August 1, 2006  

A better war in Iraq

“Fighting an irregular war is an extremely difficult conversion for any regular army, even a superpower.”

— Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, commander, Task Force Baghdad, November 2005

General Webster could have said, “Especially a superpower.” One of the hardest challenges the U.S. Army faces is finding the proper balance between improving its ability to defeat an insurgency and maintaining the ability to fight a conventional war. Insurgencies and conventional combat differ so fundamentally that many of the things that help to ensure success in one can be liabilities in the other. In particular, the ability to mass fires at a particular point in time and space on the battlefield — the essence of conventional combat — is extremely unhelpful if misapplied in a counterinsurgency. Success in counterinsurgency instead demands the precise application of force after dedicated and exacting intelligence work — not the core competencies of conventional armies.

The Army’s historical experience with counterinsurgency is marked by cases of success and failure. Although the Army overcame an insurgency in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, it was less successful in Vietnam. Unprepared for the demands of counterinsurgency at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, the Army was slow in adapting during the course of the conflict. Gen. Peter Schoomaker recently wrote that in Vietnam, “the U.S. Army, predisposed to fight a conventional enemy that fought using conventional tactics, overpowered innovative ideas from within the Army and from outside it. As a result, the U.S. Army was not as effective at learning as it should have been, and its failures in Vietnam had grave implications for both the Army and the nation.”

Although the Army did adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, these impressive changes largely occurred after America’s will to win that war had been exhausted.

One result of America’s defeat in Vietnam was a decision by the Army to avoid counterinsurgency campaigns in the future. The United States would prepare for conventional wars and swiftly depart after defeating its enemies in major combat operations. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, and our adversaries worldwide learned from Desert Storm that fighting the United States conventionally is a recipe for self-destruction. However, successful attacks in Lebanon, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden demonstrated that fighting the U.S. asymmetrically offers a much better chance for success. The endurance of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq has underlined the truth of this lesson for those who wish to do us harm to further their objectives. Insurgencies are the types of conflict we are most likely to face for the foreseeable future, and therefore we must learn how to defeat enemies who practice this kind of war.

The relative paucity of strategic thinking about counterinsurgency since Vietnam doubtless contributed to our difficulty in grasping the emergence of the insurgency in Iraq. The absence of recent counterinsurgency doctrine and training in the Army and Marine Corps prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom has similarly contributed to the uneven application of counterinsurgency principles at the tactical and operational levels there. At the small-unit level, where counterinsurgency is conducted on a daily basis, some units in Iraq have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adopt effective counterinsurgency techniques. Others have too often persisted in an over-reliance on military force, despite the fact that such techniques are generally unproductive in developing the intelligence from the local population that is the basis of success in counterinsurgency.

This article argues that while we have learned a great deal from our experience in Iraq to date — making important changes to our counterinsurgency strategy, operations and tactics — there is more work to be done to further improve our chances for success in this most difficult kind of warfare. Most important, we must capture and institutionalize what we have learned at such a heavy cost in lives and treasure.

After Vietnam, the phrase “never again” meant many things to many people, but generally indicated the Army should never again fight a protracted war without the support of the American people. Today, we should continue to vow “never again” — but this time, that we never again focus so exclusively on preparations to decisively defeat any enemy on the conventional battlefield that we neglect to achieve the same degree of proficiency in winning the peace that follows. Sept. 11 conclusively demonstrated that instability anywhere can be a real threat to the American people here at home. Defeating instability through effective counterinsurgency operations is therefore a core mission of the Defense Department. We must take counterinsurgency as seriously as we take ensuring success in major combat operations.

Defeating an insurgency is not primarily a military task. David Galula, the French counterinsurgency expert, estimated the task was 80 percent political and 20 percent military. Counterinsurgency is a long, slow process that requires the integration of all elements of national power — military, diplomatic, economic, financial, intelligence and informational — to accomplish the tasks of creating and supporting legitimate host governments that can then defeat the insurgency that afflicts them.

The national strategy for victory in Iraq lays out a comprehensive interagency plan for achieving ultimate success there, but the challenge of implementing that strategy with instruments of national power not optimized for that task is a pressing one.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pushed for substantial changes in the State Department to make it a better instrument of national power for the 21st century, including major improvements to America’s ability to use information in the furtherance of national objectives abroad. Similarly, the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review recommends significant changes in the Defense Department to improve its ability to prevail in irregular warfare.

The other federal government departments are also improving their capacity and capability to contribute to the fight. To cope more effectively with the messy reality that, in the 21st century, many of our enemies will be insurgents, America’s national security establishment must continue to change, creating an operational capability to influence the actions of other nations and of subnational groups that struggle with the challenge of radical Islam. Two of the most important changes that remain to be implemented are additional emphasis on political outreach to insurgents and a more focused approach to information operations.

Political Outreach and info ops

Insurgencies are rarely defeated militarily; some degree of political accommodation is essential in convincing all but the most committed insurgents that politics rather than force is a viable way to pursue their objectives. Historically, successful counterinsurgents have defeated their opponents by peeling off the less ideologically committed subelements with promises of political progress toward their ultimate goals.

In the case of the Sunni minority in Iraq, political outreach would provide promises of a greater degree of political power than the Sunnis have believed would be granted to a minority population in such an immature democracy. The recent acceptance by Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish populations that to end the fighting they will have to yield some political power to their Sunni brethren is a large step toward ultimate stability in Iraq.

Insurgency is ultimately a war of ideas. An insurgency grows based on its ability to convince fighters to risk their lives against a conventionally superior opponent and survives in the face of a stronger enemy only because it is able to convince or coerce the people to provide it with what it needs to fight: weapons, ammunition, food, money and most important concealment and cover among the civilian population. Recognizing this fact, successful counterinsurgents have devoted as much effort to defeating the enemy’s propaganda as they have to defeating his fighters. Winning the war of ideas has often been the decisive line of operations in successful counterinsurgency campaigns.

The United States has not done an adequate job of explaining to the American people, to its allies overseas and, most important, to the people of Iraq and of the broader Islamic world what we are fighting for in Iraq and what we hope to achieve there. Nature abhors a vacuum, and insurgents love one; they have filled the airwaves and the Internet with their versions of the truth and have found willing listeners worldwide. In the words of the defense secretary, “Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not.”

Enemies of freedom in Iraq kill innocent Muslim men, women and children on a daily basis with suicide bombs that make a virtue of their randomness. Why are these heinous attacks inflicted on the innocent by our enemies not publicized throughout the Muslim world — indeed, throughout the entire globe? There is no more powerful indication of the difference between the United States and her enemies in Iraq, no greater evidence of what is at stake there for the future of the entire Middle East, than the fact that insurgents intentionally target with suicide bombs the children who gather around American soldiers in the expectation of candy and school supplies donated by the American people.

A country that can turn multimedia political advertisements within 24 hours in a presidential campaign should certainly be able to produce black-and-white posters within that same span of time showing the names and faces of Iraqi children slaughtered by terrorist bombers and begging for information to bring their murderers to justice.

During the Cold War, which was primarily an economic battle and only secondarily a military one, the United States Information Agency did yeoman’s work winning hearts and minds behind the Iron Curtain. The global war that we are now fighting against radical Islamic extremists is primarily a war of ideas.

A dedicated corps of public affairs professionals funded and equipped to speak to Muslims in their own languages could over time help win the war of ideas by providing vital support to moderate Muslims. A more focused effort in Iraq can help convince the uncommitted but hopeful people of Iraq to provide the information we need to kill and capture those who are now murdering Iraq’s future. Ideas are far cheaper than bullets and can be more effective.

Training Local Forces

Counterinsurgency does not divide neatly into tactical, operational and strategic levels of war, but one clear example of operational success in learning to conduct counterinsurgency was the experience of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad from early 2004 through early 2005. Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli required his company commanders to attend a city council meeting in Texas prior to their deployment to Iraq to familiarize them with the political tasks they would be responsible for implementing in country. His emphasis on SWET — sewers, water, electricity and trash — earned substantial public support in Baghdad that, in turn, reduced violence there, especially in the slums of Sadr City. Perhaps most important for the broader Army, Chiarelli published a summary of what he learned in Iraq that stands as some of the Army’s best operational doctrine on urban counterinsurgency.

Among the most important of the insights the First Team developed during its service in Baghdad is the paramount importance of the task of training local forces to defeat an insurgency. The heart of the advisory effort has been the creation of Military Transition Teams (MTTs) and Police Transition Teams (PTTs), small groups of about a dozen soldiers or Marines who eat, sleep, live and train with the army and police battalions they advise. These MTTs and PTTs provide advice not just during training but also in combat and have dramatically improved the fighting capacity of the Iraqi units with whom they partner. Modeled on the Marine Corps’ Combined Action Platoons from Vietnam — one of the most important innovations of that war — these embedded transition teams will continue to provide a framework upon which the Iraqi government can build capable, independent security forces that respect the rule of law and provide security and justice for all of the Iraqi people.

This military-to-military advisory effort is essential to the ultimate success of the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq. Conventional Army and Marine units will have to continue to provide MTTs and PTTs for the foreseeable future. It is essential that these teams be given the preparation, training, equipment and support they need to accomplish their critical mission — the one that will, more than any other, determine when America will be able to begin a substantial withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

Intelligence, Interpreters, Advisers

The prime requirement for a successful counterinsurgency effort is intelligence derived from a supportive population. While in conventional war the successful army is generally the side that masses firepower at the decisive point in time on the battlefield, a wily insurgent enemy rarely provides his superior conventional foe with a massed target, preferring to hide in “the sea of the people.” Massing intelligence collection and analysis resources, rather than firepower, is the key to capturing or killing insurgents.

Armies confronting an insurgency have historically struggled with the transformation from their traditional focus on firepower to slowly and painfully cultivating the intelligence sources necessary to defeat an insurgent enemy. While the Army and Marine Corps have made significant strides in developing this capability, there is still much work to be done. The tank and infantry battalions on the front lines of counterinsurgency in Iraq were initially designed for a very different form of combat than the one they find themselves fighting today. Organized with an intelligence staff of just a handful of personnel among hundreds of tankers and infantrymen, they are learning that to wage counterinsurgency successfully these ratios must be dramatically revised. Turning every rifleman and tank driver into an intelligence collector and analyst is extraordinarily difficult, but necessary to defeat an insurgency.

Chief among the skills required, but currently lacking in all but a few of the soldiers and Marines in Iraq, is facility in the Arabic language. The ability to talk with and thus gain intelligence from the local population allows the trained soldier to turn an everyday presence patrol into an opportunity to identify the enemy — the crucial and most difficult step on the road to defeating him. While the ability to talk with the local population is inherent in the ever-increasing number of capable Iraqi units, Americans will be required to serve alongside and within Iraqi units for many years to come. To make them as effective as possible, they need more translators and greater familiarity with Arabic language and Iraqi culture. The recent decision by the Marine Corps to require that every Marine develop expertise in a foreign area and language is a step in the right direction, one that the Army — and the State Department, CIA, U.S. Agency for International Development and FBI — would be well-advised to emulate.

There are technological solutions to the demand for improved language skills in the works, but there is no substitute for the interpersonal nuance that only human interaction in the native language can provide. Dramatic efforts are required to ensure improvements in language capability for every patrol that goes outside the wire and corresponding improvements in the ability to analyze the greater quantities of intelligence that will flow from our soldiers as a result. Much more can be done to exploit captured insurgents and documents, understand enemy networks and conduct targeted raids to capture or kill the leadership of the insurgency. The missing nails in the horseshoe are interpreters who understand the local culture and the local insurgency and intelligence analysts who have the patience and cultural understanding to piece together the puzzle.

It will take a comprehensive national effort to ensure that all government agencies place the same emphasis on success in Iraq that has marked the military effort there; redouble efforts to provide sufficient interpreters for every American patrol; improve manning, training and equipping of the advisory teams on the front lines of our efforts to improve Iraqi police and army battalions; reshape the intelligence effort in Iraq to provide sufficient properly trained and educated intelligence collectors and analysts to understand and identify the insurgents; and create and employ an information agency to fight and win the war of ideas in Iraq and beyond. These are all long-term investments. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the past suggest such improvements will enable us to win in Iraq — if we, as a nation, are patient enough to make the investment that a free Iraq deserves and a secure America requires.

The most important lesson of the past is the critical role of national patience and persistence in defeating an insurgency. We are three years into a counterinsurgency campaign that history suggests will take at least a decade to win. This lesson cannot be repeated too often, sobering though it is for a democracy accustomed to quick victories or speedy withdrawals from intractable conflicts: Insurgencies are long wars.

We should take comfort in the knowledge that armies rarely prepare correctly for the kind of war they will have to fight in the future and, therefore, generally have to adapt to the particular demands of the kind of war they are actually tasked to fight. In the words of British military historian and soldier Sir Michael Howard, “In structuring and preparing an army for war, you can be clear that you will not get it precisely right, but the important thing to ensure is that it is not too far wrong, so that you can put it right quickly.” In Iraq, the U.S. Army is learning counterinsurgency quickly, making up for lost time and making great strides in the effort to help the Iraqi people build a free, stable and secure Iraq. We must not falter in this effort.

LT. COL. JOHN A. NAGL is a military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. He is the author of “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.”