Iraqi Surge Was Keystone to Success in Iraq

By Jim Garamone

At the end of 2006, Iraq seemed on the verge of a civil war. Al-Qaida was inciting divisions between Sunni and Shiia Iraqis. The newly elected government seemed ineffectual. Militia groups roamed neighborhoods and intimidated those who did not agree with them.

More than 100 U.S. servicemembers per month were being killed in fighting in the country. Today, that number has dropped dramatically, thanks largely to the troop surge and a new strategy that senior military officials credit with laying the groundwork for success throughout Iraq.

U.S. officials understood the challenges in Iraq and studied ways to stabilize and improve the situation. Even after his party lost the November 2006 congressional elections, President Bush said there would be “no retreat” from American goals for Iraq.

Civilian and military officials debated, posited, proposed, tested and eventually adopted a new way forward for the effort in Iraq that came to be known as “the surge.” Bush announced the surge on Jan. 10, 2007. The bare bones of the plan committed more than 20,000 Army and Marine combat troops to the fight. The plan was to concentrate the troops in Baghdad and Anbar province – the two most restive areas in Iraq at the time. Baghdad, with a population of around 7.5 million people, is the center of gravity for the country. Progress there, it was thought, would influence the level of violence around the country.

Bush said the surge, plus a new strategy, would give the Iraqi government the time to develop and grow. “If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,” he said in a speech to the nation.

“I am of conviction that this military plan – properly part of the new political emphasis and new economic plus-up – can provide the success we are looking for,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee the day after Bush announcd the plan. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates – in office for less than a month at the time – agreed with the assessment.

“Your senior military officers in Iraq and in Washington believe in the efficacy of the strategy outlined by the president last night,” Gates said to the House committee. “Our senior military officers have worked closely with the Iraqis to develop this plan. The impetus to add U.S. forces came initially from our commanders there.”

In October 2006, 106 Americans were killed due to all causes in Iraq. In December 2006, the number rose to 112. In July 2008, the number of Americans killed was 13. Last month, 23 were killed.

The surge was just one reason for success in Iraq, said Brig Gen. John F. Campbell, the deputy director for regional operations at the J-3 on the Joint Staff. The surge was important, but so were the increased capabilities of Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Awakening, though “you could argue the other two couldn’t happen without the first,” he said.

Campbell was the assistant division commander for the 1st Cavalry Division, which formed the core of Multinational Division Baghdad. He was in Baghdad from the start of the surge and left earlier this year.

The first of the surge brigades arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait in January 2007 – the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. The soldiers went almost immediately into combat operations. Between then and June, four more brigades, a Marine expeditionary unit and two Marine battalions deployed to Iraq. Thousands of “enablers” – combat service and combat service support servicemembers – also deployed.

At the same time, the Iraqis were engaged in their own surge, which often is overlooked, Campbell said. The Iraqi surge was equally crucial to the turnaround in the country, the general noted, and the Iraqi military committed to sending nine battalions into Baghdad. This was a precarious commitment.

“In October [2006], the Iraqis had sent two battalions to Baghdad, and the experience was not good,” Campbell said. Many Iraqi soldiers deserted upon hearing of the deployment; others ran at the first sign of trouble.

The coalition force focused on training the Iraqi forces prior to the surge. “They became more confident, better able to withstand pressure,” Campbell said. “They could stand up in a fight. When these forces came into Baghdad as part of the Iraqi surge, they were much better trained, they had good [coalition] transition folks with them and were more confident.”

The Iraqis planned to deploy the battalions to Baghdad for 90-day tours. In contrast, the coalition forces would be on the ground for 15 months.

“You need time on the ground, you need to develop relationships, you need to get to know the people,” Campbell said. “They realized they needed more time to understand the ground, develop the relationships, meet the sheiks, meet the people, understand the leaders.”

Ultimately, the Iraqi units stayed in place for six months, with others in place for a year.

The experience on the ground, working with U.S. forces, helped the Iraqi forces increase their capabilities. “Just being next to a U.S. soldier, they got better,” Campbell said. “They wanted to look like our guys. They wanted to carry the same weapons. They wanted all the kit like we had. [They benefitted from] seeing how our guys handled themselves around people, around kids and the like.”

More troops are important, but what really made the surge effective was the counterinsurgency strategy, Campbell said. The mission of counterinsurgency operations is to protect the population from attack and separate the vast majority of people from extremists.

“You have to get out and live with the people 24/7,” Campbell said. “We weren’t living on a big [forward operating base], going out and patrolling and then coming back to live.”

The coalition units set up combat outposts and joint security stations in the neighborhoods of Baghdad – often in the places with the most attacks. The strategy in Iraq in 2006 was to “clear, hold, build” – clear the neighborhoods, hold them and then build in the neighborhoods so the people would see the benefits of peace.

But there were issues with the strategy, Campbell said.

“We could clear, no problem. We’re the best at it in the world,” he explained. “The problem was we didn’t have the numbers to hold and protect the citizens of a city of 7.5 million people. We just didn’t have the numbers of either coalition or Iraqis to do so.”

The surge provided the numbers, and coalition and Iraqi forces went out into the neighborhoods. “When you are able to saturate them and stay there 24/7, and you live with the people, and they know you’re going to be there every day, it makes a difference,” the general said.

Baghdadis grew accustomed to having coalition and Iraqi troops around. They saw them day after day, and they started believing that the coalition and Iraqi soldiers would provide protection from al-Qaida terrorists or militias.

“Every day we stayed there living with them meant more people understood we were there for the long haul,” Campbell said. “That brought the people around.”

Iraqi citizens began phoning in tips or telling soldiers where the roadside bombs were or where the enemy weapons caches were hidden. They began turning in those people who murdered and intimidated them in the name of al-Qaida.

And the government and coalition units began pumping money and jobs into the regions.

Command and control of the Iraqi forces also helped improve the results of the surge. The Iraqis established the Baghdad Operations Center under the command of Army Lt. Gen. Abud Qabar.

“All the Iraqi army, all the national police and all the local police [operated] under his control,” Campbell said. Before, Iraqi army units reported to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, and police units reported to the Interior Ministry.

“With the BOC, there was one chain of command and unity of effort,” Campbell said.

The Iraqis increasingly planned and executed their own operations. Police and army personnel began working closely together, and this enabled the coalition to take troops from some more peaceful areas and place them in other areas where they could help improve security. This extended the reach of the surge, Campbell said.

The “Awakening,” in which Iraqi sheiks began taking an active role in providing security, began in Anbar province, and quickly moved to Baghdad and its environs.

“There was rough going initially in Abu Ghraib and inside Ameriyah,” Campbell said. Both areas are primarily Sunni, and al-Qaida wanted to keep them. The terror group had intimidated the citizens. The extremists tortured and killed hundreds of Iraqis in their campaign to control the neighborhoods. But the people in those areas were tired of violence, and they began following tribal elders and sheiks in cooperating with coalition and government forces.

It took time for the improvements in security to happen, Campbell said.

“We didn’t have the final brigade combat team until June,” he said. “And even then, there was heavy fighting. When you go into areas you’ve never been before, you expect higher casualties. And we got them.”

In June 2007, the coalition faced tough casualties, but by August the attacks were beginning to subside. Even the Muslim observance of Ramadan – the month that ordinarily signals an increase in attacks – saw a drop.

“The surge allowed us to get control of areas, maintain control using Iraqi troops and police, and pump money and jobs into the economy,” the general said. “It helped us link up with the sheiks and tribal leaders and push the Awakening process along.”

In many parts of Baghdad today, markets are operating, doctors are practicing, children are learning and fathers are working. That would have been inconceivable in 2006, Campbell said.

“I saw the surge in the beginning, and when I left in December 2007 I had seen it turn Baghdad around,” he said. “The surge was very successful and I could see the results. I would have told you maybe halfway into my tour that I would not have felt good about leaving. But later, I saw all the benefits. I thought we really gave the Iraqi people a fighting chance.”