The Magazine

The New Strategy in Iraq

General Petraeus learns from past U.S. mistakes.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The new strategy for Iraq has entered its second phase. Now that all of the additional combat forces have arrived in theater, Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno have begun Operation Phantom Thunder, a vast and complex effort to disrupt al Qaeda and Shiite militia bases all around Baghdad in advance of the major clear-and-hold operations that will follow. The deployment of forces and preparations for this operation have gone better than expected, and Phantom Thunder is so far proceeding very well. All aspects of the current strategy have been built upon the lessons of previous successful and unsuccessful Coalition efforts to establish security in Iraq, and there is every reason to be optimistic about its outcome.

The first phase of the new strategy unfolded over five months--between the president's announcement of the "surge" on January 10 and the arrival of the last of the five additional Army brigades and Marine elements in early June (though critical enablers for those combat forces have only just arrived). As the new units entered Iraq, commanders began pushing forces already in the theater forward from their operating bases into outposts in key neighborhoods of Baghdad and elsewhere. The purpose of these movements was to establish positions within those key neighborhoods and to develop intelligence about the enemy and relationships of trust with the local communities.

Also during this first phase, additional Iraqi security forces were deployed to Baghdad in accordance with a plan developed jointly by the U.S. and Iraqi military commands. All of the requested units were provided. The Iraqi military has just completed its second rotation of units into Baghdad; as before, all of the designated units arrived, and they were generally closer to being fully manned than in the first rotation.

The new U.S. troops have increased the available combat power in Iraq by about 40 percent, from 15 brigades to the equivalent of 21 brigades. Generals Petraeus and Odierno allocated only two of the additional Army brigades to the capital. The other three Army brigades and the equivalent of a Marine regiment they deployed in the surrounding areas, known as the "Baghdad belt." There, under the guise of Operation Phantom Thunder, they are now working to disrupt the car-bomb and suicide-bomb networks that have been supporting al Qaeda's counter-surge since January.

But this second phase is designed primarily to support the clearing and holding operations in Baghdad itself, which will continue for many months. It is those operations that are meant to bring lasting security to Iraq's capital and thus create the space for political progress.

The United States has not undertaken a multiphased operation on such a large scale since the invasion, so it is unsurprising that many commentators are confused about how to report and evaluate what is going on. Indeed, the current effort differs profoundly from anything U.S. forces have tried before in Iraq. As Coalition forces begin the attempt to establish sustainable security in Baghdad and its environs, it is worth reviewing past major combat operations in Iraq, since their clear lessons have informed planning for the current, much larger campaign.


The U.S. Marines fought two big battles in Falluja, the easternmost major city in Anbar province not far from Baghdad, in the spring and fall of 2004. The enemy was a dense network of al Qaeda fighters and Sunni Arab insurgents who had prepared defensive positions throughout the city and had considerable support from the local population. The initial assault was ordered on short notice after the kidnapping and execution of several American contractors, whose bodies were prominently displayed from a bridge.

The Marines were not given adequate time to prepare for the attack. They could not establish forward outposts in the city, develop adequate intelligence about the enemy, or gain the trust of the population. The American command did not fully prepare the Iraqi government for the intensity of the battle or the controversy it was bound to generate. As a result, the Marines' initial assaults resulted in heavy casualties and collateral damage. The Iraqi government was shaken, and the Marines were ordered to abandon the effort and rely instead on local forces to restore order in the city. Lacking troops, training, and support, the local allies were quickly either turned or slaughtered, and al Qaeda and the insurgents strengthened their hold on Falluja and Anbar generally.