Ten years ago next month, the U.S. military changed tack in a messy Iraq occupation, launching what’s simply known as “the surge.” Today, experts are still fighting over it. Even among those who credit Gen. David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy with turning the Iraq War around, there are competing theories on why it worked. Some have argued forcefully that it wasn’t the surplus of American troops or shift in tactics that put an end to the sectarian war that rocked Iraq in the months leading up to the surge, but rather that the war had simply bled itself out by the time we decided to get involved. Those who say it didn’t work at all can point to the subsequent rise of ISIS — whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reportedly radicalized while being held in a U.S. detention facility — and the fact that Baghdad is now firmly under Iranian control; here, they argue, is proof that the surge did little more than allow the U.S. to leave Iraq with its dignity intact.
A decade later, this debate may seem academic — like a mental exercise for historians and armchair generals relitigating yesterday’s wars. But the War on Terror is still being fought, and even at the highest levels, the COIN argument still hasn’t been resolved. No sooner did we extol COIN as the magic formula that solved the Iraq War conundrum than we turned around and accused Gen. Stanley McChrystal of selling us snake oil when he tried it in Afghanistan. So which is it?
Well, it depends on which general you ask, and how a given White House occupant defines success. Consider Afghanistan, where after nearly two decades of extremely costly trial and error, conditions are approaching those we saw on the ground in pre-surge Iraq. But we’ve now decided to throw the whole counterinsurgency playbook out the window and go back to doing what we did when we first got this 17-year party started: kick ass! I’m no fortune teller, but I do have the power to see into the not-so-distant past. And I think I know what happens next.
What happened in Iraq
Even the staunchest COIN critics can agree on one thing: Post-invasion Iraq was significantly more violent before the troop surge. By the summer of 2006, high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, and an absence of rule of law — among many other factors — had brought the country to the brink of a full-scale civil war. Key population centers were hit hard by sectarian and ethnic bloodletting, which escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the U.S. military’s shock and awe invasion — especially in Baghdad, the nation’s sprawling capital. “Some 80 percent of the casualties in the Iraqi civil war pre-surge occurred within 30 miles of Baghdad,” notes Boston Globe editor Alex Kingsbury, who spent much of that period reporting in Iraq. In February 2007 — as the first of the surge’s nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops began arriving in Iraq — a car bomb exploded in Baghdad at least once every day.
A key tenet of Petraeus’ strategy was improving security in Baghdad and the surrounding areas. The Iraqi government’s failure to protect the city’s more than eight million residents had compelled many to take up arms for themselves. Neighborhood militias, criminal gangs, and roving deathsquads quickly proliferated — by 2006, they were inflicting civilian casualties at a higher rate than local insurgent groups. Without federal troops and law enforcement effectively intervening to defuse the tension, the violence kept escalating.
To help fill the security vacuum, American soldiers and Marines were pushed off the large bases they had been consolidating on since the spring of 2004 and dispersed to small combat outposts and joint security stations across the country; there were 75 such installations in Baghdad alone. A 12-foot-high, three-mile-long concrete wall was also constructed to segregate the city’s Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, while hundreds of checkpoints manned by coalition and Iraqi troops were created to stop the inflow of bombs, weapons, and militants. The U.S. hoped that stabilizing Baghdad would, as Reuters put it, “create a ‘breathing space’ for Iraqi leaders to make progress on laws seen as critical to fostering national reconciliation.” It would also, in theory, boost confidence in the government to a point where civilians no longer felt the need to take matters into their own hands — a crucial step before Iraq could assume full responsibility for its own national security.
Something worked. In 2008, the annual civilian death toll dropped to nearly a third of what it was two years before, and it continued to decline. It wouldn’t spike again until the summer of 2013, when ISIS cells began launching almost daily attacks on Iraqi civilians and military targets — including a spectacular assault on Abu Ghraib prison that resulted in the liberation of 500 inmates whom the terror group absorbed into its ranks — in preparation for the storming of Mosul and other major Iraqi cities. But 2006 still stands as the bloodiest year in terms of civilian casualties of the post-Saddam era.
What didn’t happen in Afghanistan
The relative peace achieved in Iraq under Petraeus’ watch (at the record-high cost of 899 American lives) was enough to ultimately convince a newly elected and war-weary President Barack Obama that we should give the general’s clear-hold-build COIN strategy a whirl in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led war was in its eighth year and the Taliban was resurging. The stakes, as the U.S. perceived them, were similar to those in Iraq: Without a strong central government, the country would become a terrorist safe haven again.
There were, however, many crucial differences. For example, the geography of the battlefield: In Afghanistan, a landlocked and mountainous country, the insurgency wasn’t as focused in urban areas as it was in Iraq. Rather, the Taliban flourished in the hinterlands, where most of the population resides. The nation’s capital, Kabul, had long been spared the fighting that raged in the rural districts — and not necessarily because it was an impenetrable fortress.
As the U.S. shifted its attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a seasoned Special Forces combat veteran and counterterrorism guru, was tasked with performing the COIN miracle in the so-called Graveyard of Empires. Having just crippled al-Qaeda in Iraq as head of Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal was confident in his ability to subdue the Taliban and inspire confidence in the fledgling Afghan government. In a 2009 memorandum, he encouraged coalition troops to think of counterinsurgency “as an argument to earn the support of the people,” and “a contest to influence the real and very practical calculations on the part of the people about which side to support.”
“We must undermine the insurgent argument while offering a more compelling alternative,” McChrystal wrote. “Our argument must communicate — through word and deed — that we and [the Afghan government] have the capability and commitment to protect and support the people.”
It seems now that we’ve won that argument — at least, we have in the eyes of the millions of Afghans who’ve poured into the nation’s capital to escape the poverty and violence that plagues the lawless countryside. Reuters reported in October that insurgents controlled or contested 40% of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, as Lara Logan of CBS News recently noted, the population of Kabul has ballooned from roughly 500,000 to more than 5 million since American boots first hit the ground in 2001. It might as well be a different city.
Is Kabul the next Baghdad?
Once an oasis of relative peace and modernity in a rugged and unforgiving country, Kabul has become more like a desert watering hole where predators can always count on finding easy prey. A labyrinth of giant blast walls has been erected to shield government and international military bases from the insurgent bombs that have been exploding with increasing frequency. But those walls have done little to protect ordinary citizens.
In 2017, Afghan troops and law enforcement repeatedly failed to thwart terror attacks that caused massive casualties, including an assault by heavily armed ISIS fighters on a military hospital in the city last March that left more than 50 people dead. After some of these attacks, protesters have flooded the streets, chanting “death to Ashraf Ghani” — the Afghan president. During one such protest in June, at least four people were killed when police resorted to violence to control the angry crowd. Kabul is starting to look a lot like Baghdad at its worst.
This time, however, the U.S. military is making no attempt to create that breathing space that so many Americans fought and died carving out for the Iraqis in Baghdad 10 years ago. Instead of engaging in the “contest to influence the real and very practical calculations on the part of the people about which side to support,” we’ve boarded up the windows and double-locked the doors. As recently as last year, American convoys were a common sight in Kabul. Now, according to CBS News, U.S. military policy mandates that Americans stationed in the city take helicopters wherever they go — even to make the two-mile journey between the U.S. Embassy and the airport.
CBS’s Logan asked Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, about the policy in a 60 Minutes interview that aired on Jan. 14. “Protecting the lives of our troops is our number-one priority,” Nicholson replied. “If we can fly instead of drive and that offers them a greater degree of safety, then it’s the prudent and the right thing to do.”
I know someone who might disagree. “[If] we were to achieve our goal of significantly reducing the violence, there was no alternative to living with the people — specifically, where the violence was the greatest — in order to secure them,” Petraeus wrote in a 2013 essay titled “How We Won in Iraq.”
Learning our lessons
Now, to be fair, embedding troops among the local population was just one of the many tactics Petraeus employed during the surge as part of what he called his “comprehensive civil-military campaign plan.” It also resulted in the deaths of a lot of American service members.
But it’s only been a decade since that strategy was put into practice. Have we already forgotten what happens when we take the opposite approach? Just look at what’s becoming of Kabul. We have spent billions of dollars and sacrificed many thousands of lives trying to build a shining city upon a hill in Afghanistan — and it’s become such a terrorist hotbed that we won’t even risk traveling through it in a convoy of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles mounted with .50 caliber machine guns and Mark 19s. This is what giving up looks like.
Most of the combat outposts my platoon occupied in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 didn’t even have gates. We just parked a truck at the entrance and hoped that the guy manning the turret didn’t fall asleep. We spent a lot of time among the locals. We’d eat their food and drink their chai. We’d hear their complaints, which were usually about us: “You destroyed my poppy field,” or “You blew up my house,” or “You killed my son.” Occasionally they’d point to a pile of dirt on the side of the road and say “IED,” or they’d gesture toward a building and say “Talib.” But usually if something bad was about to happen, they were nowhere to be seen. They could read us like tea leaves, but we could read them, too. We could assess what was and wasn’t working — at least as well as general poring over maps at Bagram — and we still didn’t really know what was going on.
I’m not about to argue that COIN worked in Afghanistan. The U.S. had neither the patience nor the willpower for it. What’s the alternative? Right now, it’s doing some killing — and if Petraeus and McChrystal were ultimately right about anything, they were correct that you can’t kill your way to success if the ultimate goal is peace and stability. We’re all pretty stoked about that big can of whoop ass we just opened on ISIS — and we should be, because fuck ISIS — but do we think a generation of freedom-loving allies is going to spring from the ruins of Raqqa and Mosul? Of course we don’t. Just as we can’t possibly think that letting Kabul go to rot while we chase insurgents across the Afghan countryside is a smart long-term strategy; that is, unless we’re comfortable with the prospect of one day turning that city into rubble, too. And frankly, I think a lot of us are.
Task & Purpose contacted Operation Resolute Support headquarters by email to verify a claim made by the Taliban on Jan. 16 that the group had killed and wounded American soldiers near Jalalabad Airport in Nangarhar.
“United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) can confirm enemy forces engaged a forward operating base in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province yesterday,” Capt. Tom Gresback, the Resolute Support headquarters public affairs director, replied in a statement. “There were no U.S. or coalition forces killed or wounded. One of the attackers was killed. USFOR-A and our Afghan partners have given the Taliban a choice, reconcile or die. When they attack, we will continue to drive the enemy into irrelevance.”
If we’re defining success in terms of relevance, though, it’s difficult to imagine how victory can be achieved by hiding behind blast walls and treating the locals like little more than people we just hope not to kill when we storm their compounds or pulverize their villages with bombs. If that strategy is going to drive anyone into irrelevance, it’ll probably be us. Whatever the best way forward is in Afghanistan, we’ve tried destroying our determined enemies for nearly two decades, and all we’ve really learned is that beating a country into submission is no strategy at all.