March 19, 2008

Many people seem to enjoy repeating “€œthe is Surge working, the Surge is working…”€ over and over again on television. So just before we pop the Champaign at the fifth-year anniversary party for the invasion of Iraq, and celebrate the completion of the freshman year of our ballyhooed “new strategy,” perhaps we should ask, “€œis the Surge working”€”really?


Sure, it’s working fine, just like my sister’s car. I had to drop her off at the garage where they were looking over her Ford Probe. It”€™d been overheating since she bought it, and there was something wrong with the alternator, too. But she didn”€™t have the money to fix it, so she asked the mechanic, “€œCan”€™t I just keep leaving the heater on and adding water and using my battery charger”€

The mechanic blinked a couple times and said, “€œYeah, you could do that….”€ Meaning, “€œYou could, if you want to drive around sweating, wait for the charger to power up when you”€™re late for work, and generally ruin your life for the sake of a hopeless junker.”€


That’s the best answer I can give on the Surge: if you”€™re willing to go on throwing away men and money”€”about $3 trillion according to that Nobel Prize hotshot Stiglitz”€”to prop up a lost cause, then yeah, it’s working great! Just like my sister’s dumb techniques; they kept the car on the road all right, but she”€™d have been way better off just junking it, which she ended up doing anyway. Stiglitz argues that the real reason why the dollar has tanked and credit has crunched and all the mortgages are going bust is because we broke the bank in Iraq, pouring all those billions in to persuade the local gangbangers not to shoot at us.

That’s the Surge.

The only reason people think “€œit’s working”€ is that our strategy, pre-Surge, was so bad that pretty much anything would be a step up. The easiest way to win “€œMost Improved”€ is to have a lousy start to your season. And it doesn”€™t get much lousier than our counterinsurgency performance from 2003-2006. Just how bad was it? I yield the floor to the Honorable Sen. Lindsay Graham, who said in an interview that he can”€™t believe how good our troops”€™ morale is now, compared to when they were “€œgoing around waiting to be shot.”€ Whoops! Somebody drag the senator away from the mic.

But that’s the hard truth: U.S. troops were riding around blind, getting ambushed by guys we couldn”€™t even identify, failing to do the most basic job of counterinsurgency warfare”€”intelligence. Petraeus is a hero to the neocons”€”they”€™ve lauded him and Fred Kagan and his wife called Commanding General Raymond Odierno “€œthe Patton of Counterinsurgency”€”€”but all Patraeus did was apply standard counterinsurgency techniques to Iraq”€”four years late.

The reason it took so long is that CI warfare contradicts the U.S. Army’s emphasis on firepower and logistics. Running a successful CI campaign means shooting less and socializing more, getting to know the locals”€”not because they”€™re so durn cute and there’s so much culture to appreciate, but so you can figure out which doors to kick in, which locals to interrogate.
You”€™d think the U.S. Army would know how to do that after getting involved in so many irregular wars since 1945. You”€™d be wrong. Colonel John A. Nagl said it best:  “€œ…in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency.”€

Nagl has written a manual on CI as well as a history of it, Learning to Eat Soup with A Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

But it would be wrong to stop the buck on the Army’s desk. The blame for our failure to gather intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency rests right where the blame for this whole mess belongs: with the neocons’ big lie that we were going to be welcomed as liberators and have rose petals thrown in front of our tanks. If that’s what you”€™re forcing yourself to see, who needs intelligence? What are you going to do, spy on the locals making their welcome bouquets? “€œBase, I”€™ve got a visual on three individuals aiming what appear to be daisies at the convoy! Permission to throw Hershey’s Kisses at them, Sir!”€

So when the insurgency got going we had no idea who the enemy was, and what was worse, nobody in the Bush administration even wanted to know. They kept saying, until it was a running joke, that it was nothing but “€œdeadenders,”€ Saddam’s cousins just being sore losers. And they had no response except massive, random firepower. Which does not work. Spraying the neighborhood with automatic weapons is what every frustrated occupying army ends up doing when they”€™re ambushed (Haditha, Blackwater, etc.). And when they do, the guerrillas rejoice, because that kind of fire usually hits civilians. And every family that loses a kid turns insurgent”€”maybe not as combatants but as informers, lookouts, or human shields.

It took more than three years of American soldiers “€œdriving around waiting to be shot”€ to convince the administration to give standard counterinsurgency tactics a try. And in the end, it wasn”€™t all those GIs who”€™d been killed or maimed that changed their minds. It was losing the 2006 elections. At that point Bush’s people forced his hand: Rummie was out, and Petraeus was greenlighted to set up a standard CI plan for the Sunni Triangle, “€œThe Surge.”€

The Surge was billed at the time as an increase in U.S. troop numbers in Baghdad, but looking back, the increase was the least important part of the new plan.

The real plan had two elements. First, winning the Sunni over by bribing them. We”€™re bribing every Sunni chief or officer who”€™ll take our money. The second element was to connect our units to a particular neighborhood. This is basic to any CI effort. You want your troops to settle in, get to know the place.

The new plan divided Baghdad into nine districts. Primary responsibility for security was with a brigade of the Iraqi Army, with a battalion of U.S. troops for backup. More important, every Iraqi brigade had American embeds right down to NCO level.

If you”€™ve read Nam memoirs you”€™ll be yelling, “€œBut this is what the grunts said way back in 1968! We should”€™ve stayed in one place, trained the locals, not gone out on search-and-destroy missions re-taking the same places over and over again!”€

Hey, don”€™t tell me, tell whoever was in charge”€”if anybody really was from 2003-2006. Anybody remember how many times we “€œtook”€ Fallujah?

Sure, we”€™d been doing PR stuff from the start, but it was just photo ops, giving kids candy, trying to make “€œliberated”€ Baghdad 2003 look like Paris 1944.

That sentimental stuff is not what CI is about. Real CI warfare means handing out bags of cash, not candy. From 2003 to 2006 most of our bribes went to Shia militia chiefs”€”we were going to buddy up with Shia majority, the guys bad old Saddam used to oppress. Then, about two years back, a thought wormed its way into Cheney’s tiny brain: “€œHey, Iraq is right next to Iran! And, um, isn”€™t Iran also Shi”€™ite? So, like, if we strengthen the Iraqi Shias”€”wait, I can get this”€”uh…we”€™re just letting Iran take over! And that’s not good, that’s terrible!”€

The neocons are so truly, totally stupid this hadn”€™t occurred to them. I really don”€™t know what to say about stupidity like this. In any other country, every neocon from Bush to the lamest columnist in your local rag would be crow food by now, impaled on tetherball poles for an “€œOoopsie”€ like that. I guess Americans are the forgiving type.

So after three years of killing Sunnis and cuddling up to the Shia, Cheney did a U-turn: everybody go hug a Sunni! Even if he’s still holding the wire on that IED!

The Sunni bosses took the cash and racheted down the IED attacks. In Jan./Feb. 2007 we had 164 kia; in Jan/Feb 2008 it’s down to 69, a 58% cut. If that’s what you mean by “€œworking,”€ then the Surge works great.


There’s a way we could have used bribes to the Sunni officer corps much more effectively”€”just by keeping Saddam’s army on the payroll and putting them in new uniforms right after we took Baghdad. Then we could have jailed (or killed) the Sunni hard core, the guys who weren”€™t going to accept occupation. We didn”€™t do it because the official story was that except for Saddam’s sore-loser cousins in Tikrit, every man, woman, and donkey in Iraq loved us”€”and when that failed, we blasted Sunni neighborhoods indiscriminately. That was another mistake. You don”€™t attack an entire ethnic group; that just convinces them they have no option but to fight you. What a good counterinsurgency operation tries to do is split the insurgent ethnic group into two factions. That way they”€™re too busy killing each other to bother attacking the occupier.

The British did it successfully against the Irish in 1921 by signing a treaty with Michael Collins’s faction of the IRA, then arming it in a civil war against the anti-treaty faction that sprang up. The Israelis are trying the same thing now, arming and funding the softie Abbas and trying to encourage his Fatah faction into a war with Hamas. The trouble is, when you side with the softies, they fight soft”€”take, for example, Abbas’s fighters who are having trouble staying in the ring with the crazies in Hamas.

That’s one of the paradoxes of CI warfare: the bravest locals are always the insurgents. That’s why Nam memoirs always have a sneaking admiration for the VC/NVA and total contempt for ARVN. It’s the weaklings like ARVN or Fatah who”€™ll go along with the occupier. So you”€™re usually paying a ton of cash for the “€œloyalty”€ of men without much fight in them.

The “€œFallujah Brigade”€ in 2004 was our first try at buying off Sunni fighters, and it was a fiasco. Before the Marines gave up and disbanded the “€œBrigade”€ at gunpoint, it set a world record for treachery and cowardice. The “€œBrigade”€ fled every firefight, and most of the deserters defected to the insurgents, taking the shiny weapons we”€™d given them. But the last straw was when the Brigade’s officers were implicated in the kidnap/torture/murder of ING Lt. Col. Sulaiman Hamid Fitkan, the one local who really was on our side and had some guts. That was when the Marines decided that with allies like this, we didn”€™t need enemies.

Developing reliable local allies takes a long time, and we don”€™t have that kind of time, because U.S. counterinsurgency policy is always linked in to the four-year election cycle. The Sunni, the Shia, and the Iranians don”€™t have that pressure. They can wait us out. That’s what they call Long War Doctrine: guerrillas can”€™t win on the battlefield, so they focus on surviving. The occupiers, they”€™re betting, will eventually leave”€”because the occupier can leave, and the guerrillas can”€™t. It doesn”€™t take much to keep that kind of war going. A few hundred people can do it if they have the neighborhood solidly behind them.

The Long War strategy is why it’s ridiculous for Fred Kagan to say that “€œthe Iraq civil war was over”€ by February 2008. Nothing is ever “€œover”€ in irregular warfare. You get lulls in the fighting, but pretending that these are neat, clean endings is as ridiculous as calling Odierno “€œthe Patton of counterinsurgency.”€ Counterinsurgencies don”€™t have Pattons. They don”€™t depend on brilliant generals or superb hardware; they come down to a long, slow grinding battles of will between the occupier and the locals. And the locals usually win, because anybody with a choice will vacate the Hell that is a guerrilla war zone. The locals usually win because they can”€™t leave; the occupier usually gets sick of the mess and exits.

You may have heard about successful counterinsurgency wars. Fact is, there aren”€™t many of them and they usually involve a tiny, easily-identified minority. Nagl talks a lot about Malaya in his book, but the fact is that in Malaya the British could simply isolate and wipe out the Chinese militants because the ethnic Malay majority hated the ethnic Chinese from way back.

We can”€™t wipe out the Sunni that easily. They”€™re not the kind of vulnerable little minority you can zap with anything short of nukes. There are more than five million of them; they”€™re used to war and being in charge; and when you come down to it, they don”€™t have much else to do.

They”€™re happy to take our money now, but you can bet they”€™re also assigning men to check out our new post-Surge routines. That’s standard irregular warfare practice. When the occupier changes his habits, the guerrillas wait, watch, and then strike. Even if the older, calmer Sunni chiefs want to take our money and relax, there”€™ll be some young bloods who want to see American blood again, and they”€™ll form their own little gangs. It always happens; we talk about “€œThe Sunni”€ like they”€™re one big family, but every tribe has its own little fault lines, and the pressure of cooperating with an occupier always cracks them open.

And that’s just the Sunni. Step back and look at the bigger picture, and you get really depressed. The Shia are quiet right now, but they”€™re not too happy about us bribing and cozying up to Sunni militias that have been car-bombing their mosques for years. If anything’s keeping them calm, it’s their advisors in Iranian intelligence telling them to stay still till the U.S. elections.

Iran owns Iraq now; we”€™re just housesitting. The Mullahs are so cocky that Ahmadinejad strolled into Baghdad a few weeks back, taunting the US, and got a big hug from our man Maliki.

The real shocker is that Ahmadinejad drove downtown from the airport. Nobody drives from the airport into Baghdad. Bush has to zip in on a chopper when he visits, because the road is bandit country. Think about what it means that the leader of Iran can take the scenic route into town, waving and smiling”€”not because he’s brave but because he knows it’s safe. And remember, the enemy in Baghdad is supposed to be the Sunni, old Mahmud’s enemies as well. What does it say that even on their turf, the turf of the guys we”€™re paying now, Ahmadinejad walks around untouched?

Then there’s Kurdistan, quiet for now but due for some action soon. They have their own Arab/Kurd faultline running just where the massive Kirkuk oilfields happen to be. Not a good bet for quiet times ahead.


You might also consider that even Petraeus just admitted that the Iraqi political parties haven”€™t made any of the big conciliatory moves they were supposed to make as their part of the deal. There was a really grotesque case in March 2008, where a Baghdad court acquitted two high-ranking Shi”€™ites from the Health Ministry who”€™d been borrowing government ambulances to kidnap Sunnis from local hospitals and then torture them to death.

That’s just business as usual in Iraq, but people in DC still act surprised that these dudes haven”€™t put on the powdered wigs and started acting like Washington and Monroe yet. Any day now, I guess…any minute now….

And we get all of this for the bargain price of $3 trillion dollars (so far) and 30,000 American casualties. You tell me: five years after the farce began and a year after the institution of our new strategy, is The Surge really working?

Gary Brecher writes “€œThe War Nerd”€ column in The eXile, the English-language bi-weekly based in Moscow.


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