President Obama will announce his new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan sooner or later. Given that the key decision -- at least publicly -- will be how many more troops to send to Afghanistan it seems propitious to consider the Bush administration's decision to surge roughly 30,000 troops to Iraq.
Just what did the surge accomplish and how did it work. A new Washington thinktank the Institute For the Study Of War -- which some might consider The Surge thinktank -- produced a movie called "The Surge: The Untold Story," to answer just those questions.
To get some idea just how closely identified the institute is with the surge, consider that retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a chief architect of the surge, Frederick Kagan, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an early surge advocate, and Liz Cheney, former principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney are board members of the institute and attended the first screening of the movie. And, of course, Frederick Kagan's wife, Kim Kagan, is the institute's president.
Perhaps the most salient point to come out of the surge movie was that the increase in troops made possible penetration of Iraqi neighborhoods that had been largely left uncontested by American and Iraqi forces. Troops moved from their forward operating bases to the villages and neighborhoods infested by insurgents, militias and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
This was the clear portion of clear, hold, build. But many people seem to forget or never knew that sending US troops to the worst parts of the worst neighborhoods -- those that were controlled by militias or where Al Qaeda in Iraq swept through capturing and killing -- involved serious combined arms slugfests.
Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Strykers and other vehicles went in with dismounted troops and shot and blasted their way against pretty determined foes who knew every inch of the territory.
Once U.S. troops and Iraqi forces were in, they built command outposts that gave them a good view of the neighborhood and allowed them to defend the posts they built right in the middle of the nastiest spots.
To provide residents with more assurance of safety and to better control the flow of insurgents and their supplies, the US and Iraqis restricted access to neighborhoods using concrete barriers and guarded points of entry.
At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi troops started going house to house for tea and intelligence, making it impossible for insurgents to target any one house or family. And they held and they built. In many areas, each phase of the COIN approach went ahead simultaneously.
But Jack Keane told the audience after the film that COIN strategy was not sufficient by itself. It had to be coupled with "vigorous strikes" against Al Qaeda in Iraq. That was the specialty of the Joint Special Operations Command, then led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, now the commander in Afghanistan.
At the same time as all this was unfolding, the US teamed with the Iraqi government to train 125,000 Iraqi forces to join the fight. "That is a surge in itself and we couldn't succeed without it," Keane said. That effort was led by then-Lt. Gen. James Dubik, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command, who spoke after Keane.
Dubik said one of his greatest challenges -- aside from training these troops in the middle of a war -- was working with the Iraqis to figure out how big the force needed to be, how it was trained, how it was sustained, how it was developed and, lastly but not least, how the money was spent. Dubik said gearing everyone up to use the money was very challenging and would loom as a key test for the US in Afghanistan.
The surge may not have made Iraq safe for democracy and peace, but it did radically change the political and military dynamics in Iraq, giving the Iraqis breathing room to act, consolidate their gains and decide just what kind of a country they want.
Should we achieve that much in Afghanistan with a surge there it would mark another major victory for US forces and prove to allies and competitors that the United States can defeat irregular enemies and possesses a creative, flexible and potent force, backed by an impressive national security apparatus.