Year late, dollar short

The Myth of the Surge

Nir Rosen in Rolling Stone magazine:

To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq’s central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or “the Awakening.”

At least 80,000 men across Iraq are now employed by the Americans as ISVs. Nearly all are Sunnis, with the exception of a few thousand Shiites. Operating as a contractor, Osama runs 300 of these new militiamen, former resistance fighters whom the U.S. now counts as allies because they are cashing our checks.

You know, I find all this hand-wringing over paying militiamen to side with us hilarious. Absofreakinglutely hilarious. And here’s why.

Overshadowing almost every moment of our campaign in Iraq have been claims that Americans just don’t “get” the culture in Iraq. Virtually every single thing any one of our people says or does is presented as some offensive insult of Iraqi culture or Islam or Arab common sense.

Stupid Americans.

Also, all sorts of people who claim to have supported the invasion of Afghanistan (never mind that they were against it at the time) wonder why we abandoned that model when we invaded Iraq. What worked so well (never mind that they laughed about it right up until the moment it worked) was cast aside so Bush and Cheney and Rummy and who knows who else could have their big glorious war in the desert.

Stupid Americans.

Meanwhile, once the war with no plan had been won in weeks, the biggest dumb move by the US was the dissolution of the Iraqi Army. Now we had all sorts of unemployed Iraqi soldiers running around with weapons and no way to support themselves save by hiring themselves out to the bad guys.

Stupid Americans.

Now, with a strong, capable, professional Iraqi Army coming into its own, security back under control thanks to a number of strategies including additional US forces deployed to hunt down insurgents and terrorists, and legislation working toward various forms of reconciliation moving in the Iraqi government, the “surge” has failed because we’re hiring Sunni militiamen to fight our enemies instead of us.

Aside: There’s a whole nother school of thought that supposes the “surge” has failed because US and Iraqi troops didn’t restore security, Moqtada al Sadr allowed security by calling a truce with US and Iraqi forces. Security exists at his whim and any peace is illusory (and the illusion is only temporary), they say. It’s interesting that if the failure of the “surge” is so plain and so clear, why do failure proponents offer completely different reasons? Anyway,

Once the pants-wetting dies down, maybe critics will realize that paying Sunni militiamen to side with us against insurgents, terrorists, and criminals is almost exactly what they’ve been advocating we do all along.

They wanted the old Iraqi Army intact? Well, the old Iraqi Army was almost completely Sunni and totally rotted by corruption and graft, with loyalty guaranteed only by payrolls, tribal pressures, and threats of force. Oops. Sounds a lot like the “Awakening” to me. Just more manageable and more likely to play ball.

They wanted an Afghanistan model for the campaign in Iraq? Well, is anyone still pretending that the Northern Alliance sided with us because they support baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet? Or did maybe all of those suitcases of cash affect loyalties and alliances? We convinced enough Afghanis that not only did we want the Taliban out of power, we’d pay them to help us make it happen. Oops. Substitute “Iraqis” for “Afghanis” and “terrorists who are killing your families and generally making life rough for everyone” for “Taliban,” and you could be talking about the Concerned Local Citizens.

Finally, this isn’t being done in ignorance of the culture. It’s being done because of the culture. It’s showing signs of success because of the culture. The culture in Iraq, to a large degree, doesn’t frown on what we consider bribery. It’s profitable and it’s honorable. Oversimplified? Absolutely. But true to a large degree.

Make no mistake, this campaign is far from over. There is a long way to go. Some of the tribes we’ve paid off could (and will) flip back. But the wind is blowing in the right direction. This is the way a counterinsurgency is won.


  1. This is the way a counterinsurgency is won.’ Yeah, because we’ve been so successful with this in the past, or maybe someone has been? Let’s face it, all Bush is doing is trying to paper over the fiasco he’s made by throwing money at the problem. This time instead of throwing it into the pockets of the military suppliers (providers of the fantastically expensive and over used ‘smart bomb’) he’s just giving it straight to the enemy themselves. That way he can stick the next president with his failed legacy. We have a similar subculture in this country. Here, in those places where this subculture exists, it is called ‘protection money’. It’s insurance against anything bad happening to your business. Well, at least it’s good to see that it’s not just the Democrats who are politicizing this war. Personally I’d rather see these military ‘geniuses’ paying Iraqi warlords than Blackwater. The Iraqi warlords will only be a threat to other Middle Eastern countries when we finally pull out in shame.

  2. You have often claimed to be an advocate of carpet bombing. Has carpet bombing defeated more or fewer insurgencies than campaigns like the current one in Iraq?

  3. Seriously, Dfens, I’m all for carpet bombing when appropriate. I thought *I* was the king of WW4-WW2 analogies, but calling WW2 an ‘insurgency that was defeated by carpet bombing’ seems a bit of a stretch.

  4. Seems like less of a stretch than saying we won it by paying warlords protection money, thereby carving Europe into a myriad of dark ages fiefdoms. And as I recall, we certainly did not hire mercinaries to the tune of having more of them in-country than US soldiers. I don’t see how anyone could reasonably argue that anything we are doing in Iraq is supported by ANY past model of military success.

  5. I hope I don’t burst anyone’s bubble or anything, put paying the #$%*$#ers off is exactly what we’ve (US & NATO) doing in the Stan since before I got there. Bring in the local warlord (who’s usually a tribal/village mucky muck anyway), appoint him as the District Police Chief and absorb most of his crew into the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (really intense two week DOS sponsored training program for these elite dudes! LOL!), or let him dewat his militia into a ‘local national’ security company (actually ran into two different groups of these, who were both trained and ‘rented’ by the US Army, who were rather good). Pay the District Chief or ‘Security Company Exec’s’ salary along with his men’s (cautioning him that stealing very much of the weapons and ammo we’ve provided as well as his men’s wages might make some think he isn’t the paragon of Western Professional Standards we think he is). There a a lot of functional and institutional problems with this approach I haven’t mentioned (I’m sure you can spot some of the more obvious anyway), but it works after a fashion (as epitomized by how well the Afghan occupation and reformation is going). It also engendered a near universal observation from my fellow security professionals, any Coalition Military I came into contact with, and all the NGOs we ran into: ‘You can rent an Afghani, but you can’t buy him!’

  6. It seems to me to be very much like what we did in Vietnam. We don’t instill any fear or respect in the population at large. We have money. We give them money. They like money. It’s like feeding bears, though. You stop feeding the bears and they get mad and kill you. What do you think is going to happen when we stop giving the Afghanis or Iraqis money? Bottom line is, you win a war today like you won a war yesterday or 10,000 years ago. You either kill all the bastards or you make them so damn afraid you’ll kill them that they do what you want. It’s not rocket science. I’ve got a friend who was a cop downtown. Not the nice, sip tea with your pinky sticking out part of downtown. The slums. He joined the force replacing a cop who had just been killed, execution style, in the line of duty. My friend says for the first month he was on the force he didn’t know what to think because they’d go out and literally beat the crap out of everyone. He said they had to take back the streets. They couldn’t let the criminal gangs think it was ok to kill a cop, or they’d all get killed. You know, I wish it were mandatory for Generals in the US Army to serve for a year as a police officer in the worst part of any US city. They’d learn a thing or two about how you win a war. Hell, I learned more on the playground of my elementary school than most of these pussy Generals have ever known about war.