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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.