As Democrats look ahead to the challenges that await the Obama administration, one step they should take right away is to completely set aside any further discussion over whether or not the thing that the Bush administration’s PR team named a“ surge” either succeeded or failed. There is, in fact, no specific military strategy that is called a “surge” or that can meaningfully be described as “succeeding”, “failing” or “offering lessons for future conflicts.” Lumped together inside the term “surge” – which is essentially a public relations term and not a military term — are two specific military operations and two distinct military strategies that were actually employed in Iraq in the period from 2007-2008. It is only by looking at those actual operations and strategies that Democrats can draw any lessons for the future.
To begin with, neither of the two actions most directly related to the common-sense meaning of the word “surge” — the increase in the number of troops in 2007 and their deployment to empty houses in central urban locations rather than remote bases – can be properly defined as “military strategies”. They are both specific military operations conducted within the framework of some larger military strategy. As a result, their success, failure or ultimate value can only be determined in relation to that larger strategy
The two broader military strategies that were actually employed during the “surge” were (1) a classic military strategy that the Romans called “divide et impera” (divide and rule) and which was quite frequently employed by the later colonial empires of Spain and Britain and (2) a very specific military doctrine for conducting counterinsurgency warfare – a doctrine developed in 2006 and codified in the military manual FM-3-24- The US Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The strategy of “divide et impera” — the notion of funding and arming one or several competing groups within a country and balancing them against each other in order to maintain social order — can be found in Julius Caesar’s accounts of his conquest of Gaul and Hernan Cortez’s account of the conquest of Mexico. It reappears frequently in the history of the later Spanish, French and British empires. The sight of an American general in 2007 simultaneously overseeing the funding and support of both the Shia government of Nouri al Maliki and the Sunni “Awakening Councils (while also honoring a tacit truce with the Shia nationalist forces of Muqtada al-Sadr) in order to control a sectarian civil war fits perfectly well within the framework of this long strategic tradition.
At the present time there is little if any serious opposition among Americans to the use of such divide et impera tactics in Iraq or Afghanistan if they can provide viable alternatives to a prolonged, high-casualty anti-guerilla campaign such as the Soviets faced in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. But history shows that these kinds of opportunistic alliances buy only very temporary loyalty. As a July 11, 2008 US News and World report noted, “Afghan Warlords, Formerly Backed by the CIA, Now Turn Their Guns on U.S. Troops”
… two of the most dangerous players [in Afghanistan] are violent Afghan Islamists named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, according to U.S. officials. In recent weeks, Hekmatyar has called upon Pakistani militants to attack U.S. targets, while the Haqqani network is blamed for three large vehicle bombings, along with the attempted assassination of Karzai in April.
Ironically, these two warlords—currently at the top of America’s list of most wanted men in Afghanistan—were once among America’s most valued allies. In the 1980s, the CIA funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and ammunition to help them battle the Soviet Army during its occupation of Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, then widely considered by Washington to be a reliable anti-Soviet rebel, was even flown to the United States by the CIA in 1985.
Providing funds and support to local tribal chieftains and warlords is a powerfully attractive alternative to having US troops become bogged down in bitter anti-guerilla warfare, but Democrats should always remember that “divide and rule” strategies also have to be guided by some viable longer term plan and ultimate exit strategy.
The second basic military strategy that was employed in Iraq during 2007 was the application of a specific strategic doctrine for counter-insurgency warfare developed, among others, by General Petraeus and his circle of advisors and associates.
In the abstract, the basic goal of this counterinsurgency strategy is to protect the civilian population and thereby to “win their hearts and minds.” In practice, however, the specific measures outlined in the manual are called “population control measures” and were first employed in the city of Tal Afar in 2005.
The “population control measures” have three major elements:
A. isolate individual neighborhoods inside massive concrete walls that have only a few carefully monitored gaps where people can enter and leave the area.
B. conduct a census of all residents in the area – men, women and children, and issue them identity cards they must have on them at all times.
C. establish a set of checkpoints manned by armed soldiers who only allow people with valid identity cards to enter and leave a particular area and who conduct regular searches of individuals and cars.
Aspects of these “population control measures” are occasionally described in the American press, but almost always in an unsystematic and haphazard way that does not give a coherent image of what daily life is really like under their influence. As a result, many low-information voters in America have no idea that this is actually the basic situation most residents of Baghdad and other major cities have faced for the last two years.
If these measures were imposed on the residents of an American city by U.S. troops and National Guard, most Americans would immediately describe the resulting situation as “martial law”. If these measures were imposed by foreign troops, Americans would universally describe the situation as representing a “military occupation” or “foreign invasion”.
Most reports from Iraq, however, indicate that many Iraqis accept the current situation as clearly preferable to the widespread sectarian killings that preceded it. But “population control measures” are not always so popular. For example, among the Palestinian population in the occupied territories of the West Bank similar kinds of population control measures are widely perceived as aspects of a military occupation and not as an attempt to provide them with security. Democrats should always remember that people obliged to live under “population control measures” can all too easily come to perceive such measures as profoundly unjust and oppressive rather than benign and humanitarian.
Beyond the “population control measures” outlined in FM-3-24, the final element in the counter-insurgency doctrine that the manual outlines is the use of search and destroy missions to eliminate incorrigible insurgent “bad actors”. These special operations are rarely described in any detail in the American press, but one September 6, 2008 Washington Post article gives some insight into their operation:
…”fusion cells” are being described as a major factor behind the declining violence in Iraq in recent months. Defense officials say they have been particularly effective against AQI, which has lost 10 senior commanders since June in Baghdad alone… U.S. intelligence and defense officials credit the operation and its unusual tactics — involving small, hybrid teams of Special Forces and intelligence officers — with the capture of hundreds of suspected terrorists and their supporters in recent months…. Fresh tips are channeled to fast-reaction teams that move aggressively against reported terrorist targets — often multiple times in a single night.
The headquarters bustles like the New York Stock Exchange….huge computer screens hang from the ceiling, displaying aerial surveillance images relayed from Predator, Schweizer and tiny Gnat spycraft…the CIA provides intelligence analysts and spycraft with sensors and cameras that can track targets, vehicles or equipment for up to 14 hours. FBI forensic experts dissect data, from cellphone information to the “pocket litter” found on extremists. Treasury officials track funds flowing among extremists and from governments. National Security Agency staffers intercept conversations or computer data, and members of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency use high-tech equipment to pinpoint where suspected extremists are using phones or computers.
Data gathered in a raid at midnight — collected by helmet-mounted cameras that can scan rooms, people, documents and cellphone entries and relay the pictures back to headquarters — often lead to a second or third raid before dawn, according to U.S. officials.
The article consistently – and coyly — describes the objectives of the fusion cells and quick reaction teams as “capturing” insurgents, but FM-3-24 actually makes it quite clear that the goal of tracking down insurgent “bad actors” is very often to simply “neutralize” or “eliminate” them rather than take the additional risks required to capture them.
On the one hand, there is near-universal support among Americans for using unrestricted and immediate lethal force against individuals or groups who pose a clear and direct threat to innocent civilians – groups like the 9/11 hijackers or the Mumbai assassins. But when such tactics are applied to broader categories of political opponents, programs initially described as carefully targeted have a disturbing history of spiraling out of control – two of the best known examples being the Phoenix program in Vietnam and the government-sponsored death squads in Central America.
Moreover, when applied to groups such as tribes, clans, political organizations or social movements the tactic not infrequently backfires. Iraq offers a dramatic case in point. Many of the operations aimed at neutralizing or eliminating leaders of the Baathist resistance during 2004-5 had the perverse consequence of greatly assisting Al Qaeda in Iraq in its rise to prominence and power within the Sunni resistance by weakening their chief competitors for the loyalty of Sunni Iraqis. Democrats should always remember that state of the art military technology and the bravery and skill of highly trained special-op’s forces can be deeply inspiring and seductive, but they can also be basically counterproductive if they are employed in furtherance of a wrong-headed military strategy.
Thus, while the widespread debate over the merits and defects of the “surge” as a specific military strategy is, in a very fundamental sense, essentially vacuous and uninformative, both of the real, underlying strategies that were actually employed in Iraq during 2007-2008 raise significant issues that Democrats will have to confront in the months ahead. A successful set of policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other key countries will inevitably require a variety of alliances with indigenous forces, the protection of some civilian areas and some reliance on special operations to directly eliminate terrorist organizations that pose an active threat to America. Yet each of these tasks presents profound risks as well as rewards. It is only by studying the actual military strategies that were employed in Iraq — rather than the ill-defined concept of a “surge” — that useful lessons for the future can be discerned.