Reassessing the Surge: Bold Shift or Strategic Disconnect?

Iraq soldier

Peter R. Mansoor, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013)

The topic of Dr. Peter Mansoor’s new book has generated endless debate about what some call our “endless war.”  Many will approach the subject with skepticism.  The escalation of American commitment in Iraq in 2007, the period covered by Surge, remains controversial to this day.  There is evidence that this escalation was manifestly successful in dampening the internecine mayhem that nearly consumed Iraq in 2007.  Determinations of how successful the extended “surge” was at the strategic level of war remains colored by ongoing violence in Baghdad, Mosul, Baquba, Kirkuk and elsewhere.  A definitive answer will be elusive for some time.

While history has not yet rendered a verdict, this new book will give it a strong push.  The author brings a unique perspective to the task.  Dr. Mansoor served two tours in Iraq, the latter as the Executive Assistant to General David Petraeus.  He is an established Army combat veteran, a former Brigade commander in Iraq, and a serious soldier-scholar.  He received a PhD from Ohio State University where he now holds a chair of military history.  His last book, Baghdad at Sunrise, was chocked full of deep personal views on the war in Iraq.  My review described that book as “an exceptional memoir that decades from now will still be ranked as an insightful but especially candid history of the war.”  Five years later, that assessment still stands. This sequel will extend the author’s reputation due to its nuanced grasp of Iraq’s complexities.

This reviewer comes to the “surge” debate as a deep skeptic.  The Iraq Study Group argued for a withdrawal from Iraq, and this recommendation made sense after three years of occupation.  The argument for 30,000 additional forces appeared to overlook opportunity costs and the state of our ground forces at the time.  Surge proponents in Washington offered tactical uses for more forces, but no overarching strategy or political component.  Some Beltway advocates promoted the “surge: merely to provide the Bush Administration with a last “we gave it our best shot” conclusion.   The notion of rushing several partially trained Brigade Combat Teams or extending a few exhausted Marine Battalions in theater appeared to have little merit.  The lack of follow-on forces for a sustained effort compounded the problem.  What would six more months achieve that the last three years had not?  The strategic “golden hour” had seemingly passed.

Those judgments are collectively challenged by the narrative of Mansoor’s book. Surge makes clear that many underestimated the ability of superb combat leaders in the Army and Marines to effectively apply the extra forces, with a surge of ideas and energy that reflects highly on their imagination and perseverance.  Few believed that a marked reduction in the vicious ethno-sectarian violence that had arisen could be attained.  But Mansoor convincingly describes the design and application of the additional forces, and their success in reducing Iraq’s slide.  Establishing population security and dampening the spiraling violence were fundamental preconditions for renewing political discourse between factions inside Iraq’s elite and making  reconciliation possible.

Mansoor’s post-execution evaluation of the eponymous surge is impressive and detailed.  His chapter on the design of the surge is comprehensive.  He then transitions to the factors underlying the Sunni Awakening, and how it originated and flourished as the surge evolved.   This discussion debunks the notion that the surge actually activated the Sunni tribal resurgence.  But Mansoor does argue, “Without the surge, the Awakening would have been much more limited in its scope and impact.”  His coverage of the proactive “beltway” battles that cleared out AQ strongholds around Bagdad is thinner, but Surge is not a tactical combat history.

The most original chapter deals with Maliki’s Operation Charge of the Knights in which he ordered the Iraqi Army to forcibly intervene in Basra in 2008 against largely Shia militia forces.  Mansoor argues that this operation was at least as important as the Awakening, “for it changed the political calculations of many Iraqi leaders and made politics the operative forum for the division of power and resources in Iraq going forward.”

However, this post facto reasoning is less than persuasive.  That Maliki was confident in his improved American-trained military forces does say something about our patient advisory efforts.  However, this is not evidence of politics becoming the principal means of determining Iraq’s future.  Rather Maliki demonstrated his sheer self-interest in consolidating power for his party by applying force against Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi in Basra, compulsively.  Far from promoting  political discourse, Maliki missed the opportunity to take advantage of the breathing space to advance any serious effort to reconcile with the Sunnis in Anbar.

Mansoor’s assessment gives sufficient texture to reassess the surge.  I used to agree with Tom Ricks’ bottom line from his best-selling The Gamble.  Ricks graded the surge a solid incomplete” because it only “succeeded tactically but fell short strategically.”  In retrospect, we may have to give two grades. The surge was operationally valuable (a strong A-) since it took the initiative away from those seeking to exploit chaos and murder.  However, it strategically fell short because it  surrendered that initiative to Maliki without any incentives or costs to force him to secure stability for Iraq (probably a D).   There is no question that the surge materially contributed to the dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq.    What the surge lacked, and what Mansoor does not recognize, was a political component to force Maliki to stop his support of sectarian activities and dysfunctional leadership.

The increased forces and improved operational method deployed by Generals Petraeus and Odierno were necessary, but without altering this political dynamic ,they could never be sufficient.  While there were positive military elements to the surge, as well as improved tactics, the “surge of ideas” lacked concrete political leverage to exploit the enhanced security and generate political shifts needed to consolidate a stable political framework.

Thus, while it may be said that the “surge” failed strategically, we may have to accept the fact that no political breakthrough was ever feasible at that point in time.  The surge did all that it could have done to break the spiral of violence that was consuming Iraq, and it did give Maliki and the Iraqi people  breathing space.  However, they chose not to seize the opportunity that was gifted to them.  We may have to live with the conclusion that there was no military or security fix to create a revised political framework in 2007 and 2008, and that operational success was all we could have expected from the surge.  For our interests in Iraq and the region, that may have to be enough.  Still, anyone grading American strategists needs to consider the 1,124 U.S. lives lost in the effort.

Scholars of military history and students of national security affairs will find Surge an invaluable resource. The book is highly readable despite its impressive scholarship and sourcing, and benefits from its author’s professional training as an historian and his rigorous analytical approach. Mansoor captures the dialectic between protagonists in Washington and Baghdad far better than Bob Woodward does in The War Within: A Secret White House History. Because of its lucid presentation and judicious conclusions, Surge will be the principal reference on this topic for some time.  No one seriously interested in the complexities of strategic thinking in general or this conflict, and America’s ongoing struggle to coherently link its policy aims to actionable plans, can overlook Mansoor’s analysis or conclusions.

F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University, an Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, and a student in the War Studies Department at Kings College London.  This review reflects his personal views and not the U.S. government.

Photo credit: The U.S. Army (adapted by War on the Rocks)