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Decisionmaking In Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: The Strategic Shift of 2007

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | May 2010

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Victory is still an option in Iraq.
Dr. Frederick Kagan1

The Strategic Shift of 2007.

By the time Fred Kagan penned the comment cited above, victory had already long been the wrong word to describe whatever outcome was going to befall the American adventure in Iraq. An argument can be made that victory—success against military foes in war—was an appropriate term in April 2003, when U.S. military forces deposed Saddam Hussein, but a military-only victory was far out of reach by 2007. The goal of victory articulated by Kagan and President George W. Bush perhaps still had merit in galvanizing public support of the war.2 However, the better goal—particularly by late 2006, when a virulent insurgency and sectarian violence were raging in Iraq's cities—was some semblance of strategic success, which would not come about purely by military action. That success would necessarily include a significant military component, but also required a broader approach that would support Iraq's economic, political, and societal development. Just as victory over Adolf Hitler in World War II required the Marshall Plan to cement the achievements of combat in Europe, the “victory” of 2003 in Iraq would require by 2007 much more than just military force to produce conditions that would ultimately be helpful to advancing American interests in the Middle East.

The military component of the 2007 effort to achieve a positive result in Iraq became popularly known as“the surge.” In this second volume of the Strategic Studies Institute's Operation IRAQI FREEDOM Key Decisions Monograph Series, Dr. Steven Metz covers this critical decision in the Iraq war, but correctly posits that the surge was only part of a broad strategic shift that produced the success—still tenuous—of 2008 and beyond. In doing so, Dr. Metz debunks some of the “surge triumphalism.” In this view, the surge was almost solely responsible for the improvements in security that enabled the emerging positive results in Iraq. General David Petraeus—the man whose name became synonymous with the surge—sees it differently. General Petraeus, who led the surge of troops into Iraq in 2007, freely admits that the success of the surge was due to a confluence of factors. Those factors include Iraqis tiring of both Sunni and Shi'a extremists, Iraqi Security Forces achieving at least limited capacity to provide security, and the U.S. military's growth in tactical and operational prowess in counterinsurgency. Dr. Metz argues that a “perfect storm” of conditions, accompanied by “good thinking, good luck, and good timing,” were what allowed the success of the strategic shift that he describes. Dr. Metz may give short shrift to President George W. Bush's resolve and to the skill that General Petraeus and other senior leaders brought to the surge—or the strategic shift—but he presents a solid case against using the surge as a model for future operations, including in Afghanistan. Without similar conditions—and good thinking, luck, and timing—the surge of troops in Afghanistan may not produce anything like the positive strategic results that appear to be emerging in Iraq.

There are no easy Fixes to the challenges identified by Dr. Metz, but his recommendations include:

  • Be skeptical of basing force development and military strategy on the 2007-08 experience in Iraq.Preparing to fight the last war may be the comfortable thing to do, but the situation will change and the enemy will adapt. Basing strategy and force development solely on how effectively the Army fought the counterinsurgency in Iraq is folly. At the same time, neglecting the lessons learned from Iraq would also be foolish.
  • Use Army intellectual resources to lead a basic reconceptualization of the way the U.S. Government and American political leaders think about insurgency and counterinsurgency. Uniformed military leaders may have the right strategic thinking about insurgency and counterinsurgency. However, if their political leaders do not share that understanding—or refuse to accept military advice—future efforts at supporting allies in counterinsurgency efforts will be long and costly and may not produce desired results.
  • Increase attention to strategic communication skills in leader selection and development programs. The development of military strategic leaders is an arcane art form, not a science. One of the talents needed in those leaders is the ability to communicate to broad audiences: to an indigenous population in the theater of operations, to international players providing support or coalition members, to the U.S. domestic audience. Even all these years after the Vietnam War, the U.S. military—especially at some of the most-senior levels—still remains wary of engagement with the media, which is essential for the strategic communication tasks. Although development of these skills will undoubtedly remain a challenge for years to come, the task of identifying them in strategic leaders should not be so difficult. The ability to communicate on the strategic level must be considered when promoting general offcers into the highest ranks.
  • Develop a rapidly-deployable surge capacity for creating, training, and equipping localsecurity forces. The recently-concluded Quadrennial Defense Review does not appear to include guidance to develop a separate force for this purpose, although it does suggest strengthening the ability of general purpose forces to do so.3
  • Maintain the Army's wartime adaptation speed. This recommendation should probably extend to the entire military, not just the Army, but the Army and the Marine Corps are the most-heavily engaged forces in Iraq and are probably adapting more rapidly than the other Services. Wartime acts as a catalyst for adaptation, so it may be unrealistic to expect that same speed to be maintained whenever the military finally encounters a peacetime situation.
  • Lead an effort within the joint community to develop and institutionalize procedures for reseizing the strategic initiative. Future conflicts—like Iraq—may see the United States lose the strategic initiative. It only makes sense now to prepare in education and exercises for that eventuality.

One Final recommendation from Dr. Metz is included in the body of his report: he recommends that Congress consider formal establishment of a strategic council comprised of the Service chiefs and the combatant commanders. Strategic advice that comes from this council should represent both the needs of any conflict—provided by the combatant commanders—and the requirements for the long-term health of the individual Services—more likely to originate with the Service chiefs. Advice to the President and to the Secretary of Defense should cover both perspectives.

The Key Decisions Series.4

Authors in this series are asked to concentrate on the decisions more than on the subsequent effects. The effort should focus on identifying the factors that influenced the decision—either positively or negatively—and determining whether the factors were idiosyncratic or systemic in nature. That determination is key in devising solutions to problems or to reinforcing positive factors. Authors should answer six questions about their analyzed decision:

  1. Who were the key decision makers?
  2. Who shaped or influenced the decision?
  3. What was the political and strategic context of the decision?
  4. What options were considered?
  5. What decisionmaking and analysis process was used?
  6. What criteria were used to make the decision?

While the Strategic Studies Institute is willing to consider proposals for studies evaluating other key decisions, those already selected for analysis are:5

  1. The decision in 2003 to go to war. (Status: complete.6)
  2. The decision in 2002 and 2003 to plan for a war of liberation, minimum reconstruction, and rapid turn­over to an Iraqi government. (Status: an author has been identified.)
  3. The decision in 2003 to occupy the country rather than quickly returning sovereignty to Iraqis. (Status: an author has been identified.)
  4. The decision in 2004 to focus on development of the Iraqi Security Forces. (Status: an author has been identified.)
  5. The decision in 2004 and beyond to follow a strategy of transitioning the security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. (Status: the Strategic Studies Institute is still seeking an author.)
  6. The decision in 2007 to “surge” forces into Iraq as part of a strategic shift. (Status: complete with this publication.)
  7. The various decisions that made the fight “more interagency.” (Status: an author has been identified.)
  8. The various decisions that affected the establishment and functioning of the government of Iraq. (Status: the Strategic Studies Institute is still seeking an author.)
  9. The various decisions that affect the responsible drawdown of forces in 2009 and beyond. (Status: the Strategic Studies Institute is still seeking an author.)


While the decision to surge troops into Iraq in 2007 is widely seen as a good choice, it still requires the careful examination that Dr. Metz brings to all his work. Without such meticulous study, the wise decision in a particular theater at a certain point in time may be misconstrued to be a solid solution for other theaters where very different conditions exist. The Strategic Studies Institute hopes that study of the good decision—at least as judged by the emerging results—to surge troops into Iraq in 2007 will generate just as much debate as study of the many poor ones made in this particular war. Better understanding—of both good and bad decisions—should lead to better choices in future operating environments.


Executive Editor
OIF Key Decisions Project
Strategic Studies Institute


  1. Frederick W. Kagan, “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” Phase I report of the Iraq Planning Group at the American Enterprise Institute, January 25, 2007, p. 1.
  2. President Bush used the rhetoric of victory many times, doing so officially in National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, Washington, DC: National Security Council, November 2005.
  3. “Quadrennial Defense Review Report,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, February 2010, p. 29.
  4. A fuller explication of the OIF Key Decisions Monograph Series can be found in the preface to the first volume of the series. See Steven Metz, Decisionmaking in Operation Iraqi Freedom: Removing Saddam Hussein By Force, OIF Key Decisions Monograph Series, Vol. 1, Colonel (Retired) John R. Martin, Executive ed., Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, February 2010, pp. v-xvii.
  5. Procedures for submitting unsolicited manuscripts are found at the SSI website, available from www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil. Submissions for this series should be directed to SSI's Director of Research, who will provide them to the series executive editor.
  6. This decision was studied in the first volume of this series.