Feature – The United States’ Shortsighted Surge in Iraq

President George W. Bush (centre) Announces the Surge Strategy in 2007. US Air Force.

It is now over 15 years since the invasion of Iraq but the legacy it has left still hangs over America’s foreign policy establishment. An establishment that had only just come to terms with the impacts of the Vietnam war. While it is debateable whether one could consider the war in Iraq to have ended, what is clear is that there is a rather dangerous myth being perpetuated across the Republican party in the United States about the war in Iraq. This myth suggests that when in January 2007 President George W. Bush announced that the United States were to deploy more than 20,000 extra troops to Iraq in a change of strategy named “The Surge” the US started winning the war in Iraq. Subsequently through the isolationism perpetuated over the Obama years and the reduction in troop numbers Obama lost the war.

What Was The Surge?

The Surge was a final attempt by the Bush administration to shift public perceptions of the war in Iraq. The surge provided a new strategy, a new leader in General David Petraeus and a new doctrine based on providing effective governance and ‘living amongst the people’. Prior to this change of approach the strategy was failing. Violence in Iraq was reaching unacceptable levels. Economic costs of the conflict were rising. However, it was political considerations that conclusively turned to tide in favour of a new strategy for the conflict in Iraq. Terrible mid-term results for George W. Bush’s Republican party ramped up pressure on the administration. As a result, Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld who was a key defender of the previous approach. Suddenly a change in strategy became possible in a way it hadn’t been previously.

It is now over a decade since the surge started and many still cite it as a textbook example of how to conduct cotemporary counterinsurgency operations. However, while the surge itself was a moderately successful two-year campaign, it benefitted hugely from fortuitous circumstances and extreme levels of concentrated resources. Ultimately, the reality is that “the surge didn’t ‘win’ anything. It bought time.” The reduction in violence that coincided with the surge constituted a significant tactical success, but this success came at a price: the weakening of Iraqi institutions and the simultaneous systematic nourishing of “domestic rivalries in order to maintain an illusory short-term stability.” As well as, of course, the millions of dollars and lives that were spent in defence of this aim.

The surge created the necessary political conditions for the United States to withdraw whilst still saving face, but it did not make meaningful progress towards political reconciliation. If the surge is to be considered successful it is only in the limited way that it created domestic political space in the United States for withdrawal of American troops. In Iraq, the surge was a means to an end. The aim was to create the security conditions necessary for the Iraqi people to be able to pursue political reconciliation. The ultimate end was the achievement of this political reconciliation. The strategy between 2006-2008 reduced the levels of violence in Iraq, but it did it in such a way that made political reconciliation more difficult in the long-term.

Ultimately, the gains from the surge were transient and temporary. They harnessed the vulnerabilities of an already fractured country in 2006 and exacerbated the underlying causal factors of the Iraqi Civil War. This meant that when the U.S. troops inevitably left and the money stopped flowing so freely, the conflict returned to pre-surge levels. The strategy was driven by political changes, took advantage of conducive conditions in Iraq, and bought time for the withdrawal of US troops.

Political Realities and the Change in American Strategy for Iraq

It is hard to deny that in late 2005 coalition forces were on the verge of ‘losing Iraq’. By August 2006 “civilian fatalities averaged more than 1,500 a month,” and the situation on the ground was deteriorating rapidly. Although the Americans continued to train Iraqi security forces on the ground it was clear that they were not capable of the variety of tasks that were required of them without coalition support. This was only further highlighted by the rising levels of violence. In the United States, the political environment became hyper partisan, and the popularity of the strategy was fading rapidly.

David Petraeus In The Field. United States Army.

Concurrently, General David Petraeus published a field manual which constructed a new counterinsurgency doctrine based on winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local people. The manual offered an entirely new approach which was diametrically opposed to contemporary American military doctrine. This new doctrine was inspired by the work of David Galula which put basic human security of the local people at the centre of how counterinsurgency operations were to be conducted.

While the creation and publishing of FM 3-24 with its new doctrine provided a timely alternative to the old strategy, and was no doubt a decisive factor in Petraeus being chosen to head up the doctrine’s deployment in Iraq, the real drivers for change of strategy were fundamentally political. In November 2006, the Republican party suffered an embarrassing loss during the mid-term elections.

These results were viewed by many as a repudiation of the war. This intensified the pressure on the Bush administration to show that progress was being made in Iraq. Particularly in the light of the mounting costs of the conflict. The economic pressures themselves, however, cannot account entirely for the change in strategy. The new strategy of ‘the surge’ was itself extremely costly in terms of manpower and financial resources. A president predominantly concerned with the financial implications of the failing strategy would not have adopted ‘the surge’.

The personal pressure on George W. Bush himself was, no doubt, also heightened. He was reaching the end of his two-year term and the success of the war in Iraq would not just define his presidency, but also shape the debate for the following general election. He needed to give the next Republican leader the opportunity to repackage Iraq as a success rather than a catastrophic failure.

Moreover, swayed by the level of political loss from the mid-term elections in 2006, Bush fired Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who was a key proponent and defender of the previous approach. This created the intellectual breathing space for high-level policy advisors and professional military experts to seriously challenge the strategy that was being used in Iraq at the time, something that would have been practically unthinkable before. Therefore, while other factors of the failing strategy could have prompted change, it would have been extremely unlikely that that could have happened with political neoconservative roadblocks like Rumsfeld in the way. The change in the political leadership allowed the room for a widening discussion of the military and political strategies in Iraq.

(L) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, (C) President George W Bush, (L) Vice President Dick Cheney. Getty Images.

Additionally, the Bush administration was acutely aware of the upcoming congressional hearings scheduled for mid-2007. With the mounting political pressure in mind, and knowing that the Democrats would be emboldened by their decisive victory in the mid-terms, it was obvious that before congressional hearings took place something had to improve in Iraq. Otherwise after the hearings there would be strong congressional moves pushing for accepting defeat and withdrawing troops from Iraq. Something that Bush could not allow.

He signalled this reluctance when he vetoed an appropriations bill, which tied increasing funds for the surge to set an end date for operations in Iraq. This sent a clear message in defiance of congressional democrats. When congress changed this from a time-based to conditions-based withdrawal the appropriation was approved. A time-based withdrawal would have ramped up pressure on the administration and undermined the narrative that Bush wanted to permeate public opinion: that Iraq ultimately had turned out to be a success under his leadership. The new strategy in Iraq did not exist in a vacuum, and this narrative of success ended up forming a cornerstone of the debates during the 2008 presidential primaries, as the Bush administration had hoped it would.

Ultimately, the political environment changed in 2006 which created the space for the United States to alter their strategy in Iraq. It helped that there was a new doctrine that could be relied on, but this was not decisive. It was the change in political environment that drove the altering of the US strategy and gave Petraeus’s field manual the coverage that it needed to become part of mainstream policy debates. Had Republicans maintained congressional supremacy and Rumsfeld had stayed as Defence Secretary things may have been different. By late 2006 the tide had turned and the intellectual push for the surge was well under way.

The Reduction of Violence in Iraq

In order to establish whether or not the United States’ strategy in Iraq succeeded there must be some clarity on the cause and effect of the fall in the levels of violence in Iraq. Empirically and statistically it is clear that the levels of violence declined in Iraq as the surge was implemented, but the causal link between this decline and the change of strategy is crucial in order to accurately assess the impact of the new strategy. Without this causal link, successes or failures in Iraq that were not directly related to the changing American military footprint could be misattributed, which would inevitably give a false impression of the successfulness of the surge as a strategy.

Figures Relating to Ethno-Sectarian Violence May 06-Aug 07. United States Army.

Academic scholarship in attempting to assess the successfulness of the strategy in Iraq between 2006-2008 has thus far focussed heavily on the relative impact of the surge vis-à-vis other causal factors. There are broadly four key angles adopted by the literature: That the Anbar Awakening significantly rebalanced the conflict in favour of the United States, that the levels of ethnic cleansing that had taken place by the time the surge started meant that there were very few people left to kill, or that the decline in violence was predominantly down to the surge. This last option was peddled by both the Bush administration and acting military officers. The fourth perspective and conventional wisdom is that the interaction between multiple causes was what really led to the decline in violence.

For reasons of scope and due to a lack of substantiating empirical evidence the ethnic cleansing thesis will be summarily dismissed. While it does have theoretical appeal in that the levels of violence declined as the levels of intermingling of the population similarly declined, it simply is not sufficiently substantiated by supporting evidence. In fact, the “SIGACTs data show more insurgent attacks in Sunni districts that in mixed ones, and violence began to decline in Sunni areas a full eight months before it did in mixed areas.”

It is empirically accurate to note declining levels of violence in Iraq post-surge. In fact, “by January 2009… [there was] an 86 per cent reduction” in civilian deaths in Iraq. However, some have argued that “a significant portion of the drop in the levels of bloodshed happened organically and because of actions taken by Iraqis themselves.” The ‘Awakening’, shorthand for explaining the split between al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Sunni insurgents, “undoubtedly provided the foundation of the short-term peace.”

This Awakening was not a miraculous move of ideological realignment. It was a calculated decision taken by the Sunni militias because “they wanted to better position themselves in the conflict vis-à-vis the Shias and al-Qaeda.” This alternative timeline contradicts the claims of the Bush administration and emphasises the evidence that “the Awakening began before the surge.” Moreover, as some empirical studies have proved there is “clear evidence that the non-Anbar SOI rather than the troop surge reduced casualty rates.” The implication of this angle being that the additional troops and changing strategy of the United States did not seriously affect conditions on the ground, and actually made very little material difference.

In response to these claims, General David Petraeus has commented that while the Awakening did present the United States with fortuitous circumstances “the spread of the Awakening beyond Ramadi was not serendipity…it was…a conscious and a deliberate effort.” This misses the fact that various marine units took advantage of the Awakening on the tactical level before the changes came into place, which disrupts the causal chain that surge advocates would try to make out. It implies that the changing strategy did not materially alter the decisions that were being taken on the ground. While this may be partially true it is predominately a question of scale. While marine units may have been adopting Petraeus-esque tactics before, these were mere tactical actions and not strategically linked across Iraq as they were later under the surge. It is this strategic linkage that makes dismissing the role of the surge in reducing violence foolhardy.

Ultimately, while it does have some compelling aspects to it, the Awakening thesis is at odds with the repeated failure of other, pre-surge attempts by Sunni tribes to align. As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out in his 2011 memoir, there were two smaller troop ‘surges’ in 2005 that made little difference to the situation on the ground in Iraq. No doubt the Anbar Awakening played an integral part in the decline in violence, as did the surge, but in order to reduce the levels of violence in Iraq both by themselves appear to have been insufficient. Therefore, suggesting that the total decline in violence can be attributed to the Anbar Awakening is equally as misguided as attributing the same entirely to the surge. The reality is that: “Without the violent civil war of 2006…it is highly doubtful that the adoption of counter-insurgency techniques in 2007 would have turned the tide on their own.”

In this way, the surge cannot be seen as successful in terms of a direct cause and effect relationship between the strategy and improving the situation in Iraq. Without taking into account other factors in the situation on the ground, such a direct ‘cause and effect’ explanation is insufficient. However, the surge did, no doubt, act as an enhancer for existing dynamics playing out in the Iraqi Civil War. As an occupying force the United States could not affect the underlying tensions based on, for example, the Iraqi tribal dynamics phenomenon. While this is true the surge did, however, exploit and enhance said dynamics in order to strive towards achieving American objectives in Iraq. This was not about affecting underlying tensions or Iraqi cultural dynamics, but rather about harnessing them to the benefit of the United States. Sadly, these benefits were to be short lived.

The Surge Itself: More Troops and a Shifting Tactical Profile

The introduction of additional troops into theatre in Iraq no doubt had an impact on the United States’ ability to effectively ensure security for the Iraqi people. This was also accompanied by increasing amounts of concentrated resources for the duration of the surge. That being said, the surge of resources while crucial was not as decisive as it first appears. General Petraeus often referred to the concept of a “surge of ideas” being much more central to the perceived success of the strategy in Iraq. This refers to the changing approach in how the military was to deploy kinetic force on the ground.

U.S. Lt. General David Petraeus (R), commander of the 101st. Airborne Division shakes hands with an Iraqi Army soldier celebrating his graduation in Kirkush Military Training base. United States Army.

This was reflected in Petraeus’s manual and more broadly the theory of asymmetric conflict, which itself mirrored practitioner’s experiences from their tours in Iraq. For example, when General Chiarelli was in charge of operations in Iraq during 2006 he “found a direct correlation between terrorist incidents and a lack of services.” Something that American forces used to inform their operations. Therefore, while the new approach differed significantly from contemporary American military doctrine, it was not all that far detached from the implementation of American strategy in Iraq at the time. In reality, a lot of the recommendations put forward in Petraeus’s field manual were things that brigade commanders had been doing…for years. It is therefore important not to overestimate how much Petraeus’s doctrine was innovative. To be sure it represented a significant shift in terms of doctrine and at a strategic level. At the tactical level while things changed under Petraeus there was no doubt significantly more continuity. What did change, however, was the increase in the linkage of these tactical actions across Iraq. Therefore, while tactically some commanders may have used Petraeus-esque tactics before it was only during the surge that this was spread across all of Iraq in a joined-up fashion.

In truth soldiers on the ground were beginning to notice the importance of satisfying the Iraqi people before Petraeus outlined how to do it in his field manual. The field manual took this a step further by moving beyond tactical day-to-day operations. In terms of strategy, physical security was to be provided by having “a gun on every street corner” and focussing on working to “facilitate establishing local governance and rule of law.” Instead of troops being forced to “spend more and more time in heavily fortified bases” they were to ‘live amongst the people’ and use force sparingly. This was based on the realisation that “violence hardens actors’ positions and changes their calculations,” which reinforces the perception of the zero-sum nature of the conflict.

All together this implies that Petraeus’ contention about the “surge of ideas” is at least partially accurate. It is all too easy to look at the introduction of an additional 20,000 troops and imply that it was simply a numbers game. It wasn’t. In fact, the surge only represented a 6 percent increase from the previous peak of troop levels. Thus it can be concluded that the change in approach must have been, at the very least, a contributing factor to the reduction of violence in Iraq.

Buying Time: Tactical Success but at a Cost

Once the surge was announced, emergency appropriations were quickly required in order to fund the increased profile of operations in Iraq. Counterinsurgency is expensive, and the surge involved a significant allocation of resources, both human and financial. Not least the 20,000 additional troops that were to be sent to bolster the existing forces, all of which had to be paid for.

Iraqi Dinar on a Bank Counter. The Baghdad Post.

It was not just the troops that required significant funding. A key aspect to the surge was to encourage what became known as the Sons of Iraq to take up arms and fight on behalf of the coalition. To incentivise this change of allegiance tribal leaders and sheikhs were paid “$360 per month per combatant in exchange for allegiance and cooperation.” These levels of funding were unsustainable and in the long run these pay-outs created dangerous incentives for the leaders to maintain a certain level of violence to ensure that the funding continued.

In 2011 Michael Desch observed that during the surge “although the level of mass violence…[was] lower than it was at the height of the battle of Baghdad, it [was]…still intolerably high.” In a similar vein, even General Petraeus, the great defender of his own strategy’s success has noted that: “In many respects, Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006, complete with increasing numbers of horrific, indiscriminate attacks by Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate and its network of extremists.”

There is a consistency of evidence in both narratives, in that levels of violence declined during the surge and have subsequently increased again. The real question is one of permanence. One interpretation of the successfulness of the surge goes something like this: “by sending more troops to Iraq in 2007, George W Bush finally won the Iraq war. Then Barack Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops, lost it.”

I would however like to propose an alternative angle. While the surge did reduce the levels of violence the methods that it employed were short-sighted and could never promote the long-term stability of the Iraqi government. This kind of long-term central governmental stability was the only way that American troops could have withdrawn leaving Iraq in an equally stable state. Such as when it was governed from a central authority run from Baghdad. Given the democratic model they had opted for, to achieve this they needed high levels of political reconciliation. Without the different factions openly turning to political mechanisms for dispute resolution, recourse to violence was inevitable. In this way, the surge merely delayed this recourse to violence as it failed to sufficiently strengthen Iraqi institutions.

However, weak institutions were what existed when the coalition invaded in 2003. Saddam Hussein had made sure of that. The surge as a two-year strategy was never really going to be able to overcome this challenge. There was just not enough time. These weak institutions also encouraged the worst of Maliki’s and others’ sectarian impulses to fortify their own internal domestic political positions. The surge therefore was a temporary improvement to the security situation but did not address the underlying causes of violence, as was proved when American troops left in 2011 and the levels of violence rose again.

The surge strategy was based on the premise that “an increased security situation would create the breathing space for the Iraqi government to move forward with key political compromises.” General Petraeus frequently said both publicly and privately that the surge was a means, not an end. The strategy of the surge attempted to integrate political and military levers to work towards common objectives with two key metrics of success: reductions in violence and political reconciliation. Where the surge was successful was in creating the domestic political space for the United States to be able to withdraw while maintaining that the conflict had been a success by reducing the levels of violence. A stabilised Iraq, albeit short-lived, allowed the troops to be withdrawn in 2011.

Graph to Show Decline In Ethno-Sectarian Violence During the Surge. CIOC Trends Database.

Statistically it is clear that there was a significant reduction in the levels of violence, which would imply success in that respect. This is true regardless of whether or not this reduction was caused exclusively by the surge. Causation here is ultimately irrelevant in the limited sense that the falling violence constitutes the achievement of the objective. This is especially valid given that there is no counterfactual, and there is enough evidence to suggest that the surge had some impact on improving the situation in Iraq.

It is however the second objective of political reconciliation which is much more problematic to cast as a success. One of the major changes that General Petraeus implemented in Iraq was making reconciliation a critical component of the overall strategy. To side-line this objective and focus instead on temporary reductions in the levels of violence would undeservedly ignore a central aspect of the strategy. An aspect that is to be considered largely a failure.

Political reconciliation would have required the Iraqis to have exercised authority over their own territory to work through differences amongst themselves. The problem was that the surge encouraged the exact opposite. The Americans effectively took full control over Iraqi governance and abandoned the idea of Iraqi self-governance. Reflective of this change of strategy, General Petraeus at times virtually dragged President Maliki to meetings by the hand. While this may have helped to create governance that was temporarily more stable, it was never going to be more than that. The Iraqis were not trusted with the governing of their own country, and the transition from de facto American control in 2008 at the end of the surge, to the withdrawal of American troops in 2011 was stark. This created another incentive for Maliki and others to embrace their sectarian impulses, and consolidate their internal positions vis-à-vis other internal groups in preparation for the inevitable American withdrawal, to the detriment of political reconciliation in Iraq.

Congressional funding approved for the surge was tied to the Bush administration publishing reports on the progress of the objectives that had been set out: “Out of the eighteen total benchmarks, the President’s first report (July 2007) stated that the Government of Iraq had made satisfactory progress towards achieving nine of the benchmarks.” This means they had made no progress whatsoever towards the other nine objectives as was later confirmed by a Government Accountability Office report. The real question that we must ask ourselves is: if we are saying that the ultimate definition of success for the surge was not the short-term suppression of violence and was actually about creating space for political change, then how can that be rationalised with the fact that extremely limited progress was being made politically on what were identified as key conditions for the United States’ withdrawal?


H.R. McMaster was quoted in September 2009 saying that the United States approach to Iraq in 2006 trying to transfer necessary authority to the Iraqi people “was a rush to failure.” In 2006 the political climate had changed much after the mid-term elections and Rumsfeld’s departure. New strategies were discussed and the surge was chosen. In the long run, the surge accelerated what McMaster had feared the old strategy would do. It rushed to failure by exacerbating underlying causal factors for the sectarian violence in Iraq that had led to the civil war.

Along with other factors on the ground in Iraq, in particular the Anbar Awakening, there was an empirically supported qualitative reduction in the levels of violence. This created the space for political reconciliation. Said space was unfortunately not capitalised on, and ultimately this is the great failure of the changed strategy in Iraq. It promised a long-term strategic gain, and delivered a short-term tactical success. Add to this the fact that because it relied on high levels of funding to reduce the violence it was inevitable that “when the Iraqi government stopped the flow of money, the violence… [would begin] anew.” The problem was that the inevitability and speed of this shift went largely unrecognised, and therefore the strategy’s methodology was condemned from the start.

The surge is now widely seen “as one of the most remarkable military events of recent memory, and it casts a long shadow over military doctrine and planning across much of the Western world.” The real danger of how the surge is remembered amongst the current cadre of military professionals, is not a misperception of its application in Iraq. At best that is poor history, and does not detract from the ability of modern military leaders to conduct contemporary counterinsurgency operations effectively. What is most dangerous is the fact that it is held up and mythologised as an ideal example of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. A strategy that is to be exported. The reality was much more nuanced and complex. Simply copying it and hoping for the same result will inevitably end in failure, something that many military professionals have encountered in Afghanistan.

This speaks to how directly applicable the methodology of the surge can be to counterinsurgency operations, across the Middle East and beyond, in the future. Misremembering the surge as being the sole cause of the declining violence in Iraq at the expense of the wider picture is dangerous. The strategy could be exported into wholly different circumstances and blindly applied without consideration of the situation. It is only when remembering the nuanced reality of its application, that its successes can be applied and its failures understood.

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