Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding the Surge in Iraq and What’s Ahead

Understanding the Surge in Iraq and What’s Ahead

There are three things the American people don’t understand about the war in Iraq right now: (1) how difficult the surge was and how different it was from the previous four years of the war; (2) that the surge failed, judged on its own terms; and (3) that the war is not over. In fact, I suspect we might be only halfway through it, which is to say that President Obama’s war in Iraq may well be longer than George Bush’s war in Iraq, which was five years and ten months old when Bush left office.

The difficulty of the surge is a major point of my new book, The Gamble. Americans at home either never understood or have forgotten just how hard the first six months of the surge were, from January 2007 into the summer of 2007. This period saw the six toughest months of fighting in the war to date. Gen. David Petraeus, looking back on it in my last interview with him, called the spring of 2007 a “horrific nightmare,” and this is not a man given to overstatement.

In the spring of 2007, U.S. forces in Iraq went through several months with casualties rising and no signs of success. Seventy U.S. soldiers and marines were killed in action in February 2007; 71 in March 2007; 96 in April 2007; 120 in May 2007. One unit encountered fifty buried bombs on its way to establishing an outpost. Another unit of 38 soldiers at an outpost in Tarmiyah, about 20 miles north of downtown Baghdad on the Tigris River, was awakened at 7:00 am one morning by a truck bomb at their front gate. The bomb knocked down the gate, the front wall, and the front wall of their barracks; destroyed their generator, which powered their communications; and buried the batteries for the back-up communications. The unit was then attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and machine-gun fire.

They fought for several hours and held off the attackers. One soldier restored communications by digging out the batteries, which were under rubble. He had found that if he took out the shard of glass protruding from his neck, there would be a pulsing pump of blood. So he put the shard back in and dug out the batteries with only his left hand while holding the shard with his right hand. He put the batteries back in and the unit established communication with their battalion commander, but they told him not to pull them out of Tarmiyah. They held the place, and at the end of the fight, of the 38 soldiers, two were dead and 29 wounded. That’s casualties of 31 out of 38.

Why were our troops getting into such tough fighting? The key to the surge was not the addition of troops, but that the American effort in Iraq was given a new top priority: protecting the Iraqi people. That sounds like common sense, but for years the top priority, formally listed in the American mission statement, was to transition to Iraqi security forces—to toss the ball to the Iraqi army and police.

In order to protect the people, U.S. troops had to be moved off their big bases and into small outposts in neighborhoods. The thinking behind that change was that if soldiers are in a neighborhood for one hour a day on a patrol, and they spend most of their time on their big “Forward Operating Base,” then somebody else controls that neighborhood for the other 23 hours a day. Somebody else intimidates the neighbors or dominates the neighborhood, preventing the neighborhood’s people from talking to our troops. But several conditions are altered if the troops are based in the neighborhood. Their reaction time is faster. The predictability of their movements is reduced—nobody knows when they are coming. They develop a sense of what’s familiar. “Does that truck arrive every day at noon, or has it never been in this neighborhood before? Maybe I should ask about it.” They even start to talk to people, who might start talking to them in turn. But in order to get off the big bases and out into neighborhoods, we needed more troops. That’s where the additional troops for the surge came from, as a consequence, not a reason in itself.

Also poorly understood is what a change the surge was. Arguably, the transition to the Obama administration began in Iraq two years before it began here. The 2006 midterm election knocked President Bush over the head with a two by four. It told him that he was losing the war and the American people, who didn’t believe what he was telling them about Iraq anymore. I am no fan of George Bush, but I do believe that the two months following that election were his finest moment. After four years of being the cheerleader-in-chief, he finally stepped up and became the commander-in-chief. That is, he finally started asking these generals the tough questions that a commander-in-chief is supposed to ask. He challenged Gen. George Casey on why neither Together Forward I or Together Forward II had improved security in Baghdad. Ultimately he removed Casey and several other key figures. Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, went; along with the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was replaced with Robert M. Gates, who remains President Obama’s Secretary of Defense. A new war was started.

With the advent of the surge, the Army effectively turned the war over to its internal dissidents. Of the personnel who went to Iraq, some had opposed the war itself, and many had been critical of the conduct of the occupation. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for example, reveals in my book that he had essentially opposed the original invasion of Iraq. Petraeus took command in Iraq having just completed overseeing the writing of a new manual on counterinsurgency that can be read as a scathing critique of the conduct of the war over its first four years. They brought in a group of people who had been sharply critical of how the war had been fought from 2003 through 2006.

But I think the most important change was that the new team came in with a new attitude, which I would go so far as to call a new humility. No longer were they saying “our way or the highway.” In fact, they were saying that the American way was probably not going to work in Iraq. The only sustainable solutions were going to be locally bred solutions that they could find and encourage, and built on local power structures, such as the tribes.

After years of talking to Iraqis, they began listening. David Kilcullen, an Australian infantry officer turned anthropologist who became an advisor to Petraeus, went one day in Spring 2007 to a safe house to meet with three representatives from Sadr City, the big eastern slum in Baghdad controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. One representative was a retired Iraqi army officer; another was a civil engineer; the third was an accountant. Kilcullen told the men that they represented the three aspects of what we were trying to do—army officer/security; civil engineer/reconstruction of infrastructure; accountant/financial matters—and asked them how they would recommend securing Sadr City. They turned away and huddled among themselves, talking very urgently. Kilcullen apologized if he’d offended them, and they replied that no offense had been taken, it was just that in four years no American had ever asked them that question.

The Americans had finally started listening. In addition to Kilcullen, they brought in two other foreigners. One was Sadi Othman, a 6′7″ Palestinian American, born in Brazil, reared in Jordan, the first person ever to dunk a basketball in a Jordanian university competition. He later came to America, where he was educated at a Mennonite college. He became a pacifist. He was a taxi driver in New York City on 9/11, which he said outraged him as a New Yorker, as an American, and as an Arab. Deciding to do something about it, he went to Iraq to become an interpreter for the American military. One day, walking out of a military latrine in Mosul, he ran into a small man with whom he wound up in a long discussion about Iraq. At the end of the hour, the smaller man, who was dressed in a simple gym outfit, asked Othman to come work for him. Othman thought perhaps the man was a contractor and asked him what he did. The reply was “I’m David Petraeus, I command this division.” So Othman went to work for Petraeus and became his ambassador to the Iraqi government, still maintaining his pacifism.

The third significant foreign advisor to the new effort was perhaps the most surprising of all, a tiny, birdlike British woman named Emma Sky. Sky was anti-military, anti-American, and an expert on the Middle East, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. In the course of a year, she became one of Odierno’s closest advisors. One day Petraeus quoted to Odierno one of her comments, saying, “Well, your political advisor says…” and Odierno responded, “She’s not my advisor, she’s my insurgent.”

It shows how much the American leadership had changed that they were willing to listen to new voices like these. I asked Sky one day, “If you’re a pacifist, anti-American, anti-military, why are you advising the Americans here?” She replied that she wanted to help the Americans “undo some of the damage they’d done.” Kilcullen said something similar to me once, when I asked him why he was in Iraq since he was against the war to begin with. He replied, “Just because you Americans invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you have to leave it stupidly.”

I’ve talked about fighting, but as you can see, talking in 2007-08 was just as important if not more important than fighting. At the strategic level, Petraeus cut a deal with the Sunni insurgency, putting nearly 100,000 of them on the payroll, at a cost of $30 million a month, which I think was worth it. I asked Petraeus once, “For several years, President Bush had talked about the enemy in Iraq as the evildoers. How did you break it to him that you were going to put the evildoers on the payroll?” He replied that he didn’t need to bring it up, saying it was within his existing authorities. Well, it wasn’t, but if we want our generals to be audacious, and we do, that’s audacity. Petraeus knew that putting the insurgents on the American payroll was risky. If it blew up, he was going to be the person blamed for it. But he went ahead and did it.

At the tactical level, similar things were taking place. My favorite part of The Gamble is called “The Insurgent who loved Titanic.” It’s about a young captain named Sam Cook in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based fairly far north in the Sunni Triangle. Cook heard one day of a local insurgent who boasted of having planted over 200 bombs against the Americans since becoming radicalized by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Now, a couple of years earlier, any smart, tough young army captain, hearing about a local insurgent bombing the Americans, would locate the man, launch a raid one night and capture or kill him. But Cook had been around Iraq a while and knew that all that tended to do was decapitate the network, and a new head would pop up. So Cook did something almost un-American. He sent an invitation to the man to come in for a cup of tea.

The delivery of that invitation told the insurgent two key things—that Cook knew who he was and where he was. The insurgent showed up, puzzled, and asked why, if Cook knew who and where he was, he didn’t arrest him. Cook told him that if he saw him on the street tomorrow, he might shoot him, but that it would be an abuse of the rules of hospitality to arrest him then. Cook invited the Iraqi to stay for a cup of tea, assuring him he was free to go anytime. They began to talk, and had a series of weekly conversations.

One day, after several of these meetings, the insurgent told Cook he would never come over to our side, that he hated everything about America. Cook knew that the most popular ring tone on Iraqi cell phones that year was the theme from the 1997 movie, Titanic. Almost on a whim, Cook asked Sarhan if he hadn’t at least liked the movie Titanic. The insurgent looked stunned. He answered that he’d watched it seven times and cried every time at the end Leonardo DiCaprio slips into the water at the end.

This was the beginning not of any great conversion, but at least of some kind of emotional understanding. The two men could listen to each other. Three weeks later, the insurgent told Cook he could not surrender to him as a matter of self-respect, honor, and dignity. But, he continued, if Cook would arrange his surrender to the Iraqis and then came and get him and put him on the payroll, he would tell Cook a few things. Cook thought, “Al Qaeda has been paying these guys, let’s use American economic power to outweigh them. We can pay more than Al Qaeda.” He put Sarhan and other surrendering insurgents on the payroll, and learned from them that the Iraqi police at the checkpoint were warning insurgents when the Americans approached; it was recommended that their cell phones be taken away. The Iraqi police officer responsible for informing insurgents of planned raids was identified. Similarly, in another conversation like this with another officer, an Iraqi insurgent divulged that the sniper rifle he was caught with was a gift from the U.S. officer’s Iraqi counterpart, a major. Conversations like this took place all over Iraq over the past couple of years. Cook said that his conversations “flipped the light switch on and allowed us to see the insurgency, the leaders, the structure, their tactics, everything.”

Why, then, do I maintain that the surge didn’t work? Militarily, or tactically, it did. It  improved security. But its stated goal was to create a breathing space in which a political breakthrough could occur, and that did not happen. In fact, Odierno says at the end of my  book that the surge did create a breathing space, and that to our surprise, some Iraqis used it to move backwards rather than forward.

But no breakthrough occurred. All the basic questions that vexed Iraq before the surge are still out there unanswered: How do you share oil revenue? What’s the relationship between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd? For that matter, who speaks for the Shiites? What’s the role of Iran, which for my money is the biggest winner in this war so far? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? All of these questions have led to violence in the past, and all of them almost certainly are going to lead to violence again.

So now it is President Obama’s war. I have a great deal of sympathy for him. I believe he’s a good strategic thinker, but I also think he has inherited the worst foreign policy situation that any new president has ever taken on—and foreign policy isn’t even his top-priority problem, which would have to be the economy. It’s a huge load to take on. But Obama’s handling of it thus far worries me.

Obama’s got a tough year ahead of him in Iraq for three reasons. First, Iraq has three rounds of elections this year, and elections there tend to be destabilizing, the beginning rather than the end of contention. In our country, politics is the art of compromise. In Iraq, politics tends to be the art of winner taking all.

Second, the more troops we withdraw, the riskier the situation becomes. American troops right now are the glue holding Iraq together. In The Gamble General Odierno describes how the first withdrawals are from the easy areas, from the areas deemed more secure or where Iraqi troops are deemed more reliable. The more troops we withdraw, the more we start withdrawing them from the riskier areas that are less secure or where Iraqi forces are unreliable. There are a lot of little Saddams in the Iraqi military. The fewer American eyes on them, the more that Saddamishness will come out. This is why, when the last retreat of the Bush administration is “At least we got Saddam out,” I’m not sure we did. I worry that ten or fifteen years from now the new strongman who emerges will be a tougher, smarter, meaner version of Saddam Hussein. The Saddam we took on was a toothless tiger and dumb as a box of rocks, the only world leader who thought he could take on the U.S. military with conventional forces. The next Saddam is not going to make that mistake.

Third, the longer Iraq goes without a political breakthrough, the more likely it is that violence will resume. And Maliki doesn’t seem to me to be particularly interested in breakthroughs, particularly those having to do with reconciliation. Instead, he seems to me to be trying to consolidate his power and undermines his enemies.

To conclude, the war is not over. It is different, but it has continually morphed, beginning in 2003 as a blitzkrieg invasion, then becoming a botched occupation, a durable insurgency, and a small civil war, followed by a pretty effective American counteroffensive. Now it is in a post-Bush lull—but don’t confuse that with being over. Americans may still be fighting and dying in Iraq when Obama leaves office. General Odierno told me in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in the year 2015, which would be well into what would be Obama’s second term.

What does that get us? Not much, I suspect. The best-case scenario is that Iraq isn’t going to look anything like a success to Americans. It’s not going to be democratic, it’s not going to be stable, and it’s not going to be pro-American. Ambassador Crocker predicts in the book that the future of Iraq is probably something like Lebanon today. Most of the other experts I’ve talked to consider that wildly optimistic.

Why stay in Iraq, then? I’ve thought long and hard about this and concluded that staying in Iraq is immoral. But—and this is a very big “but”—I think leaving Iraq right now would be even more immoral. This dilemma goes to the nature of strategy. Secretary Gates said this the other day at the Army War College: “By the time a decision gets to the president or the secretary of Defense, more often than not, you’re having to choose the least bad option.”[1] Iraq is a least-bad-option war.

What is the least bad option? Leaving Iraq would be hugely risky. Almost certainly you’d have a civil war. That outcome would only confirm widespread Arab suspicions that we invaded Iraq not to save it but to destroy it. There’s a good chance that a civil war would become a regional war—and right in the middle of the world’s oil patch, so  we may wind up paying $12/gallon or the like for gasoline.

So, I think, there are only bad answers in Iraq. Everything is tainted by the original sin of invading a country preemptively on false premises. Our job now is to find the least bad answers. I suspect President Obama is likely only now realizing just how bad the trouble he is in, that talking about getting out quickly is not a departure from the Bush administration but a repetition of it, and that he’s eventually going to have to settle into a long war with much smaller numbers of forces—35,000-50,000 troops—but probably for several more years of fighting.


  1. ^Secretary Gates Speaks to the Army War College,” April 16, 2009.