Suffocating the Insurgency

Brett M. Decker

Posted on September 4, 2008

Iraq Progress Is the Result of Flexibility & Minimum Force

The war in Iraq has ceased to be a major campaign issue in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign. The reason is that the country largely has been pacified by coalition forces and Iraqi security battalions. There now are less than five attacks a day in Baghdad, which is a city of seven million. Nationwide, there are a mere 25 attacks a day now compared to 180 attacks a day 16 months ago, and today’s skirmishes have lessoned in intensity. The tide began to turn when U.S. Army General David H. Petraeus was named commander in Iraq on January 26, 2007. His command focused on instilling flexibility into U.S. operations and bulking up the percentage of Iraqi security forces on street patrols. To communicate the changes in vision, policy, strategy and tactics, a new manual was produced to clarify the commanders’ intent regarding counterinsurgency operations. It wasn’t clear at the time in which direction the conflict would turn.

Two years ago, Ralph Peters unleashed a blistering critique of the new Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in a New York Post column titled, “Politically Correct War: U.S. military leaders deny reality.” Published on December 15, 2006 and known as FM 3-24, the manual was a response by the Army and Marines to the unconventional tactics being waged against coalition war fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the complaints made by Mr. Peters are charges that “we really believe that being nice is more important than victory,” that “the doctrine writers ignored today’s reality,” that Washington policymakers have decided it is acceptable to “let our troops die, just don’t hurt anyone’s feelings,” that “the doctrine writers faked it, treating all insurgencies as political,” that FM 3-24 is “morally frivolous and intellectually inert,” that our leaders lack moral courage, and even that, “we’re back to struggling to win hearts and minds that can’t be won.”[1] A name-calling rant of this nature is not helpful to rational assessment of policy. And in many ways, the standards espoused by Mr. Peters are the very ones behind America’s initial pacification failures in Iraq.

Analysts today have the benefit of hindsight, which has shown that the assessment of early failures and the resultant adaptation of strategy have been successful in Iraq. By January 2008, only fifteen months after his initial critique, even Ralph Peters was eating crow about the progress on the ground in Mesopotamia. In a New York Post column titled, “Terror on the Run,” he went so far as to admit that, “Islamist terrorism is no longer viewed as a solution by the masses in the Middle East” and that “the greatest strategic development” of 2007 (the year following his excoriation of FM 3-24) “was the Arab-Muslim repudiation of al Qaeda, an organization which claims to be the champion of Sunni Islam.”[2] In other words, even Arab and Muslim hearts and minds can be won. In other words, like previous insurgencies and all wars, the conflict in Iraq is a political confrontation, and progress with Arabs and Muslims is the result of a political realization that fierce force cannot solve all problems by itself. Such conclusions are derived from a gradual acceptance of counterinsurgency principles, which promote a combination of efforts to guarantee greater physical security and a better standard of living (and thus peace of mind) for the local people. The mea culpa of Ralph Peters offers an opportunity to examine why progress was made in the field and the relevance (or lack of relevance) of the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual to that progress.

On the positive side, the very creation of FM 3-25 by Army Gen. Petraeus and Marine Lt. Gen. James F. Amos is a major step forward in military thinking. Too often, military bureaucracies apply a cookie-cutter approach to conflicts that demand bespoke strategies. Or as the field manual itself admits, too often policymakers and even general staffs “falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones.” Victory in an unconventional war is the result of military adaptation to “overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war.”[3] These statements might sound like elementary stuff, but it is important to note that when the new field manual was published, the U.S. Army had not taken a new look at its counterinsurgency policies in 20 years; the Marines had not revised or updated their existing counterinsurgency manual in 25 years. The intellectual exercise spearheaded by Generals Petraeus and Amos was vital to make sure the armed forces continued to be thinking and learning institutions.

Specifically, the new manual reminded war fighters that counterinsurgency is a touchy undertaking in which might is not always right. Victory is not solely based on destroying the enemy’s fighting force but in convincing local peoples that their long-term interests are not served by giving succor to insurgents. Although critics complain that it sounds too touchy feely, it is true that counterinsurgency often necessitates that minimum force be used and that maximum attention be paid to civil-affairs projects targeted at winning acquiescence from the local civilian population. The bottom line of this latter proposition is that the United States cannot avoid nation-building if it wants to attack the environment and mindset that are incubators for radicals. As FM 3-24 states, soldiers and Marines “must be prepared to help establish institutions and local security forces and assist in rebuilding infrastructure and basic services. They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law.”[4] In winning over local hearts and minds, U.S. power has to learn how to mobilize to target the root causes of instability in insurgent areas.

The dogmatic leap of faith is the most important step in the formulation of effective counterinsurgency operations because it is the foundation on which policy, strategy and tactics will be built. Unlike most dogmas, it relies more on flexibility than adherence to rigid tenets. Instilling this ethic of flexibility is difficult in a military culture that relies on standard operation procedures, strict rules or engagement and “doing things by the book.” Hence, there is a double-edged sword inherent in a 400-page manual that attempts to encourage flexibility while also promoting appropriate standards of conduct and measured action-reaction models. The authors admit this trap and remind that every insurgency is unique but that some guiding principles are needed so that blood is not needlessly lost constantly remaking the wheel for every new engagement.

On the negative side, at 400 pages, FM 3-24 is too long, which, human nature being what it is, means fewer war fighters will read than the number who should. These defects can be attributed to the urgency to publish and distribute it quickly, which in fact only took two months. Despite its length, one legitimate criticism is that FM 3-24 is too generic and does not thoroughly address specific problems on the ground where it matters now, such as the sectarian divide in Iraq. Can attempts to please the local people ever work if the locals cannot get along amongst themselves? It is a nice idea that improving the standards of living of locals is prioritized, but these efforts can be targeted by insurgents as well, as has been devastatingly shown recently in Afghanistan. How can hearts and minds be won when aid agencies and NGOs flee from violence directed at them? An occupation force and its local security assistants cannot protect everyone everywhere. It is correct that the manual stipulates the need to close sanctuaries that protect insurgents and provide bases for operations, but what can be done when such safe havens are in third countries such as Pakistan or Iran? There must be limits to escalation. Overall, progress in Iraq can be attributed to a more sophisticated understanding of insurgency engendered by the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the commanders who wrote it. The lack of progress in Afghanistan exposes some of FM 3-24’s shortcomings.

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