Source: US CENTCOM via the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Click on image for larger version.
According to a recent study, the drastic improvement in Iraq’s security during 2007-2008 was due to a synergistic combination of the Iraqi tribal Awakening and US forces. The data-based analysis, published over the summer in International Security, stresses the importance of the 2007 ‘Surge’ of American forces and the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, but assigns much of the credit to conditions specific to Iraq at the time. In “Testing the Surge,” authors Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro maintain that the Surge and COIN worked, but only in the unique context of a widespread uprising against al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
The study’s methodology relied on the following:
1. cross-referencing a dataset of 193,264 “significant activities” (SIGACTS; military vernacular for ‘attacks’ or ‘security incidents’);
2. examination of 70 interviews with Coalition officers who were serving in 90% of the areas where the SIGACTS during this period occurred (12 of these officers served in the same area before and after trends in violence); and
3. data on civilian and sectarian casualties (19,961 incidents, which included 59,245 civilian deaths) from “Iraq Body Count.”
The authors’ application of these sources and methodology to test four “candidate explanations” — the Surge, the Awakening, Sectarian Cleansing, and the ‘Synergy theory’ — is convincing. But their analysis is missing a few major factors, and portions of the piece are open to criticism.
Back in November 2007, I wrote a LWJ report on ‘Why the violence has declined in Iraq,’ summarizing the factors US military leaders commonly believed were responsible for the improvement in security. These included:
1. The Surge and COIN
2. The Awakening (‘the rise of the Iraqi people and reconciliation’)
3. Strengthened Iraqi security forces
4. The theory that sectarian cleansing and refugee flight had run their course
5. The truce with elements of the Mahdi Army
6. Improved border control of foreign fighters and weapons
The authors of the International Security piece address three of these six factors in depth [listed in bold above]: the Surge, the tribal ‘Awakening,’ and the theory that sectarian killing had burned itself out. But the piece does not address the growth in the ISF, the Mahdi Army’s cyclical military and political posture, and the fluctuating porosity of the border (the latter a function of peaks and valleys in Iranian efforts to stoke instability, status of tribal alliances along Anbar’s border, and diplomatic pressure on Syria).
To those six factors, I would also retroactively add another item unmentioned in my 2007 piece: the incessant string of Joint Special Operations Command night raids that bled insurgent leadership and middle management during this period. While arguably part of the Surge, this component of the American strategy preceded official counterinsurgency efforts and operated (somewhat) independently from them.
A more complete analysis of the reasons for reduced violence would review a few of these other factors, especially an analysis of the increased size and operational capability of Iraqi Security Forces, and correlations between SIGACTs and the changing status of the Mahdi Army’s political and military posture (accounting for its degree of centralized control of cells) throughout 2007 and 2008.
Beyond a narrow focus on only three factors, Biddle et al. also open themselves to criticism in their dismissal of the sectarian cleansing argument. If the “sectarian thesis” is defined as a “completion of the process” — concluded refugee flight, total sectarian segregation, and hyperbole like Patrick Cockburn’s cited quote that “the killing stopped because there was no one left to kill” — then the study’s authors have resoundingly refuted the argument. But the sectarian thesis has shades of grey. The idea that sectarian conflict, and the resulting flight of refugees, had progressed far enough to enable a pause during which displaced Iraqis could benefit from the rise of Sons of Iraq militias and the increase in US and Iraqi checkpoints, is one that remains worthy of consideration.
With those criticisms in mind, I wholeheartedly agree with Biddle et al. that the US Surge and the Awakening exponentially reinforced each other, and that this synergy is responsible for most of the change in security. The authors’ list of tribal Awakenings that failed without sufficient US engagement prior to 2007 compellingly demonstrates how the tribal security movement could have fizzled in the absence of additional US forces and a widespread focus on counterinsurgency doctrine. Simply put, al Qaeda and other jihadi-salafist organizations were too well-funded, too strong, and too ruthless for the tribes and Iraqi security forces to gain rapid momentum without US support.
In my forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens, to be published by Naval Institute Press in April 2013, I examine how the Awakening and counterinsurgency strategy combined to influence the Fallujah area during 2006-2007. The book makes the following argument about the synergy theory and the specific impact of the American counterinsurgency (COIN) effort:
COIN has been the subject of controversy in punditry and military circles; its supporters credit the doctrine with saving the Iraq enterprise, and they later sought to impose a similar strategy in Afghanistan. Its detractors claim that local dynamics, and not the change in American methodology, were responsible for Iraq’s turnaround. Both camps make valid points. But ultimately, the U.S. military supported local developments with the effective use of COIN to halt the growth of radical insurgent groups and Iraq’s slide toward civil war.
Many critics of the military’s counterinsurgency focus are correct in the assertion that the doctrine is not a one-size-fits-all template for success when fighting an insurgency. The conditions that enabled quick gains in Iraq, such as more tribal and geographic homogeneity, a more centralized population, greater nationalism, and a widely hated common enemy in al Qaeda, are not as prevalent in Afghanistan. In addition, some doubters argue that the popular Western media narrative of Petraeus and his advisors rescuing Iraq with a novel strategy is also overplayed. These criticisms have merit. Local political conditions, many of them outside of America’s control, are responsible for much of the rapid security progress seen in Iraq during 2007-2008.
But critics of COIN go too far when they diminish the impact of both the 2007 American “surge” and the strategy behind it. The conditions for rapidly improving security may have been specific to Iraq, but they were supported by the U.S. military’s implementation of essential components of the doctrine. Most pivotal was a reengagement by American forces, which projected into the population, incrementally choked off insurgent freedom of movement, supported local security forces, and protected civilians. I saw it work. And more significantly, the doctrine was lauded to me by everyday Fallujans who were not inclined to praise the Americans. Security volunteers, politicians, and day laborers matter-of-factly credited the effectiveness of Iraqi cops and US Marines, and the civil affairs engagement of the latter, with turning around local opinion and security in their area.
Counterinsurgency doctrine is not miraculous. Perfectly applied in most political environments, it is a methodology that can take years and years to yield tangible gains. But COIN made a rapid difference in Iraq, and understanding its promise and limitations will have further value if America finds itself embroiled in another complex fight against an insurgency.
The backlash against COIN, the Surge, and the narrative that Petraeus rode into theater on a white stallion to rescue Iraq is understandable, in light of the doctrine’s muddled impact on Afghanistan, and simplistic media portrayals of the Iraq war that devalue the contribution by Awakening forces and ‘Sons of Iraq’ militias. But the Surge and COIN worked in the context of the Awakening.
This was evident to me from the testimony of US personnel, and from witnessing the effect of the reanimated American campaign. However, it was really driven home by the candid admissions of Iraqis who credited Americans with giving them the support they needed to find their feet and take the fight to both al Qaeda in Anbar and the Mahdi Army in Baghdad. In that respect, while the International Security piece would have ideally examined more factors, it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to the conflict’s history. The authors have taken this thesis to a more detailed level with their review of objective data and the addition of 70 interviews worth of primary research.