The Surge

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 4 months ago

Senator John McCain is being taken to task for alleged discrepancies in his surge narrative.  Joe Conason with Salon has recently discussed “McCain’s embarrassing assertion that the Sunni insurgency’s turn toward the U.S. and away from al-Qaida came because of the surge.”  Conason’s discussion is pedestrian and rather boring, but a more sophisticated hit job is being proffered by Professor Colin Kahl – now advisor to Barack Obama – entitled When to Leave Iraq.

I will only deal with one major aspect of the commentary, that being his citation of Major Niel Smith’s paper and the alleged obsession of the Anbar tribes with the stateside talk of withdrawal.  According to Kahl, “In short, contrary to the Bush administration’s claims, the Awakening began before the surge and was driven in part by Democratic pressure to withdraw.”

Whether anyone in the administration ever claimed that the surge drove the tribal awakening is beyond the scope of the discussion here (and really is quite irrelevant).  What is more important is the order of things and how the surge played a role in the stabilization of Iraq.  Unlike Professor Kahl, I had an opportunity to review a pre-publication version of Major Smith’s paper.  Major Smith forwarded his paper to me, probably as a result of many exchanges Smith and I had over e-mail and also in discussion threads at the Small Wars Council.  I am a student of the campaign for Anbar (because of my son’s deployment to Fallujah), and Major Smith (himself more than just a student – a veteran of the campaign in Ramadi) and I have had some interesting and spirited discussions.

For some reason, Professor Kahl didn’t link Smith’s Leavenworth paper Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point.  Had his readers been given the opportunity to read Smith’s paper, they might have come away with a somewhat more nuanced understanding of the campaign than Kahl did.  While the observations of Captain Travis Patriquin were important, there were also the other aspects of the Anbar campaign that focused more heavily in kinetic operations.

Winning Anbar can properly be said to have been Diplomacy with a Gun.  Even Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the awakening movement, had to have his smuggling lines cut by kinetic operations by U.S. forces before he “saw the light” and sided with the U.S.  As one essential element of the campaign, security had to exist as the basis for any meaningful exchange between the U.S. and the tribes.

MacFarland says he soon realized the key was to win over the tribal leaders, or sheiks.

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “

This understanding should be coupled with even more nuanced and adaptable versions of counterinsurgency, such as the use of sand berms around Haditha (that I discussed a year and a half ago) to prevent the influx of Syrian fighters, along with coercive pressure on the tribal leaders.  While Major Smith is right in his assertion that tactics in Ramadi were prototypes of counterinsurgency that were used elsewhere in Anbar, Ramadi didn’t mark the first time counterinsurgency was practiced in Anbar.

The Military Channel recently played a narrated movie entitled Alpha Company: Iraq Diary, by filmmaker Gordon Forbes (a series my friend Bill Ardolino had the good sense to recommend long before I did).  This lengthy series is well worth the study time, and shows a very sophisticated application of counterinsurgency even as early as 2005 in and around Fallujah.  It shows a closer focus on “knock and talks,” intelligence driven raids and other aspects of soft counterinsurgency than implemented even later in other parts of Anbar.

In fact, Operation Alljah in Fallujah in 2007 involved more kinetic engagements than Alpha Company’s operations did two years earlier (much of 2/6 Golf Company earned their combat action ribbons within six days of leaving Camp Lejeune for Fallujah, and continued to engage in heavy kinetics through the summer).  This is not by accident.  The practice of counterinsurgency for two years running in the Anbar Province, including not only Major Smith’s operations in Ramadi but also all of the other aspects discussed above, drove al Qaeda and the remaining indigenous insurgency into the Fallujah area of operations in early 2007.  In short, two years of counterinsurgency was successful, setting up the operations in Fallujah in 2007.

Operation Alljah involved not only heavy kinetics, but also the implementation of gated communities, biometrics, and block captains (or muktars).  The remaining indigenous insurgency stood down and returned to their homes throughout Anbar upon heavy kinetic engagements, while al Qaeda stood their ground and died or fled Northwest to the Diyala Province (or towards Mosul).

This is where the surge came in.  The increase in troop commitments in and around Baghdad, along with intelligence-driven raids and constant contact with the population, made it impossible for al Qaeda to seek safe haven in Baghdad.  Many al Qaeda fighters died in Fallujah in the summer of 2007, and thus Anbar was essentially won with the last major Marine Corps operation in Anbar having been successful.

The Anbar campaign was in many ways a precursor to and the formative basis for the surge and security plan, but given the proximate need of each one for the other in order to finish al Qaeda in the South and West, they were symbiotically connected and essentially coupled.

Perhaps professor Kahl didn’t find it convenient to contact Major Smith before publication of his commentary on withdrawal from Iraq to see what Smith thought of the surge.  Smith answers it for us anyway.

As a personal opinion, I doubt that we would have had the flexibility to break Baghdad’s “cycle of violence” without the addition of extra troops, combined with a coherent and synchronized operational plan based off of organizational learning. The Awakening probably would have occurred in Anbar regardless, but I doubt it could have spread into the “Sons of Iraq” movement without the addition of troops to mitigate the sectarian cycle of violence combined with evolved COIN practices (the above plus things like gated communities in B’Dad).

Whether gated communities in Fallujah and Baghdad, biometrics throughout Anbar and Baghdad, payment for the services Sons of Iraq, hard core kinetic engagements in Fallujah in the summer of 2007 and throughout 2005 – 2007 in Ramadi, sand berms around Haditha, the proximity of troops in Baghdad preventing al Qaeda from garrisoning in Baghdad, air power and intelligence driven raids, or other complicated aspects of counterinsurgency, the fact of the matter is that this conversation is one that many of us have had for a very long time now.  Counterinsurgency is a very complicated affair, and lifting one aspect of it out of context and elevating it to a position of exclusive use is for dolts.

In the future you will likely hear that the talk of withdrawal caused the tribal awakening, the surge wasn’t necessary, and support for it was mistaken.  When you hear this, rest assurred that it is based on information that was lifted out of context and for which there is no backdrop.  Professor Kahl liked citing Major Smith’s paper on the issue of withdrawal being pressure on the tribal leaders.

It was easy, however, to avoid the other parts of the paper that didn’t fit into his neatly outlined narrative, like Smith’s edict ”Never stop looking for another way to attack the enemy.”  While Smith contributed to Operation Iraqi Freedom and I sent a son to fight there, Kahl is about two years too late to make any sort of meaningful contribution to understanding the campaign.  For this reason, Barack Obama’s understanding of the campaign is hopelessly impoverished.



  • http://www.rokdrop.com GI

    Herschel as always excellent article however don’t expect facts to change one’s political views of the surge. For some crediting the military with implementing a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq would feel like they are crediting President Bush with something which they cannot bring themselves to do.

    While the full scope of what was happening in Iraq in regards to the tribal awakening and the surge has long been described and discussed on great sites like this, Bill Roggio, Michael Yon, Small Wars Journal, etc. the political left is now trying to rewrite the history of what happened in Iraq to discredit the efforts of the US military. I am pretty sure that Kahl knew full well the full context of MAJ Smith’s paper but intentionally quoted it out of context in order to score political points. The fact that Obama is receiving advice from such a person is unfortunate.

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  • http://regimeofterror.com Mark Eichenlaub

    Nice post Mr. Smith.

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  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Iraq, Obama and The Surge


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This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Iraq,The Surge and was published July 28th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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