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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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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).