I think that any objective observer will have to say that so far Barack Obama's overseas trip has been successful politically. He has looked comfortable, statesmanlike, and he has commanded respect. Furthermore, this was the difficult part and he still has the softballs of Europe left. That said, his weakest area has been his insistence over and over that voting against the surge was not a mistake. It was something he told Terry Moran on Nightline and something he repeated to Katie Couric on CBS News last night. Furthermore, he has tried to cloud the issue by suggesting that the surge was not primarily responsible for the stunning turnaround in Iraq.
In fact, the surge per se was not primarily responsible. John McCain often says that it wasn't merely a surge of troops that made the difference but a change in strategy. It was. When things were at their worst, John McCain once referred to our strategy as whack a mole. By this he meant that our search and destroy missions would eliminate a target in one area only to find that or other targets pop up in other areas. Our problem during the difficult days from 2003-2007 was that our troops would move into an area and attack a target. After their mission was complete though, they would move back to their base. The enemy would wait until our troops had left the area and move back in to cause havoc. Since the locals could not count on the coalition for constant protection, the rise of militias occurred.
Each of the militias didn't merely attack those of other sects, they also provided protections for those of their own sect. This is what brought the country to the brink of civil war.
As such, General David Petraeus, who had recently finished writing the U.S. Army Counter Insurgency Field Manual, was brought in to execute a strategy of counter insurgency. Last August, I debated a liberal friend of mine on the fundamentals of counter insurgency in Iraq. Following the KISS (keep in simple stupid) philosophy on counter insurgency, it boils down to three words: clear, hold and build.
The clearing portion of counter insurgency is the most difficult and most dangerous. The extra troops were most necessary for this portion. This involves going into each and every locale with any modicum of terrorist activity and engaging them in street hand to hand combat. This is brutal and bloody, but ultimately necessary. Many will remember that the beginning of the surge brought a spike in violence. That's the unfortunate effect of the clearing portion. If you take the fight to the enemy, there will be more casualties. That said, once the enemy is defeated and driven from an area, the hardest part is over. In fact, the so called clearing portion is still going on in remnants. The coalition, along with Iraqi troops, only a couple months ago confronted terrorists in Basrah, Sadr City, and Mosul.
Once the clearing portion is successfully accomplished, the next step is holding an area. This requires maintaining a significant though smaller presence within each area. It works much like the military version of police precincts. By maintaining a presence, the locals feel a permanent sense of safety. This portion of counter insurgency also involves very dangerous military activity. Much of it involves house to house searches. During this portion of counter insurgency, the coalition must make sure that all the remaining remnants of the terrorists are identified and removed. The terrorists wear no uniforms and blend in with the locals. As such, this involves sophisticated interrogation. Beyond that, this also becomes the military equivalent of grass roots politics. This portion involves reaching out to local leaders and attempting to flip bad guys to our side.
By holding an area, the enemy is denied a base of operation. Many may remember stories from the fall and winter of last year that surmised that the sphere of space that AQI could operate in was becoming smaller. That's because the coalition was moving into territory once controlled by them clearing and holding it. Thus, the enemy couldn't come back. It was successful clear and hold that turned Ramadi from one of the most dangerous areas in the world to one of the safest Iraqi cities.
Once the hold portion of counter insurgency began to blossom, this is when we saw much of the militias crumble and disintegrate. That's because they were no longer needed for protection. Once the locals had no use for their protection, they began to see them solely for the evil creatures that they were. As most remember, Sadr began to lose significant power during the fall of last year. That's because clearing began to take hold and thus his JAM militia became flat footed.
The final portion of counter insurgency is building. This involves serious money being thrown around for economic development. The locals must feel as though a better day is ahead. The only way that happens is when they see their economy blossom. If safety is followed by economic misery, their good will won't last. That is what is happening throughout much of Iraq now.
Clear, hold and build happen with their own dynamic, and thus, different portions of operations happen in different areas. Still, this textbook implementation of clear, hold and build is what turned the dire situation in Iraq into one in which we are on the verge of victory.
There is no doubt that the so called Sunni Awakening was a significant help in implementing the counter insurgency. It is further true that the awakening happened before the counter insurgency was implemented. As I pointed out earlier, flipping important community leaders is a hallmark of counter insurgency. It is, however, naive and uninformed to suggest that the Sunni Awakening would have had any effect had it not been for the counter insurgency strategy. To suggest that these Sunni locals would have been able to take on AQI on their own without the massive reinforcements of the coalition's counter insurgency strategy is naive and irresponsible. This suggestion by Senator Obama is nothing less than exhibit A of his utter ignorance of the military situation in Iraq.
Of course, the surge and counter insurgency wouldn't have worked without local cooperation and the increasing competence of the central government. In fact, proper counter insurgency creates a dynamic in which all of these things begin to function with each other. For Senator Obama to suggest that any of them would have worked without the counter insurgency strategy is simply naive and outrageous.
Make no mistake, we are on the brink of victory because General David Petraeus along with several hundred thousand of the bravest and finest military personnel performed a picture perfect textbook implementation the counter insurgency concepts of clear, hold and build. This is the strategy that was supported in its infancy by John McCain and opposed by Barack Obama. Make no mistake, without it, we would be mired in a bloody genocide that no one wants to imagine. We can debate future strategy, however, there is no debating what got us here.
Please check out my new books, "Bullied to Death: Chris Mackney's Kafkaesque Divorce and Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and the World's Last Custody Trial"