Inside the surge
My CNAS colleague Jim Crider, an Army officer who commanded a battalion in one of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods during the surge (that’s him shaking hands in the photo above), has just published a concise, thoughtful memoir of his time there. I liked it so much I wrote this introduction to it: Lieutenant Colonel Jim Crider’s ...
My CNAS colleague Jim Crider, an Army officer who commanded a battalion in one of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods during the surge (that’s him shaking hands in the photo above), has just published a concise, thoughtful memoir of his time there. I liked it so much I wrote this introduction to it:
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Crider’s essay is, to my knowledge, the first in-depth review offered by an American battalion commander about post-invasion operations in Iraq. This is significant because in the Iraq war, that echelon generally has been the “level of action” — that is, the point in the U.S. military hierarchy where theory meets practice, and where commanders apply doctrine to the reality of the streets. Below this level, all too often, events seem unconnected, without pattern or meaning; above it, action tends to be reduced to charts in PowerPoint briefings that may or may not reflect what is actually happening on the ground.
Crider’s essay is not only about this crucial level of action, it is about a critical time — the “surge” phase of the Iraq war in 2007-2008. Whether or not one believes that the surge ultimately achieved its strategic goal of a political breakthrough (I do not), there is no question that it succeeded at the tactical level. In this work, Crider shows how that happened. He begins by detailing how difficult the winter and spring of 2007 were, with some of the highest levels of violence seen against American troops in the war, at least so far. For many months, his troops, like others in Baghdad, were bombed and shot, with little or no sign of any improvement of security in the city. Some 70 Americans were killed in February, 71 in March, 96 in April, and 120 in May. General David Petraeus later told me that he looks back upon that spring as a “horrific nightmare.” Then, to the surprise of many, in the summer of 2007, the level of violence began to drop precipitously.
Crider’s soldiers were in the middle of this turnaround. During most of 2007 and in early 2008, his 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment fought in two of Baghdad’s hardest-hit areas. Most of its time was spent in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Doura, a front-line area in the war.
This is not an account of military faddism. Counterinsurgency critics such as Colonel Gian Gentile of West Point have contended that a false picture has been painted of what happened in Iraq during the surge era. He and others have maintained that putting American soldiers into the streets as a persistent, sustained presence had little to do with the concomitant improvement in security. They point to other factors, most notably deals that paid Sunni insurgents to stop fighting and the fact that by the time the surge began, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was largely complete. There is no question that these factors played a role. But Crider’s account provides evidence of how the new American approach to the war also had a significant effect.
Crider was, like most of the U.S. Army, a reluctant counterinsurgent. He was not a Fort Leavenworth intellectual eager to try out his academic theories. Rather, he portrays himself as a fairly conventional commander seeking, as he puts it, to carry out the traditional Army mission of “destroying the enemy on the battlefield.”
He analyzes with admirable candor his early errors in executing that mission. Greeted by the population with what he recalls as a “deafening silence,” he reacted with fruitless and counterproductive tactics, such as cordon-and-sweep operations that only alienated the locals and underscored the fact that the Americans didn’t know who or where their enemies were. To a surprising extent, he replicated in his first weeks on the ground in Iraq in 2007 many of the errors committed by American commanders in the first five years of the war. He learned, as some of them eventually did, that, “Aggressive, reactionary questioning after an attack and broad clearing operations provided little actionable intelligence – only frustration.”
The Army’s counterinsurgency manual, the development of which was overseen by Petraeus, was published just two months before Crider’s squadron arrived in Iraq. Crider implemented this new doctrine not out of any great desire to make Iraqi friends or win their hearts and minds, but because he became persuaded that the only way to carry out his mission was to gain intelligence, and that the only way to do that was to put his soldiers on Iraqi streets and into Iraqi living rooms. If Crider drank tea with a taxi driver or paved a median strip, he did so because he came to believe that was a militarily effective step to take.
Seeing the doctrine work, Crider became a wholly committed counterinsurgent. Not only did he move his troops into neighborhood outposts, where they could react quickly and become familiar with people and patterns, he also established a round-the-clock presence in the streets. Employing a classic technique of counterinsurgency theory that generally has been neglected by the U.S. military in Iraq, he conducted a local census. By doing so, he was able to provide his troops with a “map” of the population, enabling them to ask who was a long-time resident and who might have just come from Fallujah or Sadr City to occupy a vacant house. The census process also proved to be a safe and effective way to find and develop informers without exposing them. After all, the Americans were talking to everybody, so the foe had no easy way of identifying “who talked.” “In only six weeks,” Crider relates, “we went from zero sources to 36.”
By the halfway point in their tour, Crider and his soldiers were seasoned counterinsurgents, disaggregating the enemy, neutralizing parts of it, and acting with precision and speed against those who couldn’t be persuaded to cease fighting. One measure of the growing sophistication of their approach was the ability they showed to take counterintuitive steps, such as a decision not to print and distribute “wanted” posters, “for fear of scaring off those we were looking for.” Another measure was their sense, ineffable but essential, of having regained the initiative in the war. “In a matter of months, the tables had turned,” Crider recalls. “Before, we had no idea of who was watching us or plotting attacks; now insurgents had no idea of who was giving them up.”
He also arrived at some surprising conclusions. He sounds almost softhearted when he advises that, “The counterinsurgent should not attempt to hold money, services or security as a bargaining chip for information. Citizens should have these things regardless.” But far from being sentimental, he actually was calculating that such withholding of aid is counterproductive. “Denying them will only cause resentment.” He is, as he says, being pragmatic: Listen to me, this is what I saw work.
I wish I could ensure that this hard-won knowledge – earned through the blood, sweat, and tears of Americans and Iraqis alike – is not forgotten as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, perhaps for many more years. There is a message of hope in this essay, but also a warning: To honor the dead, we should remember not only their great sacrifices, but also their hard-earned lessons.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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