Re-Examining the Surge in Iraq


On January 11, 2007 President Bush announced in a nationally televised address a shift in policy for the war in Iraq.  He would augment the troops in Iraq with 20,000 extra troops.  These troops were assigned to provide security in the countryside creating the space necessary for positive political development.   Counter-Insurgency (COIN) tactics would now be adopted, aimed at wining the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.   Along with the new strategy came changes up and down the military and political leadership, the most important of which were General Petraeus—himself an architect of COIN—as head of military forces and Ryan Crocker as the new American ambassador.  Three years after the announcement of the surge, violence in Iraq has fallen significantly, American combat operations have ended, and the Iraqis are well on their way to establishing a new coalition government.

  • Conventional wisdom says that the surge was clearly a resounding success, but in this case conventional wisdom is, if not entirely wrong, certainly missing the bigger picture.  Policymakers would do well to heed the “lessons of Iraq” with great care when developing Afghan strategy.
  • The difficulty in assessing the true impact of the surge lies in the old statistical dictum: “correlation does not equal causation”.  Clearly, the timing of the surge correlates to reduced violence, but in order to infer causation other potential explanations have to be taken into account.  Alas, in Iraq there are at least two other major contenders to explain the precipitous drop in violence:

1. Political developments which left the insurgency without an obvious base of local support.

2. The establishment of a deadline for complete U.S. withdrawal.

The Importance of Popular Support in Fighting an Insurgency

A critical aspect of Counter-Insurgency tactics is the removal of popular support for the insurgency.  In Iraq this process had already begun by the time the surge was announced.  In a process known as the “Sunni Awakening”, as early as 2005, sheiks in Anbar province began to form armed militias in order to promote security.  Initially these forces formed part of the insurgency against U.S. occupation; however, starting in 2006 communities in Anbar province turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq and began aiding U.S. forces.   It is important to note that this movement developed prior to and independent from the Iraqi surge, largely in response to al Qaeda atrocities and overreach.

  • The Anbar Awakening was a decisive factor in the surge’s success.  According to General MacFarland: “70 % or 80 % of credit for the success of the counter-insurgency fight in Ramadi goes to Iraqi people who stood up to al Qaeda.”

Although the Sunni Awakening is the most obvious example of a political event leading to the development of improved security conditions, also significant was the disarmament of the Mahdi army which took place between August 2007 and March 2008.  Following brief incursions in May 2008, Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to take over positions in Basra, the center Sadr’s support.  The battle which lasted six days effectively decimated the Mahdi army.  Three months later Sadr ordered the disarmament of the Mahdi army, leaving only a small cadre of elites to continue the fight.   Increasingly Sadr has attempted to influence Iraq through supporters in parliament.

  • Although the destruction of the Mahdi certainly had a military aspect to it, the surge cannot explain these developments.  The southern zone did not see a “surge” of troops—in fact Basra, which had been run by British security forces, saw a decrease in troop levels.  The best explanation is perhaps that Sadr increasingly found he could achieve his political goals without resorting to violence.

The Importance of a Timeline

A second potential explanation for the improvement in security was the establishment of a timeline for withdrawing all U.S. troops.  One of the untold stories of the Iraq War is the role of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in bringing the Bush administration towards this fixed timeline.  Prior to the SOFA, Bush had been steadfastly opposed to any firm dates.  During the 2008 campaign, mere months before he would dramatically reverse course, Bush backed the Republican position that setting a firm deadline would undermine U.S. forces in Iraq.  Despite this opposition, events regarding legal basis for foreign troops in Iraq would soon overtake the administration’s position.

All the way back in June 2004, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1546 mandating that the U.S. and coalition forces provide security and support until an Iraqi government is formed.  Once Iraqis held national elections—which took place in December of 2005—the UN mandate effectively expired.  In order to maintain a legal basis for U.S. presence in Iraq, the U.N. Security Council had to extend mandate an additional year, and between 2004 and 2008 the UN extended the mandate four times.  This reliance on the UN was a weakness soon to be exploited by Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.  Realizing that he could take advantage of the fragile legal basis for U.S. occupation, the Iraqi Prime Minister convinced the Security Council not to continue passing extensions.  In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Maliki requested that they extend the mandate one last time.  The Security Council acquiesced: In 2008, the U.S. would have to negotiate directly with the Iraqi government over U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Initially the prospects of a SOFA agreement faced resistance from opposition in Iraq and the United States.  Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani argued that an Iraqi-endorsed security arrangement would legitimize the occupation; he argued that he would only support an agreement if U.S. pledged to remove all troops from Iraq by a firm date.  Others in both the U.S. and Iraq worried that a SOFA would establish permanent bases in Iraq, as is the case in Japan, Korea and Germany.  Few predicted that, desperate to achieve legal status for U.S. forces, Bush would be forced to make several large concessions in effect adopting Sistani’s requirement.

In April 2008, the U.S. agreed for the first time to a nominal date of 2011 for the withdrawal.  Was this a firm timeline for withdrawal?  The Bush administration said no—it was an “aspirational goal for a time horizon.”  It should come as little surprise that the Iraqi government immediately demanded clearer language.  Eight months from the deadline, the Bush administration was forced to scramble for an agreement, eventually caving in to virtually all of Maliki’s demands:  By December 31st 2009 all combat forces would be withdrawn from Iraqi cities, all U.S. forces would be pulled out by 2011, and no blanket amnesty would be given for U.S. servicemen.  The deal was a dramatic about-face for the administration.

  • The implications of the deadline for withdrawal were that a major impetus for the insurgency, i.e. fighting the U.S. occupation, disappeared.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to quantify how large a difference the SOFA agreement made.  One thing is certain:  as the U.S. has pulled back troops to well below pre-surge levels, the security situation continued to improve.  Sadr, even as he ordered the disbanding of his army, said that it was contingent on a U.S. withdrawal.

What Lessons can be applied from the Iraqi Surge to Afghanistan?

First and foremost policymakers need to be very wary of using Iraq as a model for its strategy in Afghanistan.  Yes, conditions have improved in Iraq, but that is no guarantee that the same policy will yield the same outcome in Afghanistan.  It is not even clear that the Iraq approach is appropriate in Afghanistan.  In Iraq, it was relatively easy to negotiate with the Sunni nationalists (aka Sunni Awakening) and Sadr, effectively isolating Al Qaeda.

  • In Afghanistan the insurgency is similarly divided, but there is no obvious group with which to ally the Taliban.   Indeed, many of the indigenous warlords the U.S. is backing in Afghanistan have troubling history of human rights records and dubious records of corruption.

If the U.S. is to replicate the success of the surge, it clearly must also replicate the political developments that occurred in Iraq and which were critical to the surge’s eventual success.   Will locals turn against the insurgents decisively?  Based on a recent report from the Open Society Institute, the answer appears to be no.  According to the report, the U.S. is not winning the hearts and minds of local Afghans, while the insurgency—although unpopular—continues to maintain a strong connection to the local populace at the village level.  Furthermore, there seems to be little indication that local Afghan leaders are initiating something akin to the Anbar Awakening.

  • Without this local support, undermining and marginalizing the insurgency would take years.

Also undoubtedly critical to the prospects of the Afghan surge is a clearly defined exit strategy.  Reports suggest that U.S. forces are primarily viewed as occupiers by southern Pashtuns.   If President Obama does not want an open-ended commitment, he should follow the policies of the Bush administration in December of 2008:

  • By setting a firm deadline for the removal of all U.S. troops, the U.S. can de-escalate the crisis and provide political space for an agreement.

In re-working the Afghan strategy policymakers must also address the very real possibility that the coalition forces will be unable to marginalize the insurgency a la Iraq.  Indeed mounting evidence suggests that the insurgency is growing stronger.  Can the U.S. negotiate a peace deal without marginalizing and in essence defeating the insurgency?  There is historic precedence for such a deal.  In the 1990s for instance, the British negotiated the Belfast agreement in Northern Ireland despite the fact that the IRA remained a potent force in the country.  Once the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, realized it could better achieve its political objectives through negotiation, the incentive for the insurgency disappeared.  The Irish example is not alone.  In El Salvador, a similar peace process incorporated the guerilla organization FMNL into the political process.

  • In both El Salvador and Ireland, two factors were critical to the success of eventual negotiations.  Both sides had to accept that a military solution was not possible and both sides had to agree to an initial cease fire.

In Afghanistan, the conditions are ripe for such a deal.  The U.S. and coalition countries are on the verge of accepting that they cannot defeat the insurgency.  The Taliban, for their part, are not on the verge of victory either.  According to Andrew Exum a military expert, “even if the U.S. left tomorrow, the Taliban would not be able to take Kabul.  In fact most military analysts suggest that the Taliban’s prognosis is grim.”  The Taliban have even indicated a desire to compromise.  In his Eid ul Fitr statement, Mullah Omar wrote that he was willing to “leave open all options” in order to achieve a “just Islamic state.”


Ever since president Obama announced to the West Point cadets that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, people have compared the Afghanistan surge to the Iraqi surge.  If the U.S. wants to take historic lessons and apply them to Afghanistan, perhaps a better model is provided by counter-insurgencies in Ireland and El Salvador.  In those countries, political reconciliation between two forces, neither of which could win the war militarily, brought the conflict to an end.

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