The New Strategy in Iraq
General Petraeus learns from past U.S. mistakes.
Tal Afar had been cleared twice before September 2005, and both times had immediately fallen back into the hands of the insurgents. Although U.S. forces in the area were again reduced sharply after this operation, the situation did not deteriorate rapidly or completely. Promised reconstruction aid from the Iraqi central government arrived in Nineveh only a few months ago, and tensions rose in the city in 2006, in part because the Iraqi government replaced several key provincial leaders with Shia extremists. Nevertheless, Tal Afar has not been retaken by the insurgents, and a spectacular suicide truck bomb in March 2007 did not trigger a renewal of sectarian strife. A few days of tit-for-tat sectarian killings followed, but the local government and Iraqi police and army units with very little Coalition support managed to bring the situation under control and stop the killing.
Nineveh Province today is held by 18,000 Iraqi army soldiers, 20,000 Iraqi police, and a small number of Americans. Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent cells operate in the province, particularly in Mosul, but have not been able to take it over or establish uncontested safe havens. Operations in 2005, although inadequately followed up and sustained, created a lasting change in a critical province of northern Iraq.
Early in 2006, the U.S. military command withdrew the additional forces introduced to support the elections, and thereafter resisted all suggestions of a more active posture or a larger American presence. In 2006 the focus was on training the Iraqi military and transitioning responsibility for security to the Iraqis. It was hoped that the results of the 2005 elections would lead to the political progress that was seen as the key to reducing violence, and Generals John Abizaid and George Casey believed that an active American presence was an irritant that caused more trouble than it cured. They also feared that American forces conducting counterinsurgency operations would allow the Iraqi forces to lie back and become dependent on the Coalition. The overall U.S. posture in the first half of 2006, therefore, remained largely defensive and reactive, and the military command aimed to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq as rapidly as possible.
In the meantime, the situation was deteriorating dramatically. Al Qaeda terrorists destroyed the Golden Dome of the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra (a Shiite shrine in the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin), and a wave of sectarian violence swept Iraq. Within days more than 30 mosques had been bombed, and death squads began executing civilians across the country in large numbers in tit-for-tat sectarian murders.
The failure to follow up either on the successes in Falluja in 2004 or on the beginnings of clearing operations in the Upper Euphrates in 2005 allowed Anbar Province to sink deeper into the control of Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists. As late as August 2006, the Marine intelligence officer for the province declared that it was irretrievably lost to the enemy.
Nevertheless, the Marines and Army units in Anbar began a series of quiet efforts to regain control that ultimately led to spectacular and unexpected success. They began to engage local leaders in talks, particularly after al Qaeda committed a series of assassinations and other atrocities against tribal leaders and local civilians as part of an effort to enforce their extreme and distorted vision of Islamic law. U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Sean MacFarland also began a quiet effort to apply the clearing principles honed through operations in Falluja, Sadr City, and Tal Afar to Ramadi. There were never enough forces to undertake such operations rapidly or decisively, and success never appeared likely, at least to outside observers, who focused excessively on the force ratios.
But the effort was successful beyond all expectations. The tribal leaders in Anbar came together to negotiate an accord that ultimately produced the Anbar Awakening, an association of Anbar tribes dedicated to fighting al Qaeda. Recruiting for the Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar increased from virtually zero through 2006 to more than 14,000 by mid-2007. As the 2007 surge forces augmented U.S. troops in Anbar and began to change the political dynamic in Iraq, efforts to clear Ramadi and bring overall violence in the province under control also peaked. As New York Times reporter John Burns noted after a recent visit to Ramadi, Anbar's capital has "gone from being the most dangerous place in Iraq, with the help of the tribal sheikhs, to being one of the least dangerous places." And the Anbar Awakening movement has spread to Sunni tribes in neighboring areas. Parallel organizations have developed in Babil, Salahuddin, and Diyala provinces, and even in Baghdad. As the new strategy of 2007 took hold, U.S. forces found that they could even negotiate and work with some of their most determined former foes in the Sunni Arab insurgency--groups like the Baathist 1920s Brigades that once focused on killing Americans and now are increasingly working with Americans to kill al Qaeda fighters. Coalition operations in Anbar, which looked hopeless for years, have accomplished extraordinary successes that are deepening and spreading.
These operations failed. Six months of intense sectarian conflict had led many members of the mostly Shiite Iraqi police into death squads. They were not and could not be effective bulwarks on their own against sectarian violence of which they were a part. The fact that most Iraqi army formations did not show up reduced the force ratios necessary to clear neighborhoods and deprived the Iraqi command, which was poorly organized, of resources vital to holding areas that U.S. forces cleared. The very small increase in American combat power (two additional brigades in Baghdad, but no overall increase in the American force levels in the theater) was inadequate to gain control of the situation. Sectarian killings dropped during the first two weeks of the second, and larger, operation, but then rapidly rose above pre-operation levels and continued to rise for the rest of the year. By November, Operation Together Forward II had mostly ground to a halt, having made no lasting improvement in the situation.
When local American commanders took the initiative to clear insurgent hotbeds, they were generally successful. These operations produced measurable improvements in important areas that decayed only slowly, despite the absence of follow-up or adequate continued presence. U.S. forces honed their skills in such operations, allowing them finally to clear insurgent-held cities without destroying them or excessively alienating the local population. Political progress and political solutions are essential to ultimate success in counterinsurgency, but they must often be complemented by major military operations sustained over a long time.
Second, all American efforts to establish local security in Iraq have been hindered by the paucity of U.S. troops there, yet some have succeeded even so. Colonel McMaster could muster nearly one Coalition soldier (American or Iraqi) for every 45 people in Tal Afar, which helps explain the speed and success of the clearing in that city. But General Chiarelli restored order in Sadr City in 2004 with fewer than one soldier per 100 inhabitants, and the Marines and Army units in Anbar cleared Ramadi slowly with similarly poor ratios. More soldiers and Marines, to say nothing of more trained and reliable Iraqi troops, would have made every operation proceed more rapidly and smoothly, but the evidence suggests that critical clearing operations can succeed even at these lower ratios. There are now well over 350,000 Coalition forces, including Iraqis, in the country, whose population is around 25 million--an overall ratio significantly better than what sufficed to restore order in Sadr City and Ramadi.
Third, rapid reductions in Coalition forces after clearing operations undermined the success of almost all past operations. In Sadr City and Najaf, the withdrawal led to the complete if quiet restoration of the militias that had been driven out. In Falluja and Tal Afar, rapid reductions in Coalition forces led to slow deterioration, although not to previous levels of insurgent and terrorist predominance. Turning control of cleared areas over to Iraqi forces prematurely--as in Falluja after the first battle and in Baghdad after Operations Together Forward--generally led to rapid failure. The Coalition must plan to maintain a significant presence in direct and indirect support of Iraqi forces after clearing operations are complete in order to sustain success. The model is Ramadi, where Coalition forces have remained in strength even as the situation has improved, helping to deepen the positive trends underway there. The capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces have improved steadily, but it is highly unlikely that Coalition forces can leave areas as soon as they have been cleared without seeing security deteriorate.
Fourth, every successful operation was preceded by commanders' taking the time to develop a good intelligence picture of the situation. To do this, they moved forces into the area and made contact with the local population. Advance forces help shape the environment by occupying bases from which subsequent operations can proceed and by establishing relationships with local leaders that will be exploited in subsequent phases. This also helps commanders and planners refine their estimates of the forces required in the clearing operation. Especially operations on a large scale, involving the physical movement of many forces, require significant preparation.
Fifth, Coalition casualties generally increase at the start of major clearing operations, when Coalition troops move into areas previously held by the enemy, especially where the enemy has prepared sophisticated defensive positions. As the enemy realizes that a major attack is underway, he often launches counterattacks, in an attempt to blunt the offensive and/or weaken the will of leaders in Baghdad and Washington. Depending on the scale of operations and the resilience of the enemy defenses, this period of increased violence can last for days or weeks. As clearing proceeds to its conclusion, however, violence generally drops and Coalition casualties begin to fall. This pattern has occurred in almost every successful clearing operation, including Sadr City, Najaf, the second Battle of Falluja, Tal Afar, and Ramadi. Higher force ratios combined with solid preparation can reduce the intensity and duration of this spike in violence and casualties, but cannot eliminate it.
Many advocates of the new strategy--and many critics--bemoaned the staggered arrival over five months of the additional combat forces, which delayed the start of major clearing operations and seemed to threaten a ragged and uneven launch. But Generals Petraeus and Odierno put the time to good use. They immediately began to push U.S. forces that were already in Iraq off of their forward operating bases and into the neighborhoods to be cleared. In some areas that were sufficiently stable to begin with, the mere movement of forces into permanent positions in the neighborhoods had the effect of a rapid clearing operation, even though the aim was only to gather intelligence and set the conditions for the clearing to follow.
More important, previous clearing operations in Iraq were not part of a coherent plan to establish security in a wide area, but rather reactions to violence in particular places. Thus, U.S. commanders made no extensive efforts to contain the accelerants to violence--vehicle-bomb factories, insurgent safe houses, training grounds, smuggling routes, and weapons caches--located outside the cities being cleared. By contrast, the current strategy aims to establish security across greater Baghdad, and Petraeus and Odierno have added a phase between the preparation phase and the major clearing. This is Operation Phantom Thunder, which aims to disrupt enemy networks for many miles beyond the capital, as far away as Baquba and Falluja. What's more, Phantom Thunder is striking the enemy in almost all of its major bases at once--something Coalition forces have never before attempted in Iraq.
Al Qaeda's operations in Baghdad--its bombings, kidnappings, resupply activities, movement of foreign fighters, and financing--depend on its ability to move people and goods around the rural outskirts of the capital as well as in the city. Petraeus and Odierno, therefore, are conducting simultaneous operations in many places in the Baghdad belt: Falluja and Baquba, Mahmudiya, Arab Jabour, Salman Pak, the southern shores of Lake Tharthar, Karma, Tarmiya, and so on. By attacking all of these bases at once, Coalition forces will gravely complicate the enemy's movement from place to place, as well as his ability to establish new bases and safe havens. At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi forces have already disrupted al Qaeda's major bases and are working to prevent the enemy from taking refuge in the city. U.S. forces are also aggressively targeting Shia death-squad leaders and helping Iraqi forces operating against Shia militias.
Still ahead, of course, is the challenge of completing the clearing and holding of a city of 6 million. The establishment of security, moreover, is a precondition for further political progress, not a guarantee of it. The enemy may find a way to disrupt the current operations, or to derail or defeat the subsequent clear-and-hold operations. It is possible that Iraqi Security Forces will prove unable to develop the numbers and capabilities required to maintain security once it has been established. And unpredictable disasters can always drive a well-designed strategy off course.
But there is every reason to believe at this stage that the current operation and its likely successor will dramatically reduce the level of violence in Baghdad, and do so in a way that will prove sustainable. That accomplishment in itself will be a major contribution to American security, in that it will entail a major defeat for al Qaeda and its allies, now surging in response to our stepped-up operations. And it will create an unprecedented situation in postwar Iraq: one in which Iraq's elected government can meet and discuss policies in relative security in a capital returning to normal; in which Sunni and Shia can afford to compromise without fear of an imminent sectarian explosion; and in which Iraqi forces can become increasingly responsible for maintaining the security that they have helped to establish. The current strategy is on track to produce that outcome--which is why it deserves to be given every chance to succeed.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is executive director of the Institute for the Study of War.