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May 13, 2009

The Surge Narrative and Other Lies Your Teacher Told You
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at abu muqawama, Andrew Exum has praise for Max Boot's take below on what the replacement of General McKiernan with Lt. Gen McChrystal as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan tells us about counter-insurgency:

I would not go as far as to claim, as Bob Woodward did in "The War Within," that it was the special operators rather than the "surge" that turned around Iraq. Victory in a counter- insurgency depends more on securing the populace than on targeting enemy leaders. I am told that McChrystal realizes that, even if Woodward does not.

Boot goes on to argue:

Lest we forget that counterinsurgency is as much a political as a military undertaking, on the very day of McChrystal's appointment, a new U.S. ambassador arrived in Kabul. Karl Eikenberry, himself a retired general and former commander in Afghanistan, will have to coordinate the civilian side of the war effort, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker did so ably in Iraq.

What these little nuggets remind us is that on both sides of the political spectrum there seems to be a collective myth-making going on about the "success" of the surge. It now seems to be, among some, practically conventional wisdom that the surge and, in turn, COIN tactics saved the day in Iraq.

Is it inconvenient to note, as we begin to do "more successful counter-insurgency work in Afghanistan" that the United States has:

  • Not achieved a counter-insurgency led victory in Iraq
  • That the fundamental goal of the surge - political reconciliation -- has decidedly not been achieved.
  • That an important element of the short-term success that came in the surge was not because we secured the Iraqi population but because the United States supported Sunnis in "targeting enemy leaders," namely Al Qaeda.
  • That Iraq's future remains incredibly uncertain.

And as corollary to this point, it seems worth mentioning that one of the fundamental precepts of counter-insurgency as described in the Fm-24 is that "counterinsurgents use all instruments of national power to sustain the established or emerging government and reduce the likelihood of another crisis emerging." But of course that has not happened in Iraq; and instead a separate power base (outside of the Shiite-dominated national government) has been created.

And of course there is a fifth part to this equation - ethnic cleansing. One of the points that Andrew made yesterday on the Rachel Maddow show was that one of the metrics of success in Afghanistan is not US casualties, but instead Afghan casualties. Apparently that was the metric of success in Iraq in 2007. But this ignores an uncomfortable truth; namely much of the decrease in civilian killing in Baghdad was a result of sectarian killing. As the 2007 NIE on Iraq tells us:

Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves.


According to one albeit difficult to confirm factoid, by 2007 "Baghdad was once 65 percent Sunni and is now 75 percent Shiite." Now of course, we don't have the full numbers - and census data is pretty tightly held in the Middle East - but it's impossible to talk about diminished civilian casualties in Iraq without referring to the sectarian violence that consumed Baghdad in 2005-2006 and its political consequences.

Learning the correct lessons from the surge is not a thought experiment or some esoteric, academic exercise - it's crucial to understanding what really happened in Iraq in 2007 and 2008; as well as the efficacy of future counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Only if we are honest about the significant limitations on COIN operations and their limited success in Iraq can we talk about their application in Afghanistan. But if we start to believe that the surge and hence counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq brought significant victories we run the very real risk of beginning to believe our own press clippings.

If America's experience in Iraq is any indication we should be very, very dubious about the potential for COIN success in Afghanistan - no matter which general is in charge.

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Comments

For some data on the ethnic cleansing, you may wish to check out Gary Langer's Iraq polling results. I did a write up of his presentation at CSIS on my blog.

One key factoid:

There is evidence of increasing ethnic separation with 62% in Baghdad and 75% in the rest of Iraq living in neighborhoods dominated by one sectarian group.

Also, those living in still mixed neighborhoods tended to describe sectarian relations as substantially worse than those in divide neighborhoods.

Right on, Michael, 100% correct.
The "successful surge" and "effective COIN" are two dogs that won't hunt.
If Iraq has "turned around" then why isn't the US withdrawing from Iraqi cities next month, and why isn't the US withdrawing one to two brigades per month, with all out within 16 months, as Obama once said he would do?
It is truly "collective myth-making" to claim success when the facts indicate abject failure.

D.Michal Shafer's "Deadly Paradigms: The Failure of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy," best describes the myopia of COIN advocates in believing that if the military follows the right COIN tactics than somehow the situation on the ground could change regardless of the political situations in various third world countries. Shafer mantains that the main source of success in a COIN war depends on the domestic political situation in a particular country and military force only plays a very minor role in winning any type of irregular conflict. I wish that some of those in the Obama administration or Obama himself would read Schafer's book.

Sorry it is D.Michael Schafer and not D.Michal Schafer

military force only plays a very minor role in winning any type of irregular conflict.

Quite the opposite, a brutal, destructive military force serves to recruit the resistance. This is not rocket science, it's simple human behavior. If we had, say, a brutal Chinese occupying army in our city would we hide under our beds, or resist? We know what Bush and Cheney would do (and did), but how about the rest of us?

A recent report of more successful counter-insurgency work in Afghanistan:

Last week the U.S. military bombed some compounds in Farah, Afghanistan, and killed over 140 civilians, 95 of which were probably children. Like usual the military first denied civilian casualties but later, after the International Red Cross' findings supported the local reports, had to confirm them. Local doctors in Herat say at least 14 victims of that attack in their care have unusual burn wounds and accuse the U.S. of using white phosphorus in the bombing. In another case a girl currently in U.S. care at Bagram was confirmed to have been burned by white phosphorus.

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Great comments! You are so nice, man! You never know how much i like'em!

Yes, that's cool. The device is amazing! Waiting for your next one!

If America's experience in Iraq is any indication we should be very, very dubious about the potential for COIN success in Afghanistan - no matter which general is in charge.
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