Monday, August 24, 2009


By Kimberly Kagan

Encounter, $25.95, 250 pages

Reviewed by Gary Anderson

In early 2006, the conventional wisdom was that the war in Iraq was lost. Today, the major debate is over whether we can wrap up successful operations in that country ahead of schedule. That raises the question, “Where did we go right?” Kimberly Kagan attempts to answer that question in her book “The Surge: A Military History.” She largely succeeds.

Any understanding of the success of the surge has to take into account two separate but mutually supporting activities. The first is the influx of the extra troops that made the surge possible, and the second is the development of the Awakening movement that largely turned the Sunni population against the conglomeration of foreign jihadist fighters and home-grown fanatics known as al Qaeda in Iraq. The first was a top-down-driven movement that began under the leadership of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. The second was a bottom-up effort largely driven by tribal sheiks and relatively junior Army and Marine Corps officers.

Potential readers should understand that this is a military history that discusses the operational art and tactics of the overall phenomenon that we call the surge. Readers who are interested in the Washington- and Central Command-based discussions of grand strategy and politics should turn to Bob Woodward, and those interested in the personality side of operations should be referred to Tom Ricks. Ms. Kagan’s book is straight military history from the mid-2006 origins of the surge to its climax in late 2007 and early 2008.

By mid-2006, it was apparent that the strategy of quickly handing the war over to the Iraqi government and its security forces was disastrously premature. The undisciplined Afghan National Police had become a virtual Shia militia that was enabling ethnic cleansing of the Sunni population while al Qaeda in Iraq terrorized the Sunni population that failed to show proper enthusiasm for radical jihad. All this simply was too much for the beleaguered Iraqi army, which was trying to fight the war literally as it was being born. The situation had become a disaster, and Ms. Kagan is not afraid to call the strategy an abject failure.

Gen. Petraeus, as the head of Army doctrine writing, was fresh off a partnership with the Marine Corps in a rewrite of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. The political leadership gave him a chance to practice what he was preaching by placing him in overall command of operations in Iraq. A key part of his strategy was to have more troops on the ground; thus, the surge.

Simultaneously, many Sunni leaders were becoming sickened by the excesses of al Qaeda in Iraq and its associated foreign jihadists and their Iraqi lackeys. These included some leaders of the anti-coalition insurgency who had decided that the Americans were the lesser of two evils. Ms. Kagan does a good job of debunking the myth that the Awakening movement was a mere buy-off of former Ba’athists. Money was a factor to be sure, but only a contributing factor.

Ms. Kagan also does a credible job of showing how complex the series of operations known as the surge was conducted. Readers not familiar with what the military calls operational art will get an education that includes the difference between shaping operations and decisive operations. The latter helped chase insurgents out of one area while attempting to prepare for their arrival in another as they fled.

Ms. Kagan is a military historian with extensive teaching experience at West Point, Yale and Georgetown. Her book delivers what it promises, a credible military history of the surge and its operations against both Sunni and Iranian-backed Shia insurgents.

If the book has a weakness, it is that it does not discuss the role of emerging technologies in tracking both friendly and enemy forces. Technology provides no silver bullets in counterinsurgency, but things like the Command Post of the Future have enabled our commanders to command and control the extremely complex operations that characterized the surge. The book went to press in early 2008, so the final throes of the surge and events as it recedes will need to wait for a second edition or another volume.

This is not a book for the casual reader, but military professionals and those who want to learn more about modern military operations will find it a valuable resource.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer and teaches a course in revolution in military affairs at George Washington University.

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