Small Wars

This Week at War: What if the Surge Didn't Work?

A new study asks some troubling questions about what really caused Iraq's reduction in violence.

Do troop surges really work?

As springtime arrives in Afghanistan, the coalition's soldiers and commanders are bracing for the annual acceleration of combat against the Taliban. The "surge" of over 33,000 additional U.S. soldiers, ordered by President Barack Obama in December 2009, has been in place since last fall. Everyone expects another violent summer, just as occurred after "surge" reinforcements arrived in Iraq in 2007. But the Iraq surge appeared to work; in 2008 and thereafter, violence declined dramatically. The Iraqi government and its security forces are now fully in charge, and the last U.S. troops should be gone by the end of the year. Advised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Gen. David Petraeus, Obama is hoping that the success these surge proponents brought to Iraq will occur similarly in Afghanistan.

But did the U.S. troop surge in Iraq really win the war? Maj. Joshua Thiel, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, thinks not. In a study written for Small Wars Journal, Thiel performs a statistical analysis that correlates the arrival of the surge reinforcements into Iraq in 2006 and 2007 with subsequent levels of combat incidents in 2007 and 2008. Using data gathered from each of Iraq's 18 provinces and incorporating lags to account for the time required for new combat units to become effective in the field, Thiel concluded that there was no significant correlation between the arrival of U.S. reinforcements and subsequent changes in the level of violence in Iraq's provinces. Some provinces received reinforcements; others did not. Combat incidents went up in some provinces and down in others. But the connection between surge troops and the change in the level of incidents seems entirely random.

Overall violence in Iraq declined steeply in 2008. But Thiel attributes this to other factors besides the arrival of U.S. combat reinforcements. These factors include the Sunni Awakening against al Qaeda in Anbar province, the completion by 2008 of sectarian ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad area, the erection of security barriers between neighborhoods in Baghdad, a unilateral cease-fire by some Shiite militias, the increased dispersion of joint U.S. and Iraqi combat outposts in Iraq's cities, and perhaps most important, the maturation of Iraq's security forces. These factors could all have occurred without the arrival of additional U.S. forces.

What does Thiel's study portend for Afghanistan this summer? Much more important than the number of U.S. reinforcements added in 2010 is how they are employed. Thiel seems hopeful that various local Afghan militia programs sponsored by coalition special operations forces will successfully blunt Taliban efforts to reintegrate their cadres into areas that were recently cleared.

According to the Brookings Institution's monthly report on Afghan security, violence of all kinds continues to climb. A combination of disparate events, some catalyzed by coalition actions and others not, brought Iraq back from the abyss in 2008. If Afghanistan is similarly salvaged, the reasons will likely be as varied and complex as they were in Iraq.


NATO looks for a new strategy in Libya

At a two-day meeting of NATO officials in Berlin, representatives from Britain and France -- the leaders of NATO's air campaign against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime -- called for other NATO countries to do more to help win the war. Frustration with the military stalemate is mounting. European political leaders may fear that public support for the drifting military campaign -- now in its 28th day -- will crack before Qaddafi does. An unstated purpose of the Berlin conference was to find a politically realistic way to break the military deadlock. No new strategy emerged.

Success for NATO now requires the exit of Qaddafi and his sons from Libya. NATO and its partners have, thus far, been unable to assemble enough coercion to make this happen. The rebel army is stuck in Ajdabiya, attempting to fend off pro-Qaddafi attacks from Ras Lanuf. Further to the west, rebels in Misrata are under siege. NATO aircraft are succeeding in their attacks against Qaddafi's tanks. But pro-Qaddafi infantry long ago abandoned their military vehicles and NATO attempts to target the civilian vehicles in which they now move have occasionally ended up killing rebels instead.

NATO leaders hope that political and economic isolation will eventually compel Qaddafi to fold. But if playing for time is the strategy, it is not clear that NATO has the advantage. Squabbles over political strategy within NATO, combined with a looming humanitarian crisis in Libya's west, may pressure Britain and France to relent well before the Qaddafis feel any real pressure to back down.

When in a stalemate, the first instinct is to simply intensify the effort in the hope of achieving a breakthrough. Thus the call by British and French leaders at the Berlin conference for more strike aircraft over Libya. But Qaddafi's undestroyed tanks aren't the problem. The real issue is that NATO has reached the limit of what its strike aircraft can accomplish, given the understandably cautious rules under which they operate.

Several ideas for improving the effectiveness of coalition air power have been discussed. In contrast with the high-flying, fast jets the British and French are flying on strike missions over Libya, the U.S. Air Force could deploy the highly effective, low-flying, and much more vulnerable A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft. President Barack Obama has, so far, shown no inclination to risk the crews of these aircraft over Libya. Alternatively, France, Britain, and other countries could opt to embed forward air control teams with the rebels to improve target identification for NATO airstrikes. But given the undisciplined rebel infantry and the chaotic and fluid nature of Libya's battlefields, these NATO teams would be under significant risk of capture, an outcome that would only improve Qaddafi's bargaining position.

There is no discussion yet of NATO employing an amphibious assault to either lift the siege of Misrata or directly depose Qaddafi in Tripoli. But even if this option were to somehow become politically realistic, Britain's recent Strategic Defense and Security Review, released in October 2010, would seem to have already ruled it out. As I discussed at that time, in that review the British government chose to emphasize its ground combat power and its interoperability with the United States at the expense of its Navy, amphibious capability, and air power. British policymakers assumed that their forces would most frequently operate within a coalition led by the United States, an assumption that must sting as Obama backs further away from the Libya problem.

With air power having reached its limit and ground intervention ruled out, NATO has no choice but to wait until the ground combat power of Libya's rebels improves to the point where they will become a threat to Qaddafi's hold in Tripoli. But that could take years, which may be exactly what Qaddafi is counting on.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Waiting for the Intermission

Who will win the Libyan stalemate?

How to play the stalemate in Libya

This week, Libya's rebels attempted to storm Brega, the oil port about 200 kilometers south of Benghazi. The attack failed, making it even more clear that the conflict has now become a stalemate, a conclusion reached by Gen. Carter Ham who until recently was commander of the Libyan operation. The rebels, lacking military training, battlefield leadership, or many armored vehicles, are unable to advance along the coast road toward Tripoli. But neither can Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops emerge from the built-up areas where they are hiding from coalition air power. The question now, for both sides, is how best to play the resulting standoff.

Qaddafi's field commanders must be pleased with how well they have managed to neutralize the advantage the coalition's air supremacy previously afforded the rebels. Qaddafi's forces have either abandoned their military vehicles or kept them in urban areas, protected from air strikes by human shields. Their use of pick-up trucks and other civilian vehicles has confused the coalition pilots attempting to provide air support for the rebels; an accidental NATO missile attack on a rebel convoy outside of Brega on April 7 killed 13 rebel fighters. It was the third such misguided air attack in the past week. NATO air commanders are now caught between increasingly strident rebel demands for air support and fears that either more strikes or civilian bombing deaths will cripple support for the air campaign. The result is likely to be a further wind-down in military operations by all sides.

With a large advantage in ground combat power, Qaddafi would seem to be the least interested in a de facto ceasefire. However, coalition air power prevents his forces from attempting a partly conventional military attack into open terrain. With the military situation frozen, Qaddafi will look for ways to extend his ability to hold out against international pressure. We should expect a media campaign explaining how the embargo against his regime is impoverishing the population in the western part of the country. A plea by Qaddafi to resume oil sales would follow.

A ceasefire might benefit the rebels the most. They desperately need a break from the fighting in order to conduct basic military training, select competent battlefield leaders, and expand their diplomatic outreach to the international community. A break will also allow rebel commanders to work out better procedures for coordinating coalition air power with rebel ground operations.

It is the Obama administration that might be most at risk from a prolonged stalemate in Libya. Even though the United States has pulled strike aircraft from duty over Libya, the impression remains that the U.S. is "at war" against Qaddafi. The Obama administration is being held responsible for the outcome of the conflict while contributing less and less to the shaping of that outcome. As Qaddafi continues to hold on in defiance of Obama's stated goals, observers will question the administration's strategy. Obama and his advisers believe that pulling back U.S. forces reduces the cost and risk to the United States. What remains to be seen is whether there will be a commensurate pullback in the responsibility assigned to the U.S. for how Libya turns out.

Afghan skeptics prepare to take over in Washington

A March 30th Washington Post article discussed the battle lines forming inside the Obama administration over the rate at which U.S. military forces will begin exiting Afghanistan. According to three senior administration officials, Obama made it clear at a recent monthly Afghanistan review meeting "that he wants a meaningful drawdown to start in July." The options under preliminary discussion include a tiny symbolic withdrawal, the removal of some rear-echelon support troops, and a "heavy" option of three combat battalions -- about 3,000 of the nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers currently deployed -- taken from several locations. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan, has yet to submit his recommendations.

Obama should not be surprised if his military chain of command is resisting his desire for a more "meaningful drawdown." As Bob Woodward made clear in Obama's Wars, his chronicle of the 2009 Afghan surge decision, it was Petraeus, Defense Secretary Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen who were the most vociferous supporters of a larger and longer military commitment in Afghanistan. According to Woodward, this "Afghan Surge Faction" prepared only one option for Obama in 2009. It should be no surprise if this group is similarly presenting only token reductions for this summer.

For Obama, 2011 will be dramatically different than 2009. This time, if Obama doesn't like the military advice he is receiving, he is in a position to simply change the players in the military chain of command. Gates's retirement is imminent, as is Mullen's by September. Add to that the likelihood of rotating Petraeus out of Kabul and into another assignment.

Trial balloons are already floating. The most critical will be Gates's replacement. Obama would logically make this selection first, so the prospective new Defense Secretary could weigh in on the choice for Mullen's replacement as Joint Chiefs Chairman. According to the Washington Post, Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, may be the front runner. He has navigated two years at CIA without running aground. He is a veteran on Capitol Hill, a crucial quality for a Defense Secretary. Most importantly for Obama's near-term purposes, Panetta shares the president's skepticism about the mission in Afghanistan, according to Woodward's account.

And who will replace Panetta at CIA? According to NPR, the leading candidate is Petraeus, who is said to be willing to accept the job. For Obama, putting Petraeus at CIA would remove him from the military chain of command while also keeping him inside the government in a quiet position. Promoting Marine Gen. James Cartwright from Vice Chairman to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would place another Afghan surge skeptic into the top military office.

The first withdrawal this summer from Afghanistan may very well end up being largely symbolic. But dramatic changes are in store for Obama's military team. All of the members of the "Afghan Surge Faction" will be gone by the autumn, almost certainly to be replaced by skeptics of the current policy. After a slow start, we should expect the withdrawal of combat units from Afghanistan to accelerate next winter -- just in time for the 2012 presidential election campaign.

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