Concerning the Failure of Counterinsurgency in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
17 years, 1 month ago

The coming weeks will set the course for the closing of U.S. action in Iraq.  Given the recent flurry of activity to put the final pieces in place, it is wise to reflect on the failure of counterinsurgency thus far in Iraq, and ascertain exactly what more proposed troops will do, how they will do it, and what would demarcate a victory.

There is no doubt that positive reports can be found concerning the state of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and particularly so when the reports come straight from the front by Milbloggers. There is of course progress being made, but this progress may be characterized as slow, arduous and dangerous, whether from Milbloggers or main stream media.

The Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen involved in OIF have performed marvelously, have done everything that has been required of them, and have made progress despite the overly-restrictive rules of engagement, lack of appropriate equipment (e.g., fourteen Marines getting killed by an IED due to driving down a desert road in an Amphibious Assault Vehicle) and lack of adequate forces to do the task at hand.

The emphasis on force protection for U.S. troops has led to low casualties, by design, compared with previous wars.  This is an admirable feature of the war planning for OIF. But it is becoming clear that the application of counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics in Iraq, and particularly for the Anbar Province, have been a dismal failure as it regards effecting the desired outcome.

In Eschatology and Counterterrorism Warfare I discussed the exodus that is occurring from Iraq, with the Anbar and Diyala Provinces being particularly hard hit. There are now 1.4 million displaced Iraqi citizens and every day sees three thousand more who flee the country. Working the back alleys and neighborhoods where there is no constant U.S. presence, the Sunni insurgents are waging a campaign of murder and intimidation to demonstrate that neither the Iraqi government nor U.S. forces can protect people.

It is stylish to cite David Galula and claim that the U.S. approach to Iraq has been too heavy handed. The solution, it is claimed, is to see that 80% of the solution is and will always be political. But just to show how utterly irrelevant Galula’s system is to Iraq, consider a single quote: “The battle for the population is a major characteristic of the revolutionary war. . . . The objective being the population itself, the operations designed to win it over (for the insurgent) or to keep it at least submissive (for the counterinsurgent) are essentially of a political nature. . . . And so intricate is the interplay between the political and military actions that they cannot be tidily separated; on the contrary, every military move has to be weighed with regard to its political effects, and vice versa.”

It sounds nice. Now take a closer read: “The objective being the population itself, the operations designed to win it over (for the insurgent) …,” has exactly backwards what the insurgents and counterinsurgents have been doing.  The U.S. has been trying to win over the population, not keep it submissive, and the insurgents have been trying to keep them submissive, not win them over.   If anything, intimidation has been the one and only tactic of the insurgency.  The premise being false, the system then suffers in misapplication. Perhaps a more poignant example comes from a West Point essay, “Hearts and Minds as a Misleading Misnomer.”

The easiest way to understand legitimacy is to ascertain how or to whom a citizen turns to solve his or her social, political or economic problems. If citizens desire educational reform, and they rely on the government to fix that, then the government’s system has legitimacy … similarly, if citizens have decided that the insurgent’s system will best provide land reform, then the insurgent has captured legitimacy from the regime … in many instances (the Viet Cong was a great example), terror, violence, and coercion are short-term “sticks” that the insurgency employs until the long-term “carrots” (solving citizen problems) validate their proposed system.

This philosophy marks the COIN training in the U.S. armed forces today. Solving social, political and economic problems is the hallmark of successful COIN, it is believed, and hence the U.S. attempts to do it better than the insurgents.  Far from being too late or not vigorous enough in the application of Galula’s views, we have applied his theories with a vengeance.

Yet upon serious reflection, the reader will see that something is deeply wrong. The insurgents in Iraq have never transitioned to the next phase of insurgency, the phase we’ll call “system validation.” The only interest that they have shown in education has been to threaten and kill teachers and professors; in the words of one Baghdad citizen, “I forced my son to leave school. It’s more important that he be alive than educated.”

Among conservative Milbloggers, of which I am one, it is not popular to say that our strategy is wrong in Iraq, perhaps because it is seen as a reflection on the troops rather than of the leadership. But the idea that a failure rests on the shoulders of the troops is surely false and just plain wrongheaded.  With perfect troops, the wrong strategy will doom U.S. efforts. In addition to studying positive reports about the successes in Iraq, it is useful to study contrary viewpoints to round out our understanding of the situation.

Some reports directly from Iraq paint a picture of the nation as a killing field, leading exactly to the exodus we are witnessing.

The last three months have been the worst in Iraq’s history. There have been more killings of innocent people than the worst days and months the country has passed through in the past.

According to official figures at least 100 innocent Iraqis perish everyday. The figures of course cannot be trusted as many more murdered Iraqis are buried as relatives find it unnecessary to report their deaths.

Our municipalities now spend more time collecting human corpses form (sic) the streets of major cities, particularly in Baghdad, than gathering garbage.

Most of these corpses do not carry identity cards and hospitals lack the means to identify them. Many are buried in mass graves.

Closer to home, in testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. General Michael D. Maples admitted to a badly deteriorating security situation in Iraq.  NCOs who have been to Iraq report stories reminiscent of the wild west: “The locals have repeatedly conveyed to us horrid tales of shop owners being pulled from their places of business and executed directly outside their storefronts, or mysterious uniformed men driving up and snatching people right off the street, never to be heard from again. Most of the wealthy homes now stand empty, their owners having fled to less politically free but certainly less volatile Middle Eastern countries.”  The Anbar Province is described as a wasteland.

Ramadi has been laid waste by two years of warfare. Houses stand shattered and abandoned. Shops are shuttered up. The streets are littered with rubble, wrecked cars, fallen trees, broken lampposts and piles of rubbish.

Fetid water stands in craters. The pavements are overgrown. Walls are pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel. Side roads have been shut off with concrete barriers to thwart car bombs. Everything is coated in grey dust even the palm trees. The city has no functioning government, no telephones, and practically no basic services except sporadic electricity and water supplies. It has been reduced to a subsistence economy.

There are stray cats and wild dogs, but few cars or humans. Ramadi’s inhabitants have either fled, or learnt to stay indoors.

Concerning amelioration of the violence, Maliki stopped the targeting of the Sadrists, and the U.S. is in what is called by the U.N. Security Council a ‘security partnership’ with the Iraqi government.  The U.S. can no longer take unilateral action in Iraq, of course, unless the political will exists stateside to do so.  This is doubtful.

So why the failure of the Galula model for COIN? What is so different about Iraq? Perhaps the following list is a beginning point for what will without a doubt be the subject of many future dissertations at war colleges.

First, treating the disenfranchised sect as if they were “in play.”  Robert Haddick (Westhawk), similar to Michael Rubin, recommending that the U.S. give up on Sunni reconciliation, comments:

As General Abizaid predicted, Iraqi society, at least the Sunni Arab portion, rebelled against the “antibody.” Since then, the U.S. military has attempted to fight a counterinsurgency campaign, using several standard techniques. Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s very demanding ambassador in Iraq, has forced Iraq’s political elites to form a “national unity” government. He has also worked tirelessly on political reconciliation with Iraq’s rebellious Sunni Arab community. The U.S. has spent the past two years developing and mentoring an Iraqi army and police force. Military operations have been restrained and highly discrete, with the aim of targeting those who might intimidate the population, while also attempting to avoid alienating the population into siding with the insurgents.

These are all classic counterinsurgency gambits, designed to provide an attractive alternative to the insurgency, with the hope of drying up its support. Unfortunately, the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign has failed. The failure rests more with Saddam Hussein’s legacy than it does with American tactics. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs were never “in play,” ready to be talked or bribed into supporting the Shi’ite/Kurdish majority government in Baghdad. As for Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds, they have thirty years of very painful memories. And the recent failures at reconciliation have done nothing to improve trust among Iraq’s sects.

If Haddick is right, and I believe that he is, the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni minority was doomed from the beginning.  The overthrown sect had too much at stake simply to crumble and acquiesce to Shi’ite and/or Kurdish rule, or so they thought.  The situation was never conducive to the application of Galula’s principals.  We tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, and all the more so each time it didn’t work.

Second, ignoring the affects of a thousand-year religious war within the population in Iraq.  Sunni-Shi’ite relations constitute a thousand year religious war, and to assume that democracy (or freedom) would heal divisions and become seminal in the region with the overthrow of Saddam’s regime might have been hamhanded and naive.  At the very least, plans to address this deeply held religious divide should have been made, and security in such a powderkeg would certainly necessitate more force projection and quicker response to the initial violence upon toppling of the regime.

Third, failing to recognize the affects of the previous regime having trained the Iraqi people to cower in fear of violence.  American freedom for several hundred years has created an indomitable spirit that would make an occupation of the U.S. impossible for foreign troops, no matter how many there were or how long they tried.  Iraq is the perfect contrast.  Saddam’s secret police created such a culture of fear and treachery that they were ready-made for the brutality employed by the insurgency.  They have decades of simply staying alive under their belt as preparation for the terrorists.  They knew exactly what to do, and it didn’t include sustaining risk to assist the U.S. in hunting down the enemy.

Fourth, oil money.  The scandalous and idiotic oil-for-food program poured money into a region that was otherwise destitute because of sanctions, and this money didn’t go to the people who needed it.  So even sanctions didn’t help to strip the enemy of his funds.  In the broader region, the ready availability of large sums of cash make it easy to hire mercenaries, from both inside and outside Iraq, to battle U.S. troops.  The easy availability of oil money also creates criminal elements when there is no stable government to police them.

Fifth, the nexus of terrorism and technology.  Just forty years ago, an insurgent may backpack a single artillery shell along the Ho Chi Minh trail for months, only to see it used in a second, and then turn around to hike the trail and do it all over again.  Technological advances and the cheap availability of high tech equipment has radically changed the face of terrorism.

The world is now characterized by the near-instantaneous proliferation of information and misinformation, ease-to-use communication systems, and technologies that provide cheap, readily improvised WMD capabilities. At the same time, the development of our cultural, social, economic, industrial, and political structures offers vulnerabilities never dreamed of by earlier terrorists. This presents unprecedented problems for security forces, problems that are neither purely military nor purely law enforcement, but a mixture of both, with a lot of complex intelligence demands. All this places complex strains on governmental jurisdictions, and the intersection of the public and private sectors, not to mention civil liberties, cultural traditions, and privacy.

We were utterly unprepared for the toll that IEDs would take on U.S. troops, and even after it became obvious that this was a leading tactic of the enemy, we reacted with lethargy.

Sixth, not recognizing the dynamic scope of the battlefieldRecently captured intelligence documents show an undeniable link between Iran and the violence in Iraq.  John Little comments that “If these documents actually surprised anyone in our intelligence community we’re in trouble. Finding supporting documentation is a good thing but Iran’s desire to destabilize Iraq, and their willingness to deal with anyone in the process, should have been well understood before these documents were siezed.”  But we may indeed be in trouble, not learning our lessons from years gone by.  Michael Rubin points out that from even before the war began going on into the first months of the war, Iran was training militia and sending huge sums of money and materiel into Iraq.  Their plans have been active for years.  Over to the west, insurgents pour in across a Syrian border that has not been securred.  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.

Seventh, the utilization of violence as an exclusive-use procedure by the insurgents.  The insurgents have not yet transitioned from violence to “system validation.”  There is no compelling need to do so, as Iranian influence in eastern Iraq exceeds that of the U.S., many of the Sunnis want nothing of reconciliation, and there is an exodus of refugees from Iraq to other parts of the world.  The success achieved by the insurgents (and Shi’ite militia) ensures the continued use of violence.  There is no need to fix something that isn’t broken.

It has been said that successful COIN warfare takes ten years on average.  Even if this is true, we do not have ten years to perform COIN operations in Iraq.  And the U.S. public is not to blame.  Four years has been given to the administration, and at least the first couple (after the toppling of the regime) were squandered.  This squandering of time and resources, while it affected public sentiment in the U.S., affected Iraq even more.  The U.S. public, even now, is likely to give the administration longer than the situation on the ground in Iraq will allow.  The critical path to solving Iraq doesn’t rest with public sentiment.  If Iraq is a killing field sustaining an exodus of refugees to Syria and Jordan as it appears is the case, we simply do not have ten years.  The basis for this boundary condition is Iraq, not the U.S.  The same COIN strategy, six years from now, will see the annihilation of the Sunni population and rise of Iran as the only true power in Iraq.

I have been vocal in pointing out the effects of inadequate force projection in Iraq.  It appears at the moment that there will be a modest troop increase.  But force projection is not the same thing as force size.  Victor Davis Hanson’s observations point to a different problem than one of force size.  Hanson’s recommendations focus on the what and how of U.S. engagements.

There have been a number of anomalies in this war, as a brilliant American tactical victory in removing Saddam has not translated into quick strategic success. But one of the most worrisome developments is the narrowing of the recent debate to the single issue of surging troops, as if the problem all along has just been one of manpower.

It hasn’t. The dilemma involves the need to fight an asymmetrical war of counter-insurgency that hinges on what troops do, rather than how many are engaged. We have gone from a conventional victory over Saddam Hussein to an asymmetrical struggle against jihadist insurgents to what is more or less third-party policing of random violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Our past errors were not so much dissolving a scattered Iraqi military or even de-Baathification, but rather giving an appearance of impotence, whether in allowing the looting to continue or pulling back from Fallujah or giving a reprieve to the Sadr militias.

So, yes, send more troops to Iraq — but only if they are going to be allowed to hunt down and kill vicious and sectarians in a manner that they have not been allowed to previously.

This surge should be not viewed in terms of manpower alone. Rather it should be planned as the corrective to past misguided laxity, in which no quarter will now be given to die-hard jihadists as we pursue victory, not better policing. We owe that assurance to the thousands more of young Americans who now will be sent into harm’s way.

Whether we take Haddick’s approach or Hanson’s approach (giving up on the Sunnis and leaving versus forcing their hand by a drastic strategy change), 2.0E4 more troops doing the same things and pursuing the same strategy will bring disrepute to U.S. warfighting capabilities and more U.S. casualties.  It has been said that the difference between the Viet Cong and the jihadist is that the VC didn’t follow us home, and the jihadist will.  And so they will indeed.  Yet we are waging partial war with forty year old COIN doctrine that is more applicable to the VC than the jihadists.  A different paradigm is needed, one that squarely faces the murder and suicide cult that is jihadism; that doesn’t patrol Marines down city streets to get sniped without ever firing a shot at the enemy because we have hamstrung our own snipers with our rules of engagement; that recognizes that mothers don’t care about an education for their children compared to keeping them alive; that recognizes and addresses the dynamic battlefield where borders and foreign fighters are as important as the local government; and that realizes that mutual trust will be difficult, or perhaps impossible, in a land where lies and deceipt are ubiquitous and constant.

A moderate troop size increase coupled with the same strategy and tactics will be likened – and properly so – to Olmert’s last desperate battle with Hezballah where, in order to save face and make the war effort appear as a victory for Israel, he sent more IDF troops to their deaths and then retreated.  It will neither appear as a victory nor accomplish anything good.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On January 8, 2007 at 1:37 pm, dw said:


    Our past errors were not so much dissolving a scattered Iraqi military or even de-Baathification, but rather giving an appearance of impotence, whether in allowing the looting to continue or pulling back from Fallujah or giving a reprieve to the Sadr militias.

    Excellent summary Herschel.

    I don’t know if anyone is listening. I hear GW Bush asking for ideas as to what to do, but “kill a hundred thousand bad guys” seems to be thinking outside the box.

  2. On January 8, 2007 at 4:13 pm, chr said:

    The Galula model has not failed in Iraq, it has not even been attempted. The Galula model states that an area be cleared of insurgants first by military force then held by civil athorities. Once American Forces clear an area, they leave to quell another hot spot. The vacuum created by departing US troops is filled by the bad guys. Its whack-a-mole. This will continue until there are either enough Iraq troops and police to police an area or enough US troops to fully occupy the country (which will never happen).

  3. On January 8, 2007 at 4:28 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    I think you somewhat mischaracterize the Galula model. If it were that easy, our boys would all be home now. It is a point of his doctrine that to clear an area of all insurgents requires the assistance of the population, and their assistance can be obtained via these heart-winning actions. In his view, it is an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between population, insurgents counterinsurgents, politics, and social infrastructure. The insurgents and counterinsurgents are competing for the approval of the population.

    I disagree. They have tried the Galula model and it has failed. However, I agree with your suggestion that clearing insurgents, i.e., the clear, hold and rebuild philosophy, requires more troops. I have argued this from the beginning. No matter whose approach you use, we needed more troops to do COIN.

    However, there is another issue, that of force projection. Galula favors a small footprint and minimum force. I argue elsewhere for maximum footprint and force projection, with force projection NOT being equivalent to the actual exercise of that force. To explain this would require a rundown of the Marines and their presence in Somalia (before the Army) versus how the Rangers and Delta Force (and 10th Mountain) did it. I don’t have time now to go into this. Perhaps later.

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You are currently reading "Concerning the Failure of Counterinsurgency in Iraq", entry #435 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Small Wars,War & Warfare and was published January 8th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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