Can the surge work?

In January 2007 President Bush announced an increase of some 20,000 troops to clear, hold and build key Baghdad neighborhoods alongside Iraqi forces. It was a plan modeled on Col. H.R. McMaster's Tal Afar operation that initially had proved so successful. Here, strategists, historians and journalists discuss this latest operational campaign, what needs to follow and what happens should it fail.

Thomas Ricks
The Washington Post

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… What the U.S. government is hoping for is political reconciliation. Yet I can't see anything that Petraeus is doing that leads to political reconciliation. So it's not a strategic change because it doesn't speak to the strategic goal. And that leads to the observation of Col. Bob Killebrew, one of the smartest colonels I know, and that's good tactics can't fix bad strategy or the absence of strategy. Good strategy leads to good tactics, but good tactics can't fix bad strategy. ...

Is the surge our last, best idea?

I think the surge is less than strategic; it certainly is tactical and operational. That said, yeah, it is our last, best shot. If by mid-September there has not been political movement in Iraq toward a reconciliation -- right now there's no evidence there will be -- then I think you'll see the United States move to Plan C. President Bush has said publicly that the policy decision they made was to basically ante up and try to do this surge thing and that the alternative was to withdraw from the big cities. So I think by mid-September what you might see is consideration of the U.S. government whether to go with that, withdraw out of the big cities, and as one person said to me yesterday, let them have the civil war they seem to want to have.

What signs will we see? What could happen to derail all of this between now and then?

Well, the death-by-a-thousand-cuts derailment, which is simply that we don't see any downturn in violence. The level of violence has remained remarkably steady since last October. The number of attacks daily against U.S. forces and Iraqis is pretty much the same. Now, Gen. Petraeus will say we haven't seen the full effects of the surge. We won't see them until June at the earliest, probably mid-summer, and we won't be ready to assess them until September. ...

What I really here worry about in the U.S. military is two things. An entire combat outpost being taken out, 30 or 40 U.S. troops, a platoon and some more being taken out by big bombs. And they're worried about that.

But what they really think might break the bank is if an Iraqi unit, an Iraqi army unit, turned on U.S. forces. They worry that the political traffic back here couldn't bear that. And the worry is what might happen is if sectarian differences increase, if the United States is seeing as siding, for example, with the Sunnis, that a Shi'ite unit, some units of Iraqi special police who are really just Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters, start fighting with their U.S. advisers. ...

Do you think it's premature to talk about endgame or exit strategy?

I think the best way to think about Iraq is to think about it as a tragedy. Shakespearean tragedies have five acts. I think we're only in Act 3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still alive. I don't think it's going to end well. I don't know how it's going to end. I think it's going to be messy. But I think it's a long way from here, whatever the endgame is. Even if you think the next step is either the country breaks up into three chunks or Moqtada al-Sadr becomes the new ruler of Iraq, those are still interim steps. There are things that will happen after that, [and] the story of this tragic enterprise is far from over, even if that occurs. ...

Michael Gordon
The New York Times

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… If we send 20-odd thousand -- 17,500 is the actual number going to Baghdad additional, on top of the 15,000 already involved in the operation there -- you've doubled it to more than 30,000. Still, it's not an enormous amount of troops. There's supposed to be 50,000 Iraqis -- maybe 20,000 army and the rest police -- that we're working with. It's this unity of effort that in theory is supposed to give the United States the mass to do the job.

And remember, it can't just be an American job. It has to be an Iraqi job, because it's their city, and they know the area best. So all of this depends on steps that the Iraqis are supposed to take on the military side and on the political side. And if that doesn't exist, this effort will collapse, just like the last one [Operation Together Forward II] did.

One thing that's very striking is in his speech to the nation -- which I thought was a pretty sober account of what happened, especially for President Bush, who's sort of been relentlessly optimistic until now -- he allowed for the possibility that this could fail. He said that he had discussions with Prime Minister Maliki and that Maliki had pretty much said the right thing, but he also said he had communicated the message to the Iraqi authorities that the American patience was not unlimited, and I think he means that. I think if they begin to see that the Iraqi government really isn't doing the things they've promised to do, I think there's going to be yet another review.

Right now, we're on Plan B, and I believe they're already thinking about Plan C.

Plan C is?

Plan C is a closely wrapped, probably series of options that we don't have much visibility into. But I talked to a senior official, and he said: "Look, our patience is not unlimited. We think this can work. We're hopeful of success." He said, "But if this doesn't work, there's some things we can do."

Col. H.R. McMaster
Commander, Tal Afar 2005-'06

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… Will [Gen. David] Petraeus, [commander, MNF-I, as of 2007], attempt to "Tal Afar-ize" Baghdad?

You can't "Tal Afar-ize" Baghdad. ...

There are a lot of things that you can learn, I think, from Tal Afar that you can apply generally and conceptually to other areas of Iraq, ... but the actual mechanics of how you do it, how you go into these neighborhoods and improve security is going to depend on a number of factors. It's going to depend on the unique ethnic, sectarian, tribal dynamics in the particular neighborhood. It's going to depend on the capabilities of the enemy in that neighborhood and how strong of a hold they have on the population, either through fear or some form of sponsorship from that community. And it's going to depend on the capability of Iraqi forces: How representative are they of the population? ... Do they treat the people with respect? Do they have credibility among the population? And how can that be achieved?

There are so many factors that bear on this. I mean, will reconstruction funds and resources be available on the backside of the operation? To what degree can local government be reconstructed in the wake of the operation and a degree of rule of law established? And can that government establish habitual access to revenue and resources such that they can provide basic services for that community in the long term? All these are factors that will bear on the success or failure of operations in Baghdad and anywhere in Iraq. ...

Say we're successful in Baghdad. Is that a beginning or an end? What will that be as an accomplishment?

Improving security in Baghdad is the beginning of making that improved security permanent. So in the wake of operations and improved security in particular neighborhoods of Baghdad ... what has to happen is the generation of a police force that is capable and legitimate; the positioning of Iraqi army forces such that they can support that police force against an intensified enemy effort; the development of effective local governance and rule of law so people know that their rights are protected and they'll be secured and their basic needs provided for by that government. And all these things are mutually reinforcing and have to be achieved in the wake of improved security.

Gen Jack Keane (Ret.)
Army vice chief of staff, 1999-'04

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… [You said that the political time and the military time surrounding this operation may not match up.] Gen. Petraeus may need 18 months, two years to do something. He may have six, eight months political time in trying to get those two closer together, is one of the challenges. How do you feel about that time continuum now?

Time certainly is an issue, politically here in the United States, first and foremost, and also to a lesser degree in Iraq in terms of the Maliki government and people's support for it in terms of it getting something done. In my own mind, the issue comes down to progress. If we're able to show some progress by the end of the summer that this operation has brought down the level of violence and the Maliki government has something to show for itself in terms of moving toward a political solution, I believe that will buy time, both for the Maliki government and itself in Iraq, very important, and also back here politically in the United States.

I spoke to Sen. [Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] about this, Sen. [Joe] Lieberman [ID-Conn.] about it, and Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] about it, and certainly the one that was most noteworthy in this was Sen. Clinton. She indicated that if there is genuine progress here, particularly political progress, then the timetable will probably change somewhat in this country. In other words, it would give Petraeus more time to get done what he needs to do because progress is being made. ...

Somebody told me ... that we'll know we're making some progress when the number of U.S. casualties begins to go up, because it means we're engaging the enemy. ... Is that a kind of truism of the cost of doing this business?

We certainly knew that the casualties had potential to rise as we decentralize our operations, move out into these neighborhoods. ... So what happens is you're making more contact with people that don't want you to be there. ... So you're running down more enemy; you're making more contact; there's more firefights. And as a result of that, casualties are going to go up.

The second thing is that the enemy has a vote here. And if there's one constant theme that I think we've had for the last four years it's that we have underestimated this enemy, and everybody is trying not to do that here. We know the enemy has a vote. We know they're going to try to derail this operation. ...

Do you think the president's going to stick with it, be able to stick with it?

I think that the president's commitment and determination to see this through and to try to get this government in Iraq to be able to stand on its own two feet and be able to eventually protect its people have some stability, I think he's committed to that to the end of his presidency. ...

What's likely to be happening [as the surge reaches full strength in June]? What's the measure of how we're doing? …

We'll get the effects of all the five brigades and the two additional Marine battalions and the Marine Expeditionary Unit [MEU] that's also arriving in June. We'll start to feel those effects in July. I believe during the summer we should start to see some progress taking place, much more so than we have now in terms of bringing down the level of violence.

At the same time, what we're cautiously hoping is that the Maliki government will be able to strengthen its coalition so he can get the oil law passed and the de-Baathification program modified to accommodate the Sunnis. That is a real challenge, and we're hoping it will have made some progress by then on that, certainly by the end of the summer. If we have not made any political progress whatsoever, then we do have a challenge on our hands. I think the message is clear that this particular coalition that Maliki has is incapable of making the political solution that we're all looking for. ...

[What if we get to September], but Maliki hasn't pulled off his part of it? What happens next?

I'm not sure. But this much I do know: If Maliki has done some of it and he's still well-intentioned in terms of getting the others done, ... then I think he'll get some more time from us, and the American people will give the president more time as well, because progress is being made and the security situation has improved.

If the security situation has just improved and Maliki still isn't able to make progress, I think people will have to take a close look at whether this coalition that he has can continue, not in the sense that Maliki's government would need to be dissolved or anything, but some of the key players in that coalition, should they continue to be a part of that coalition? Are there other people that would better represent the totality of the views in the country who are more interested in getting a political solution? And I'm sure people would talk to Maliki about trying to influence changing some of the players, which is already taking place, as you're aware of, so that he can get a better coalition to work with to get this peace that everybody wants.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

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… Based upon your experience and knowledge of it, when you watch the "surge" this spring and summer, how will you take the measure of it?

I think the measure's pretty easy if the numbers are good, and that is just violence. If the Americans can bring some kind of order to the city where people feel safe to go outside, where they let their children go outside, where they let them go to school, yeah, normal life would return to the capital.

It's not a normal place right now. I mean, if you drive down the street of a neighborhood called Mansur, that was the Upper East Side of Baghdad. It's a wealthy neighborhood; houses are enormous. There's really nice restaurants; there's shops. That place, it's vacant. There's no one on the streets. The stores are closed down. The restaurants are closed. It's incredibly dangerous -- you can't get out of the car. Iraqis can't go out there.

I guess for me, a measure would be take that main drag in Mansur. Are people out on the sidewalks again and are shops opening up again, and kind of a return to normal life? I mean, that's a pretty good measure.

Col. William Hix
Chief strategist to Gen. Casey

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… If the government of Iraq is able to make political progress on many of the things that people have mentioned, like how they're going to divide oil revenue, some changes in the constitution that the Sunni are trying to negotiate, if they make those kinds of political steps and they stick, then I think that Iraq is moving in the right direction. And the violence may continue to stay where it's at or even escalate, because the opponents of that progress are going to try to undermine the credibility of the government and the security forces.

So I believe still that political progress is a leading indicator of what's going on in Iraq, and violence is a lagging indicator. Conversely, if there's political paralysis or regression, then we'll clearly be headed in the wrong direction.

Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.)
Military strategist

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… There is this conviction that if we just get enough American soldiers into these various neighborhoods, move them into these houses and stay there, operating in close proximity to the population, that we can root out and defeat these evil terrorists, who ultimately have no real support in the population. Well, I think that is delusional thinking. I think it is a prescription for getting, unfortunately, a lot of Americans killed, particularly when you talk about light infantry.

We've had this obsession of using lots of men with rifles. And men with rifles are the easiest things to maim and wound and kill. And that is where we always take our heaviest casualties, in those areas.

I think the president feels strongly this is a major offensive to try and quote, "win," unquote, his war. It's not a war; it's an occupation. The fighting exists because of our occupation. At the same time we are at the middle of a civil war. And the two sides may ultimately decide to set aside their differences temporarily to kill us if we are not careful -- particularly if we move against the Shi'ite militias. ...

And let no one be mistaken about this: The Muslim Arabs on the ground in Iraq know we are done. We are finished. They know we are going to leave. It's not a question of if; it's only a question of when. And they see us as having been defeated. That's very clear. The only people who aren't clear on this right now are sitting in Washington, D.C., particularly in the White House and the Pentagon.

Frederick Kagan
Military historian

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… Depending on how the enemy reacts, ... by mid-June, if they've given it everything we've got, which in many cases is the best case for us, then you could see us moving toward a much more peaceful situation.

[The enemy] think[s] we're not serious. The enemy thinks that we're going to leave soon. So what they're more likely to do is go to ground and hide in the neighborhoods and expect to pop up again when we leave. I would bet you that you will see a surge in violence, however successful we've been, in Ramadan of 2007, which is in October, as you've seen a surge in violence in every previous Ramadan in this war.

And the question is going to be not does October 2007 look better or worse than August 2007, but does Ramadan of 2007 look better or worse than Ramadan of 2006 and by how much? That will give us a pretty good measure of where we're at, because they will have every incentive by that point to throw everything that they have left at us. If we've done our job, we should have been able to mitigate that significantly. If we can't, that hasn't succeeded. ...

We've fought three campaigns in a row so far. The first one was the kinetic operation where we took the regime down by the end of April. The second one was the counterinsurgency operation that we followed from April 2003 through the Samarra mosque bombing. The third was the sort of countersectarian conflict operation that we have been waging in fits and starts since February 2006. We won the first one; we lost the next two.

We're now embarking on the fourth campaign. History should tell you that we don't need to be dismayed by that. How many campaigns did Lincoln win before getting through? Not many. Lost a lot. After Gettysburg, lost some. In fact, after Gettysburg the situation looked so dire that Lincoln thought he was going to lose the 1864 election until [Gen. Sherman took] Atlanta, which turned it around. Is this Gettysburg? Is it Atlanta? Is it something else entirely? We'll see. But the fact that we've had mixed success in the campaigns that we've waged to date doesn't tell us anything about whether we're going to succeed or fail in this next campaign.

And if we succeed -- you know, the great thing about wars, usually if you win the last battle, that's the one that matters. The battles and campaigns that you've lost before become a lot less important as long as you win the last one. So the trick is to make sure that this is the beginning of the end, and it's the beginning of an end leading to a victory.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

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… If we intend to stay with Iraq and try to really help improve it over time, we're nowhere near the endgame. The only way we're near the endgame is if we decide that Iraq's no longer going to be our problem and we're just going to get out. That's not the position I support. But I think that's the only way in which [Gen. Petraeus] can turn this into an endgame, because then it's just saying: "Well, it's not the endgame for Iraq. It's just going to be the endgame for America's involvement in Iraq."

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

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… In principle, the idea of securing Baghdad as the first critical step in a city strategy that allows you to progressively secure one area after another in the country is attractive. But you also have to look at the risks. And the risks, I think, are formidable. I think some of the things that the administration has done, for example, changing over the entire senior team that we have in Iraq, make the problem more difficult still.

And finally, unless the American people are unwilling to accept the fact that beyond this surge, if we're successful, American forces are going to have to stay in Iraq for decades -- much as we have in Korea, we will have to have 30,000, 40,000 soldiers in Iraq, I think indefinitely. Because if the Iraqis don't believe that we will stay as long as it takes, then all they're doing is preparing for the civil war that they know will happen the day the Americans leave.

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posted june 19, 2007

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