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.