Thursday, November 8, 2007

Counterinsurgency in Iraq

Colin Kahl has a review essay on counterinsurgency in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. One of the books he reviews is the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was authored by General David Petraeus, who became the supreme commander of Iraq operations in 2007.

Here's Kahl on the difficulty of counterinsurgency in Iraq since 2003:

When faced with a growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the immediate response of Pentagon officials and the U.S. military was denial. By the late summer and early fall of 2003, however, the reality signaled by daily attacks and a wave of massive bombings had finally sunk in. The military initially responded with a "search and destroy" approach to counterinsurgency, which fell uncomfortably, and dysfunctionally, between the extremes of hearts-and-minds and pure coercion. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who led U.S. forces during the first year of the war, was both inept at and uninterested in counterinsurgency. Efforts to protect the Iraqi population were ad hoc, varied tremendously from unit to unit, and were underresourced; most units defined the requirements of counterinsurgency solely in terms of "the enemy" and deployed overwhelming conventional firepower to kill or capture a growing list of "former regime elements," "anti-Iraqi forces," "bad guys," and "terrorists." Although troops took steps to minimize the risks to Iraqi civilians, many innocent Iraqis were shot at U.S. checkpoints and alongside convoys; many others were caught in the crossfire during daily raids and major offensives in Fallujah, Najaf, Sadr City, and elsewhere. Detention centers swelled as thousands of military-aged men were arrested in indiscriminate sweeps of Sunni towns, and evidence of abusive interrogations - most notably at Abu Ghraib - surfaced with gruesome regularity.

Since insurgents almost immediately reinfiltrated areas left unprotected after U.S. raids and offensives, often murdering those Iraqis who had collaborated during these operations, U.S. efforts accomplished little in the way of security. At the same time, heavy-handed tactics were just harsh enough to trigger a cycle of revenge without being sufficient to rule through brute force alone. The early U.S. approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq was thus Goldilocks in reverse: not hot enough, not cold enough, just wrong.

As the self-defeating nature of U.S. operations became apparent, the mindset of the U.S. military began to change. Starting in 2004 and accelerating in 2005, training and education in counterinsurgency were revamped. In November 2005, the White House released its "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," proclaiming clear, hold, build to be the road map for success, and soon the effort to rewrite U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was in full swing. On the ground, U.S. forces had become much better at clearing insurgent strongholds without destroying them and alienating the inhabitants. And in a handful of instances - in Fallujah after the devastating November 2004 offensive, in Qaim and Tal Afar in late 2005, and in Ramadi in 2006 - the entire clear, hold, build package was actually employed with positive results.

Yet despite these efforts, two countervailing factors stood in the way of effective counterinsurgency. First, beginning in 2004, there was an attempt to reduce the perception of occupation and enhance force protection by pulling U.S. troops out of smaller bases within Iraqi cities and consolidating them into larger forward operating bases in outlying areas. As a result, throughout 2005 and 2006, most U.S. forces remained hunkered down on large bases rather than nested within communities to provide local security. Second, because of insufficient troop levels, the "hold" portion was difficult to execute. Knowing that the administration was reluctant to send more troops and that pressure was building for withdrawal, General John Abizaid (the head of Central Command) and General George Casey (who had replaced Sanchez in 2004 as the overall commander in Iraq) crafted a strategy to rapidly give Iraqi army and police units the responsibility of providing local security in areas cleared by U.S. forces. Unfortunately, a combination of inadequate capabilities and sectarian bias meant that Iraq's fledgling security forces were not up to the task. The resulting security vacuum, especially in Baghdad, accelerated the action-reaction spiral between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- tipping Iraq into an all-out sectarian war in the spring of 2006.

In January 2007, President George W. Bush reversed his long-standing aversion to sending additional troops to Iraq by announcing the "surge." Petraeus replaced Casey and set about using the 30,000 additional forces in Baghdad and surrounding areas to implement the strategy outlined in the field manual he had helped author. Soon U.S. units dispersed to smaller bases, where they were paired with Iraqi forces to provide security for the local populations.

If the U.S. military had gone into the Iraq war with this doctrine and enough troops, success might have been possible. Now it may simply be too little, too late. The current conflict landscape in Iraq has, in many respects, passed the COIN FM by. Coalition forces in Iraq are not only attempting to defeat a Sunni insurgency but also trying to police a fierce sectarian civil war, limit the spread of the intra-Shiite gangland violence in the south, prevent Kurdish separatist ambitions from creating an ethnic conflict in Kirkuk or prompting Turkish intervention, and contain the regional spillover from all these conflicts. Counterinsurgency is hard enough. Pile on these additional missions (which in many cases have contradictory requirements for success), stir in U.S. force levels that remain inadequate in most of the country, sprinkle on incapable and sectarian Iraqi security forces, and add a U.S. domestic political environment with zero support for a long-term commitment - and you have a recipe for likely failure.
Kahl's an international security expert who published an outstanding piece on the U.S. military and civilian casualites in Iraq this last summer.

He seems a little bit behind the news cycle in this Foreign Affairs article, however. Things are going much better in Iraq's counterinsurgency warfare than he indicates. Yet he does provide a worthy conclusion to his article in arguing that the United States should be judicious in its application of our new successful doctrine of clear, hold, and build.