12-10-07: Thoughts on the Counterinsurgency Campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 8 months ago

Ralph Peters has an interesting analysis in the Armed Forces Journal of the campaign as it is currently being waged in Iraq, entitled Dishonest Doctrine: A Selective Use of History Taints the COIN Manual.

A year after its publication, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual remains deeply disturbing, both for the practical dangers it creates and for the dishonest approach employed to craft it.

The most immediate indication of the manual’s limitations has been Army Gen. David Petraeus’ approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq. The manual envisions COIN operations by that Age of Aquarius troubadour, Donovan, wearing his love like heaven as he proceeds to lead terrorists, insurgents and militiamen to a jamboree at Atlantis. Although the finalized document did, ultimately, allow that deadly force might sometimes be required, it preached — beware doctrine that preaches — understanding, engagement and chat. It was a politically correct document for a politically correct age.

Entrusted with the mission of turning Iraq around, Petraeus turned out to be a marvelously focused and methodical killer, able to set aside the dysfunctional aspects of the doctrine he had signed off on. Given the responsibility of command, he recognized that, when all the frills are stripped away, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help — and knowing the difference between the two (we spent our first four years in Iraq striking out on all three counts). Although Petraeus has, indeed, concentrated many assets on helping those who need help, he grasped that, without providing durable security — which requires killing those who need killing — none of the reconstruction or reconciliation was going to stick. On the ground, Petraeus has supplied the missing kinetic half of the manual.

The entire article is worth the study.  Dave Dilegge at the Small Wars Journal has a response to this article by Peters (among other things), which is also well worth the study time.  Dave makes several powerful points, among them the lack of understanding Paul Bremer brought to the political scene in Iraq.  I will not weigh in with detail concerning these articles, but I will provide several thoughts.

First, I am not convinced that this is an “either-or” choice.  Rather, I still see things as a “both-and” relationship.  Heavy kinetic kinetic operations to kill or capture the insurgents was and is still necessary, along with settling with the (presumed and erstwhile) enemy with broad, sweeping programs and negotiations.  I have from the very beginning supported the idea of payment for concerned citizens as my articles show (see Concerning the Tribes, Are we Bribing the Sheikhs?, and Payment to Concerned Citizens: Strategy of Genius or Shame?).

Next thought.  I know that this tactic has been referred to as “renting hearts and minds.”  I am not naive concerning exactly what we are accomplishing with this approach.  We have killed those who would not reconcile with us in Anbar, while giving work and money to those who would.  This situation cannot last forever, and real political and economic progress must be eventually made in Iraq for this temporary solution to bear fruit.

Third thought.  There is a robust belief that the campaign as currently constituted doesn’t bear any relationship whatsoever to the one envisioned by FM 3-24.  This quote I am providing is straight from Iraq from a field grade officer: “Petraeus  is directing a counterinsurgency strategy, which is good, but the “Petraeus” counterinsurgency plan that was rolled out last winter is dead and buried, and that is also good.”

Fourth thought.  I am aware that robust force protection is being practiced as part of the campaign, as well as the fact that hundreds of combat outposts throughout urban and other areas of Iraq presented a logistical nightmare of mammoth proportions.  Combat outposts were merely a means to an end, and to the degree that they are helpful they should be used and to the degree that they are harmful or unnecessary or even impossible given the boundary conditions of force protection, then they should be jettisoned.

But they should be engaged or jettisoned within the correct context and after being applied the same way they were in Anbar.  Among the hundreds of things that are not generally understood about the Anbar campaign (which is why I began the category The Anbar Narrative), is the issue of combat outposts.  The Marines do seven month deployments rather than twelve or sixteen month deployments, and so the notion of sixteen months at a combat outpost seems ludicrous.  Further, the Marines never stayed at combat outposts for the full deployment.  Combat outposts (in combination with Iraqi Police Precincts later in the campaign) were a duty rotation, along with FOB security, patrols, kinetic operations, etc.  Marines are rotated through combat outposts, and carry all necessary supplies and ordnance with them on the rotation, causing much less logistical problems than the idea of deploying Soldiers for more than a year at a single location with logistics being relied upon to deploy all supplies to location.  Marines were never at a combat outpost for more than a couple of weeks at a time — just the right amount of time to carry all provisions in a backpack.  It is an austere lifestyle, to be sure.

The point is that acceptance or rejection of a tactic should be based on a sound understanding of how that tactic has and has not been employed in the past rather than theoretical  doctrine.  As one final thought for today, sadly, the Afghanistan campaign continues to unravel.  I have just seen an account over Fox News of the desire of the population in Afghanistan to negotiate and bring the Taliban into the ranks of the government in order to stop the violence (the Taliban are checking off military win after gruesome slaughter of innocents after successful intimidation of the locals, and so on, while also asserting that they will never negotiate with Karzai, regardless of what the populations of America and Afghanistan wish to believe).  Secretary of Defense Gates has denied the request of the Marine Commandant to deploy Marines to Afghanistan.

So be it.  He is in charge.  But if I read the signs correctly, even if we have rejected (at least part of) FM 3-24 in Iraq, the campaign in Afghanistan has used the small footprint model to the extreme.  And we are about to lose Afghanistan.  For lack of kinetic operations against the enemy, it will soon turn into a magnificent, remarkable loss that American history will be unable to avoid.  While settling with the Taliban is far different from settling with Anbaris who were fighting for nationalistic reasons rather than religious fanaticism should be obvious, it will be the subject of future articles.  But suffice it to say at the moment that our loss in Afghanistan will be a painful subject for the history books – and a topic in war college classrooms for decades.

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You are currently reading "12-10-07: Thoughts on the Counterinsurgency Campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan", entry #821 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Iraq and was published December 10th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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