10 Years On: The American Surge in Iraq

U.S counterinsurgency strategy from February 2007 to July 2008 in Iraq under the command of General David Petraeus has divided military and academic scholars. These divisions range from military application, the eighteen-month campaign’s overall impact in reducing violence against Iraqi civilians and the U.S military in Iraq, its impact (short-term and long-term) on the military-political situation of Iraq and ultimately whether the Iraq troop surge was a success or failure. Considering these factors is essential to analysing the surge. 

Correspondingly evaluating how the external actors within Iraq reacted to the surge and the shift in U.S military strategy is important. These actors, be they Iraqi, Iranian, jihādist, or sectarian factions with their numerous and shifting military, political, and religious affiliations, affected and dictated the attempts of General Petraeus to apply his counterinsurgency strategy.

The core of Petraeus doctrine was ‘simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy.’ Examining the difference between the conventional use of military force and COIN under Petraeus is important to understanding its impact on stabilising Iraq. Was the introduction of counterinsurgency (COIN) a revolution in how war was waged or did its application ‘implicitly recognise America’s political defeat in Iraq?’

Arguably Petraeus’s strategy successfully reduced both civilian and American military deaths during the surge.  Nevertheless analysing the short-term and long-term impact of the surge is key to understanding Fardh al-Qanoon (Establish the Law). Under the circumstances of conducting a military operation in the shadow of the Bush administration's decision to invade and its unalterable consequences, the achievements in securing a semblance of short-term stability through irregular warfare were impressive. However it is arguable that while short-term stability came with new strategy, it did not safeguard long-term security in Iraq. Political issues at the heart of the conflict were not adequately addressed by U.S COIN, critics asserting that the re-establishment of security by the U.S military was artificial, merely a respite from the carnage and determined by the actions of external actors. The resumption of violence (2013 – present) in Iraq, while inextricably linked to the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East, points to this superficiality.

To analyse COIN under Petraeus, the conditions and context in which the surge was implemented must be considered briefly. While condemned by the international community, Operation Shock and Awe and the subsequent occupation of Iraq in immediate aftermath of collapse of Saddam Hussein regime from a military perspective was not catastrophic; ‘the enemy’s main forces were decisively and swiftly defeated.’

However the decision to dismantle Iraq’s political, economic and administrative structures, most notoriously Paul Bremer’s decision to dissolve the 350,000 strong Baathist military (May 2003) without compensation, has ‘rightly been cited as providing the opportunity to organise armed resistance against the occupying power’ and catalysing the rise of insurgent groups. 

The resulting insurgency and ensuing political fragmentation along sectarian lines ignited civil war and appalling violence (2005-2007) which was perpetrated by Shi’a and Sunni death-squads linked to various political factions and by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). ‘The damage of five years of fighting and the unravelling of state institutions has been incalculable,’ the death toll amongst Iraqi civilians ranging from 85,000– 120,000. Absent effective political leadership in Washington, thousands of U.S soldiers were killed and wounded by insurgents who, while in many cases were ‘opposed to each other, were…determined to resist the U.S occupation, their allies, and the political order…they were trying to establish.’ 

For the United States, Iraq had become a political quagmire. For U.S forces and Iraqi civilians, the country resembled a slaughterhouse. Six months preceding President Bush’s announcement of the surge (23rd January 2007), ‘a national debate had arisen concerning what to do about the military situation in Iraq – a situation that was obviously and publicly heading towards defeat.’ It is in this context of sectarian violence, vanishing political legitimacy and military deterioration that Petraeus’s campaign developed. 

To understand the impact of the surge, its military application must be considered against the context of the period 2003-2006. Militarily ‘Phase IV’ of military planning (post-combat phase) was an unmitigated disaster in the aftermath of the invasion. The criticisms of the offensive were summed up by Petraeus at the time famously asking and receiving no answer to the question ‘How does this end?’ This is consolidated by former British intelligence officer, Ledwidge who states that ‘there was no campaign plan for the aftermath’ for the coalition forces. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld ‘directed…an invasion of Iraq with an under-strength, overly mechanised ground force’ which was unprepared for low-intensity warfare, occupation, stabilisation and counterinsurgency tasks imminently needed following invasion. 

Petraeus provided convincing military and political strategy on the ground, something which the U.S military had previously lacked. The application by Petraeus of ‘hearts and minds’, winning over and protecting the Iraqi people, while sending his troops into muhallas (neighbourhoods) to live amongst the population and separate the Sh’ia and Sunni militias in Baghdad when compared to the disastrous coalition strategy (2003-2006) was relatively successful. In conjunction to the security operation in Baghdad, Operation Phantom Strike and Phantom Thunder pursued the ideological and sectarian extremists responsible for inciting and perpetrating mass violence.

However Douglas Porch argues that in terms of military application, ‘by the time the Petraeus COIN-centric staff…arrived in the spring of 2007, U.S units had proven able to step down from conventional to unconventional operations…spontaneously evolving successful small war tactics.’ The switch from conventional to COIN had already occurred and Porch’s argument brings into question the uniqueness of Petraeus’s COIN strategy.

Porch contends that the military had begun this process of coercive strategy as early as April 2004. He states that ‘individual brigades and divisions began to organise locally recruited paramilitary organisations…grouped under the rubric of Iraqi National Guard.’ While their ‘military capabilities were limited’ they helped to ‘dry up potential insurgent recruits and solve in part the problem of demobilisation.’ The criticism of Petraeus’ by Porch is supported by Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn ‘who argue ‘the Awakening’ was incidental rather than consequential to the new tactics of population protection.’

Nevertheless Porch’s failure to be objective in his military criticisms undermines his argument. With the advantage of hindsight it is easy for him to dismiss Fardh al-Qanoon as a political and military failure without analysing the campaign within its own eighteen month framework. ‘The long-term effectiveness of this approach is something for historians to judge, but at the very least, the ends (policy) and means (strategy) were coherently formed and articulated.’ When compared to the ‘38 strategic and tactical blunders’ made in the Phase IV of the 2003 invasion, Petraeus COIN strategy was more pragmatic than the allure of building a nation from scratch and certainly more organised.

The military’s need to innovate (2003-2006) reveals an overarching flawed military approach already absent competent execution of political policy. Crisis Group’s report illustrates this stating that while instrumental in separating rival militias U.S soldiers unwittingly became targets of insurgent armed operations. Under Petraeus, the spike in U.S casualties during the early months of the surge occurred because they were required to protect and engage with the population. ‘For years the top priority, formally listed in the American mission statement, was to transition to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)’ as part of the policy of nation-building rather than protecting civilians. However historians, journalists, reports and military scholars have illustrated ISF legitimised by the coalition forces (which frequently perpetrated torture, rape and murder) were part of the problem. 

However tackling the security administration inflaming violence clearly wasn’t enough, protecting Iraqi civilians still placed U.S soldiers in the line of fire and did not provide a political solution. Ricks argues that U.S casualties worsened under Petraeus; ‘seventy U.S. soldiers and marines were killed in action in February 2007; 71 in March 2007; 96 in April 2007; 120 in May 2007’ and the Iraq Body Count Website illustrated that monthly civilian death toll remained above 2000 between May 2006 and August 2007. 

However Petraeus managed to exploit an opportunity provided by AQI’s political and military blunders. The deployment of suicide bombs against Iraqi civilians and the execution and assassination of local Sunnis under puritanical Islamic law in their self-proclaimed caliphate in Ammaria led to numerous insurgent groups to turn against the jihadists. AQI’s actions ‘left resistance groups with two options; either to fight al-Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans or fight the Americans and join the Islamic State of Iraq…both were bitter options.’ 

Nevertheless for Petraeus ‘capitalising on the split between nationalist Sunni groups and al-Qaeda’ and forming an alliance with the ‘Sons of Iraq’ opposed to AQI gave U.S COIN strategy momentum as Colonel Dale Kuehl argues: 

“The young men who were the foot-soldiers…started coming over to our side. They knew who was behind what was going on, so it increased our intelligence, increased the effectiveness of our targeting, and brought security to the area.”  

The intelligence provided by Sunni insurgents allowed the Americans to pursue AQI’s elite more effectively as exemplified by the successes of Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike which, alongside the deployment of US Special Forces, were able to ‘killed hundreds of ‘high-value’ purveyors of violence’ amongst the Sh’ia militas, jihadists and Sunni extremists.

From a military perspective exploiting an enemy’s mistake, political or military, in armed conflict is central to creating success. U.S forces had been largely incapable of seizing the initiative before Petraeus’s arrival, reacting to insurgents with ‘a familiar cycle of prejudice, reprisal and retaliation’ encapsulated by the U.S offensive against Falluja in autumn 2004, torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the error-strewn killing sprees of Iraqi civilians at Falluja (April, 2003) and Haditha (November, 2005). This had alienated the coalition from potential allies while critically damaging American credibility. Under Petraeus, while military casualties originally worsened, his ability to take advantage of local conditions allowed U.S COIN to eventually work more effectively in reducing American and Iraqi casualties whilst pursuing AQI. 

The military impact of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency is frequently judged by overall reduction in casualties. While it is undeniable that casualties had declined by September 2007, the reason for the reduction in casualties remains a source of contention amongst scholars. In 2008, Cockburn and Simons have strongly argued that the successful completion of ethnic cleansing was the primary reason for the drop in casualties during the surge. In the aftermath of the civil war in 2007, the Sh’ia controlled ‘three-quarters of the capital’ and the city had split into Sunni and Sh’ia enclaves before Petraeus’s doctrine could gain momentum. 

The ethnic cleansing perpetrated by death-squads had not been limited to Baghdad either; according to Ledwidge, Basra’s Sunni population had been reduced from 15% at the beginning of the war (of a population of a million) to an estimated 4% whilst in Al Zubayr, its Sunni population lost about half of its population by 2007.  Similarly scholars have argued that Baghdad Security Plan established by Petraeus which involved ‘walling off specific muhallas was… resented by the communities involved, intensified the violence inside these communities, and solidified the sectarian division of the city’ Arguably Petraeus’s COIN strategy came too late to make a difference to the long-term impact of ethnic cleansing. 

Nevertheless while the facts of ethnic cleansing are difficult to contest, it is difficult to argue that the surge did not eventually provide security by simply separating the warring communities and factions. The ‘Position Joint Security Stations, Combat Outposts, and Patrol Bases in the neighbourhoods’ according to Petraeus were ‘essential to securing the people and defeating the insurgents.’ This would not have occurred if U.S. soldiers had not ‘moved off their big bases’ into the muhallas. This to some extent protected warring communities from inflicting further damage on each other. Similarly as Dodge contends the overt focus by scholars on the presence of U.S soldiers in the muhallas attempting to contain violence frequently overlooks the crucial military operations (Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike) under General Odierno and Petraeus which attended to the chief death-squads, extremists, and terrorists perpetrating the ethnic cleansing between and within communities in Baghdad. While he did not resolve the root causes of ethnic cleansing, Petraeus’s COIN strategy certainly addressed the immediate causes of the ethnic cleansing.

It is important to remember the delay in deploying the surge was primarily the responsibility of the Bush administration which ignored Crisis Group and the Iraq Study Group which emphasised ‘the necessity of changing policy in Iraq’ before the civil war broke out.  Within the time frame of Fardh al-Qanoon this adjustment to military strategy by Petraeus did not worsen the civil war. It improved security, targeted perpetrators of violence and it opened up an opportunity for political dialogue.   

As a limited counter-terrorism agenda, the COIN strategy in Iraq achieved a military, political and strategic victory against AQI.  General Petraeus successfully utilised the opportunity provided by the ‘Sunni Awakening’ against AQI. Petraeus’s ability to broker local political bargains was exemplary. Under serious pressure by Sadr’s Mahdi Army, ‘the Sons of Iraq’, in exchange for intelligence on extremist factions, were armed, protected from Sh’ia militia, and promised more ‘influence’ in Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Whether or not this ‘influence’ would become a reality in the long-term did not matter to Petraeus’s immediate military objectives in June 2007 when U.S casualties were spiking and he was ‘facing serious (domestic) pressure to reduce casualties quickly.’ The ‘Sons of Iraq’ numbered 105,000 and this boosted the manpower available to Petraeus whose forces, relatively limited in size, were struggling to secure Baghdad at the beginning of the surge. 

The result of Petraeus’s alliance with Sunni insurgents, their consequent incorporation into Iraqi Security Forces and their turning against AQI eliminated the pretext for Sadr’s Sh’ia death-squads to carry out reprisal attacks on Sunnis and alienated them from Sh’ia moderates and the Iraqi population. Two extremist groups (AQI and Sh’ia hard-liners) had been isolated politically in one stroke by Petraeus and al-Maliki; whether or not it was incidental would have been irrelevant to Petraeus short-term objectives of restoring order.

However the centralisation of objectives around pursuing Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and Sh’ia hard-liners did not address the roots of sectarian violence. The structure of General Petraeus’s COIN in Military Review (the ‘Anaconda Strategy vs. AQI’) is predominantly centralised around destabilising AQI’s organisational infrastructure rather than solving Iraq’s political stalemate. The aim of the surge had the dual objective to ‘concentrate security in Baghdad so as to provide a breathing space necessary to break parliamentary deadlocks and forge a common national project.’ The subsequent cost of dismantling the jihadist ‘war engine…fostering sectarian conflict’ came at ‘the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.’ AQI were a symptom of the core problem; political and sectarian gridlock in Baghdad.

 In the long-term the inability of Washington to follow through on solving the Sunni’s political and socio-economic grievances would be costly. The inability of the surge to solve this allowed jihadists to re-establish themselves. Cockburn is correct in assuming the Islamic State’s offensive (2013-present) ‘has been able to exploit the growing sense of alienation and persecution among the Sunni in Iraq’ as the result of continued Sh’ia hegemony under al-Malaki and the subsequent Sunni revolt. The military impact of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency resulted in short-term victory over AQI/IS and extremist Sh’ia and Sunni insurgents, but the ability to translate this into long-term success was undermined by al-Maliki, Iranian actors and Washington’s inability to deploy an effective political solution to the conflict both before and after the surge. 

Military solutions must inevitably be accompanied by political solutions and the extent to which Petraeus established this balance is contentious. ‘It is on the political and strategic level, not the tactical, that counterinsurgencies are won or lost.’ 

The influence of external actors on Petraeus’s ability to realise his COIN strategy in Iraq is crucial in analysing the military and political implications of the surge. Cockburn argues that the surge ‘only achieved the…success it did because Iran…supported al-Maliki’s government.’ It was in Iranian interests to consolidate al-Maliki’s power as he provided Iran’s ambition for a ‘Sh’ia-dominated coalition’ in Iraq dependent on Tehran. The intra-Sh’ia civil war, encapsulated by the battle in Baghdad and Basra between the al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, Badr, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, and the Sadr movement, undermined this objective of consolidating the Sh’ia gains in the civil war. 

The Iranian concern was apparent during the siege of Basra and the Sadr district in Baghdad where Qassem Suleimani (commander of the Qods, brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps), after a discussion with Iraqi lawmakers in Qom, Iran, persuaded Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to end military operations, establish a ceasefire and to stand-down to al-Malikis’ security forces. The narrative that al-Maliki successfully conducted a U.S supported campaign which routed the Mahdi Army is an oversimplification and underplays the role Iran had in establishing a ceasefire between Sh’ia parties and allowing ‘national reconciliation’.

U.S attempts to stabilise Iraq were ‘highly dependent on Iranian actors’ as Tehran frequently ‘provided arms, financial support, and training for Sh’ia militias within Iraq, as well as political support for Sh’ia parties.’ The siege of Basra illustrated how Iran was ‘part of the problem in Iraq and an effective part of negotiations’ in Qom discussions. In the long-term the surrender of the Mahdi Army meant the Sadrists were better placed to take part in the electoral process, consolidate al-Maliki’s position in the elections of 2010 and gain seven seats in government in December 2010.  Had Tehran not supported al-Maliki’s government, it is highly unlikely that Petraeus’s counterinsurgency would have succeeded in stabilising Iraq.

Al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule contradicted the plan to re-unify the country and meant that Petraeus’s counterinsurgency effectively prepared the country for potential de-centralisation and a second round of sectarian civil war. The incorporation of a mere twenty percent of Petraeus’s Sunni allies ‘Sons of Iraq’ into Iraqi Security Forces illustrated the reluctance of al-Maliki’s government to share power with the Sunnis, the prime minister stating: “You could be creating a new militia…We’re talking about 105,000 Sunnis who do not trust the government. They were against Al-Qaeda, but they weren’t pro-government.” 

The surge under General Petraeus remained marginalised in Iraqi politics and his bottom-up strategy, absent effective top-down strategy in Washington, was unable to force Iraq's parties to ‘take advantage of the opportunity to turn progress at the local level reconciliation into national reconciliation’ that had been provided by his military progress. Consequentially the ‘attempt to reach out to the Sunni Arab community or amend the constitution and build a more inclusive polity’ failed. General Petraeus’s inability to influence al-Maliki’s decisions reflected a consistent issue for the United States; that despite ‘extended investment…the United States’ ability to shape the actions of its ruling elite has was limited.’ 

While COIN strategy under Petraeus was ‘a well-designed military campaign executed with a comprehensive political and economic effort to defeat enemy groups and bring violence under control,’ it had little significant impact upon solving the legacy ofsectarian exclusivity between Sunni insurgents and the Sh’ia government. Simons illustrates that failure to follow up the military successes with solutions to sectarian violence meant that Petraeus’s COIN strategy, which funded cooperative Sunni insurgent groups, tribal leaders and sheiks ($30 million a month) in exchange for allegiance inadvertently ‘stoked…tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism’ and prepared the country for long-term instability as Sh’ia repression continued into 2010s.  

The Surge inadvertently reinforced two incompatible narratives; the centralisation and decentralisation of the Iraqi state. The strategy utilised by General Petraeus in cooperation with al-Maliki is a recipe which successive sovereign states adopted to impose artificial socio-political order in Iraq; reinforcing sectarianism coercively as a means through which to exercise territorial control. As the democratic experiment collapsed and sparked civil war in Baghad U.S policymakers attempting to control sectarian violence in the short-term prepared Iraq for a second wave of sectarian violence by supporting Sunni insurgents who agreed to fight Al-Qa'ida in Iraq while strengthening the state apparatus perceived or despised by Iraqis as either Shiite-dominated or an illegitimate Western puppet. 

The blueprint for control paralleled the narratives adopted by Saddam during his tenure in power as Petraeus adopted a comprehensive strategy of coercion and enticement to undermine the insurgency. Like Saddam, U.S officials pretended to promote a narrative of a unified state. In reality, policymakers were supporting the ISF who were 'little more than sectarian militias...national only in name...trained financed and indoctrinated to defend the regime, not the people. The Surge reinforced violent resistance against central state while reinforcing al-Malaki's state-sponsored sectarian violence. 

What differentiated Saddam and U.S policymakers was intent. Saddam's neo-tribal policies in the 1990s, 'mechanisations of arbitrations, blood money, and honour money were introduced in order to circumvent endless feuds (and) increase his grip on power.' Petraeus did it to enable a clean U.S withdrawal and sold "victory". 

This security void and tit-for-tat killings continued to accumulate with devastating repercussions on 14th August, 2007 when several trucks, each laced with 27,000 kilograms of explosives, destroyed the Yezidi villages of Kahtaniya and Jazeera. The coordinated suicide attacks killed over 800 men, women and children and wounded thousands more. The bombings by Al-Qa’ida in Iraq against the Yezidi communities in Kahtaniya and Jazeera were the second deadliest acts of terrorism in modern history behind the September 11 attacks in the United States.

The acts of terror in Kahtaniya and Jazeera should have joined a string of historical massacres across the Middle East. Yet the mass-slaughter, while initially shocking, did not gain traction across the Western world. The Kahtaniya and Jazeera massacre blended with other attacks as just another bombing in Iraq. Improvised Explosive Devices and Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices had swiftly become a deadly normality for Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians. To American policymakers, Kahtaniya and Jazeera was a blip in their “successful” Surge and General Petraeus’s effort to sell a disastrous war as an unqualified success, that Iraq was pulling together with General Petraeus himself stating twenty-four days after the mass-slaughter: “To summarise, the security situation in Iraq is improving, and Iraqis elements are slowly taking on more of the responsibility for protecting their citizens.”

In the shattered villages of Kahtaniya and Jazeera, the Yezidis communities did not speak of peace, they spoke of impending extermination by extremist cells such Al-Qa’ida in Iraq. “Their aim is to annihilate us, to create trouble and kill all Yezidis because we are not Muslims” explained one villager from Kahtaniya while another villager stated bluntly: “Another bombing like this and there will be no more Yezidis left.” Their warnings and pleas, wedded to the distribution of leaflets calling the Yezidis infidels and the hate-speech by preachers at local mosques in Mosul branding them heretics and outlaws, were ignored with dire consequences for the religious community and other minorities in Ninewa.  Following the end of the American occupation and withdrawal of soldiers, the Mas‘ud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Peshmerga militia were unable to stop attacks being launched attacks against Yezidis living outside the established security zone by Sunni militants.

The main political success of the surge was Petraeus’s ability to establish a narrative which leant towards an American political victory that was virtually non-existent. ‘His great achievement in Iraq was to persuade Americans that they had won the war when, in fact, they were withdrawing with little achieved.’ Petraeus gained a victory over the media, ‘the “scripted enemy”’, who as David Kilcullen contends ‘seeks to defeat you in the court of global public opinion.’  It is important to remember the context in which Petraeus’s COIN strategy was conducted. American credibility had been irrevocably damaged by a combination of ineffective military strategy and ineffective political policy before the surge. The United States, Petraeus included, had ‘no good option’ in Iraq and credit should be given to Petraeus for his ability to repackage and sell the United States’ floundering political project. 

This is supported by Dodge who argues the task given to Petraeus by Bush ‘were clearly extremely ambitious, if not impossible’ in light of the earlier calamities of the occupation. It was unlikely that Petraeus’s counterinsurgency could repair the damage done to Iraq’s political fabric or American credibility. In reality the grass roots strategy promoted in Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy to secure national reconciliation remained superficial as the government formed was Sh’ia dominated, possessed a Sh’ia-dominated army which had isolated and dismantled the ‘Sons of Iraq’ incorporated by Petraeus, and was heavily influenced by Iran. 

In concluding the analysis of COIN strategy in Iraq under General Petraeus, it is this author’s opinion that the surge was substantially a failure. However the counterinsurgency military tactics deployed within the short-term context of the eighteen month framework of the campaign were largely successful. It established security (scarcely witnessed since the beginning of occupation of Iraq), isolated extremist and jihadist factions and paved the way for political dialogue between warring sectarian parties.  

However when analysed as a small war against jihadists, extremists and barriers to potential political dialogue, Petraeus’s COIN strategy succeeded, at-least in the short-term, in stabilising Iraq, separating warring factions, and eliminating or politically isolating AQI and militia worsening sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing by allying with the ‘Sons of Iraq’. This achieved the primary objective of reducing casualties and protecting Iraqi civilians. However the spectacular violence was a symptom of sectarian political gridlock in Baghdad, if the latter was not provided with a viable long-term solution, extremist groups could return to exploit it as exemplified by the current campaign of IS. Simlarly these successes must be judged against a benign and cooperative Iranian policy, whose objective was the promotion of a submissive Sh’ia dominated Iraqi government. 

It is important to remember the context in which the military campaign was conducted. By February 2007 when Petraeus’s launched Fardh al-Qanoon and subsequent operations, American preferences were grim. Mass-violence had aggravated sectarianism and ethnic cleansing had been largely completed by the time Petraeus began his counterinsurgency campaign. The Bush administrations’ tasks to encourage national reconciliation immediately after such a violent event as ethnic cleansing were unrealistic as short-term objectives, if not impossible, for Petraeus. Petraeus’s ability to realise his strategic objectives stalled when he made the transition from local to national politics where Iranian and Iraqi actors held greater sway on the stability of Iraq than the Bush administration as a whole, let alone Petraeus.

In the long-term the political reconciliation envisioned by Petraeus remained superficial and did not resolve the deep-seated sectarian divide between the Sunni and Sh’ia parties which had been exacerbated by the civil war. The U.S counterinsurgency strategy of General Petraeus in Iraq, when measured against the return of jihadists to Iraq, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate by IS in 2014, the new Sunni insurgency, and the worst violence seen in Iraq since 2007, illustrates that as a legacy it did not succeed.


Counterinsurgency requires a political victory as much as a military one and Petraeus utilised the political and military errors of AQI and extremists Sh’ia militia to push his COIN strategy forward.  Similarly his ability to convince the media and American public that the war against the ‘terrorists’ and the political battle in Iraq had shifted in the United States’ favour deserves credit. However an American victory in Iraq was certainly an illusion, Petraeus’s doctrine (in effect a damage-limitations operation) provided an illusory victory for the Bush administration and the Republicans in Washington before the 2008 elections. The reality was that while the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was a small military victory, the inevitable political defeat before and after the surge rendered it no more than a pyrrhic victory for General Petraeus. 

Matthew C.K Williams


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