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'The Surge' Shows That Numbers Matter


While President Barack Obama prepares to discuss potential military strategies for the war in Afghanistan today, the nation prepares to honor veterans of our nation’s wars. On the Monday before Veterans Day, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War took a constructive look at major military efforts in Iraq. The Institute presented “The Surge: The Untold Story,” [which you can watch in full below] a 30-minute briefing on the strategy that brought about a massive swing in the course of the Iraq war in a matter of months. The film premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“The Surge” is really a snapshot, briefly summarizing the events of late 2006 to deliver key background, setting the stage and highlighting key strategic elements implemented in 2007 that ultimately pushed terrorist groups out of Baghdad, with the help of an emboldened Iraqi nation.

The story is told in a fast-paced, modern style, transitioning between interviews, live footage and pictures with military-style cuts and zooms. The interviews are very informative, though there were two problems. First, there is little if any negativity reflected in the film when analyzing the Surge strategy. Some opposition would have more effectively recaptured the atmosphere surrounding the controversial troop increase, and also lent further credibility to the effort’s effectiveness. The reason no negativity was shown, however, is that the generals, and now most politicians, agree that the Surge worked exactly as it was supposed to.

Additionally, the film is simply too short. It analyzes key components of the surge strategy, and also gives a broad overview, but it left me as a viewer hungry for more information. Fortunately, a panel of experts spoke after the viewing, providing more than sufficient information on the strategy. The film’s website contains extensive information for further research as well as a streamed version of the film.

The discussion panel that followed the film consisted of:

General John Keane, a retired U.S. Army four-star general. Keane was one of the architects of the Iraq troop surge.

Dr. Kimberly Kagan, the founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War. Kagan has written on the Surge strategy for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Foreign Policy Magazine.

Colonel David Sutherland, a colonel in the U.S. Army. Sutherland commanded the 3rd “Greywolf” Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division in Diyala Province during the Surge.

Lieutenant General James M. Dubik, a retired lieutenant general for the U.S. Army. Dubik oversaw the generation and training of the Iraqi Security Forces in the second half of 2007.

Michael R. Gordon, the New York Times’ chief military correspondent. Gordon is currently writing a history of the conflict in Iraq from 2006 to the present.

The film’s highlights, which include never-before-seen interviews with General David Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno, reveal a complex strategy. Instead of simply throwing troops at the Iraq problem, President George W. Bush authorized generals to carefully install selected numbers of troops in areas of need, providing crucial stability and allowing the U.S. to mount an offensive.

The U.S. military was not the only one to carefully plan. The Surge was necessary because violence was increasing not in a random way, but in a systematic one designed to undermine the fledgling Iraqi government. The film points out both the plans, and cowardice, of the enemy quite clearly. Shi’a death squads and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fought each other, but in a nontraditional way by attacking civilians. This terrorist strategy backfired due to the Anbar Awakening and the Surge, two fundamental changes in a joint effort to stabilize Iraq.

One strategy the film clearly illustrates through interviews and footage is the importance of building relationships with locals, and also the ability of our armed forces to do so quite effectively. The Surge troops secured the locals, working among them and giving them a reason to rely on U.S. military might, rather than the manipulative AQI. Once the locals felt safe, they began to share the who, what and where of AQI and Shi’a weapons caches and safe houses. This fundamentally changed the war.

Such effective strategy should not be ignored, but analyzed and reused. General Stanley McChrystal’s request for an additional 40,000 troops, while significant, could do in Afghanistan what the Surge did in Iraq. While the countries differ, the troops do not, and American soldiers have shown themselves time and again to be the friends of repressed peoples and the bane of oppressors. Through the last century this hasn’t changed, and the people of the United States, can be confident when they celebrate Veterans Day today that this fact will be as true in Afghanistan as it was in Iraq.

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