Archive for the 'The Surge' Category



Iraq, Obama and The Surge

BY Herschel Smith
4 years ago

Obama has now announced the end of combat operations in Iraq.  But following plans set in motion even before Obama took office, troop reductions are occurring as fast as the logisticians are allowing.  Logistics dictates such things regardless of promises made during election campaigns.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pretended today that Obama supported the surge – the increase in troop presence – in 2007.


But forever cataloged for us is what Obama said about the surge when it really counted.

Matthew Burden at Blackfive notes that there has been robust debate over exactly what happened in Iraq.

Many deserve credit for today.  Among them are many who won’t hear the President’s speech.

Today should be Travis Patriquin Day.  If you don’t know about Travis, go here to read why there is a town square named after him in one of the most (formerly) dangerous cities in Iraq.  There are a lot of debates about whether it was the Sunni awakening, the Marines tactics, General Petraeus’ strategy, McMaster in Tal Afar, etc. for the turn around in Iraq.

But you can’t really debate what Patriquin did.  He was the ignition switch.

I would be in that camp that argues for the Marine tactics being the necessary and sufficient root cause of the success in Anbar (even though the campaign would have been longer and bloodier without the tribes).  But I would also give a moderately different take on what Matt calls the “ignition switch.”  While acknowledging Patriquin’s service and sacrifice, I am told by Army intelligence that the ignition switch for the tribal evolution away from support to AQ was in no small part our kinetic operations against the smuggling lines of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, even killing members of his extended family.  He sided with us in order to keep from losing everything.

I have been told by officers as high as Colonel (unnamed, in Iraq at the time) that the plan General Petraeus took to Iraq was dead on arrival because the logistics officers told him it was impossible.  His genius was in his ability to quickly amend his plan.  But as Colonel Gian Gentile and I have discussed, the success of the radical shift in strategy Petraeus brought to Iraq is the populist narrative.  Many or even most of the things done in 2007 were being done prior to that, especially in the Anbar Province.

But what’s significant about the surge is the increase in troop levels.  While al Qaeda fighters were being killed and chased from the Anbar Province, when they attempted to flee to Baghdad they found a heavy U.S. troop presence to greet them.  Instead, they had to flee North to Mosul (with some to the Diyala Province), leaving the seat of power in place in Baghdad.  What I have never heard since the surge is any respectable officer or NCO argue for fewer troops or claim that the additional troops didn’t help.  Whatever else one believes about what did or didn’t occur in Iraq, no one with any intellectual weight or notoriety claims that the additional troops were a detriment to the campaign.

Yet even as recently as two years ago (one year after the surge), Obama adviser Professor Colin Kahl was arguing against the virtues of the surge and for an early withdrawal from Iraq.  And while Secretary Gates warns against premature victory celebrations, and while Ryan Crocker argues against refusal to continue engagement of Iraq – even militarily – Obama has sent the unserious Joe Biden to meddle in the internal political affairs of Iraq.

It is reported that outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made commitments to the U.S. to exclude the Supreme Islamic Council under Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrists under Muqtada al-Sadr from a new government in Iraq, in return of U.S, support for his candidacy as prime minister.

These two groups are historically and strongly tied with Iran. Incidentally, both these groups refuse to support al-Maliki for a second term as prime minister.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is in charge of the Iraq dossier, arrived in Iraq last night to celebrate the termination of the combat role of the U.S. forces but, more significantly, to push forward the political process.

Joe is being played for the stooge, and Maliki cannot be trusted, but what’s more interesting than this is his admission of Iran’s influence inside of Iraq contrasted with his denials for so many years.  Iran is protesting the continued presence of any U.S. troops at all.  Iran is of course still very much interested in its regional hegemony, and Iraq is still very much an open book.  But consistent with candidate Obama’s position, its future won’t be very much a function of U.S. military force.  That part remains unchanged since before the election.  Oh, and we all knew that the troops were responsible for the success in Iraq.  Obama has told us nothing that we didn’t already know, and his administration is acting consistently with his previous positions, Robert Gibbs’ clown act notwithstanding.

Bad Form in Counterinsurgency Debates

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

Andrew Exum blogging at Abu Muqawama has a piece up on who he perceives to be the winner and losers in Tom Ricks’ new book The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.  I personally like Andrew and have enjoyed the exchanges I have had with him, via e-mail and in blog articles.  But let’s deal with a few items from this post by Andrew.

First, one of the “losers” is determined to be Colonel Gian Gentile who commanded a Battalion in Baghdad in 2006.  Tom Ricks judges the performance of his unit to be “actually quite poor.”  Major General Hammond is cited saying “Gentile had a different stance. It was night and day. He was FOB-centric. We are JSS-centric.”

Well, do tell.  Actually, I judge the performance of books that promulgate myths to be poor.  I have not read the book because Tom hasn’t sent me a free copy to review.  Had he sent me a copy I would have responded.  As a matter of fact, I haven’t even been able to get Tom to respond to a single e-mail.  But if Tom’s book advocates the idea that the campaign was won by jettisoning the notion of FOB-centric counterinsurgency and embracing Combat Outposts (or Joint Security Stations), then it is an exercise in simplistic myth-telling.

We have dealt with this before, this notion of a simple, one line narrative for Iraq.  The country, the security situation, the units, the commanders, and the enemy was simply too diverse for a one-size-fits-all narrative.  Even as late as the middle of 2007 operations were conducted in Fallujah, Anbar that were essentially FOB-centric.  The Marines in Operation Alljah would spend some time at JSS, but rotate in and out of them, never spending more than about two or three weeks per rotation.  The FOB was the main strategy for force protection, and yet the Marines still spent most of their time interacting with the population no matter where they garrisoned (heavy census operations, heavy patrolling, and especially heavy kinetic operations).  These operations were so successful that many high level visitors were received to discuss the methods, including the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

To say that a commander is FOB-centric is to say nothing more than he is committed to force protection.  It means nothing regarding the ability to do counterinsurgency.  And so now we have let the cat out of the bag, haven’t we?  There it is.  The great myth.  Now, let’s distinguish between levels.  Currently much of the Army in Afghanistan is cloistered into huge FOBs and left without much contact with the population.  Let’s contrast that the right way to do it.  In Opening a Combat Outpost for Business, we listened as the Marines built their force protection.

Marines with 2nd Platoon, Motor Transportation Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, conducted multiple combat logistics patrols in support of Operation Gateway III in Farah Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Dec. 28, 2008, through Jan. 25, 2009.

The logistics combat element Marines, part of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Afghanistan, endured more than two weeks behind their steering wheels and gun turrets in improvised explosive device-laden terrain during the initial phases of the operation.  Military planners with SPMAGTF-A designed Operation Gateway III as a deliberate plan to clear southern Afghanistan’s Route 515 of any existing IED and insurgent threats on the important east-west route.

The combat logisticians directly supported 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), the ground combat element of SPMAGTF-A, with the essential supplies and construction support necessary to erect three combat outposts at strategic locations along Route 515.  In a limited amount of time, the three locations were successfully developed from barren land into safe havens for the 3/8 Marines occupying the area.

“Ultimately I was surprised,” said Staff Sgt. Chris O. Ross, platoon sergeant. “The COPs were built quickly, and the Marines were working overtime to do it.”

Ross also said the timing and coordination required to conduct the operation came together well.

Second Lt. Juliann C. Naughton, 2nd Platoon’s convoy commander, explained it’s shocking for the locals to wake up the next morning to see that a military outpost has appeared from nowhere during the course of the night.

“The logistical support was a success, and we delivered the materials in a timely manner,” Naughton said. “We’ve also been interacting with the villagers and letting them know why we’re here.”

Fortifications including concertina wire, a parapet several feet tall and dirt-filled protective barriers ensured the Marines on the interior of the COPs were shielded from outside threats. Multiple observation posts and several heavy and medium machine guns provided security and over-watch for the combat logisticians as they performed their craft.

The interior of the COPs offer living quarters, hygiene facilities, combat operations centers and more to accommodate its current and future residents.

The posts were strategically placed along the route to show an alliance presence, as well as enable safe travel.

And thus can it be done successfully, this notion of force protection combined with contact with the population.  To set them in juxtaposition as opposites or somehow mutually exclusive is the grand myth around which the narrative of the surge is being built.  In reality, the situation was more complicated, a subject we covered in The Surge.

Second, Gian Gentile asks Tom in the comments of this post at Abu Muqawama:

Ref your book Fiasco, which at the end you spend about a page talking about my unit, 8-10 Cav. In Fiasco you said this about my unit and what we were doing in 2006:

“… overall the US effort was characterized by a more careful, purposeful style.”

you even went on to praise a simple tactic of slow mounted movement that we adopted and noted that

“it was less disruptive to the Iraqis and sends a message of calm, control…”

OK, you were not saying that Gentile was the next Galula, that they were on the way to winning the war by themselves. But clearly your impression was positive, at least the way you portrayed us in Fiasco.

Then The Gamble comes along and in it you become a harsh critic of my unit’s performance (and that criticism was based on the same embed tour that you did with us in early February). So what changed between the two books?

To which Tom responds thusly:

‘what changed between the two books?’

A small civil war, and the prospect of defeat.

So there you have it.  One may ask rhetorically what this has to do with Gian Gentile, and the obvious answer is nothing whatsoever.  So we may conclude that Tom doesn’t have a good answer for what happened between the two books.

Third, as for Gian, he and I have slightly disagreed and nuanced our arguments to come to agreement elsewhere, such as with Sadr (I believe that marginalization of his forces did him in, and that he wouldn’t have been alive anyway had the 3/2 Marines had their way, as he was under their custody in 2004) and the Sons of Iraq and pay to participate (which saw robust use in the Anbar province in 2007 as it should have).

But Gian is a great American and a warrior-scholar, and to place him in the category of “loser” as Andrew does is simply bad form.  There is no excuse for it.  Again, I like Andrew, but he seems to have bought into the Gnostic version of counterinsurgency.  Only a few “get it,” and the rest of us should simply be consigned to the doofus category in counterinsurgency.  Such may be the indiscretions of youth.

Andrew is a bright young man and his contributions to this discipline in the future will be enormous.  But with this authority comes responsibility.  Andrew should be circumspect with his thoughts.  Gian doesn’t advocate jettisoning counterinsurgency doctrine, any more than he wishes to lose the campaigns in which we are engaged.  Gian wants to be prepared for the future, no matter what that may bring.  It was a very wise man who once said:

“For waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers” (Proverbs 24:6, NIV).

See also: The Man in the Arena, Small Wars Journal Blog

The Surge

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 1 month 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.


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