The Magazine

How They Did It

Executing the winning strategy in Iraq.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The surge of operations that American and Iraqi forces began on June 15 has dramatically improved security in Baghdad and throughout Iraq. U.S. commanders and soldiers have reversed the negative trends of 2006, some of which date back to 2005. The total number of enemy attacks has fallen for four consecutive months, and has now reached levels last seen before the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing. IED explosions have plummeted to late 2004 levels. Iraqi civilian casualties, which peaked at 3,000 in the month of December 2006, are now below 1,000 for the second straight month. The number of coalition soldiers killed in action has fallen for five straight months and is now at the lowest level since February 2004. These trends persisted through Ramadan, when violence had typically spiked. "I believe we have achieved some momentum," General Raymond T. Odierno, commander of coalition combat forces in Iraq, said modestly in his November 1 press briefing. Since security was deteriorating dramatically in Iraq a year ago, how U.S. commanders and soldiers and their Iraqi partners achieved this positive momentum deserves explanation, even though hard fighting continues and the war is not yet won.

"As we assess the security gains made over the past four months, I attribute the progress to three prominent dynamics," General Odierno explained. "First, the surge allowed us to eliminate extremist safe havens and sanctuaries, [and] just as importantly to maintain our gains. Second, the ongoing quantitative and qualitative improvement of the Iraqi security forces are translating to ever-increasing tactical successes. Lastly, there's a clear rejection of al Qaeda and other extremists by large segments of the population, this coupled with the bottom-up awakening movement by both Sunni and Shia who want a chance to reconcile with the government of Iraq." These dynamics worked together to improve security.

After President Bush decided to change strategy and increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, the goal became to secure Iraq's population from violence in order to allow civic and political progress. Generals David Petraeus and Odierno implemented the new strategy and determined how to use the additional troops.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno conducted three successive, large-scale military operations in 2007. The first was Fardh al-Qanoon, or the Baghdad Security Plan, which dispersed U.S. and Iraqi troops throughout the capital in order to secure its inhabitants. The second was Phantom Thunder, an Iraq-wide offensive to clear al Qaeda sanctuaries. The third was Phantom Strike, an Iraq-wide offensive to pursue al Qaeda operatives and other enemies as they fled those sanctuaries and attempted to regroup in smaller areas throughout Iraq. These military operations have improved security throughout central Iraq.


The additional forces, General Odierno explained, permitted "a surge in simultaneous and sustained offensive operations, in partnership with the Iraqi security forces. Furthermore, it allowed us to operate in areas that had not yet seen a sustained coalition presence and to retain our hard-fought gains. Our ability to put pressure on al Qaeda and other extremists and deny them safe havens and sanctuaries increased significantly. This was done with the goal of protecting the population and in concert with political and economic initiatives to buy time and space for the government of Iraq."


Competing enemy groups drove the sectarian violence in Baghdad in 2006. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) launched spectacular attacks against civilians, particularly in Shia neighborhoods. Death squads, operating on behalf of extremist militia groups, purged mixed neighborhoods of their Sunni residents and intimidated Shia into compliance with their agenda. As a result, beleaguered Sunnis turned to al Qaeda for protection against death squads. Al Qaeda set up defensive positions in some neighborhoods, such as Dora in southwestern Baghdad, to defend the Sunni population against attack. The car bomb was al Qaeda's offensive weapon of choice, and the IED its preferred defensive weapon. The Iraqi security forces could not remove al Qaeda from its fortified positions, nor could they stop the spectacular attacks. Shia death squads responded by increasing executions of Sunnis. By the end of 2006, al Qaeda and militia groups were fighting for control of territory in Baghdad.