The Iraq insurgents' surge
International Relations and Security Network/
By Paul Rogers for openDemocracy
April 27, 2007

The build-up of United States forces in Iraq as part of the "surge" is now past its halfway point, with three of the five additional combat brigades deployed, principally in Baghdad. The policy is evidently facing severe setbacks - including the attack on the Iraqi parliament and on one of the main bridges over the Tigris in Baghdad, and numerous bombings and murders. The relentless insurgent assault continues against both US forces (eighty-seven of whom have been killed in the first twenty-five days of April 2007) and their Iraqi allies (nine of whom lost their lives in a suicide-bomb attack at an army checkpoint in Khalis, Diyala province, on 26 April).

At the same time, the supporters of the new policy remain active in insisting that it is working or can be made to work. The neo-conservative house journal, the Weekly Standard, carries three positive articles in its current issue (see, for example, Reuel Marc Gerecht, "On Democracy in Iraq", 30 April 2007); its regular authors such as Frederick Kagan are advocating the same broad message elsewhere (see, for example, "Turning the Corner in Iraq," Guardian, 24 April 2007).

There are parallels too in the more specialist defense literature. Defense News reports the success of new forms of amour in defeating rocket-propelled grenades (see Kris Osborn, "Anti-RPG Success," 16 April 2007), and the same issue reporting the view of a senior Iraqi general that "The new security plan for Baghdad is succeeding and will be expanded to other cities when the Iraqi Army gets more troops and gear […]" (see Riad Kahwaji, "Iraqi Army Grows in Strength, Size, To Apply Security Plan," Defense News, 16 April 2007).

Against such expressions of optimism there has been an upsurge in bombings across much of central Iraq, if largely outside Baghdad. One of the few independent assessments comes from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) which has criticized the Iraqi government for ceasing its practice of releasing details of civilian casualties (see Yara Bayoumy, "UN Raps UN Iraq for Witholding 'Grim' Civilian Toll," Reuters, 25 April 2007). Even without reliable government statistics, UNAMI reports a continuing high level of violence amid the US surge; this includes, according to one summary "[…] large scale indiscriminate killings and assassinations by insurgents, militias and other armed groups" (see "UN: Baghdad Security Operation Has Failed," Irish Independent, 25 April 2007).

Power and innovation

Whether or not the United Nations source makes this a credible assessment, and whether or not it is premature, there are other indications that the manner of the surge is presenting new difficulties for the American forces tasked with implementing it. Among them is the ability of insurgents rapidly to develop new tactics to respond to specific changes in US military deployments.

Moreover, this is coming at a time when the political benchmarks for Iraq set by the Bush administration in recent months are making little or no progress. The fact that such benchmarks have been set by an external power arouses opposition from many Iraqis. The result is that issues such as new laws on oil resources, amendments to the constitution and "de-Ba'athification" are all mired in political disputes (see Sudarsan Raghavan, "Baghdad's Fissures and Mistrust Keep Political Goals Out of Reach," Washington Post, 26 April 2007).

In terms of the insurgency itself, one of the enduring features of the first four years of the war has been the ability of insurgents to develop new tactics at least as fast as the coalition forces have modified their own methods. One clear example is the use of a shaped-charge explosive to seriously damage a British Challenger 2 main battle-tank on 6 April; others are developments in the fusing of explosive charges, the use of infrared command systems to detonate explosives, and the deployment of sophisticated sniper rifles.

A further innovation was demonstrated in the 23 April operation in the village of Sadah, near Baquba, 60 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, which killed nine US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne division. Both the detail of this attack and its strategic context are relevant to an assessment of the possible future of the surge.

After the first two years of the war, US troops were widely distributed across central Iraq, with more than a hundred bases of varying sizes and defenses. As US casualties rose, much of the third year of the war involved a closing of many of the smaller bases and a concentration of US forces in fewer locations, many of them well protected and sited away from the main urban areas. As this new basing policy was implemented, there was also a change in deployment patterns, with more reliance on helicopter gunships and fixed-wing strike aircraft to destroy presumed sites of insurgent activity, even if this tended to increase civilian casualties.

By late 2006 it was clear that this strategy was failing as insurgents gained control of a number of towns and cities. This, in turn, resulted in yet another change that was incorporated into the current surge: namely, the redevelopment of numerous small bases often operated in conjunction with the Iraqi army. By "reconnecting" with neighborhoods and with reinforcements available, the belief has been that neighborhoods could be "cleansed" of insurgent activity and a degree of stability re-established. There was an assumption that insurgents would withdraw in the face of a tough neighborhood presence, allowing Iraqi forces to maintain order, aided by a long-term US military presence.

Diyala's warning

What was not clear was whether insurgent groups would watch this happen and then modify their own tactics. The 23April attack on a combat-outpost in Diyala province suggests that this is what they now appear to be doing.

The operation in this volatile region was conducted against a building that had once been used as a school. It involved the deployment of suicide-bombers driving two thirty-ton dump-trucks packed with explosives; the first cleared a path through the outer defenses, and the second then detonated the explosives close to the concrete blast-walls intended to protect the outpost. The force of the second blast destroyed the second floor of the building but also collapsed some of the blast-walls on to the building, causing some of the deaths and injuries (see Edward Wong, "Rebel umbrella group claims killing of 9 US soldiers in Iraq," International Herald Tribune, 24 April 2007; and Sudarsan Raghavan & Thomas E Ricks, "Outpost Attack Highlights Troop Vulnerabilities," Washington Post, 25 April 2007).

Although insurgents have in the past used suicide-bombing as a tactic against US troops, most such assaults have been directed at civilian targets; the more common dangers faced by American soldiers have been rocket-propelled grenades or roadside bombs. Moreover, there have been relatively few frontal attacks on US bases since early 2006, mostly because the latter are protected by their large size and heavy fortifications (including substantial "free-fire" zones in which attackers could be killed before reaching the defensive walls). What is happening now, as Helena Cobban at points out, is that the many smaller, isolated combat-outposts that have been established in recent weeks can actually increase the vulnerability of the troops. The almost unlimited supply of explosives and recruits for suicide-missions available to the insurgents gives them the means to stage frontal attacks on such targets in a manner that would be ineffective against major bases.

If, over the next two-to-three months, insurgent groups develop and enhance such tactics, then the US military may respond by having even stronger defenses around the posts. This response would, however, further increase the detachment of the troops from Iraq's urban neighborhoods: the very opposite of what was planned. It is becoming apparent that the insurgents are already finding the means to counter the strategy embodied in the surge, even if the process has been underway for only a little over ten weeks. That is an unexpected and ominous development for the US forces in Iraq, and, indeed for the Bush administration itself.

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