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Revisiting the Surge

US Soldier training an Iraqi outside Basra. Photo courtesy US Army.

By Taylor Marvin

The conventional narrative that paints the surge as a strategic success for the United States argues that that increased stability in Iraqi society caused by the escalation of American troop levels coincided with both a Sunni rejection of religious extremist and foreign fighter ideology and fortuitous political sectarian reconciliation which encouraged Shia militias to stand down, which together allowed for a gradual reduction in overall violence levels and allowed for the formation of a stabilizing Iraqi society. It’s certainly true that American military casualties began to fall in the months after the surge. Similarly, by mid-2007 Iraqi civilian casualties fell to the lower, but still significant, levels we see today. However, this narrative is simplistic and overestimates the influence of American counterinsurgency strategy on the outcome in Iraq. Additionally, while many Americans view the war in Iraq as disproportionately costly compared to its relevance to US interests as American troop levels in Iraq wind down the war seems to generally be seen as a strategic, if largely insignificant, victory. This view ultimately risks drawing the wrong lessons from the surge and broader American counterinsurgency influence. Civilian deaths in Iraq did begin to fall in mid-2007, a development that coincided with the adoption of the counterinsurgency-centric surge strategy.

Source: Iraq Body Count

However, research into this fall in violence points away from the increase in secuirty forces as the root cause of the reductiuon in civilian deaths. Starting with the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 Iraq’s previously religiously mixed urban neighborhoods began to slowly segregate into sectarian blocks. While Iraq’s Shia and Sunni religoous factions has always suffered a violent co-exisence the imposed social order of the Baathist totalitarian regime did serve to damped ethnic conflict; with the removal of the social struvture religious violecen encouraged Iraqis to move to areas dominated by their co-ethnics. This process, which began in earnest as the Iraqi civil war intensified in 2006, was all but complete in Baghdad by 2007.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, 2003. Mixed neighborhoods shown in orange.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, 2006. Mixed neighborhoods in orange, Shia areas in green, Sunni in red.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, early 2007. Segregation increasing.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, late 2007. Segregation continues to increase.

2009. Ethnic segregation nearly complete.

Source: The Gulf/2000 Project

Previously violent ethnically mixed neighborhoods saw reductions in violence as they slowly homogenized- ethnic segregation reduced the contact between religious groups, which in turn reduced the opportunity for violent encounters. This segregation process made the surge almost irrelevant. While increasing the prevalence of security forces in ethnically conflicted areas can reduce violence levels to be effective the increase must be implemented early. By the surge’s inception in 2007 ethnic conflict in Iraq has escalated to the point that no number of government security forces would have likely presented a sufficient deterrent to security motivated ethnic militias.

Post-2007 Iraq’s fall in violence presents a challenge to the United States- while Iraq has become much more secure none of the original problems that motivated its civil war have been resolved. The Iraqi government continues its perpetual sectarian deadlock and offers little hope of improving its governing capacity and ability to offer public services. Iraq is still unstable enough to prevent the emergence of any real economic activity and rising standards of living, and the question of Iraqi Kurds’ integration into the rest of the country remains unresolved. While Baghdad’s ethnic segregation has curtailed violence it has also reduced the chances of any eventual national ethnic reconciliation and endangered the popular legitimacy of any mixed-ethnicity government. Today Iraq is an impoverished, unstable state that continues to suffer from pervasive ethnic violence and an ineffective, largely anti-American government heavily influenced by Iran with little prospect for real improvement- a end state few Americans would call a strategic victory for the US. Of course it may be naïve to belittle the current state of Iraq; after the disastrous first years of the occupation any Iraq not in a full-blown civil war is likely the best we were going to get at all.

The real risk of examining America’s experience in Iraq is drawing the wrong lessons from the surge. The surge was a textbook example of classic counterinsurgency strategy- its advocates stressed the COIN tactics of high troop levels, an emphasis on development and a “clear and hold” strategy, and increasing reliance on domestic security forces and institutions. However, Iraq’s fall in violence was more due to its own domestic ethnic segregation than any COIN strategy. This lesson applies to other conflicts. To be sure COIN is the only strategy with any real chance of succeeding in insurgency and ethnic warfare ridden conflict zones. But it is only that- a chance. COIN, if successfully implemented, only paves the way for the institution building, ethnic reconciliation, and economic growth ultimately necessary for any social security; developments almost wholly conditional on the domestic forces and chance outside of American control. This is the central fact at the heart of both poor-world economic development and conflict resolution: progress is ultimately dependent on the conditions of domestic actors with outsiders largely peripheral. The causes Iraq’s stagnation and violence are rooted in its geography and thousands of years of economic and historical forces- a fact Americans policymakers conveniently forgot when promising a liberation that would spark radical changes in Iraqi society.

The surge in Iraq was the the right strategy at the wrong time, not because it could have made things worse but because by 2007 there was almost nothing the United States could have done to decisively improve the situation in Iraq. If we look back on the surge we should see it as a sobering lesson in the limits of US influence rather than a testament to the success of COIN.

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