"Iraq: Three Movements, but No Symphony" by LTG James Dubik (ret.)

Iraq: Three Movements, but No Symphony

by LTG James Dubik (ret.), ARMY Magazine, March 2009


The term surge is a popular catchword these days, but it is unhelpful in understanding the realities and complexities of what has happened and is happening in Iraq. Nor is it helpful in understanding what may be coming next. I’ve found myself using three distinct yet overlapping “operational movements” as an explanatory framework.

Unlike those in a symphony, however, these movements do not flow from a written score, there is much improvisation and the end is not yet penned.

The First Movement. This movement includes the counteroffensive that began around early spring 2007. Conducted by Coalition and Iraqi conventional and special operations forces, this counteroffensive consisted of multiple tactical actions aimed at protecting the Iraqi population, separating insurgents from citizens and reducing al Qaeda in Iraq.

During this period, the Coalition attempted to identify reconcilable insurgents from irreconcilables and begin the process of negotiating with the former while relentlessly attacking the latter. The “Awakening” and the organization of about 100,000 Sons of Iraq, who provided local security, grew out of this process.

The Iraqi security forces also grew in both size and capability during this period, adding well more than 100,000 soldiers and police to the fight.

For the first time, the Coalition had enough capable Iraqi security forces to apply the “clear, hold and build” approach many had long advocated. The Coalition could continually expand the places it cleared because there were enough other forces to hold and build. Numbers matter in a counterinsurgency, where the 24/7 presence of security forces is necessary to provide citizens with a sense of security and to keep insurgents at bay.

Also key to the clear, hold and build approach was money—specifically, the availability of Iraqi security force funds to accelerate the growth and development of the Iraqi security forces aligned with the Coalition strategy, and the commander’s emergency response program (CERP) funds to begin reconstruction projects immediately following clear-and-hold actions.

The expanding number and capability of the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) also helped guide wise use of CERP spending. Finally, during this same period Ambassador Ryan Crocker and GEN David H. Petraeus, with the Joint embassy/Multi-National Force-Iraq team, were able to help the Iraqi government pass three pieces of critical legislation: the Accountability and Justice Law, the Provincial Powers Act and the 2008 budget.

Levels of violence dropped dramatically starting in the summer of 2007. The increase in the number of Coalition forces was one very important catalyst for this decrease and for the corresponding increase in security afforded the Iraqi population. Also important, however, was the equally dramatic rise in the size and capability of the Iraqi security forces, the security provided by the Sons of Iraq, the immediate impact of PRTs and CERP spending, and the budding proficiency of the Iraqi government. The first movement had multiple submovements.

The Second Movement. The counteroffensive changed into pursuit and exploitation—the second operational movement. This movement began with the Iraqi security force offensive in Basrah in the spring of 2008—bold in its initiation, albeit tenuous in the opening days of its execution. Tenuous turned into tenacious, however. With some critical support from Coalition forces, the Iraqi security forces completed clearing the important port city of Basrah in southern Iraq and went on to hold and build. Then several important developments unfolded.

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