‘Why the violence … declined in Iraq,’ 5 years later


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.

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  • Steve Donnelly says:

    COIN and the Surge as the necessary solution to problems that were, in so many ways, self-created.
    Agree that the night raids are vastly underrated, but it fascinates me that, as of this date, there are not studies of Iraqis explaining what actually happened.
    Aside from exhaustion, there were, I believe, to spurts of liberation exhilaration among Iraqis. One in the early day, and one in mid-2008 as two factors came together—the net effect of raids, killings and checkpoints (imposed interim stability) reinforcing a renewed sense among Iraqis that home rule would soon return.
    My perspective is from ministries and technocrats where the sense of opportunity and responsibility finally returned, especially as SOFA and US departure became a real element on the radar screen of many common Iraqis.
    As Ambassador Crocker recently explained, Afghanistan (and Iraq) were full of people who actually were capable and chafing at the bit for self-rule. That drive is so often overlooked in military focused studies, and especially those which include no actual analyses of the actual people whose hearts and minds are the subject.
    I was recently reading the bad-old-day reports on the US accidents/ errors in trying to rebuild the Al Fattah Bridge, an essential artery to relinking Iraq’s basic connections and operations.
    Numerous US failures and foibles until early 2008, when Iraqis wanted/needed it rebuilt, and the US hand-maidened, rather than rebuilt that bridge. Temporary first, loaded with IA checkpoints and controls, then the real bridge.
    Make a key piece of the old economy/infrastructure work (basic post-conflict stabilization), instead of new and imaginative US projects and ideas (what passed for Reconstruction), and many doors open if checkpoints and night raids knock the top off of the danger.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Excellent observations, thank you. The atmospherics – fatigue with the violence, as well as bursts of renewed hope – had a significant impact, though those are more difficult to objectively analyze.
    As far as studies featuring Iraqi perspectives, Al Anbar Awakening Vol. II has some illuminating interviews:

  • Jim G says:

    Saddam’s execution in December of 2006 should be listed as a major turning point. While the awakening movement predated the execution, it seems that the execution helped it gain momentum. It’s easy to imagine that Iraqis would have fewer reservations with aiding the new Iraq once the old Iraq was finally in the ground.

  • Stev Donnelly says:

    Right. Hard for some to quantify, but, as with any effective disaster recovery process, communities want/need to rebuild themselves, so the success is their empowerment. If real-life does not lend itself to powerpoint slides, is it still real life?
    For me, it came at a closed door Iraqi budget planning meeting in Baghdad in June 08. Full-house at Al Rasheed with nothing but Iraqi ministeries, staff and technocrats anxious to put their shoulder to the oars of their Country. Everyone in attendance knew from that day forward what the SOFA agreement would look like.
    As I recall, there were four US civilian advisors and one UN staffer (as wallpaper), and one Gov/CA LTC allowed a comfy spot in the hall with coffee and a hearing/translation device. Courteously, they asked his indulgence not to overshadow an Iraqi meeting.
    I believe we are still a few years from a clear Iraqi perspective, but it will be the most important to completing my understanding.

  • Doug Hooper says:

    This story is a whitewash for the failed policy of COIN – Counter Insurgency with the objective of winning the hearts and minds of the enemy.
    COIN has been a complete and utter failure
    Thank you

  • Youssef Haddad says:

    After the “Awakening” movements the insurgents could not find many places to hide in among the civilian population. They were easily purged out and terminated by those whom they pretended to fight for.
    If itbwas not for Iranian and Syrian support of extremism and then Iranian interference with Iraqi shias the Iraqi situation would have been a lot better today.

  • mike merlo says:

    good info. Too bad you left out
    The Surge: A Military History by Kimberly Kagan

  • James says:

    Hello Bill:
    Two major factors I think also weighing in were the take down of Awlaqi and the Battle for Fallujah.
    Those two events I believe were the real ‘turning points’ in the battle for Iraq.
    Also, it’s worth mentioning that while the surge was being carried out, the casualties on our side dropped significantly as well as for the Iraqi civilian population.
    I wonder what are the prospects, if any, of repeating a ‘Sunni Awakening’ in Afghanistan?

  • kingsley says:

    I am just an Aussie civilian who has never set foot in Iraq and so only know the Iraqi situation from Blogs like this but for me the most telling 2 things I ever read pre Surge was a comment on a blog where a soldier made comment “if the people ever do turn on the insurgents it will be over quickly because they know who they are”. Possibly a statement of the obvious but nevertheless true and the second was I think by Michael Yon saying the Iraqis will tolerate nigh on anything but starting killing their kids and all bets are off. AQI started killing their kids.
    A tragic set of conditions but perfect to run a COIN Strategy into I should imagine
    I am also no expert on COIN but I think it possibly needs to be recognised that it does seem to me to attempt to create its own positive environment by being so focused on the populations safety and welfare. Make it safe for them to do the right thing.

  • Bill, good analysis.
    However, both you and Biddle et al. have failed to explain why “the awakening” occurred in the first place in the Sunni regions of Iraq.
    Without this awakening, the surge, in all likelihood, would have been a waste in Iraq, as it has turned out to be in Afghanistan. I have discussed this point in pages 178-180 of my 2009 book Defeating Political Islam.
    “Increasing troop strengths in Iraq as part of a “surge” put forward by former president George W. Bush in January 2007, in my view, took advantage of the changing mind-set of the Iraqis. This mind-set change, as noted earlier, is due to disenchantment with political Islam—translated to mean lessened influence of clerics and mosques, and in turn, led to a reduced recruitment of Iraqis for terror attacks and a weakened insurgency. It is unlikely that this surge, by itself or in combination with other groundbreaking tactics, including the efficient liquidation of insurgency leadership (developed by the then American commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Raymond Odierno, and others), led to the shift toward Iraqi political and military autonomy discussed at the beginning of this section.”
    Also, more recently, the theory of Muslim radicalism I have proposed uses sharia’s popularity as a measure of radicalization of a community. In this context, the awakening in Iraq was possible but not in Afghanistan.
    Here’s a take, from the following paper: //papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1952515
    “The inability of Al-Qaeda to sustain itself in Iraq even in the chaotic aftermath of the American intervention, I argue, is in part due to a lack of favorable conditions for sharia aided by decades of Saddam Hussein’s sharia-limiting policies (Riker, 2007: 89). This view is bolstered by the fact that the Iraqi public outlook toward clerics during this period consisted of a ‘pattern of disenchantment . . . , in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives’ (Tavernise, 2008).”

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    M. Muthuswamy-
    Re: ‘However, both you and Biddle et al. have failed to explain why “the awakening” occurred in the first place in the Sunni regions of Iraq.’
    I include great detail about the topic in my book to be released next year. Fairly conservative Islam survived and even thrived (esp. after Saddam Hussein’s post Gulf War 1 ‘faith campaign’) in portions of Anbar, especially Fallujah (‘the City of Mosques’), prior to the US invasion. But the jihadist-salafi visitors and their local recruits espoused radical Islam at odds with much of the local tradition, subverted traditional tribal authority, and more importantly, they acquired, maintained and abused their authority with stunning and often capricious violence. In fact, one of the things that really angered people was when the takfiris murdered imams who didn’t sufficiently bow to their authority.
    And of course the role of religion across Baghdad and wider Iraq adds complexity to the topic. The popularity of religious based political parties did wane, as exemplified by the Jan 2009 election results.

  • “And of course the role of religion across Baghdad and wider Iraq adds complexity to the topic.”
    Bill, quite to the contrary, as elaborated in my 2009 book, and subsequently, in the recent paper, religion provides the necessary and simplified framework to help understand and make a sense out of Islamic radicalism in its various manifestations.
    The sharia-jihad-based theory I have proposed not only explains the awakening in Iraq, but also why the awakening was unlikely in Afghanistan.
    The premise that the strength of tribalism, history, geography, nationalism, etc, is the main reason why radicalism has taken root in certain communities is a hypothesis that is directly contradicted by the following example:
    Radicalism among (and socio-economic stagnation of) the Muslims of Pakistani origin in Britain is a significant problem, but the Hindus in Britain who share much with them do not have this problem.
    In fact, jihadism and stagnation of British Muslims has directly correlated with the increasing support for sharia among them, just like the case of Muslims in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, etc.
    Countries like Egypt, where sharia is popular, had managed to put a lid on jihadism through the repressive policies of the Mubarak regime. Now, with the Brotherhood in power, I am skeptical.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    ” quite to the contrary”
    I generally agree with you that radicalism wore out its welcome, unsure what is quite the contrary. The statement about the role of religion in regions other than Anbar adding complexity was intended to communicate that the topic is more complex than my example of the historical role of conservative Sunni Islam in Fallujah explained in the prior paragraph. This is a pretty noncontroversial statement, given historical conservatism in Fallujah doesn’t perfectly apply to Shia in Sadr City or Basra.
    As far as political Islam wearing out its welcome (mentioned in your first comment), yes, this is a well-worn and supported thesis, though it can take a long time to happen (much longer than in Iraq). I can tell you that in Fallujah specifically, the jihadists might have done ok, or at least lasted much longer, if they did not try to subvert the tribal structure and murder everyone who didn’t bow to them. This was partially because Fallujah was pretty conservative to begin with, and even boasted its own salafists before the US invasion disrupted everything.
    As far as your second comment, honestly, not sure what you’re arguing (or what you’re arguing against). Yes, the “strength of tribalism” works *against* jihadi-salafists gaining support, in many cases, especially when takfiri religious sensibilities run up against beloved tribal traditions.
    What is the name of your book? I’ll check it out.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    What you guys are talking about reminds me of when the tribesmen in South Waziristan allied with local Taliban, expelled the Uzbeks and some Arabs from their territories because they thought the Uzbeks and Arabs were foreigners who were brutally suppressing their local way of life.
    Of course, if you talk to Internet Jihadists about that incident, they will say it never happened – how convenient. And even though I believe it’s pathetic how radical, hardline Islam has taken such a rise in the past decade, I’ve always believed that the people of the Muslim world should welcome that way of life and government – so they can see that it really isn’t all that great, and then they can reject it. And in quite a few parts of the Muslim world, that has happened before.
    The solution to their problems is not embracing a hardline version of a religious myth. The solution to their problems is building their economy, promoting their own civilized local values, and learning to be more accepting of the world around them.

  • Pundita says:

    M. Muthuswamy, B. Ardolino — Re Muthuswamy’s remark, “both you and Biddle et al. have failed to explain why “the awakening” occurred in the first place in the Sunni regions of Iraq.'” —
    It seems to have all started over women. See David Kilcullen’s August 29, 2007 post for Small Wars Journal, “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt.” Here’s the short version of Kilcullen’s writing, from my blog:
    Some tribal leaders told me that the split started over women. This is not as odd as it sounds. One of AQ’s standard techniques, which I have seen them apply in places as diverse as Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, is to marry leaders and key operatives to women from prominent tribal families. The strategy works by creating a bond with the community, exploiting kinship-based alliances, and so “embedding” the AQ network into the society.
    [But Qaeda decided to ignore Iraqi marriage customs:]
    Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of “Islam” stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful. This led to violence, as these things do. […]
    The entire analysis is fascinating reading — even more so today because of AQ’s enduring presence in Afghanistan. Some months ago I saw a report that AQ is still pressuring Afghan chiefs to intermarry with AQ commanders.
    The difference, I suppose, between those Afghans and the chiefs in Anbar is that the Anbar tribes that stood up to AQ were very independent and relatively well off — they were traders and smugglers, if I recall. The Afghans being pressured are hardscrabble farmers….

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Thanks. The Kilcullen piece is great, referenced it in my questions posed to tribesmen around Fallujah. According to my research, forced marriages were a factor. But to state that the whole thing is based on (or kicked off over) forced marriages is overstating it a little. As Kilcullen details in his same piece, it was one of a number of things – from taking over tribal revenue streams to demanding manpower/fealty, all of which generated resistance and brutal reprisals – that in turn culminated in the Awakening. To your list of reasons (agree, btw) the Afghans haven’t coalesced against takfiris as they did in Iraq, I’d also add less tribal communication and cohesiveness of confederations, geography and that AQ in the region shows a bit more restraint than AQIZ … as exemplified by al-Zawahiri’s 2005 communication telling Zarqawi to be more practical, and chill out with the unyielding takfirism and sectarian slaughter strategy.

  • Pundita says:

    B. Ardolino — Thank you for your clarifications and insights — and also for the report on the study about why Iraq’s violence drastically declined

  • Charles says:

    The issue of Iraqi tribal rejection of the violent, harsh intrusions by the Jihadis is in most basic terms the broad conflict between Din and Adat…the Arabic terms for religion and tribal customs. the dialogue above makes clear issues such as demands for brides,demands for money, demands for recruits, always demands that iintrude on the established customs and ways of thousands of years even preceeding Islam.
    Also a major issue of difference between Iraq and other areas is the foreign identity of so many of the Jihadis flooding into Iraq 2004-2008. The Taleban are predominantly local Pashtun tribals, not foreigners as they were in Iraq.
    I recall approaching Ryan Crocker and David Pearce at CPA in June 2003 begging them to meet with a group of tribal leaders from Anbar who journeyed to Baghdad to meet Bremer and CPA and determine their future. Crocker then actually said, “Charley, we did not invade Iraq and depose Saddam to revive tribalism in Iraq, we came here to install democracy.” I said these chiefs cannot return empty handed or they will shift and support the resistance. They MUST be treated with dignity and shown they have a future in the new Iraq. I was ignored and sent away. It took Patreus and 4 years of chaos to finally “awaken” the US to the realities of Iraq. so sad.


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