How We Won in Iraq
And why all the hard-won gains of the surge are in grave danger of being lost today.
The news out of Iraq is, once again, exceedingly grim. The resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq -- which was on the ropes at the end of the surge in 2008 -- has led to a substantial increase in ethno-sectarian terrorism in the Land of the Two Rivers. The civil war next door in Syria has complicated matters greatly, aiding the jihadists on both sides of the border and bringing greater Iranian involvement in Mesopotamia. And various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture. Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest. As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction.
The news out of Iraq is, once again, exceedingly grim. The resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq — which was on the ropes at the end of the surge in 2008 — has led to a substantial increase in ethno-sectarian terrorism in the Land of the Two Rivers. The civil war next door in Syria has complicated matters greatly, aiding the jihadists on both sides of the border and bringing greater Iranian involvement in Mesopotamia. And various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture. Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest. As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction.
This is not a road that Iraqis had to travel. Indeed, by the end of the surge in 2008, a different future was possible. That still seemed to be the case in December 2011, when the final U.S. forces (other than a sizable security assistance element) departed; however, the different future was possible only if Iraqi political leaders capitalized on the opportunities that were present. Sadly, it appears that a number of those opportunities were squandered, as political infighting and ethno-sectarian actions reawakened the fears of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population and, until recently, also injected enormous difficulty into the relationship between the government in Baghdad and the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government.
To understand the dynamics in Iraq — and the possibilities that still exist, it is necessary to revisit what actually happened during the surge, a history now explored in a forthcoming book written by my executive officer at the time, Col. (Ret.) Peter Mansoor, now a professor of military history at the Ohio State University.
Leading the coalition military effort during the surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 was the most important endeavor — and greatest challenge — of my 37 years in uniform. The situation in Iraq was dire at the end of 2006, when President George W. Bush decided to implement the surge and selected me to command it. Indeed, when I returned to Baghdad in early February 2007, I found the conditions there to be even worse than I had expected. The deterioration since I had left Iraq in September 2005 after my second tour was sobering. The violence — which had escalated dramatically in 2006 in the wake of the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra — was totally out of control. With well over 50 attacks and three car bombs per day on average in Baghdad alone, the plan to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces clearly was not working. Meanwhile, the sectarian battles on the streets were mirrored by infighting in the Iraqi government and Council of Representatives, and those disputes produced a dysfunctional political environment. With many of the oil pipelines damaged or destroyed, electrical towers toppled, roads in disrepair, local markets shuttered, and government workers and citizens fearing for their lives, government revenue was down and the provision of basic services was wholly inadequate. Life in many areas of the capital and the country was about little more than survival.
In addition to those challenges, I knew that if there was not clear progress by September 2007, when I anticipated having to return to the United States to testify before Congress in open hearings, the limited remaining support on Capitol Hill and in the United States for the effort in Iraq would evaporate.
In short, President Bush had staked the final years of his presidency — and his legacy — on the surge, and it was up to those on the ground to achieve progress. In the end, that is what we did together, military and civilian, coalition and Iraqi. But as my great diplomatic partner Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and I used to note, Iraq was “all hard, all the time.”
The Surge of Forces and the Surge of Ideas
The surge had many components. The most prominent, of course, was the deployment of the additional U.S. forces committed by President Bush — nearly 30,000 of them in the end. Without those forces, we never could have achieved progress as quickly as we did. And, given the necessity to make progress by the hearings anticipated in September 2007, improvements before then were critical.
As important as the surge of forces was, however, the most important surge was what I termed “the surge of ideas” — the changes in our overall strategy and operational plans. The most significant of these was the shift from trying to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces to focusing on the security of the Iraqi people. The biggest of the big ideas that guided the strategy during the surge was explicit recognition that the most important terrain in the campaign in Iraq was the human terrain — the people — and our most important mission was to improve their security. Security improvements would, in turn, provide Iraq’s political leaders the opportunity to forge agreements on issues that would reduce ethno-sectarian disputes and establish the foundation on which other efforts could be built to improve the lives of the Iraqi people and give them a stake in the success of the new state.
But improved security could be achieved only by moving our forces into urban neighborhoods and rural population centers. In the first two weeks, therefore, I changed the mission statement in the existing campaign plan to reflect this imperative. As I explained in that statement and the guidance I issued shortly after taking command, we had to “live with the people” in order to secure them. This meant reversing the consolidation of our forces on large bases that had been taking place since the spring of 2004. Ultimately, this change in approach necessitated the establishment of more than 100 small outposts and joint security stations, three-quarters of them in Baghdad alone.
The establishment of each of the new bases entailed a fight, and some of those fights were substantial. We knew that the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias would do everything they could to keep our troopers from establishing a presence in areas where the warring factions were trying to take control — and those areas were precisely where our forces were needed most. Needless to say, the insurgents and militias would do all that they could to keep us from establishing our new operating bases, sometimes even employing multiple suicide car bombers in succession in attempts to breach outpost perimeters. But if we were to achieve our goal of significantly reducing the violence, there was no alternative to living with the people — specifically, where the violence was the greatest — in order to secure them. Our men and women on the ground, increasingly joined during the surge by their Iraqi partners, courageously, selflessly, and skillfully did what was required to accomplish this goal.
“Clear, hold, and build” became the operative concept — a contrast with the previous practice in many operations of clearing insurgents and then leaving, after handing off the security mission to Iraqi forces that proved incapable of sustaining progress in the areas cleared. Then — Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, and his staff developed and oversaw the execution of these and the other operational concepts brilliantly. Indeed, in anticipation of the new approach, he ordered establishment of the initial joint security stations in the weeks before I arrived. His successor in early 2008, then Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, did a similarly exemplary job as our operational commander for the final portion of the surge. On receiving the Corps’ guidance, division and brigade commanders and their headquarters orchestrated the implementation of these concepts. And our company, battalion, and brigade commanders and their troopers translated the new strategy and operational concepts into reality on the ground in the face of determined, often barbaric enemies under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.
But the new strategy encompassed much more than just moving off the big bases and focusing on security of the people. Improving security was necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve our goals in Iraq. Many other tasks also had to be accomplished.
The essence of the surge, in fact, was the pursuit of a comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign that featured a number of important elements, the effects of each of which were expected to complement the effects of the others. The idea was that progress in one component of the strategy would make possible gains in other components. Each incremental step forward reinforced and gradually solidified overall progress in a particular geographic location or governmental sector. The surge forces clearly enabled more rapid implementation of the new strategy and accompanying operational concepts; however, without the changes in the strategy, the additional forces would not have achieved the gains in security and in other areas necessary for substantial reduction of the underlying levels of ethno-sectarian violence, without which progress would not have been sustained when responsibilities ultimately were transferred to Iraqi forces and government authorities.
The Sunni Awakening and Reconciliation
Beyond securing the people by living with them, foremost among the elements of the new strategy was promoting reconciliation between disaffected Sunni Arabs and our forces — and then with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. I often noted at the time that we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that confronted us in Iraq. Hence we had to identify those insurgents and militia members who were “reconcilable,” and we then had to persuade them to become part of the solution in Iraq rather than a continuing part of the problem. Reconciliation thus became a critical component of the overall strategy.
We were fortunate to be able to build on what ultimately came to be known as the Sunni Awakening, the initial increment of which began several months before the surge, outside the embattled Sunni city of Ramadi in violent Anbar Province, some 60 miles west of Baghdad. There, in the late summer of 2006, during the height of the violence in Anbar, Col. Sean MacFarland, a talented U.S. Army brigade commander, and his team agreed to support a courageous Sunni sheikh and his tribal members who decided to oppose al Qaeda in Iraq, which the tribesmen had come to despise for its indiscriminate attacks on the population and implementation of an extreme version of Islam that was not in line with their somewhat more secular outlook on life. The initiative included empowering young men of the tribes who wanted to help secure their areas against al Qaeda depredations. Ultimately, shortly after the surge of forces commenced and throughout 2007 and into 2008, this arrangement was replicated over and over in other areas of Anbar Province and Iraq. The Awakening proved to be a hugely important factor in combating al Qaeda terrorists and other Sunni insurgents and, over time, similar initiatives in the Shiite population proved important in combating some militias in select areas as well.
Some observers have contended that we got lucky with the Awakening. Undeniably, it was fortunate that the initial development of a tribal rebellion against al Qaeda had begun by the time the surge began. Despite this reality, however, the spread of the Awakening beyond Ramadi was not serendipity; rather, it was the result of a conscious decision and a deliberate effort. I was well aware that there had previously been reconciliation initiatives that had worked in the short term. Indeed, I oversaw the first of these initiatives, in the summer of 2003, when I commanded the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq and Amb. Jerry Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, personally authorized me to support an Iraqi-led reconciliation effort. That effort helped make that part of Iraq surprisingly peaceful well into the fall of 2003, as the Sunni Arabs cast out of jobs and out of society by the de-Ba’athification policy still had hope of being part of the new Iraq in our area. Ultimately, however, that initiative, along with reconciliation efforts in subsequent years in western Anbar Province and elsewhere, foundered due to a lack of support by Iraqi authorities in Baghdad. I watched these initiatives during my second tour in Iraq, as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq from June 2004 to September 2005.
Given my recognition of the importance of reconciliation, I was determined that we would support the nascent Awakening and then, over time, gain our Iraqi partners’ support, as well. In fact, my first trip outside Baghdad, shortly after taking command on Feb. 10, 2007, was to assess the progress of the initiative in Ramadi. After seeing the results of the Awakening up close, I quickly resolved that we would do all that we could to support the tribal rebellion there and also to foster its spread through other Sunni areas of Iraq. (Eventually, we also supported Shiite awakenings in some of the areas troubled by Shiite militias.) We would, in effect, seek to achieve a “critical mass” of awakenings that would set off a “chain reaction” as rapidly as was possible — initially up and down the Euphrates River Valley in Anbar Province and then into neighboring Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. Of equal importance, we would also seek the support of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for these initiatives. (I personally took him to Ramadi in March 2007 to speak to the tribal sheikhs leading the Awakening there, and I subsequently took him to other Sunni areas for similar endeavors as well.)
The decision to support the Awakening movement and, in essence, reconciliation carried considerable risk and was not initially embraced by all of our commanders. Many correctly pointed out that the leaders and members of the groups that wanted to reconcile with us — groups that might be willing to embrace the Awakening — had American blood on their hands. Beyond that, it was clear early on that Prime Minister Maliki was willing to allow us to support awakenings in strictly Sunni areas such as Anbar, but that he had understandable concerns about them when they approached areas of greater concern to his Shiite coreligionists; moreover, he also was not at all enthusiastic initially about providing Iraqi resources and assistance for what came to be known as the “Sons of Iraq,” the young men who helped augment coalition and Iraqi police and army forces in securing their tribal areas. Regardless, I was convinced that there was no alternative if we were to reduce the violence and divert key elements of the Sunni insurgency from their actual or tacit support for the actions of al Qaeda. So we pressed ahead and dealt with the many issues that arose along the way, helped initially by my first deputy, British Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lambe, a friend and colleague of many years, and then by the establishment of a Force Reconciliation Cell that was headed by a talented two-star British officer and an impressive senior U.S. diplomat.
Ultimately, the Awakening movement — and, in effect, reconciliation — did spread dramatically. There were many challenges as this transpired, especially when Prime Minister Maliki and other Shiite leaders developed concerns over the spread of the movement into Baghdad and areas near predominantly Shiite or mixed communities. Our reconciliation team — aided enormously by Emma Sky, a brilliant British woman who served as a special assistant to me during the latter part of the surge (having served as General Odierno’s political adviser earlier and subsequently) — worked tirelessly to deal with the seemingly endless list of issues and with the woman appointed by Prime Minister Maliki to oversee reconciliation initiatives for the Iraqi government. And, ultimately, a year and a half into the surge, we had on our payroll more than 100,000 “Sons of Iraq” (more than 20,000 of them Shiite), young men who lived in the areas of the Awakening movements and who then helped secure their neighborhoods from both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
In sum, the spread of the Awakening was not serendipity; it was the result of a deliberate decision I took soon after taking command. To be sure, the timing of the initiative outside Ramadi was fortuitous, but from even before taking command I knew that reconciliation had to take place if we were to reduce violence significantly by the fall of 2007. We thus were determined to capitalize on the Ramadi initiative by promoting the spread of Awakening movements and facilitating the resulting reconciliation among sects, tribes, and factions. I understood the numerous risks, and we took measures to ensure that Awakening movements and the “Sons of Iraq” did not turn into an unaccountable militia force that would cause more trouble for Iraq in the long run than they were worth in the near term. Looking back, the risks clearly were worth the resulting gains.
Targeted Special Operations
Another critical component of our comprehensive approach was an intensive campaign of targeted operations by U.S. and British Special Operations Forces to capture or kill key insurgent and militia leaders and operatives. Although I publicly acknowledged from the outset that we would not be able to kill or capture our way to victory (hence the need to support the Awakening), killing or capturing the most important of the “irreconcilables” was an inescapable and hugely important element of our strategy. Indeed, we sought to pursue key irreconcilables even more aggressively than was the case before the surge.
Then-Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal, commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and the Counter-Terrorism Special Operations Task Force operating in Iraq, led this effort brilliantly. Our special operators were relentless in the pursuit of al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab extremist leaders, bomb makers, financiers, and propaganda cells — and of key Iranian-supported Shiite Arab extremists as well (though the latter effort was frequently constrained by Iraqi political factors, given the proclivities of the Shiite-led government). As the surge proceeded, the capacity and pace of U.S.- and coalition-targeted Special Operations under Lt. Gen. McChrystal and subsequently by then-Vice Adm. William H. McRaven increased substantially, as did the tempo of targeted operations by the Iraqi counterterrorist forces that we trained, equipped, advised, and also enabled with helicopters and various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. The results were dramatic: the targeted operations — as many as 10 to 15 per night — removed from the battlefield a significant proportion of the senior and midlevel extremist group leaders, explosives experts, planners, financiers, and organizers in Iraq. Looking back, it is clear that what the American and British special operators accomplished, aided enormously by various intelligence elements, was nothing short of extraordinary. Their relentless operations, employment of unmanned aerial vehicles and other advanced technology, tactical skill, courage, and creativity were truly inspirational. But by themselves they did not and could not turn the tide of battle in Iraq; once again, the key was a comprehensive approach, in which this element, like the others, was necessary but not sufficient.
The Development of Iraqi Security Forces
Supporting the development of the Iraqi Security Forces was also vitally important — and an effort with which I was intimately familiar, as I had led the establishment of the so-called “train and equip” organization and commanded the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq for the first 15 and a half months of the organization’s existence, during which I was also dual-hatted as the first commander of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq.
Although I halted the transition of tasks from coalition to Iraqi forces shortly after I took command, we knew that ultimately such transitions would be essential to our ability to draw down our forces and send them home. As President Bush used to observe, “U.S. forces will stand down as the Iraqi forces stand up.” We knew that ultimately the U.S. military could not support the replacement of the five surge brigades and the other additional forces deployed to Iraq in 2007. It thus was imperative that Iraqi forces be ready by the latter part of 2007 to assume broader duties so that coalition forces could begin to draw down and the surge forces could go home. Beyond that, Iraqi leaders, frequently with unrealistically elevated assessments of the capabilities of their security forces, repeatedly advocated the continued transition of security and governance tasks — a desire that was commendable, if sometimes premature.
Under the capable leadership of then-Lt. Gen. Marty Dempsey and his successor, Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, the train-and-equip mission steadily expanded its efforts not just to develop Iraqi army, police, border, and special operations units but also to build all of the institutions of the Ministries of Interior and Defense, their subordinate headquarters and elements, and the infrastructure and systems needed for what ultimately grew to a total of 1 million members of the Iraqi security forces.
These tasks required Herculean efforts. Our programs supported every aspect of Iraqi military and police recruiting, individual and collective training, leader development (for example, the creation of basic training complexes, a military academy, branch schools, a staff college, a war college, and a training and doctrine command), equipping Iraqi forces with everything from vehicles and individual weapons to tanks and aircraft, the conduct of combat operations (with advisory teams at every level from battalion and above), development of logistical organizations and depots, construction of tactical and training bases and infrastructure, establishment of headquarters and staffs, and, as noted earlier, the development of all of the elements of the ministries themselves. Indeed, it is hard for anyone who did not see this endeavor firsthand to appreciate its magnitude. Additionally, progress required our Iraqi counterparts to replace substantial numbers of senior army and police leaders who proved to be sectarian, corrupt, or ineffective in the performance of their duties before or during the early months of the surge. Fortunately, Prime Minister Maliki and his senior military and police leaders proved willing to undertake the vast majority of the necessary changes.
Over time, we and our Iraqi counterparts achieved slow but steady progress in building the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces. With effective partnering of Iraqi and U.S. forces, Iraqi forces steadily shouldered more of the burdens and took over more tasks. They also increasingly bore the brunt of combat operations, with their losses totaling several times those of coalition forces. I often noted to the president, the prime minister, and others, in fact, that as the surge proceeded, Iraqi security forces clearly were fighting and dying for their country. Progressively, over the months and years that followed, the coalition turned over responsibility for security tasks to Iraqi forces until, at the end of 2011, Iraqi elements assumed all security tasks on their own, with only a residual U.S. office of security cooperation remaining in Iraq.
The Civilian Components
The comprehensive strategy employed during the surge also had significant civilian components. Indeed, Ambassador Crocker and I worked hard to develop unity of effort in all that our respective organizations and coalition and Iraqi partners did. The campaign plan we developed in the spring of 2007, in fact, was a joint effort of my command, Multi-National Force-Iraq, and the U.S. embassy, with considerable input from coalition partners such as Britain. (This civil-military plan built on the partnership that my predecessor, Gen. George Casey, had developed with then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, albeit with the changes in strategic and operational concepts that I have described.) And over time, our plan was also, of course, synchronized in close coordination with our Iraqi counterparts. Appropriately, the mission statement in the campaign plan we finalized in the early summer of 2007 included many nonmilitary aspects, highlighting the combined approach on which we all embarked together.
As security improved, the tasks in the civilian arena took on greater importance. It was critical, for example, that we worked with our coalition and Iraqi civilian partners to help repair damaged infrastructure, restore basic services, rebuild local markets, reopen schools and health facilities, and support the reestablishment of the corrections and judicial systems and other governmental institutions. While not determinative by themselves, such improvements gave Iraqi citizens tangible reasons to support the new Iraq and reject the extremists, insurgents, and militia members who had caused such hardship for them.
To facilitate and coordinate such efforts, each brigade and division headquarters was provided an embedded provincial reconstruction team of approximately a dozen civilian and military experts (often led by retired diplomats and development specialists). The U.S. Congress also provided the units substantial funding (through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program) to help with these efforts (and the U.S. embassy and some coalition nations did likewise through their sources of funding). Again, over time, progress in these initiatives proved essential to gaining the support of the Iraqi people for their government and to turning the people against both Sunni and Shiite extremists. These tasks were huge and often expensive, but they were essential to gradually improving basic services and other aspects of life for the Iraqi people. With steadily improving security and with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers taking on the oversight of the larger reconstruction projects for the embassy as well as for the military, the effort moved forward relatively well, although there were innumerable challenges, including security issues, corruption, design and management shortfalls, and so on. But even in the face of such obstacles, substantial reconstruction progress was nonetheless achieved.
Detainee Operations and Rule-of-Law Initiatives
Another important component of the comprehensive approach was the conduct of detainee operations. In this area also, we had to implement significant changes. The scope of this effort was enormous. In fact, the number of detainees in U.S.-administered facilities reached 27,000 after I temporarily halted releases until we could implement programs that provided a review process for the detainees in our facilities and could establish rehabilitation and reintegration programs to reduce the recidivism rate of those we released back to their communities.
Early on in the surge, it was clear to many of us that the detainee facilities we were operating had become breeding grounds for extremism. Indeed, some of our special operators, having recaptured the same individuals more than once, began calling our facilities “terrorist universities.” We were, to be sure, providing humane treatment; however, we had not identified and segregated from the general detainee population the hardcore extremists. Until that was done, the extremists asserted control (often brutally) in the facility enclosures — some of which contained up to 800 detainees — and spread extremist thinking and expertise among the detainee population. It became clear that we had to carry out “counterinsurgency operations inside the wire” in order to identify and separate from the detainee population the irreconcilables, just as we sought to do outside the wire in Iraqi communities. The leadership of Marine Maj. Gen. Doug Stone and of those who led the elements that constituted our detainee operations task force was instrumental in this component of our overall campaign. And the performance of the thousands of soldiers, airmen, and sailors who carried out the myriad duties in the facilities — individuals who often had been retrained from other specialties to augment the limited number of military police detention specialists available in the U.S. Army — was equally impressive.
Over time, Maj. Gen. Stone’s team also began helping our Iraqi partners as they sought to increase their own capacity and to build the prison infrastructure to conduct Iraqi corrections operations. This was another significant U.S. civil-military effort, and it was complemented by a similarly large civil-military initiative to help the Iraqis reestablish their judicial system and to rebuild the infrastructure to support it.
Then-Col. Mark Martins led the judicial support effort on the military side, staying in Iraq for two full years — as he was later also to do in Afghanistan — to oversee it, even as he also served as my senior legal counsel. The scope of this civil-military endeavor was enormous, encompassing construction of judicial facilities, training of judicial security elements, and support for reestablishment of judicial systems and structures. Partners from the U.S. State Department, Department of Justice, FBI, and other government agencies also played key roles in this substantial effort.
Another important initiative that supported the overall campaign was the effort to improve our intelligence about the various extremist elements and what was going on in Iraq more broadly. Here again, we pursued civil-military programs to build our capabilities (including fusion cells started under General Casey at each division headquarters to bring together all elements of the U.S. intelligence community); to expand the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets available (everything from drones to cameras on towers); to build a massive database that our analysts could use to identify correlations and linkages between individuals and organizations; and to improve intelligence sharing with coalition and Iraqi partners. We also established human terrain teams at each brigade headquarters to help our commanders understand in a more granular manner the composition, power structures, customs, and views of the Iraqi people in their areas of responsibility. And we extended secure Internet access to unprecedented levels (down to most company headquarters) within our organizations, as well. Counterinsurgency operations depend on a keen understanding of the political, historical, cultural, economic, and military situation in each area, and our initiatives built on those begun earlier in the war to further our understanding of the dynamics of each province, district, and community. Truly understanding the human terrain was vital to our ability to improve its security.
The Iraqi Political Component and Strategic Communications
The heart of the struggle in Iraq was a competition for power and resources between the major factions in the country — the majority Shiite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. (There were subfactions of each group as well, of course, in addition to other minority sects and ethnicities such as Turkoman, Yezidis, and Iraqi Christians, among others.) Achieving enduring progress in Iraq thus required achievement of political agreements on a host of key issues that divided the various factions. Consequently, seeking to foster agreement on such issues was yet another important component of the overall approach, and it developed into one to which Ambassador Crocker and I devoted considerable focus and effort. During the course of the surge, there were important laws passed and initiatives agreed upon — for example, a provincial powers act, an elections law, a reform of the de-Ba’athification decree, an amnesty law, and so forth; however, it was in this area that the most additional progress was (and still is) needed. Nonetheless, the surge made politics once again the operative mechanism through which Iraqis would divide power and resources — even as they struggled to create the political impetus and find the common ground to seize the moment and the opportunity offered to them.
Strategic communications, or public affairs, was another important element of the campaign. My guidance here was clear: we should seek to “be first with the truth,” to be as forthright as possible, to provide information on all developments and not just “good news,” and to avoid the practice of “putting lipstick on pigs” (trying to make bad news look good through spin). This also meant highlighting the violent acts carried out by al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents, as well as those carried out by Shiite extremists. Hanging around the neck of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was the assassination of Shiite police chiefs and governors and the violent acts of his followers in the holy city of Karbala in the summer of 2007, for example, which contributed to his decision to order his militia to stand down until the following March. (Of course, increased pressure by coalition and Iraqi forces and Prime Minister Maliki’s courageous confrontation with the militia members in Karbala contributed to Sadr’s decision, as well.) Clearly establishing in the eyes of the Iraqi people that Iranian elements were supporting members of the most violent Shiite militias also helped turn some Iraqis against Tehran’s meddling in their country. And fostering concepts of integrity in government and pride in the Iraqi security forces, as well as awareness of what was being achieved by coalition and Iraqi efforts — even while acknowledging our shortfalls and mistakes — was all part of a comprehensive strategic communications campaign. Like most of our other efforts, this campaign was increasingly coordinated with — and, over time, replaced by — Iraqi efforts.
There were, of course, many other components of the overall campaign: engagement with religious and academic leaders, jobs programs, support for governance at all levels, initiatives to attract outside investment back to Iraq, work with countries in the region to reengage with Baghdad and to prevent their young men from traveling to Iraq to join the extremist elements, initiatives to improve security on the borders and to reestablish customs and immigrations facilities, and programs to reduce terrorist and insurgent financing. But the elements I have outlined were the major components of the comprehensive civil-military campaign plan that guided our operations and activities. Each was of central importance to the achievement of progress during the course of the surge and accomplishments in each component reinforced and made possible further steps forward in other areas — the cumulative effect of which was considerable by the end of the surge in July 2008. Indeed, some of the various facets of our strategy continue to contribute to the situation in Iraq today, even after all U.S. combat forces have left the country, despite the considerable backsliding in the political and security situation.
Once again, it is important to note that the surge was all of the above, a comprehensive civil-military campaign, not just a substantial number of additional forces. The extra forces were critical to achieving progress as rapidly as we did, but they would not have been enough without the other components of the campaign.
The Magnitude of the Difficulty
As I’ve made clear, all of this was extraordinarily difficult and carried out in an environment of tremendous violence and frustratingly difficult Iraqi political discord. Moreover, we knew — and I stated publicly on numerous occasions — that the situation in Iraq would get worse before it got better. That proved true. There was no way to stop the violence without confronting those responsible for it. And there was no way that we could do that without putting our troopers and those of the Iraqi forces on the sectarian battle lines in Baghdad and elsewhere, especially in the areas most affected by al Qaeda terrorists and sectarian militias. When we did that, the insurgents and militia members predictably fought back. Consequently, violence rose throughout the first five months of the surge, reaching a crescendo in May and June, to well over 200 attacks per day, before beginning to abate and then falling fairly rapidly in July, August, and September of 2007.
The decline in violence overall, and the substantial reduction in car bombings in particular, as well as gradual improvements in a number of other areas of our effort made possible by the improved security, enabled Ambassador Crocker and me to report guarded progress in congressional hearings in September 2007. While highly charged emotionally at the time, those hearings gained us critical additional time and support, without which it is likely that the mission in Iraq would have failed. And, after we were able to report further progress when we testified again in April 2008, having already commenced the drawdown of the surge as well, we were able to gain still further time and support for our efforts in Iraq.
The progress continued throughout the remainder of the surge and beyond, with periodic upticks in violence, to be sure, but with the overall trajectory positive, despite continued inability to resolve many of the major political issues that divided the Iraqi people. Nonetheless, the comprehensive civil-military endeavor pursued during the surge made it possible over time to transfer tasks from U.S. and other coalition forces to Iraqi soldiers and police and, ultimately, for the United States to withdraw its final combat elements at the end of 2011 without a precipitate descent back into the violence and civil conflict that made the surge necessary in the first place. None of this could have been possible were it not for the extraordinary sacrifices and service of the men and women in uniform in Iraq during the surge and their diplomatic, intelligence, and development community partners.
At the highest level, President Bush’s decision to conduct the surge was exceedingly courageous. His advisers were split on the decision, with many favoring other approaches that in my view would have failed. And as the going did get tougher over the early months of the surge, President Bush’s steadfast leadership and his personal commitment to seeing the war through to a successful conclusion (albeit one that might take many years to unfold) took on enormous significance.
I was privileged, together with Ambassador Crocker, to participate in a weekly video teleconference with the president and the members of the National Security Council. It began promptly at 7:30 a.m. Washington time each Monday, thereby ensuring that all participants were focused at the start of the week on the mission to which the president had given his total commitment. I do not believe that any battlefield commander ever had that frequency of contact with his commander in chief, and it was of vital importance to me, as was the support of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.
I also had a weekly video teleconference with Secretary Gates, who personally drove forward a number of programs of incalculable value to our men and women on the ground, programs such as the accelerated production of mine-resistant, ambush-protected MRAP vehicles; a huge increase in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets (such as Predator unmanned aerial vehicles and optics on towers, among many others); and a host of individual protective systems and enablers for our troopers — not to mention the additional forces that I requested once I got on the ground and identified additional needs beyond those addressed by the initial surge force commitment. Secretary Gates and all of us in Iraq were supported enormously, as well, by Gen. Pete Pace and then Adm. Mike Mullen, the two officers who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the surge. General Pace and Admiral Mullen also did yeoman service in maintaining the support of the military service chiefs who were understandably under enormous strain to produce the forces that we needed, while also gradually increasing the effort in Afghanistan, as it began to go downhill. At one point, of course, this required the extension of the tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 12 to 15 months, an enormous sacrifice to ask of our men and women there and their families at home, but one that proved hugely important to the campaign.
President Bush’s commitment had an enormous psychological effect on our men and women in Iraq, as well as on the Iraqi people. Our troopers recognized that we had a chance to do what was needed to reverse the terrible cycle of violence that had gripped Iraq in the throes of civil war. And the citizens of the Land of the Two Rivers realized that there was still hope that the new Iraq could realize the potential that so many had hoped for in the wake of the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Ba’athist regime in 2003.
I recognized early on that I had become the face of the surge. I had not asked for this role, but whether I liked it or not, I had to fill it. Beyond that, of course, it was essential that I determine the right big ideas (with lots to help, to be sure), provide clear direction, communicate that direction in all possible forms, and then oversee the implementation of the resulting plans. It was also critical that I spend time with our troopers on the ground, that I share a measure of risk with them, and that I give encouragement and provide cautious optimism that we could, indeed, achieve the objectives we’d set out for ourselves and our Iraqi partners. In truth, from the beginning I believed that our approach was correct and that we would achieve progress; however, there were undeniably moments when I was uncertain whether we could achieve sufficient progress quickly enough to report that to Congress by September 2007. On more than one occasion as the early months went by, in fact, I sat alone with Gen. Odierno after our morning updates and discussed with him when we thought the situation was going “to turn.” No theater commander ever had a better “operational architect” than I had in him.
As the coalition commander, I also had extensive contact with the military and civilian leaders and legislators of the countries contributing forces to the coalition and also, of course, with Prime Minister Maliki and our key Iraqi partners from all sectors of the population. I had considerable interaction as well with the U.S., international, and Iraqi press. In the latter effort, as with the leaders of the coalition countries, I worked hard to avoid projecting unfounded optimism. When asked whether I was an optimist or a pessimist, for example, I typically replied, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist; rather, I am a realist. And reality is that Iraq is all hard, all the time.” I would then note the progress we’d achieved and setbacks we’d suffered in recent weeks. I worked hard, in fact, to maintain credibility with coalition leaders and the media, as well as with our troopers and their Iraqi counterparts. The provision of realistic assessments was hugely important and ranked among the biggest of the many “rocks” in my personal rucksack.
Needless to say, it was the greatest of privileges to serve with the selfless men and women, Iraqi and American and those of our coalition partners, civilian as well as military, who did the hard, dangerous work of the surge. There seldom was an easy period; each day was tough. But those on the ground consistently demonstrated the skill, initiative, determination, and courage needed to turn the big ideas at my level into reality at their levels and in their areas of responsibility. They also displayed the flexibility that was required to ensure that Multi-National Force-Iraq was a learning organization, one that could react faster and display greater adaptability than our terrorist, insurgent, and militia opponents. As the surge progressed, the men and women I was privileged to command continually refined tactics, techniques, and procedures, and they ultimately defeated their enemies in both the physical and intellectual manifestations of counterinsurgency battle.
Because of the complexity of counterinsurgency operations and the mixture of military and civilian tasks that they entail, it is sometimes said that counterinsurgency is the graduate level of warfare. However debatable that assessment may be, there is no question that the men and women of the surge demonstrated a true mastery of all that was required to conduct such operations. As I often noted in later years, they earned the recognition accorded them as “America’s New Greatest Generation.”
The Road Ahead
In many respects, Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006, complete with increasing numbers of horrific, indiscriminate attacks by Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate and its network of extremists. Add to that the ongoing sectarian civil war in Syria — which is, in many aspects, a regional conflict being fought there — and the situation in Iraq looks even more complicated than it was in 2006 and thus even more worrisome — especially given the absence American combat forces.
As Iraqi leaders consider the way forward, they would do well to remember what had to be done the last time the levels of violence escalated so terribly. If Iraqi leaders think back to that time, they will recall that the surge was not just more forces, though the additional forces were very important. What mattered most was the surge of ideas — concepts that embraced security of the people by “living with them,” initiatives to promote reconciliation with elements of the population that felt they had no incentive to support the new Iraq, ramping up of precise operations that targeted the key “irreconcilables,” the embrace of an enhanced comprehensive civil-military approach, increased attention to various aspects of the rule of law, improvements to infrastructure and basic services, and support for various political actions that helped bridge ethno-sectarian divides.
The ideas that enabled progress during the surge are, in many respects, the very ideas that could help Iraq’s leaders reverse the tragic downward spiral that we have seen in recent months. As we discovered in the run-up to the surge of 2007, a singular focus on counterterrorist operations will most likely fail to stem the violence gripping Iraq. If Iraq and the Iraqis are to have yet one more opportunity to move forward, they would likely find it useful to revisit the entire array of approaches pursued in 2007 and 2008. It is heartening, thus, to know that some of the veterans of the surge, American as well as Iraqi, are engaged in the effort to help Iraq determine and then pursue the initiatives needed to address the terrible increase in violence in that country. This is a time for them to work together to help Iraqi leaders take the initiative, especially in terms of reaching across the sectarian and ethnic divides that have widened in such a worrisome manner. It is not too late for such action, but time is running short.
David Petraeus is the chairman of the KKR Global Institute and a retired four-star U.S. Army general and former director of the CIA.
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