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Countering the New Orthodoxy

Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency in Iraq
June 28, 2011 |

Success, it is said, has a thousand fathers. Now four years removed from the advent of the 2007 Baghdad “Surge,”[i] the situation in Iraq, while not perfect, has dramatically improved. Violence is down significantly, despite continuing acts of terror against the Iraqi people by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and some Iranian surrogate forces.[ii]  Admittedly, the formation of the new Iraqi government following the 2010 election has been less-than-efficiently executed. But even so, Iraq continues to find a “good enough” solution and has avoided a return to the violence of 2006-2007.  While it is not exactly a victory parade or “Mission Accomplished,” this may well be what success in a stability operations looks like.

But for all this attention, exactly what was causal in reducing the violence (and what was not) remains clouded.  2007 was a year when many techniques for limiting violence were tried. It is almost certain that not all of them were helpful, but given the overlapping efforts, empirical methods of verification are fairly limited.[iii] The technique of “throwing the kitchen sink” at the problem may be good policy, but it makes for terrible social science. We simply have no counterfactual to test against. So in the absence of a natural experiment, what follows is an alternative storyline that parallels but challenges the military-centric conventional wisdom, and which may serve as a competing hypothesis until an authoritative version emerges from a combination of the memoirs of senior Iraqi, American, and Iranian actors and comprehensive historical analysis based on the largely inaccessible official records from the period.

This paper presents an alternative, counter-narrative, to what I will call the “New Orthodoxy” about the Baghdad “Surge.”[iv] The New Orthodoxy story of Iraq—promoted to a greater or lesser degree in the works of Linda Robinson, Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, and Kimberly Kagan—explains that violence in Baghdad diminished primarily due to three factors: the addition of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, the adoption of “counterinsurgency” as both a tactic and a strategy, and the dynamic leadership of General David Petraeus (and, in some accounts and to a lesser degree, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno).[v] This version seems to be the generally accepted conventional wisdom, is cited in most media accounts, recycled by pundits, and is generally accepted within the U.S. military community at large.[vi] For example, in an otherwise quite prudent editorial, Ross Douthat maintains that “[a]bsent the successes of the 2007 troop surge, we’d probably be too busy extricating ourselves from a war-torn Iraq to even contemplate another military intervention in a Muslim nation.”[vii] Variations of this version also permit a role for the Sunni “Awakening,” though the causality and weighting of this event varies among the New Orthodoxy accounts.[viii]

For the full text of this 13-page report, please click here.

Douglas A. Ollivant is the Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. He recently served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.


[i]  Announced by President Bush on January 10, 2007, the first of the “Surge” troops were operational in February of 2007 (as GEN Petraeus arrived in Baghdad), and the last of them left in the summer of 2008.  “The Surge” then refers roughly to the period from February 2007 to August 2008.

[ii]The USF-I data shows that the current steady state of “major security incidents” has leveled at a steady state approximately 1/8th of the 2007 apogee.  Ethno-sectarian deaths in Baghdad have dropped from a peak of over 1500 per week to a number that hovers near zero on the graph.  All data sets show a precipitous drop off.  See Anthony H. Cordesman, “Iraq: Patterns of Violence, Casualty Trends and Emerging Security Threats, Feb 9, 2011” accessed Mar 3, 2011 at http://csis.org/
files/publication/110209_Iraq-PattofViolence.pdf
.

[iii]  In effect, all the independent variables were changed simultaneously, making their combined effect on the dependent variable (stability and security in Iraq) inherently unknowable.  As Amitai Etzioni says, “We will probably never find out to what extend the surge in the number of American troops in Iraq in 2007 served as a turning point in the war there, and to what extent a tribal deal made the difference.” I maintain there are even more factors that must be considered.  Amitai Etzioni,  “Bottom-up Nation Building.”  Policy Review 158 (Dec 2009 & Jan 2010), pp. 51-62.

[iv]I use “New” Orthodoxy here only to distinguish from pre-2006/2007 counterinsurgency practice.  There was no “Old Orthodoxy” against which this is counterposed.

[v]See Kimberly Kagan  The Surge: A Military History (New York: Encounter Books, 2009);  Tom Ricks The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguin Press, 2009);  Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq  (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2008); Bob Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008 (New York :Simon and Schuster, 2009), especially  pp. 379-381.

[vi]Alternatives to this account exist, of course, most notable in the writings of Nir Rosen.  However, these alternative accounts do not enjoy anything approaching the privileged status or public dissemination of the New Orthodoxy.  See especially Nir Rosen, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of American’s Wars in the Muslim World (New York: Nation Books, 2010).  For more examples of the dissemination of the “New Orthodoxy,” see then-LTG Raymond Odierno’s Heritage Foundation Address at http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/the-surge-in-iraq-one-year-later, Max Boot’s writings (e.g. http://www.cfr.org/iraq/we-winning-we-havent-won/p15356) and the speeches of Senator John McCain (e.g. http://hotlineoncall.nationaljournal.com/archives/2008/09/mccain_bushs_tr.php)

[vii]Ross Douthat, “Iraq then, Libya now,” International Herald Tribune, Mar 15, 2011, p. 10.

[viii]The accounts in Ricks and Kagan are the thinnest, with Ricks largely downplaying the phenomenon and Kagan treating it as an epiphenomena of U.S. combat operations.  Robinson also gives primary agency to the American effort, while Woodward, in his short summary of what went right, is an exemplar of what I will call in this paper the “Al-Qaeda over-reach” account.

The conclusions this paper draws do not give cause for optimism in Afghanistan.  Many of the key concepts of the current plan for that conflict appear to have been drawn directly from the New Orthodoxy. These dubious lessons include additional troops (even approximately the same 30,000 number), a focus on killing mid-level insurgents (as opposed to the utterly irreconcilable extremists) and an emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics.