Veterans Day is when we as Americans honor the achievements of our armed forces. It commemorates the end of the First World War due, in no small part, to the sacrifices and efforts of the American military. It is also a fitting moment to reflect on more recent accomplishments and the qualities of the American armed forces that made them possible. A few days ago, Iraq's Council of Representatives passed a law by which the Iraqi people will elect a new parliament and prime minister in January 2010. This important political milestone is a measure of the success of the “surge” of U.S. forces into Iraq that not only ended a sectarian civil war but also set the conditions for the remarkable political developments that have followed.
The “surge” not only transformed Iraq, but also taught the American military many important lessons about how to fight and win counterinsurgencies. As the administration debates what course to pursue in Afghanistan, this is also an appropriate moment to reflect on some of those lessons.
Many in Washington seem unable to form a simple sentence: The surge worked. They have difficulty, therefore, learning its lessons or applying them with appropriate adjustments to the very different environment of Afghanistan. Some lessons, however, are both clear and simple.
Define the problem. Understanding what is causing the violence is the essential precondition to developing a strategy to stop it. In the case of Iraq in 2006, the military leadership came to the conclusion that the violence was being driven by concerted campaigns by al Qaeda in Iraq and by Shi'a militias to stoke sectarian civil war. This was an important paradigm shift in our understanding of the problem, which we had previously seen either as a “dead-ender” Ba'athist resistance or inherent sectarian hatred finally bubbling to the surface. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's review of the situation in Afghanistan is a serious attempt at a similar paradigm shift. It identifies Afghanistan's insurgency as primarily indigenous and centering on a small number of organized groups rather than inchoate Pashtun resistance to central government. It also identifies the failures of Afghan governance as major drivers of instability.
Change the strategy. Both in Iraq before the surge and in Afghanistan today, U.S. strategy emphasized transitioning security responsibilities to indigenous forces that were not yet capable of fulfilling them. Violence rose, the strength of the insurgency grew, popular discontent with the security forces themselves grew, and the security forces lost confidence in their ability ever to face the enemy. The surge in Iraq allowed Army Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno to defeat the insurgents in their key strongholds — tasks the Iraqi Security Forces could not have performed — while also partnering in combat operations with the Iraqis. The aim of all of these operations was to protect the Iraqi population in order to reverse the momentum behind the incipient civil war and create space for political progress. McChrystal is proposing to do the same thing, suitably tailored, in Afghanistan.
Resource the strategy. Forces matter. There were simply not enough troops in Iraq before the surge to defeat or even contain the insurgency countrywide. The surge allowed our commanders at every level to protect the population while simultaneously eliminating insurgent safe havens. Areas in which a U.S. company of about 150 soldiers had patrolled received battalions of roughly 600 soldiers. Battalion areas became brigade areas. The density of forces on the ground allowed our soldiers to go from house to house, develop relationships of trust with the population, and, most importantly, demonstrate our willingness and ability to stay long enough to protect them from certain insurgent attempts at retribution. McChrystal needs enough additional forces to allow him to change the situation on the ground decisively.
These lessons are fully applicable in Afghanistan. McChrystal has outlined a new definition of the problem and a new strategy. He has also apparently identified the resources he requires to execute this strategy. The resuscitation in the current discussion of many of the arguments used against the surge in Iraq shows an unwillingness or inability to learn from that campaign. The quickest path to success is a decisive campaign to defeat the enemy, protect the population, and to partner with the security forces so that they can in time take on the reduced challenge of maintaining order in their country. That is what McChyrstal is proposing to try. Our experience in Iraq suggests that it is feasible. Our troops deserve to get the resources they need to try.
Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War. She is one of four defense experts who contribute monthly columns to The Washington Examiner.