How Important Was the Surge?

The past few weeks have been momentous for the national conversation about Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki's explicitly stated insistence on a timetable for American withdrawal was transformative. For the first time, the Iraqi people, the American people, and the Iraqi government have all clearly expressed a desire for America to end its occupation of Iraq. For some in America, this has sounded like an endorsement of a well-defined withdrawal plan. For others, it has been validation of the surge strategy, and testament to the need to stay the course.

Nowhere has this tension been more acute than in the rapid-fire press releases between the two presidential candidates. As Randy Scheunemann, John McCain's foreign policy adviser, put it, "The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed." This raises an interesting empirical question, however. There's no doubt that the past year or two have seen a dramatic drop in Iraqi violence, and real gains in stability. In the American press, much of this stability has been chalked up to the "surge" of 30,000 or so extra troops, centered around Baghdad.

But was the surge the only, or even the main, factor creating this stability? To find out, TAP Online asked ten Iraq experts, from all sides of the political spectrum, to explain the forces and developments they believed had resulted in Iraq's relative stability, and evaluate the centrality of the surge. As you'll see in the following responses, it's not a question that's easily answered.

Our panel of experts:

Stephen Biddle
Shawn Brimley
Juan Cole
Matthew Duss
Colin Kahl
Lawrence Korb
John Nagl
Michael O'Hanlon
Marina Ottaway
Thomas E. Ricks

Stephen Biddle
Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

The original idea behind the surge was to reduce the violence in Baghdad in order to enable Iraqis to negotiate the kind of national power-sharing deal we thought would be necessary to stabilize the country. Chaos in the capital, it was thought, made negotiated compromise impossible; by deploying more US troops to the city and assigning them the mission of direct population security, it was hoped that a safe space could be created within which the national leaders of Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds could afford to take the risks inherent in compromise.

The violence came down, but the compromise did not follow. Although some slow, grudging political progress has been made, the pace has lagged far behind the original intentions of the surge's designers. Many, prominently including the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, were prepared to declare the surge a failure given its inability to produce the reconciliation deal that was the whole point originally.

In the meantime, however, a completely different possibility arose -- one that was neither planned nor anticipated nor intended when the surge was designed, but which has nevertheless become central to the prospects for stability in Iraq. This "Anbar Model" or "bottom-up" approach began with a group of Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar Province, then quickly spread to Sunnis elsewhere in Iraq and now to many Shiites as well. " From testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Shawn Brimley
Fellow, Center for a New American Security

The narrative surrounding the "surge" has been overly simplified by the McCain campaign. Senator McCain's mistake in claiming that the "surge" which started in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni's to turn against al-Qaeda is clearly false. The Sunni tribes began to shift their allegiances in the Fall of 2006, in no small part due to the actions of U.S. troops in Anbar. The decline in violence in 2007 had much more to do with a change in U.S. strategy than simply the additional troops. A change in strategy, plus the Sunni Awakening, the decision of Sadr to stand down his militia, and the use of concrete barriers in Baghdad to separate Sunni and Shia were all extremely important factors that, along with the additional troops, combined to help lower the violence.

Finally, as Colonel Sean McFarland argued in Military Review: "A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made these younger leaders open to our overtures."

The additional troops were an important contributing factor in reducing the violence, but only one of several variables. By downplaying the impact that a credible threat of withdrawal had in producing the security gains in 2007, the McCain campaign is grossly simplifying the war for political gain.

Juan Cole
Richard P. Mitchell Distinguished University Professor of History, University of Michigan

Decline of violence causes:

1. Dulaim tribesmen in Anbar developed a feud with Salafi Jihadis, who were hitting Dulaim young men who tried to join police; Dulaim took money from the United States to fight jihadis.

2. Shiite militias ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and environs, leaving few mixed neighborhoods and less opportunity for neighborhood killings. (Baghdad went from 65 percent Shiite in Jan. 2007 to 75 percent Shiite by late last summer.)

3. Extra oil income strengthened Iraqi security forces.

4. Badr Corps paramilitary of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq won out in South over Sadr's movement, with help of Iraqi police and army and U.S. air support (e.g. Diwaniya, Karbala).

5. Sunnis left in West Baghdad took money from United States to form anti-jihadi militias.

6. Extra U.S. troops in Baghdad put in blast walls, no-drive markets, bridge and other checkpoints -- which may have had some impact in capital, though ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis was more important.

Matthew Duss
Research Associate, Center for American Progress

It's difficult to disentangle the various elements that contributed to the decrease in violence in Iraq over the last months, but I think it's generally understood that the decrease is related to four main factors:

1. The Awakenings movement (Sahwas) and the new U.S. counterinsurgency approach which this involved, in which Sunni militias allied with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

2. The decision by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to "freeze" his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia in the wake of violent clashes in the shrine city of Karbala in late August 2007.

3. The separation of Sunni and Shia Iraqis into protected enclaves as a result of the 2006-2007 campaign of sectarian cleansing by Sunni and Shia militias in Baghdad, and the construction of concrete barriers around these enclaves.

4. The troop surge. In my view, the addition of some 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq encouraged, supported and consolidated each of these other phenomena, but very likely could not have succeeded without them.

It's important to realize that the new strategy has its costs. The "Anbar strategy" which is the center-piece of the surge violates a central tenet of counterinsurgency doctrine in that it does not redirect political authority toward the central government. The deals that have been made are between Sunni tribal militias and U.S. forces, not the Iraqi government. There are still an estimated 90,000 Sunni militia members expecting government jobs, and little sign that the Shia-controlled Iraqi government intends to provide them. It's true that security is a prerequisite for state-building, but if that security only comes at the expense of the legitimacy of the state we're supposedly trying to build, then we have an entirely new problem on our hands.

Colin Kahl
Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security

There is no doubt that the surge coincided with a huge improvement in the security situation in Iraq. The causal relationship between the surge and improved security conditions, however, is more complex. The significant increase in U.S. combat forces in Baghdad and surrounding areas, coupled with much improved counterinsurgency practices, was certainly one factor contributing to a reduction in violence. But the bigger reason for the decline was a change in U.S. strategy to engage "reconcilable" Iraqi combatants -- not troop numbers per se. The key reasons for the decline in violence -- the decisions by Sunni and Shia militants to switch sides or stand on the sidelines, and the separation and exhaustion of warring parties in Baghdad -- were partly a result of this strategic shift and partly due to other conflict dynamics that were well underway before, or otherwise independent from, the surge.

Perhaps the most decisive reason for improved security in Iraq was the Sunni Awakening: the successful effort to recruit Sunni tribes and former insurgents to cooperate with U.S. forces against AQI. The Awakening began in the fall 2006 in Ramadi with the formation of the Anbar Salvation Council. The Council represented a group of tribal sheiks that revolted against AQI atrocities, power grabs, and encroachments into tribal economic activities. The beginning of the movement predated the surge and was spurred, in part, by increasing concerns that U.S. forces might withdraw and leave Sunnis vulnerable to AQI and Shia militias. Nevertheless, nimble U.S. commanders effectively exploited the growing wedge between Sunni tribes and AQI to forge cooperative arrangements, and the tribes responded by providing thousands of men to serve in auxiliary security forces. The result was a dramatic reduction in violence in Anbar, once the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency. Although the surge did not spark the Awakening, the new American approach in 2007 did help it spread outward from Anbar. The real cause was not the additional troops per se, but rather a change in strategy. In particular, during the summer of 2007, General Petraeus and Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, then the number-two commander in Iraq, encouraged brigade and battalion commanders to apply the Anbar model elsewhere by striking deals with portions of the Sunni insurgency.

Another crucial factor contributing to improved security was the decision by Sadr to curtail the armed activities of his militia. On August 28, 2007, a ferocious gun battle erupted between JAM and the Badr Organization -- the rival militia associated with Sadr's principal rival, ISCI -- during a festival in Karbala. The clash killed dozens and wounded hundreds. The following day, Sadr announced a six-month freeze on all armed actions by JAM, and, in February 2008, the truce was extended for another six months. The motivations behind the freeze remain unclear. Sadr undoubtedly sought to avoid a direct clash with U.S. forces at the peak of the surge. But his decision was also intended to improve JAM's image in the face of growing accusations of criminal behavior and gain more control over his fractious organization.

A final reason for the reduction in violence during the surge period was prior sectarian cleansing. Since the beginning of the war, more than four million Iraqis have fled the country or become internally displaced. The acceleration of sectarian cleansing in 2006 and early 2007 had the perverse effect of driving down subsequent violence by segregating groups in Baghdad into defensible enclaves -- enclaves that have increasingly walled off from one another by concrete barriers erected by U.S. forces.

Lawrence Korb
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

There can be no doubt that there has been considerable improvement in the Iraqi security environment over the last 18 months. The escalation of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops -- along with General Petraeus' employment of counterinsurgency tactics -- have played a role in reducing violence to its lowest levels since 2004. More crucial to the improved Iraqi security environment are factors that either predate the surge or had nothing to do with it in the first place.

Much of the recent decline in violence in Iraq must be credited to the emergence of Sunni "awakening" groups and Sons of Iraq militias. Contrary to the assertions of supporters of remaining in Iraq indefinitely, these groups were co-opted by U.S. forces in the early fall of 2006, long before the surge even began. Moreover, according to commanders on the ground, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal in the lead up to the 2006 midterm elections was the main impetus for this cooperation.

The unilateral stand down of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army is equally important. Like the co-option of the "Sons of Iraq" militias, this development was not a result of the surge nor was it instigated by the Iraqi government. Conflict levels have also diminished as a result of population displacements and sectarian separation-a polite way to say a sectarian cleansing campaign. At best, the decline in sectarian violence can be viewed as an untenable pause that came about as a result of segregating Baghdad neighborhoods rather than as a result of a true cessation of hostilities. But, while a reduction in violence has produced a tenuous security balance in Iraq, it has failed to produce a sustainable equilibrium in the country that locks in what security and political gains have been made over the last 18 months. In order to truly take advantage these gains, the U.S. must use a credible withdrawal as a lever to force political change in Iraq while pushing Iraq's competing powers to recalculate their self-interest in light of a U.S. withdrawal.

Lt. Col. (ret) John Nagl
Author,  Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lesson from Malaya and Vietnam

There are many causes for the recent, and very welcome, decline in violence in Iraq; all are connected to a better application of counterinsurgency principles. As important as the increase in American troop strength was the employment of those soldiers and Marines in Joint Security Stations to protect the Iraqi population on a full-time basis. The Sunni Awakening, in which the Sunni tribes of al Anbar turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, actually had its origins prior to General Petraeus' arrival in theater; some units were already planting the seeds that flowered into the Awakening as far back as 2003. Muqtada al-Sadr's decision not to actively contest the American presence was also enormously helpful in breaking the cycle of violence that was so destructive in 2006. Meanwhile, years of patient work nurturing the Iraqi Security Forces are finally beginning to pay off with forces that are increasingly capable, competent -- and responsive to the rule of law.

Although it is far too soon to be doing victory dances in the end zone, it is past time to think about how to transfer some of the hard-earned lessons from countering insurgency in Iraq to the campaign in Afghanistan. Chief among those lessons are the importance of local militias and host nation security forces -- empowered and enabled by American advisors -- in defeating insurgencies.

Michael O'Hanlon
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

What was the most important factor in the dramatic turnaround in Iraq over the past year or so (a period during which violence rates have declined by at least 75 percent and about half of key legislative goals have been partially or fully satisfied, even if much remains to be done?) There is room for some debate in this matter, to be sure, but only so much. It seems incontrovertible to me that several major factors, including certainly the surge, were hugely important--and also synergistically important, in that the sum of effects was much greater than the sum of the parts.

Certainly the Sunni Anbar Awakening gets high marks. It was the first thing to happen in the last two years of major note. It brought much of the core of the insurgency into alliance with the United States and Iraqi government, and over time it spread to the Baghdad belts and increasingly to the north of Iraq.

However, it was the United States that organized the Awakening tribes into a coherent military and policing effort. It was the United States, with Iraqi Security Forces, that cleared cities like Ramadi -- and unlike in past efforts, kept forces there afterwards to preserve the stability and keep extremists like al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the places from which they had been driven. It was the United States that sufficiently intimidated Muqtada al-Sadr into realizing a ceasefire better served his interests than would a renewal of battle. It was American and Iraqi security forces that, in larger numbers than before and with new operational guidelines and tactics, built blast barriers near markets, put up concrete dividers along sectarian fault lines in Baghdad, created joint security stations and started walking the streets to protect the Iraqi population, and conducted raids on insurgent safehouses and weapons caches at two to three times the rate of previous years (largely due to improved intelligence made possible by a safer, friendler, better protected population). And through all these combined efforts, it was largely the United States that was able to figure out which Iraqi commanders needed to be purged -- and that then put pressure on the Iraqi government to replace them.

On balance, many things were important, but the surge and the associated emphasis on better protection for the Iraqi population were crucial -- and absolutely necessary to the huge progress that has been made.

Marina Ottaway
  Middle East Program Director, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The formation of the Awakening councils and Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down were the most important factors. This is reflected in the constant refrain by U.S. military commanders and the administration that progress remains fragile. If progress was the result of a military victory resulting from the surge, it would not easily be reversed. Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down, and even the decision of the members of the awakening coincils to fight al-Qaeda rather than the US are eminently reversible.

Thomas E. Ricks
Author, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

The surge has worked tactically, but hasn't succeeded strategically, at least not yet. Remember that its stated purpose was not just to improve security, but to lead to a breakthrough in Iraqi politics. That hasn't yet happened. That is, the basic questions about the future of Iraq haven't been addressed--the sharing of oil revenue, the political place of the Sunnis, who holds power in the Shiite community, and the future of Kirkuk.

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