April 1, 2007  

Wanted: occupation doctrine

The Army has to write it now — for next time

Together, the Army and Marines shoulder the combat duties in Iraq, supported by the other services. But the primary burden of occupation has been borne by the Army — as it always will be. Given the difficulty of overcoming the breathtaking range of errors committed by political ideologues during this occupation’s early phases — when it wasn’t even permissible to term it an “occupation” — and the uphill struggle to salvage the situation now, one of the last things the Army wants to contemplate is another occupation in the future.

But that future occupation is going to come. Followed by others. If the Army does not demonstrate the foresight and character to write and print honest, comprehensive and adaptable occupation doctrine now, it will have itself to blame when next it’s tasked to repair a broken country with inadequate support and confused lines of authority — while a politically charged environment bedevils the home front.

Army leaders have yet to grasp two vital points: First, the refusal to prepare for a given mission is not an effective means of avoiding the mission. Second, doctrine isn’t just for the military’s internal use — manuals can function as both a contract with and warning to inexperienced civilian leaders whose geopolitical ambitions are not always tethered to reality.

In this ruptured world, with artificial borders collapsing, debased religions raging, ethnic identities resurgent and entire civilizations in crisis, the pretense that, since we don’t want to conduct occupations, we shall therefore be able to avoid them, is absurd. If, miraculously, we do not need to occupy any other state, large or small, in our lifetimes, so much the better. But we had better have sound, no-nonsense doctrine in case miracles prove to be in short supply.

The immediate need for doctrine that addresses the various forms and durations of occupations under differing mandates and in different cultural environments is, obviously, to allow our military to plan wisely, act effectively and leave the occupied territory under conditions favorable to our own security requirements. But that second aspect of doctrine — the cautionary education of policymakers — may prove even more important to mission success.

Imagine how different the situation in Iraq might be today had the Army possessed an up-to-date manual, “Occupation,” that laid out the complexity and challenges involved prior to our move against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Oral arguments and position papers are weak tools compared to an approved doctrinal manual, in black and white, that our uniformed leaders could lay in front of the president, his advisers and Congress to detail the probable cost to achieve our goals.

The absence of such doctrine grants madcap civilian theorists a license to fantasize about bloodless war followed by easy, self-financing occupations (or worse, the assumption that occupation won’t be necessary). If the Army doesn’t draw its lessons learned from Iraq (and previous occupations it conducted successfully) and forge those lessons into useful doctrine, the institution will have only itself to blame the next time we blunder headlong into a reality that doesn’t match the merry expectations of policymakers for whom our military is merely a global janitorial service.

Army leaders have to be hardheaded about this: Formulate realistic doctrine — neither blithely optimistic nor so pessimistic it obviously was framed to discourage occupations. While our doctrine can help politicians make wise decisions by instructing them what their visions truly involve, it’s also essential that the Army doesn’t fall into the “can’t do” trap in which it caught itself in the mid-1990s. This isn’t a matter of the Army getting to choose its missions, but of giving decision-makers a sense of reality when unavoidable missions arise.

Occupation doctrine must be forged with absolute integrity. Taken along with further evolutions of our counterinsurgency doctrine (the title of the next version of the manual should be plural: “Counterinsurgencies”), it must provide our forces with a dependable framework for occupation efforts, while imparting a sense of sobriety to elected and appointed officials. The formulation of such doctrine, as onerous as the Army may find it, isn’t an optional activity. It’s a duty.


The first step in formulating usable doctrine is to sweep aside the politically correct myths that have appeared about occupations. Occupations are military activities. Period. An Army general must be in charge, at least until the security environment can be declared benign with full confidence. Historically, the occupations that worked — often brilliantly, as in the Philippines, Germany and Japan — were run by generals, not diplomats. This is another mission the Army doesn’t want, but no other organization has the wherewithal to do it.

As Iraq illustrated so painfully, security must come first. That requires military decisiveness, not diplomatic quibbling. All else is secondary to the provision of security to the occupied population, and all longer-term goals depend upon quiet in the streets and peace in the countryside. A governor-general means a general as governor — we can choose more palatable terminology, but civilians cannot be put in charge in a theater of war before the shooting stops. The place for civilian decision-makers is in Washington, not in a future travesty imitating Ambassador Paul Bremer’s personal Disneyland in the Baghdad Green Zone.

Consider just a few essential rules for successful occupations — all of which we violated in Iraq:

• Plan for the worst case. Pleasant surprises are better than ugly ones.

• All else flows from security. Martial law, even if imposed under a less-provocative name, must be declared immediately — it’s far easier to loosen restrictions later on than to tighten them in the wake of anarchy. This is one aspect of a general principle: Take the pain up front.

• Unity of command is essential.

• The occupier’s troop strength should be perceived as overwhelming and his forces ever-present.

• Key military leaders, staff officers, intelligence personnel and vital civilian advisers must be committed to initial tours of duty of not less than two years for the sake of continuity.

• Control external borders immediately.

• Don’t isolate troops and their leaders from the local population.

• Whenever possible, existing host-country institutions should be retained and co-opted. After formal warfare ends, don’t disband organizations you can use to your advantage.

• Give local opinion-makers a stake in your success, avoid penalizing midlevel and low-level officials (except war criminals), and get young men off the streets and into jobs.

• Don’t make development promises you can’t keep, and war-game reconstruction efforts to test their necessity, viability and indirect costs (an occupation must not turn into a looting orgy for U.S. or allied contractors).

• Devolve responsibility onto local leaders as quickly as possible — while retaining ultimate authority.

• Do not empower returned expatriates until you are certain they have robust local support.

• The purpose of cultural understanding is to facilitate the mission, not to paralyze our operations. Establish immediately that violent actors and seditious demagogues will not be permitted to hide behind cultural or religious symbols.

• Establish flexible guidelines for the expenditure of funds by tactical commanders and for issuing local reconstruction contracts. Peacetime accountability requirements do not work under occupation conditions and attempts to satisfy them only play into the hands of the domestic political opposition in the U.S. while crippling our efforts in the zone of occupation.

• Rigorously control private security forces, domestic or foreign. In lieu of a functioning state, we must have a monopoly on violence.

Such a list captures only a fraction of the complexity of an occupation. But these elementary truths must be driven home to counteract the myths that have appeared about how occupations — and our government — should function. Consider the prevailing claim that an occupation is a team effort involving all relevant branches of government: The problem is that the rest of the team doesn’t show up. The State Department, as ambitious for power as it is incompetent to wield it, insists that it should have the lead in any occupation, yet has neither the leadership and management expertise, the institutional resources nor the personnel required (among the many State-induced debacles in Iraq, look at its appetite for developing Iraqi police forces and its total failure to deliver).

The military is the default occupier, since its personnel can be ordered into hostile environments for unlimited periods; State and other agencies rely on volunteers and, in Iraq, the volunteers have not been forthcoming — even when the tours for junior diplomats were limited to a useless 90 days and dire warnings were issued about the importance of Iraq duty to careers.

Under prevailing political circumstances, it will probably be necessary to offer a dual-model approach to occupations in the manual — one for situations in which the lead time allows the government to build interagency organizations staffed full time, resourced and trained in advance, and another, military only, for circumstances when immediate action is required or when the other government agencies cannot or will not make firm, long-term personnel commitments. Even now, the situation in Iraq remains disgraceful — with unfulfilled promises by other government departments and agencies leaving the occupation’s burdens on the military’s shoulders. To prevent another such shambles, the Army must assume that it will have to conduct every on-the-ground aspect of the mission by itself from the occupation’s zero hour. If the rest of the government comes through, great. But the Army must be prepared to execute the occupation mission with only the support of the other uniformed services.

Although military personnel are ever in short supply, it would be worth the overhead for the Army and the other uniformed services to establish a permanent occupation-planning headquarters staffed by experienced officers (and offering joint-duty credit). It would not need to be heavily manned and, yes, there would be a danger of such an organization turning into Sleepy Hollow — but the likelihood that we will face future occupation requirements makes it worth the investment to gather, preserve and further develop how-to expertise for occupations. We should never again face a debacle such as the chaos that prevailed in the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom and immediately after the fall of Baghdad — situations exacerbated by the moral cowardice of senior military officers unwilling to take a stand on much of anything.


In Washington, everybody who works across the river from the Pentagon “knows” that he has a better grasp of military strategy than the generals. Whether new congressmen or novice foreign service officers, their lack of military service (or even of interest in things military) doesn’t stop D.C.’s best and brightest from scheming how to employ our armed forces.

This situation isn’t going to change. The draft has receded so far into the past that we can be certain that each successful round of elections will further diminish the firsthand knowledge of military affairs on Capitol Hill. Those in uniform who imagine that the manner in which civilian ideologues steamrollered the Army in the buildup to our invasion of Iraq was an exceptional case that will not be repeated are indulging in fantasies as dangerous as those that got us where we are today. Ignorance doesn’t simply disappear; arrogance is and always will be endemic to Washington, and ideological extremism of the sort that short-circuited the planning process for OIF and its aftermath is a bipartisan plague.

If military leaders do not lay out a realistic scenario for future interventions and occupations, decisions of life, death and national security will once again be made on the basis of political dogma.

The fundamental reason why the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith-Cambone cabal forbade the military from planning for a full-scale occupation was straightforward: They feared that any such plan would project high troop numbers, serious financial costs and a lengthy presence — and that the plan would inevitably leak to an already-jumpy Congress. Their attitude was, “Just get the war and everything else will sort itself out.”

They got their war. But everything hasn’t sorted itself out.

In the absence of current printed doctrine, even former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s judgment that an occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops could be dismissed as simply one opinion among many. Now consider how differently such a scenario might play out if a future chief of staff — or chairman of the Joint Chiefs — testifying before Congress could slap down a manual in front of the C-Span cameras and state, “Senator, this doctrine lays out the requirements for an occupation. It’s the U.S. Army’s institutional position, based upon the professional judgment of veteran officers. Its tenets have been tested against a full range of historical examples.”

Or, as Martin Luther put it, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Even if the ideologues of the future, on the political right or the left, again moved to prevent the Pentagon from occupation planning, the manual would still exist, impossible to censor and available to Congress and the media. Civilian “experts” anxious to insist that everything could be done on the cheap would be thrust onto the defensive — simply by existing the doctrine would seize the high ground for the military. And a printed manual blessed by the Army’s leadership (or joint doctrine, for that matter) is a far more powerful tool of persuasion than a frantically compiled position paper or a verbal answer to a senator’s query during a hearing.

Of course, the point of producing a manual for occupations isn’t to avoid legitimate responsibilities by raising the bar impossibly high. Such doctrine must be developed with absolute integrity — describing fairly what can be done and what it takes to do it. The internal purpose is to guide our military efforts wisely. The external purpose is to force civilian decision-makers to face the probable costs and consequences of their actions up front, but not to frighten them into paralysis. Such doctrine would not be intended to deter the National Command Authority from doing what must be done — only to ensure that deployed military forces are given both the authority and the full array of resources to accomplish their assigned mission.

Every occupation will have its unique qualities and special requirements. Even the best doctrine will only provide us with an initial framework, not a complete set of infallible answers. While recognizing that all occupations share some common and irreducible requirements (such as those highlighted above), we must avoid down-in-the-weeds prescriptions that may be case-specific: The goal of doctrine is to provide a strong skeleton; specific circumstances flesh it out. There will always be surprises, in war and in the occupations that follow. But this much is certain: It would be nothing short of dereliction of duty for the Army leadership to ever allow our military and our country to be blindsided on this issue again by unelected charlatans who felt entitled to use the military to advance their ideological theories.

If the Army has not formulated a frank, practical doctrine for military occupations before the next such requirement draws in our soldiers, the generals will have only themselves to blame when our troops are misused and our national purposes frustrated.

The Army doesn’t want to face another occupation, so it doesn’t want to write occupation doctrine. But the Army has to shoulder this burden for the nation. No one else will.

RALPH PETERS is a retired U.S. Army officer and the author of 21 books, including the recent “Never Quit The Fight.”