Iraq and How it has Affected Military Tactics

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

Colonel Daniel Roper from the Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth was recently interviewed on the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and how tactics have evolved to address the insurgency.

Largely lost in the surge that sent more troops to Iraq this year and that lengthened the deployments already there was that the U.S. military began to change how it fights.

New doctrine drawn from mistakes made in this war and in battling previous insurgencies has called for less shooting, more talking, fewer bombs and more building (Editorial note: This description by the journalist is apt for the later stages of the campaign, but certainly not the first two and a half years of the Anbar campaign when Marines were involved in heavy combat, regardless of what the journalist or Colonel Roper might claim).

That has been widely credited for helping ease violence in Iraq this year and shaping new alliances made in Iraqi communities to root out al-Qaida and other terror operations.

Army Col. Daniel Roper is just back from three months in Iraq to take over as director of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth. Part of his job is to tweak the doctrine. Part is also to sell its principles to the military and to the American public.

The colonel spoke with The Kansas City Star. The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Q: Has the relative success in Iraq, a less dangerous but still violent and volatile place, come from the new approach to counterinsurgency, or because of the surge?

A: It’s both. To do counterinsurgency successfully requires resources. It means having boots on the ground. But then when you’re there, you need to do things the right way. Make connections. Build relationships. Earn trust with the population.

Q: Do the vastly larger troop numbers in Iraq explain why the situation there has improved while security has deteriorated in Afghanistan?

A: It’s the same principles. In Afghanistan it’s a lot about building roads, because that’s what they need so badly there. But there’s no secret that we’re looking to get additional help from other countries there.

Editorial observation: It is not apparent whether Colonel Roper is saying that road construction can be a means to defeat the insurgency, but if so, I must disagree.  Roads were not in place prior to the time at which the Taliban forcibly took authority over the government, and while we should support the construction of roads and other building projects as a means to bring trade and commerce and thereby undercut one motivator for recruitment for the insurgency, this should be seen as a means of amelioration and prevention, and certainly not a replacement for military tactics.  Finally, the existence of roads doesn’t necessarily mean that they can be used for commerce.  In Musa Qala: The Argument for Force Projection, we discussed a main road, Afghanistan’s Highway 1, that is dangerous enough that it is a deterrent to commerce.

The ruined Afghan police truck smoldered on the highway in the village bazaar, flames rising from its cargo bed. The village was silent. Its residents had hidden themselves ahead of a U.S. patrol.

The remains of a second truck, a tanker, sat on its wheel rims 100 yards to the north. To the south, another patrol was removing two other freshly burned tankers from the highway, clearing the lanes so traffic might pass.

The Americans examined the police truck. Holes marked where bullets had passed through. The front passenger door was gone; a rocket-propelled grenade had struck and exploded there.

This vehicle graveyard on Highway 1, roughly 50 miles south of Kabul, the Afghan capital, symbolizes both the ambitions and frustrations in Afghanistan six years after the Taliban were chased from power.

Highway 1 is the country’s main road, the route between Kabul and Kandahar, the country’s second largest city. It lies atop an ancient trade route that, in theory, could connect Central Asia and Afghanistan with ports in Pakistan, restoring Afghanistan’s place as a transit hub for something besides heroin.

The highway, which has been rebuilt with $250 million from the United States and other nations, accommodates a daily flow of automobiles, buses and ornately decorated cargo carriers, which the soldiers call “jingle trucks.”

The Afghan and U.S. governments say the road’s restored condition is a tangible step toward a self-sufficient Afghanistan.

But Highway 1 remains bedeviled by danger, extortion and treachery. Police corruption and insurgent attacks sow fear and make traveling many sections of the road a lottery. The risks limit its contribution to the economy and underscore the government’s weakness beyond Kabul.

Roads help, but they cannot defeat an insurgency.  Continuing with the interview:

Q: Might that suggest that our troop shortage, and the move we’re seeing now to begin to roll back from the surge, could mean a loss of the gains that have been made?

A: It’s patience. And that’s very hard. Do we want to sign up for something that’s going to last 10 years? Do we have a choice?

There’s a risk that we lose some of our gains when brigades pull out. But in talking with commanders in Iraq no one suggested that they were unduly concerned that all would be lost.

Q: How does mounting resentment toward the U.S. occupation in Iraq — four and a half years now — make it more difficult to win over ordinary Iraqis?

A: In some cases it would be a problem.

But we’re getting out with the people and getting away from being an occupying force. Just the right presence with just the right tactics, that’s how you actually win this fight.

Unless you plan to colonize a place and stay forever, you cannot kill your way to success.

The key is to isolate the insurgents from the population — both physically and psychologically.

Q: Lt. Col. John Nagl, a key contributor to the new counterinsurgency doctrine, said recently that the military is not going far enough or fast enough to adapt to the threat of insurgencies. Does he have a point?

A: You can make that case. We would all like it to move faster. There is a challenge for the guys on the ground. They have to adapt. This is not about how many people you can kill. It’s about how many connections you can make.

The hardest part is organizational. There are limited resources in competition with the need to be able to fight a major conventional conflict.

Q: In fact, some people suggest we might need two armies — one ready to take on the Koreans or the Chinese if the need arises, and one equipped for nuanced counterinsurgency. Is that right?

We’ll pause here for another editorial comment.  The interviewer is referring to what Thomas PM Barnett terms as the leviathan versus sysadmin forces,  the former being the forces that wage war, the later being the forces that builds nations and provides constabulary operations.  I am not convinced that the divisions are as clean and succinct as Barnett makes them out to be, but I will not weigh in on this issue at the moment beyond making this observation.  Concluding the interview:

A: Again, it’s a question of resources. That’s a decision for the Pentagon and a decision for the American people. What do you want the military to do? If being involved internationally means that you’re going to be dealing with insurgencies, then you make those choices.

This answer by Colonel Roper seems to presume that if there is going to be an imperial function in U.S. armed forces, this function necessitates that there be a leviathan/sysadmin bifurcation.  Whatever else one might think about this division, it is unrelated to the need for imperial troops, if such a function is deemed to be needful (The Marines have functioned in part as imperial troops in the more than 300 engagements since their birth on 10 November 1775.  It should be pointed out that whatever one thinks of interventionism and nation building, there are unintended consequences to isolationism too, and these consequences are seldom thought about by isolationists.  The assumption is usually made that proactive interventionism has only negative consequences, an obviously and demonstrably false assumption).


You are currently reading "Iraq and How it has Affected Military Tactics", entry #843 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency and was published December 22nd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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