six months after the surge will be the ultimate test of our commitment to the welfare of the Iraqi people. The chattering classes, blinded in some cases by defeatism and in others by ideological prejudice, will inevitably rail that the increased violence indicates a flat-out failure of this radical change in war strategy.

If those sentiments prevail, and the U.S. then withdraws from Iraq or even adopts the train-‘em-and-leave recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, we will be abandoning the keystone state in the Middle East to civil war and ethnic cleansing. As goes the surge, so goes Iraq.

Tagged with: