The Strong Horse in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 9 months ago

In the Saturday, October 20, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Michael Ledeen wrote an interesting and compelling commentary entitled Victory is Within Reach in Iraq, in which he quote me from an article here at TCJ entitled Reorganizations and Defections Within the Insurgency in Iraq: “There is no point in fighting forces (U.S. Marines) who will not be beaten and who will not go away.”

On January 23, 2004, a letter was captured in a safe house in Baghdad from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to senior al Qaeda leadership, in which he said (in part) that “America, however, has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes.  It is looking to a near future, when it will remain safe in its bases, while handing over control of Iraq to a bastard government.”  While Zarqawi’s letter pointed to strategical problems he observed of the U.S. forces at the time, this letter might have sounded somewhat different if he had written it after the Marines were handed responsibility for Anbar.

Following this handover was the first and second battles for Fallujah, dangerous and deadly kinetic operations in the balance of Anbar, tribal negotiations in Ramadi, sand berms around Haditha, and integral to it all, combat outposts everywhere the Marines were to ensure the sustaining of risk along with the population.  Nibras Kazimi has commented of the tribal awakening in Anbar that “tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand.”  The so-called “awakening” didn’t happen in a vacuum.  Its backdrop involved blood and toil on the part of the Marines and Soldiers in Anbar, and just the right set of circumstances to persuade the population and tribal leadership that al Qaeda was a loser.

Bill Ardolino had a recent interview with an interpreter for the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines in Fallujah, the last significant battle for Anbar (Operation Alljah).  The interpreter had this interesting observation about the Marines with whom he had spent much of the last seven months of his life: “They are so patient. And they can fight outside of their country overseas, and I don’t think al Qaeda or someone else can fight like Marines, overseas and so distant from home.”

Ledeen concludes his perspective on the reasons for the winning strategy in Anbar, by saying that “We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it.”  Ledeen is not merely bragging about the capabilities or accomplishments of the Marines in Anbar, although there are plenty of reasons to do that.  The point goes further, and is the hinge upon which all of counterinsurgency turns.  Winning hearts and minds has to be about showing and using the strength to pacify a population, bring security to its people, and surgically defeat the enemies amongst them.

Other sources, Dave Dilegge at the Small Wars Journal Blog, Hearts and Minds:

The components of “Hearts” and “Minds”:

Hearts: The population must be convinced that our success is in their long-term interests.

Minds: The population must be convinced that we actually are going to win, and we (or a transition force) will permanently protect their interests.

Essential to these two components is the perceived self-interest of the population, not about whether the population likes COIN forces / government. The principle emotive content is respect, not affection. Support based on liking does not survive when the enemy applies fear, intimidation trumps affection. Disappointment, unreliability, failure and defeat are deadly – preserving prestige and popular respect through proven reliability, honoring promises and following through, is key. Smacking the enemy hard (kinetic operations), publicly, when feasible (and no innocents are targeted) is also key. The enemy’s two key assets are cultural understanding of the target population, and longevity (he will be around when we leave).


You are currently reading "The Strong Horse in Counterinsurgency", entry #660 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Iraq,Small Wars,Sunni Insurgency and was published October 22nd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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