Iraq After the Surge
August 2007 – Paul Rogers
In late 2006 the Baker-Hamilton Report recommended a change of policy for the Bush Administration over Iraq. The two main proposals were that the United States should work towards a large-scale military withdrawal from the country and that it should do so in parallel with an engagement with regional powers to ensure that a post-withdrawal Iraq would not degenerate into wholesale violence and civil war. Such a diplomatic engagement would necessarily include countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
One of the assumptions behind this approach is that significant regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have an interest in avoiding a failed state riven with violence on their borders. Although Saudi Arabia is concerned at the risk of enhanced Iranian influence in a post-occupation Iraq, it has a substantial Shi’a minority within its own population, especially in the oil-bearing regions in the east of the country. Protracted violence in Iraq could well have an effect within the Kingdom. Similarly, Iran has a large Arab minority in the west of the country close to Iraq and would not want to see sustained internal conflict in Iraq because of the potential for increased dissent in its own country.
The Baker-Hamilton Report was roundly criticised in neoconservative quarters for being akin to surrender, and the Bush Administration decided quickly to reject most of its recommendations. Instead, it adopted a policy which was essentially a process of reinforcement of the military occupation, combined with the appointment of a new military commander in Iraq – General David Petraeus. The reinforcement, known as “the surge” would commence early in 2007 and there would be a review of progress in September.
The Nature of the Surge
The essence of the surge was the addition of five combat brigades to the forces in Iraq. Each brigade numbered about 4,500 troops and with additional support elements this amounted to an increase in US troop numbers in the country of 30,000 taking the total to about 168,000, the largest number since the start of the war in March 2003. The main intention was to increase the military presence in Baghdad in order to control the insurgency and the sectarian violence there, moving on later to the other centres of the insurgency in the provinces to the north and west of the city. The addition of the troops was phased in between February and June, at the rate of one additional brigade each month. This meant that the new troop dispositions would have been available for three months before the September review.
Prior to the surge, there had been a tendency for US troops to be centred on a small number of large and well-protected bases. While there were frequent ground patrols, there was also a heavy reliance on air power, both in the form of helicopter gunships and also fixed-wing strike aircraft. Given the overwhelming firepower available to the US forces, there were frequent incidents of heavy civilian casualties as US forces engaged insurgents in densely populated urban environments. Apart from the direct human consequences, this meant that US forces had relatively little direct engagement with ordinary Iraqis.
As the surge developed, the additional combat forces enabled US military commanders to increase the number of ground patrols and to establish a substantial number of small combat support posts, especially in Baghdad. This was expected to increase the scope for engagement with Iraqi communities, although an additional tactic in the Baghdad area was to erect barriers between neighbourhoods subject to sectarian attack.
The greater engagement with insurgents resulted in very large numbers of people being killed or detained as suspects. US sources indicated over 3,000 killed and nearly 18,000 detained in the period from January to the end of May (see May briefing, A Thirty Year War?), but there were also substantial increases in US military casualties with over 300 killed and 1,800 wounded in the period April to June, the worst three month period since the war began. By August, READ REPORT