How long did it take to learn counterinsurgency in Iraq?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

The Small Wars Journal blog post COIN Toss is better reading for the comments than the TNR article it links.  Gian Gentile questions the assertion that we didn’t learn counterinsurgency in Iraq until 2004 (2005, 2006 or whenever)?  Questioning conventional wisdom again, he is.

Gulliver treats us to his customary exercise in asininity by questioning how much reading Gian has done, but Gian presses the question – and he is correct to do this.  Of David Ucko’s book, Gian states:

Because your book, David, conforms to the Coin template. It accepts the notion without evidentiary proof that the American Army did not start learning and adapting until a certain point, then after that it did. You say 2005, then I ask again why 2005 and not 2003? What proof do you have? Don Wright’s and Tim Reese’s book, “On Point II,” argues the opposite that the majority of Army combat units were learning and adapting and adjusting to Coin very quickly, almost as soon as they hit the ground in Spring and Summer of 2003. I heard a very senior American Army General who commanded a Division in Iraq in 2003 (not General Petraeus by the way) state basically the same thing that his Division learned and adapted quite well to the various situations that confronted them on the ground.

Your book reads almost verbatim like the Nagl/Krepinevich critique of the American Army in Vietnam in which the American Army did not learn and adapt in that war. Moonshine. It did, in many different ways. So too did the American Army start its learning and adapting in Iraq in 2003. And do you want to know why it was able to do that learning and adapting so quickly, David? Because it was an army trained and optimized for combined arms warfare. It is books like yours that elevate the principle of learning and adapting toward better population centric coin above the fundamental necessity to do combined arms. In a sense you and many of the other Coin experts are putting the cart before the horse. The ability to do combined arms at all organizational levels gives an army in whatever situation it is thrust into the subsequent ability to seize and maintain the initiative; it can act. And if it acts first in response to a hostile enemy force or complex conditions through the initiative it can learn and adapt. My worry is that all of this talk of Coin and learning Coin and learning and adapting, yada, yada, yada, has taken our eyes off the absolute necessity of combined arms competencies and replaced it with an artificial construct of learning and adapting toward better population centric Counterinsurgency. As I have argued before, the rules of this construct, however, do not allow a unit to learn and adapt its way out of doing Coin. This box that we are in continues to push us down the Coin path toward significant organizational changes, and it keeps us locked in a world of tactics and operations, unable to see and do strategy. Strategy in war of course is more important than tactics and operations. It was a failure at strategy that caused us to lose the Vietnam War, not because the American Army didn’t learn and adapt toward doing better Coin tactics and operations.

Briefly repeating what I said in Do we need a less aggressive force posture in Afghanistan:

To be sure, the importance of the “awakening” in Anbar must be one of the elements of understanding that campaign, but the popular myth has grown up around Western Iraq that makes it all about drinking chai, siding with the tribes, going softer in our approach, and finally listening to them as they communicated to us.  And the leader of this revolution in counterinsurgency warfare was none other than General Petraeus.  We were losing until he appeared on the scene, and when he did things turned around.

We Americans love our generals, but this explanation has taken on mythical proportions, and is itself full of myths, gross exaggerations and outright falsehoods.  While Captain Travis Patriquin was courting Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, elements of the U.S. forces were targeting his smuggling lines and killing his tribal members to shut down his sources of income.  The tribal awakening had a context, and that was the use of force.  As the pundits talk about the tribes, the Marines talk about kinetics.

Furthermore, the tribal awakening was specific to Ramadi.  The beginnings of cooperation between U.S. forces and local elements came in al Qaim between Marines and a strong man police chief named Abu Ahmed.  In Haditha it necessitated sand berms around the city to isolate it from insurgents coming across the border from Syria, along with a strong man police chief named Colonel Faruq.

In Fallujah in 2007 it required heavy kinetics, followed on by census taking, gated communities, biometrics and heavy policing.  Even late in 2007 Ramadi was described by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman as like Stalingrad.  Examples abound, and as late as 2008, artillery elements fired as many as 11,000 155 mm (M105) rounds in Baquba, Iraq in response to insurgent mortar activity.

Whatever else General Petraeus did for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Marine campaign for Anbar was underway, prosecuted before the advent of Petraeus, and continued the same way it was begun.  The Marines lost more than 1000 men in combat, and this heavy toll was a necessary investment regardless of drinking chai with the locals.

Regular readers know that I am not part of the COIN bandwagon.  We didn’t learn counterinsurgency TTPs in Iraq from FM 3-24 or the advent of the right generals.  The campaign in Anbar conducted by the U.S. Marines started, was conducted, and ended like it started and was conducted.  There was no turning to the right or to the left.  It was relentless, full-orbed targeting of the insurgency and policing of the population at its root.  It had phases because counterinsurgency has them, not because of a new general.

It may be that we in fact did learn strategically in greater Iraq, but not in the way the COIN proponents claim.  When the Baghdad Museum was under assault for its wares and possessions and the public saw this, most heads of household likely thought, “Uh huh, check the box, I get it.  It’s clear now.  They either don’t have what it takes or refuse to protect my belongings.  My entire net worth will be spent on that AK-47 after all.”  And young Omar saw exactly what paid well.

Overthrowing a government while our Soldiers and Marines had to follow on in post-Saddam Iraq with rules that resemble the SCOTUS decision in Tennessee v. Garner was a mistake of mammoth proportions, and lead to countless deaths of both U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.  Paradoxically, our aim and desire for civility lead in part to the pain they and we experienced.  Leaving Sadr alive (who was in the actual possession of the 3/2 Marines) because the British and Sistani wanted us to was a mistake.  Withdrawing from Fallujah during the first assault (al Fajr) was a mistake, and so on the process goes.

But these are strategic failures – failures of command, and failures that if anything else too closely followed COIN / nation building dogma.  No, drinking chai with the locals didn’t win Iraq.  We were successful when we allowed our fighting men to do what was necessary to win the peace.


  1. On January 5, 2010 at 6:50 am, David Ucko said:

    You may be interested (but nonetheless forcefully disagree) with my follow-up to Gian’s post:

    1) Schmedlap (and Gian): Perhaps I was not clear: I was talking about institutional learning, not operational conduct or even operational outcomes. So my evidence is not what happened in Iraq (which hinges on much more than the actions of U.S. troops) but on my research into DOTMLPF of the U.S military as an institution. I am not married to 2005 as a turning-point, but it does seem justifiable-enough from my research. Compare, say, the interim COIN manual of late 2004 with the feel of the many COIN-related articles in, say, Military Review in 2005. Humble beginnings for sure, and not doctrine, but stuff that would later inform doctrine directly. This is just one example of many.

    2) Operationally, in Iraq, it would seem to me that learning was patchy and cannot be divided into pre- and post- a certain date. Gian, you cite On Point II to suggest everyone knew what they were doing right from the start. I think there are many other credible sources that argue otherwise. Why is Point II held up as Gospel and those other sources dismissed as “dominant narrative COIN porn”?

    3) I don’t buy the idea that COIN is an evolutionary impasse that will stifle further innovation. Again it comes down to what the strategic objectives are. If it is to stabilize a war-torn country, which I am not saying is always a wise or even possible end-state, some of the core principles and actions of COIN seem necessary.

    4) Schmedlap: I am not so certain that a different approach earlier on would not have produced different results. I think that there were identifiable groups and leaders even in the initial years of ‘post-conflict operations’, but much of the talk back then was of a ‘hydra-headed network’ of ‘cells’ without structure, something that meshed with the transformation-dominated lexicon of the time. Yet from the very outset of ‘post-conflict’ operations, individual units were able to apply approaches similar to those encouraged under the surge and obtain greater levels of stability in their AO. That’s not to say that particular opportunities were not also there in early 2007, but maybe it is also the case the opportunities could have been spotted and exploited earlier on, but were not. Of course, the greatest such opportunity would have been to work things differently from the very outset. A greater preparation and familiarity with COIN at that point would, in my mind, have had a great difference on subsequent events.

  2. On January 5, 2010 at 9:49 am, Herschel Smith said:


    I appreciate your visit to my site. To be completely clear, I have not read you book and make no claims to have. I’m sure that it makes an interesting read.

    Also to be completely clear as I have before to regular readers, I cannot speak with any authority to the campaign for Iraq generally. Because of my review of the primary and secondary source material, as well as extensive interviews of Marines, I can speak with some authority to the campaign in Western Iraq (for Anbar).

    I suspect that some units learned their way through the campaign in Iraq faster than others. That said, I do not buy the notion that the Marine campaign was substantially affected by the advent of FM 3-24 or Generals Petraeus or Odierno (in spite of the fact that I find much in them to like and admire).

    The Marine campaign for Anbar just didn’t work that way. Its ebb and flow occurred aside from and irrespective of the command in Baghdad (or any field manual). I understand that there were some elements of Army and even NG in Anbar, but primarily it was a Marine mission, and it was conducted the way Marines conduct campaigns.

    So my comment was aimed primarily at Gian’s comment (I am quite familiar with Gian’s arguments), not your book (with which I have no familiarity).

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You are currently reading "How long did it take to learn counterinsurgency in Iraq?", entry #4374 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Col. Gian Gentile,Counterinsurgency,Iraq and was published January 5th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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