Small Wars

This Week at War: What if the Surge Didn’t Work?

A new study asks some troubling questions about what really caused Iraq's reduction in violence.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Do troop surges really work?

As springtime arrives in Afghanistan, the coalition’s soldiers and commanders are bracing for the annual acceleration of combat against the Taliban. The "surge" of over 33,000 additional U.S. soldiers, ordered by President Barack Obama in December 2009, has been in place since last fall. Everyone expects another violent summer, just as occurred after "surge" reinforcements arrived in Iraq in 2007. But the Iraq surge appeared to work; in 2008 and thereafter, violence declined dramatically. The Iraqi government and its security forces are now fully in charge, and the last U.S. troops should be gone by the end of the year. Advised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Gen. David Petraeus, Obama is hoping that the success these surge proponents brought to Iraq will occur similarly in Afghanistan.

But did the U.S. troop surge in Iraq really win the war? Maj. Joshua Thiel, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, thinks not. In a study written for Small Wars Journal, Thiel performs a statistical analysis that correlates the arrival of the surge reinforcements into Iraq in 2006 and 2007 with subsequent levels of combat incidents in 2007 and 2008. Using data gathered from each of Iraq’s 18 provinces and incorporating lags to account for the time required for new combat units to become effective in the field, Thiel concluded that there was no significant correlation between the arrival of U.S. reinforcements and subsequent changes in the level of violence in Iraq’s provinces. Some provinces received reinforcements; others did not. Combat incidents went up in some provinces and down in others. But the connection between surge troops and the change in the level of incidents seems entirely random.

Overall violence in Iraq declined steeply in 2008. But Thiel attributes this to other factors besides the arrival of U.S. combat reinforcements. These factors include the Sunni Awakening against al Qaeda in Anbar province, the completion by 2008 of sectarian ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad area, the erection of security barriers between neighborhoods in Baghdad, a unilateral cease-fire by some Shiite militias, the increased dispersion of joint U.S. and Iraqi combat outposts in Iraq’s cities, and perhaps most important, the maturation of Iraq’s security forces. These factors could all have occurred without the arrival of additional U.S. forces.

What does Thiel’s study portend for Afghanistan this summer? Much more important than the number of U.S. reinforcements added in 2010 is how they are employed. Thiel seems hopeful that various local Afghan militia programs sponsored by coalition special operations forces will successfully blunt Taliban efforts to reintegrate their cadres into areas that were recently cleared.

According to the Brookings Institution’s monthly report on Afghan security, violence of all kinds continues to climb. A combination of disparate events, some catalyzed by coalition actions and others not, brought Iraq back from the abyss in 2008. If Afghanistan is similarly salvaged, the reasons will likely be as varied and complex as they were in Iraq.


NATO looks for a new strategy in Libya

At a two-day meeting of NATO officials in Berlin, representatives from Britain and France — the leaders of NATO’s air campaign against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime — called for other NATO countries to do more to help win the war. Frustration with the military stalemate is mounting. European political leaders may fear that public support for the drifting military campaign — now in its 28th day — will crack before Qaddafi does. An unstated purpose of the Berlin conference was to find a politically realistic way to break the military deadlock. No new strategy emerged.

Success for NATO now requires the exit of Qaddafi and his sons from Libya. NATO and its partners have, thus far, been unable to assemble enough coercion to make this happen. The rebel army is stuck in Ajdabiya, attempting to fend off pro-Qaddafi attacks from Ras Lanuf. Further to the west, rebels in Misrata are under siege. NATO aircraft are succeeding in their attacks against Qaddafi’s tanks. But pro-Qaddafi infantry long ago abandoned their military vehicles and NATO attempts to target the civilian vehicles in which they now move have occasionally ended up killing rebels instead.

NATO leaders hope that political and economic isolation will eventually compel Qaddafi to fold. But if playing for time is the strategy, it is not clear that NATO has the advantage. Squabbles over political strategy within NATO, combined with a looming humanitarian crisis in Libya’s west, may pressure Britain and France to relent well before the Qaddafis feel any real pressure to back down.

When in a stalemate, the first instinct is to simply intensify the effort in the hope of achieving a breakthrough. Thus the call by British and French leaders at the Berlin conference for more strike aircraft over Libya. But Qaddafi’s undestroyed tanks aren’t the problem. The real issue is that NATO has reached the limit of what its strike aircraft can accomplish, given the understandably cautious rules under which they operate.

Several ideas for improving the effectiveness of coalition air power have been discussed. In contrast with the high-flying, fast jets the British and French are flying on strike missions over Libya, the U.S. Air Force could deploy the highly effective, low-flying, and much more vulnerable A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft. President Barack Obama has, so far, shown no inclination to risk the crews of these aircraft over Libya. Alternatively, France, Britain, and other countries could opt to embed forward air control teams with the rebels to improve target identification for NATO airstrikes. But given the undisciplined rebel infantry and the chaotic and fluid nature of Libya’s battlefields, these NATO teams would be under significant risk of capture, an outcome that would only improve Qaddafi’s bargaining position.

There is no discussion yet of NATO employing an amphibious assault to either lift the siege of Misrata or directly depose Qaddafi in Tripoli. But even if this option were to somehow become politically realistic, Britain’s recent Strategic Defense and Security Review, released in October 2010, would seem to have already ruled it out. As I discussed at that time, in that review the British government chose to emphasize its ground combat power and its interoperability with the United States at the expense of its Navy, amphibious capability, and air power. British policymakers assumed that their forces would most frequently operate within a coalition led by the United States, an assumption that must sting as Obama backs further away from the Libya problem.

With air power having reached its limit and ground intervention ruled out, NATO has no choice but to wait until the ground combat power of Libya’s rebels improves to the point where they will become a threat to Qaddafi’s hold in Tripoli. But that could take years, which may be exactly what Qaddafi is counting on.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.