Ten years ago U.S. forces “surged” into Iraq. The operation was seen as a bold and unexpected move to rescue a counterinsurgency strategy that had been failing. Over the past decade, there have been countless articles assessing whether the surge “worked” and was what reduced sectarian violence in Iraq, as well as whether population-centric counterinsurgency – the idea of protecting the people rather than merely killing the enemy – is the way to defeat insurgencies.
The surge was a dicey gamble. In early 2007, the president ordered five additional brigades – roughly 30,000 troops – to pacify Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle of Anbar Province at a time when public support for the war was going south. The objective of the mission was to clear, hold, and build insurgent strongholds as a way of – to borrow a tired phrase – winning hearts and minds. The philosophy behind population-centric counterinsurgency is that civilian collaboration is the key to identifying and targeting insurgents. But also the aim was to provide enough security to allow Iraqi leaders space to forge a political compromise.
In general warfare the primary goal for opposing armies is conquest, and the center of gravity is the opposing enemy’s force and terrain that he needs to sustain his operations. Clausewitz described such elements as “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.” As Army officers, we are drilled repeatedly in the effective use of combat power to out-maneuver enemy forces and attack at the decisive point and time to degrade an opposing force to a condition from which he cannot recover.
Unlike general warfare, the primary goal of fighting an insurgency is collaboration and the rebels’ center of gravity is the population. The concept of securing and providing for a population in order to reduce insurgent recruitment and increase incumbent collaboration is widespread throughout our textbooks. David Galula, the French theorist of guerrilla warfare, identified counterinsurgent operations as military exercises intending to convince the “supportive minority” against the “insurgent minority” in hopes of swaying the larger population.
The trouble with assessing the surge is that there were multiple factors that contributed to the decline in violence in 2007, not least of which was Iraqis voting with their feet and fleeing their neighborhoods. But there also was a ceasefire by a radical Iran-backed Shiite group, the Mahdi Army, as well as an “awakening” in Anbar by Sunni tribal elders fed up by the wanton violence of Al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq ( ISI), which was the precursor to ISIS.
So was the surge a success?
To answer this question, I carried out an empirical and qualitative analysis of two pre-surge insurgent strongholds in the Sunni Triangle, Hit and Falluja, to examine levels of civilian collaboration.
I found that in Hit, which received a “counterterrorism-plus” design of military intervention – light units of mostly U.S. Special Forces – not enough security was provided for locals to defect and give us valuable intel to find the enemy. The result was an over-reliance on airpower and an alienation of the population.
By contrast in the second battle for Falluja, which saw a massive pre-surge mobilization of U.S. and Iraqi forces, the city was able to remove the insurgent threat and secure the terrain. Developmental aid projects and reconstruction efforts brought the return of Falluja’s civic population and helped pacify the city in preparation for the nation’s election in January of 2005.
In other words, the type of military operation matters. It’s not enough for foreign militaries to simply control territory. My research suggests that military control is highly nuanced and requires a thorough examination of troop conduct rather than aggregate numbers.
Ten years after the “surge,” a few key lessons emerge from my analysis: First, tactical and operational success do not necessarily translate into strategic success. Although my analysis was not a strategic level study of the Iraq War, it is clear with current tensions still in the region, that U.S. efforts did not create the lasting peace many hoped for.
Second, and consistent with previous work done by the new National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, limited approaches to insurgent warfare should not be considered as viable options. In an era of cost-saving measures within Defense appropriations, it is tempting to rely heavily upon technological advances to replace costly manpower requirements.
But make no mistake: There is no shortcut to counterinsurgency. Cost-saving measures that appear to limit insurgent activity may actually further destabilize the region through measures of indiscriminate targeting and execution and failure to fully engage with the population. A realistic understanding of the requirements and costs of insurgencies in my analysis of the “surge” are necessary to restrain our leaders against the potential misappropriation of force.
Before the United States goes surging into, say, Syria or another country in the midst of civil war, my research reinforces the reality that military force is be a tool that is limited in scope. We should view it with an accurate appraisal of its ability. Political and military leaders must be wary of misunderstanding the role and function of armed conflict or else risk attaining limited operational goals at the expense of strategic success.
Major Aaron Wilcox serves as an Instructor of International Relations in the Department of Social Sciences. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2006, Aaron commissioned as an Armor Officer. Aaron joined Second Brigade of the First Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, as a Scout Platoon leader before deploying to Iraq as an Executive Officer from 2008-2009. After Ranger school, Aaron received command of a Mechanized Infantry Company in the First Armored Division at Ft. Bliss, Texas. Aaron deployed to Iraq in 2010 as a Company Commander and assisted with the final closeout of the Iraq War prior to the U.S. troop movement out of theater. Aaron received a Master's degree in International Relations from Binghamton University (SUNY), where he completed a thesis evaluating U.S. counterinsurgent strategy during pre-surge combat. His ongoing research interests include mapping the utility of military force across the spectrum of conflict.
Image: U.S. Army