The Broader War: Redefining our Strategy for Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 1 month ago

In Concerning the Failure of Counterinsurgency in Iraq, I argued that the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy employed by the U.S. in Iraq has failed. I argued that this failure is not attributable to the warriors in the field, nor is it a detraction from the effort they have expended and the blood and limbs they have lost. Rather, it is due at least in part to the adoption of David Galula’s principles of COIN, coming mostly from the situation he faced in Algeria. To be sure, his book is serious study, and much wisdom can be gleaned from his theories. But the global war on terror is a “horse of a different color,” and requires its own theoretical framework.

While the list isn’t comprehensive, I cited seven reasons that the Iraq situation is not entirely conducive to application of the same COIN doctrine, and gave hints as to things that might be considered in the development of revised doctrine for the war. President Bush will soon announce his strategy for going forward in Iraq, and it seems prudent and timely to pull one thread in the tapestry of a revised strategy, perhaps the most important one. Without this thread, the rest of the fabric unravels.

Pointing to a border with Syria that has not been secured, I said that “The battlefield, both for military actions and so-called “nonkinetic? actions to win the people, is dynamic. As one insurgent is killed, another pops up in his place, coming not from any action the U.S. has or has not taken in Iraq, but rather, coming from hundreds or even thousands of miles away due to a religious hatred that has been taught to him from birth. The war in Iraq is both figuratively and quite literally a war without borders.”

Perhaps the most remarkable failure of the existing COIN doctrine has to do with its assumption that we are working with a static population, that population being the prize for the victor in Iraq. But as Michael Ledeen points out:

” … this war is not like the one Galula waged in at least two crucial respects: It is much bigger than a single country, and ideology is much more important in vital areas of the battlefield. The insurgents in Iraq do not just depend on the Iraqi people for support, as the Algerian revolutionaries did, because the Iraqis have enormous support in Syria and Iran. It is hard to imagine any realistic level of Coalition forces in Iraq that could protect the country from infiltration across the Iranian and Syrian borders.”

I also mentioned that the customary understanding of Galula’s COIN doctrine has the insurgent attempting to win the population, with the government forces attempting to hold them in submission. The Iraq model has this turned entirely on its head. The insurgents are holding the population in submission while we are attempting to win them, with insurgent terror proving to be more compelling than our so-called “nonkinetic” operations.

Iraq is not just a part of the global war on terror. It is very much at the center of the war, with Iran and Syria involved through proxy fighters from Syria, al Qaeda from both Syria and Iran, Ansar al Sunna from Iran, and other terrorist and criminal elements. It is a regional problem, and therefore will require a regional solution.

Saddam Hussein, being the nemesis of Iran and catalyst for the deaths of thousands of Iranian troops, was the only true enemy that Iran had, and while his death marks the end of an ugly era for them, the Iranian regime had plans for more regional influence even before the war began. Iran has designs on regional domination, and has already acted on these designs:

Iran’s paramilitary and intelligence buildup in Iraq would put some members of the “coalition of the willing? to shame. Over the past three years, Tehran has deployed to Iraq a large number of the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force — a highly professional force specializing in assassinations and bombings — as well as officers from the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security and representatives of Lebanese Hezbollah.

Iranian personnel have established safe houses throughout southern Iraq. They monitor the movement of coalition forces, tend weapons caches, facilitate cross-border travel of clerics, smuggle munitions into Iraq and recruit individuals as intelligence sources. Presumably, Tehran has recruited networks within U.S. military bases and civilian compounds that could be activated on short notice. Iran is also believed by regional intelligence agencies to have armed and trained as many as 40,000 Iraqis to prevent an unlikely rollback of Shiite control.

Iraq quickly went from being a nemesis to being a pawn in the larger, more regional plan. So it is not by accident that the same IED technology that Hezballah used in its war with Israel is now in use against U.S. forces in Iraq. It all comes from Iran. But if the nuclear problem in Iran is troublesome, perhaps even more immediate problems are the porous borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia. Michael Fumento, reporting from the Anbar Province, noted what he called a mini-Ho Chi Minh trail along which foreign fighters pass. This method has been effective, and as military sources admit:

Saudi Arabia and Syria are the leading sources of insurgents. An Army official provided a list of the top 10 countries to NBC News but would not release the numbers of foreign fighters from each. The top 10, alphabetically, are: Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The drainage of sewage from surrounding locations into Iraq has its effect, and just today, the Multi-National Force web site issued a press release concerning combat action in Baghdad:

Early today Iraqi Army and coalition forces began a joint operation in Taleel Square.

Soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division with support from Coalition forces are conducting targeted raids to capture multiple targets, disrupt insurgent activity and restore Iraqi Security Forces control of North Haifa Street, said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesperson for Multi-National Division Baghdad.

“This area has been subject to insurgent activity which has repeatedly disrupted Iraqi Security Force operations in central Baghdad,? said Bleichwehl.

Joint forces reported receiving small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenade and indirect fire attacks during the operation.

The targeted raids have successfully resulted in three arrests this morning. The operation is currently ongoing.

Most interesting is what is missing from this press release. We are told by the BBC that seven Syrian nationals were arrested as part of this operation (Fox News reports that it is three Syrian nationals). As to the U.S. response to this kind of behavior? It warrants a mention to the press: “The U.S. says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allows weapons and fighters to cross its border into Iraq to support the insurgency.” Based on this observation, I’m sure that they’re shaking in their boots.

One well-placed army intelligence source recently told me that “We knew when we were there that to win in Iraq we had to win in Anbar. And to win in Anbar we had to win in Ramadi. But to win in Ramadi we have to control the border with Syria and Jordan (as well as Saudi Arabia actually).”

Army intelligence knows this, and Syrian intelligence certainly knows that Syria is in the direct supply chain for the rogue elements being funneled through Syria. Of course, this makes Syria complicit in these things, and thus Syria is, by use of proxy fighters and land access, at war with both Iraq and the U.S. The U.S. response so far has been tepid for the same reason that the MNF web site didn’t mention the capture of Syrian fighters. If we openly admit to the scope of the Syrian problem, then logically we must put it into the formula for success – something politically objectionable to a vast audience in America. Don’t mention it, and maybe people won’t notice.

But there is more. Thanks to Politics Central (Pajamas Media), we learn that Iraqi insurgents have successfully launched a 24-hour propaganda television station, located in Syria, and with the help of Egypt. It is apparently primarily aimed at the youth to attempt to persuade them to join the jihad against the Iraqi government and the U.S. forces, and thus it will serve in the future to be a tool of recruitment for the forces of terror.

In Attack Syria, I joined Blackfive in calling for a strike on Syria (primarily with air power), saying “In a time when the entire country, even the world, is watching to see what reaction Bush will have to the Baker report, an attack on Syrian assets along with the destruction of jihadist television would go a long way towards an authoritative answer to this question. In addition to an attack on Syrian assets and jihadist television, the State Department should finally engage in the GWOT (this might require them to pick a side in the war). Assuming that they side with the U.S., Egypt should be our next target for high-pressure diplomacy. The State Department, again assuming that they side with the U.S., should not countenance pretend allies. Allowing an Egyptian satellite to be used for the publication of enemy propaganda should be viewed as aiding the enemy, and Egypt should suffer all of the political and diplomatic pressure that we can bring to bear on them for this act.”

A benefit from this action would be to take two branches of the United States Armed Forces that have been relegated to the state of largely irrelevant in the global war on terror, and utilize them again in a powerful way. And would such an action destabilize the region? Well, it might destabilize Syria, which would be a good consequence, but there is no compelling argument that this action would be detrimental to U.S. interests. I recently had an opportunity to arrange a meeting between James Baker and Sun Tzu, and Baker was reminded from the timeless wisdom of Sun Tzu that in order to intimidate your neighbor, you must inflict injury upon them. Since we must always assume that our enemies will come to fight us rather than make peace (“The Art of War,” Section VIII.16), Syria will only be malleable if she fears us. At the present, it is quite obvious that she does not.

As a “going forward” strategy, incursions into Syria must be made in order to kill terrorists and deny them safe haven. The border must be absolutely secured with both Syria and Iran, including even incidental traffic. Based on my intelligence source cited above, only after the borders have been secured can we begin to treat Iraq as a nation even roughly amenable to standard COIN doctrine. But even this is incomplete and only temporary. What next?

Turning again to Michael Ledeen, a bold strategy is suggested to encourage regime change in both Syria and Iran:

Paradoxically, the Syrian/Iranian involvement in Iraq cuts both ways, for at the same time they are supporting the terror war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they face the very real possibility of insurgencies in their own countries. Indeed, the Iranians have had to contend with a nonviolent insurgency for many years now.

That fact changes things considerably. It means that while we are counterinsurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are potential insurgents in Syria and Iran. We should be fighting for popular support in at least four countries, where the people will be evaluating our likelihood of success across the entire battlefield, not just city by city or country by country.

The peoples of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (as well as those on the margins, who are not yet swept up in the war, but may well be quite soon) are evaluating the battlefield very carefully, for they must be ready to jump on the winner’s bandwagon.

There are certainly changes that need to occur at the microscopic level. The rules of engagement need serious reevaluation, and probably at least some tweaking (including for Marine snipers). On a somewhat larger scale, following the counsel of the Small Wars Manual (Chapter XI), the Sadrists must be disarmed. On a somewhat larger scale still, the U.S. must go on the offensive once again against the insurgents. Most U.S. troops are sitting on well-protected bases that are more safe than major U.S. cities and have never seen combat. More troops to sit on these bases while several hundred are saddled with the responsibility to patrol Fallujah is not, by anyone’s estimation, a robust strategy for defeating an insurgency. So a surge in troops does nothing to determine how these troops are used and how they engage the enemy.

On a larger scale still, the Iraqi borders must be shut down. But on a macroscopic level, Syria and Iran must be dealt with, both as part of the Iraq war and also as subsets of the global war on terror and jihadism. If the deaths of more than three thousand sons and daughters of America are to mean anything, our strategy must outfit our troops to win.

I have done my share of pontificating about force size, nation-building versus traditional war, and Rumsfeld’s views versus those of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. And as much as we might like to opine and pontificate about what we should have done four years ago, talk of Eric Shinseki and Anthony Zinni has now become passe. The question now is not whether there should be a troop surge, or even how large it should be if there is one. Increase troops if needed, but the question of the hour is one of strategy. Are we in the global war on terror to win? In September of 2006 I said that “The U.S. will not win in Iraq until Iran is driven out entirely.” We might expand that to say that until Iran is dealt with, we will not win the global war on terror.

America has the most adaptive and innovative boys in the world. One officer used AC/DC’s “Back in Black” to kill Taliban:

After wearing the Taliban down for six days with rock music blaring across the river valley, and artillery and airstrikes, they found a weak spot in the Taliban’s defenses. Playing his favorite music, AC/DC’s “Back in Black,? to hide the sound of the armored vehicles, Williams took the Taliban by surprise, crossing the river and driving through the cornfields from the northeast.

Further east in the Anbar Province, American boys have figured out a way to protect HMMWV turrets which were previously vulnerable to grenades being lobbed in: a hemisphere of chicken wire. There is no paucity of thinking, sweating or bleeding by U.S. troops. Now all they need is a winning strategy.

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  • Donald Sensing

    An outstanding analysis! The administration has deliberately not admitted that our enemies comprise far more than the various insurgencies inside Iraq. No one in the Middle East, excepting Israel, wants us to succeed in Iraq, including putative allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

    This is one more reason the “surge” won’t work; the most lethal insurgencies get foreign direct support that the Keane-Kagan tactics don’t really address.

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  • Dave N.

    This posting presents several good points.

    Porous borders are something that bedevils Americans. The Iraq borders are open and causing us trouble. The reference to the Ho Chi Minh trail is apt. Another example might be the US failure to notice the Chinese Army crossing the Yalu during the Korean war. Although not a military event, the present porous border with Mexico is just another example that, as a national characteristic, we tend to neglect the importance of borders, compared to what might be more reasonable behavior on our part. But if we can recognize this flaw in our priorities, we can take steps to correct it. It’s good to point out the open Iraqi borders with Iran and Syria, even if it’s obvious and a known problem, because if we keep talking about it, it makes it harder for the leaders to continue to ignore it. The inverse of “don’t mention it, and maybe people won’t notice” is, if we people keep mentioning it, it’s harder for leadership to ignore.

    Regarding the “Jihad TV” satellite station (leasing a channel on an Egyptian-owned satellite), here’s another idea: Why isn’t the US military producing 10 or 20 TV channels worth of “true propaganda,” i.e. news and information shows 24/7 about the good things the US and coalition countries are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries where we operate? In Arabic, Farsi, all their languages. Some shows about civil affairs projects, other shows with video from combat, to show the enemy what really happens to them when the US has a good day. Fast response, as near to real time as info can be put up without compromising operational security. Apply Boyd’s OODA loop theory (Observe Orient Decision Action) to media: we have to put out truth faster than they can put out lies, after every action big or small. Think, helmet-cams on troops, and cameras co-axial (parallel) with every weapon’s bore, to record all actions for military media offensive operations. Think time-on-target media barrages, our military uploading hundreds or thousands of video clips to Youtube in a fraction of a second, at random times in the day, showing real imagery of what good things our troops are doing, both combat and civil affairs. Visualize what an “information war” would actually look like on the offensive side, if we were actually trying to fight one, instead of just letting the enemy take the lead in that. What people (both friend and enemy, and the huge mass in the middle) nowadays Observe and Orient to largely comes through the media and Internet. We have to get inside their loop, flooding the zone of what they observe and orient to in the media universe.

    Egypt (officially a friend of the US) and the other Islamic-majority countries don’t even build and launch their own satellites. They buy and lease them and have them launched by countries with high-tech capability (i.e., the sane countries). How about, any satellite that’s used to spread terrorist propaganda is considered a terrorist asset and is targeted as such. We need the US Space Command to eliminate this problem just like the US Navy sinks pirates.

    As to snipers, there is an article in the January 2007 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine, with letters/email from both Marine and Army snipers, saying they are not being used properly or enough. Their officers seldom have specific training in how to employ them properly, so since the snipers have had more advanced training than many other infantry troops, they are too often tasked as squad leaders, etc., and their specialty skills are sqandered. If they are deployed as snipers, they are often micro-managed as to where to set up, etc., by officers without sniper training, who may put them in dumb places. As to the reply that “any Marine can be a sniper,” yes, but it’s not only about shooting accurately, it’s also about ID’ing targets at long ranges, and learning watching/observation/recon type skills. Not saying they all couldn’t learn it, but it’s more training and skills than just long range shooting, sniper school is several months. It’s a specialty skill set that could be better deployed, especially in urban areas of Iraq, according to its practitioners.

    Regarding the President’s speech tonight, good that he mentioned the new “clear and hold” policy. Also, good to eliminate the “no go” areas where the enemy groups are holed up. Great that he mentioned “there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have,” in a possible oblique reference to the ROE debates, but he gave no hint as to what any changes on those restrictions might be. (Or was this sentence even about ROE or not? Maybe I’m too optimistic, and interpreting statements in the way I’d like them to have been meant, when really they meant something else.) Perhaps this will be clarified by Tony Snow on Thursday. Unless the White House Press Corps are so dumb that they don’t even understand the possible significance of this sentence (distinct possibility).

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  • Dominique R. Poirier

    My mind being much wrapped up in the reading of a long paper, I missed to read this recent article with all care it deserves. Actually, I have nothing but praise for this serious and documented analysis.

    Securing Iraq’s border seems to be a recurrent subject since some times and I still have in mind the difficulties one may have at successfully undertaking such task, as Col. David Galula meticulously describes it in his account of the costly techniques he experimented along the Algerian border during the Algerian War.
    It seems that progress and technology did little for our expectations to find such kind of works less costly since previous estimates relating to the cost of securing the Mexican border provides us a hint about the feasibility of this enterprise.
    Iraqi’s perimeter is 3,650 km long. This number includes an Irak-Iran border 1,458 km long, and 605 km for the Iraq-Syria border.

    The U.S. Mexican border is 3,141 km long, for comparison. According to estimates previously made about the cost of securing (fencing) the U.S.-Mexican border, and the Israel West Bank we may rely on a building cost of about $1.7 million per mile.
    So, in the case of Iraq, and on the basis of these numbers and estimates, securing the Iraq borders along Iran and Syria (total: 1,282 miles) would represent a cost of about $2.18 billions, to which we may add, in the case of countries such as Iran and Syria and considering the exceptional circumstances, a heavy additional cost of maintenance and surveillance. Moreover, if we expect not to be the unfortunate victims of a remake of the German strategy against the French Maginot Line in 1940 (done this time by small and stealthy units, of course) perhaps would it be well advised to secure, at least, the border of Iraq along Jordan (181 km), and this of Saudi Arabia (814 km) as well.
    These additional costs (618 miles) amount to about $1.05 billion. I do not state at all that to get involved in this undertaking would be reckless. I just think that, at such cost, one has to carefully consider such an investment and to ascertain it has much chance to be a profitable investment on the long run. Here lies my concern, actually.

    P.S.: For the records. Since some times, already, some intelligence services and special units, outside the United States, have considered with much seriousness the tactical use of inexpensive means of clandestine transportation easily concealable: namely paragliders and engine propelled paragliders.

  • Herschel Smith


    I enjoy your comments. As usual, they are thought-provoking and well-done.

    On the issue of illegal immigration and the border with Mexico, it really is very easy to solve, logistically and strategically. The border is not secure and illegal immigration is a problem for one simple reason: the political will to end it does not exist in the U.S. at this time, and probably never will. If the U.S. enacted federal laws to put CEOs in prison (who were found to have hired illegals) for mandatory terms without the possibility of parole, no matter how large or small the company or corporation, and then actually did begin sending them to federal prison, the hiring of illegals would desist and there would be a flood back across the border. The incentive being removed, part of the problem would be solved. Next, rather than put Guardsmen on the border with no ammunition, send more of them to the border and give them orders to arrest those who violate our borders and shoot those who resist. Finally, construct a fence from California to Texas with electronic surveillance and regular Guardsmen/dog patrols. Again, the political will does not exist, because companies are benefiting from the use of illegals to perform labor. The costs associated with medical care, uninsured motorist premiums, welfare, education, etc., for these low-skilled and low-paid workers goes to the public, and so given the size of this corporate welfare program, you can see why there is no chance at doing this. Couple this with the fact that most immigrants, because of the type of government in which they were raised, will vote socialist (i.e., for Democrats in larger numbers than Republicans), and you have two very big reasons the border will never be secured: 1) Republicans, and 2) Democrats. It is a political problem, not a logistical one.

    As to the very long border(s) with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran, I understand the issue and perhaps have not been detailed enough in my thoughts. I still believe, like General Patton, that fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity. Put a gaurd tower at a location, and the innovative illegal will find a way around, over or under it.

    The solution I attempt to point to is to launch offensive operations to deny the insurgents safe haven. It would prove to be far easier, my argument goes, to make the insurgent worry with his own safety in his supposedly safe staging areas in Jordan and Syria than to stop him once he attempts to come across the porous border.

    And … I understand why this is so politically difficult to swallow. It means war, but in the end, Syria is at war with us now, along with Iran, by the use of proxy fighters, as I have argued in previous posts.

    Of course, this does pose a dilemma for our “friend,” Jordan. Raids across the Jordanian border would be a “sticky wicket” indeed.

    [Editorial Comment: This comment is edited for response to previous comment by Dave, HPS]

    Dave, I have just now had the chance to read your comment on this post, and you make great observations and ask great questions.  Does the administration even come close to understanding the implications of changing ROE and what the failures of ROE are?  I don’t know.

    Stay tuned.  I have another post coming on ROE soon.  You won’t want to miss it.  Thanks for your insight.


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You are currently reading "The Broader War: Redefining our Strategy for Iraq", entry #441 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Syria,War & Warfare and was published January 9th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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