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Misunderstanding the Surge

The New York Times wrongly judges the plan and the commanders who are executing it.

12:48 AM, Jun 5, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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YESTERDAY the New York Times published yet another article in an ongoing series that might be called "The Surge Has Failed." This one was titled "Commanders Say Push in Baghdad Is Short of Goal." The article reports on a one-page summary of a document the Times characterized only as an "internal military assessment." According to that document and interviews with some commanders, the paper argues that the Baghdad Security Plan is not meeting its goals in securing the population of Baghdad, largely because of sectarian bias within the Iraqi police.

The article contains some important distortions. The authors state, "American commanders have also had to send troops outside the capital, to deal with a sharp rise in violence in Diyala Province and to search for American soldiers kidnapped south of the capital." In fact, Generals Raymond Odierno and David Petraeus decided from the outset to deploy additional U.S. forces to the "belts" around Baghdad, both south and north, in order to interdict the lines of communication used by both Sunni and Shiia terrorists to send weapons and fighters into Baghdad. Violence had been rising in Diyala since mid-2006, and the U.S. command decided to address it early this year because instability there contributes directly to violence in Baghdad. The southern belts house car-bomb factories and terrorist safe-havens, which is why MNF-I decided to clear them before attempting to secure Baghdad. The decisions to flow additional forces into these areas slowed the pace of clear-and-hold operations in Baghdad, but these operations will go a long way toward ensuring that peace established in the capital will be stable and durable. The decision to flow forces into the belts was a sensible adaptation to the reality on the ground at the start of the new plan.

The problematic New York Times article elides two very different military plans into one. General George Casey began developing a new plan to stem the rising tide of violence at the end of 2006. Casey's plan was based on the same presuppositions that had guided the U.S. war effort in Iraq since late 2003. President Bush announced a new strategy on January 10, 2007, and he changed the command team in order to implement it. In mid-February General David Petraeus replaced General Casey as the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Since the change of command, Generals Petraeus and Odierno have made clear that they did not accept the rosy scenarios of security by summer that General Casey had been pushing.

General Petraeus and General Casey differed in their assessments of what U.S. forces in Iraq could achieve by summer because they had different ideas about how to accomplish U.S. objectives in the country. Since taking command in mid-2004, Casey had been focused on using Iraqi forces to establish and maintain security throughout Iraq and on "transitioning" responsibility for security to those forces. He remained undaunted by reports that the Iraqi Security Forces were contributing to the violence by participating in sectarian cleansing. By the end of 2006, the National Police were particularly problematic in this regard. Nevertheless, at the turn of the new year General Casey still preferred a plan that would rely on overly-optimistic projections of the capabilities and performance of Iraqi Security Forces, just as the two failed attempts to clear Baghdad in 2006--Operations Together Forward I and II--had done.

The Bush administration made a mistake by attempting to cast the new strategy that General Petraeus would ultimately design and execute as a minor modification of Casey's strategy, and by insisting that U.S. units would be partnered with Iraqi Army, National Police, and Iraqi Police units throughout Baghdad. But Generals Petraeus and Odierno learned the lessons of 2006 better than that. American forces in Baghdad are partnered with Iraqi units where possible, but are focused primarily on securing the Iraqi population rather than on pushing the Iraqi Security Forces into the lead, which had been Casey's primary focus. Petraeus and Odierno also knew that securing the population would take most of 2007, which is why they never predicted success by July, as Casey had done.

Despite months of clear statements from the senior commanders in Baghdad to this effect, the New York Times has paid no heed, and is now trying to compare the progress of the actual, much more realistic, plan being conducted by American and Iraqi forces to the goals of the unrealistic plans developed by the now-departed commander. The paper's comparison is meaningless. Generals Petraeus and Odierno have made it clear that it is not possible to make even a preliminary assessment of whether their plans are working before September 2007, and they have indicated that operations and U.S. forces will need to be sustained at a high level into 2008. They are right.

The discussion in the New York Times article about the involvement of Iraqi Police in sectarian killings and attacks against U.S. soldiers is portrayed as a major setback in the context of these elided plans. It is not. It is the same situation U.S. forces have been dealing with since early 2006, when sectarian violence began to rise in the first place. This is precisely why Congressional recommendations to accelerate the handover to Iraqi forces are mistaken. The current coalition plan--and the New York Times does not even note that General Petraeus has just completed a thorough review of the situation and developed a new campaign plan to guide coalition efforts henceforth--takes this situation into account much more thoroughly than the discredited and discarded approaches of 2004-2006. The appropriate adjustment of military strategy to reality on the ground has led to a more realistic appraisal of the time required for success, as well as an approach far more likely to lead to success.

The details of the sectarian violence described in the Times article are not particularly instructive. The neighborhoods mentioned are among the very worst in Baghdad, and have been for some time. U.S. forces are just getting set in some of them and just beginning major clearing operations in others. As we have noted many times, when coalition forces begin clearing operations in areas the enemy had held for a long time, coalition casualties go up. The enemy fights U.S. forces in order to maintain their ability to pursue their ends. Defeating the enemy is necessary to provide basic security to the population, the essential precondition for any meaningful progress in Iraq.

The causes of Iraqi civilian casualties, on the other hand, are the same as they have been for more than a year--al Qaeda attacks and attacks by rogue elements of the Jaysh al Mahdi. But overall sectarian violence remains at about half of the December level--a marked change considering that violence had been rising continuously since early 2006. Even with the increased al Qaeda violence added in, the level of violence remains stable--again, a positive change from a situation in which violence appeared to be rising uncontrollably.

And it matters a great deal that the last U.S. units have just begun to arrive. We should note--as General Odierno did in a recent press conference--that it takes time for a unit newly arrived in theater to begin to operate effectively. It must develop an understanding of the neighborhood, an intelligence picture of the enemy, and build relationships with key local figures before it can even begin to start effective clear-and-hold operations. All that takes time--anywhere from 30 to 60 days, depending on the unit and the neighborhood. In the interim, violence increases as sectarian actors try to achieve their goals before the new unit can become effective, and as entrenched enemies make strenuous efforts to keep coalition forces out of areas that they control. After all, there are no coalition casualties in areas where there are no coalition forces--even areas that the enemy holds. Then U.S. forces must clear the enemy from these areas by engaging in major combat operations that often last for several weeks. And holding an area after it has been cleared takes even more time.

This New York Times article and many people who favor shutting down the current strategy fail to understand or acknowledge how long large-scale counter-insurgency operations take or what they look like in their decisive stages. They also refuse to recognize that the current strategy is a departure from--and not a continuation of--the approach that had failed to control violence from 2004 to the end of 2006. Some opponents of the plan now propose returning to General Casey's failed strategy by focusing exclusively on the training of Iraqi security forces and using them instead of U.S. forces--the very strategy that had allowed violence to spiral out of control in the first place.

There will be many difficult months to come, as our enemies attempt not only to make the strategy fail, but to convince Americans and Iraqis that it will fail. There is no guarantee that any military strategy will succeed, of course, which is why commanders should evaluate the progress of their strategy. But our new military commanders have understood the problems mentioned in the Times article for months, and they are actively working to solve them. The New York Times wrongly judges the current commanders by their predecessors' expectations. And it wrongly presents their efforts to solve legacy problems as evidence that the current effort has failed. It may be emotionally easier for some simply to convince themselves that the U.S. has already failed in Iraq. But success remains possible if we have the will to try to achieve it.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).