Changing Course in Iraq Before It’s Too Late

Phil Carter believes there’s still time to get it right in Iraq. Giving that he philosophically opposed the war and has just returned from a tour of duty there as a recalled Army Reservist, his credibility is high.

He makes several points but two bear especial emphasis:

[T]he U.S. military must reverse its trend of consolidation and redeploy its forces into Iraq’s cities. Efficiency and force protection cannot define our military footprint in Iraq; if those are our goals, we may as well bring our troops home today. Instead, we must assume risk by pushing U.S. forces out into small patrol bases in the middle of Iraq’s cities where they are able to work closely with Iraqi leaders and own the streets. Counterinsurgency requires engagement. The most effective U.S. efforts thus far in Iraq have been those that followed this maxim, like the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, which established numerous bases within the city and attacked the insurgency from within with a mix of political, economic, and military action.

Since at least the debacle in Somalia, force protection has been paramount to mission accomplishment once we’ve left the major combat operations phase. Not only does that approach make it harder to get the job done, it paradoxically makes it harder to protect the force, too.

To combat the insurgency, America must adopt a more holistic approach than simply building up the country’s security forces. We have the seeds of this in Iraq today—the State Department’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I worked closely with the PRT in Diyala to advise the Iraqi courts, jails, and police, and I saw their tremendous potential. However, having been hamstrung by bureaucratic infighting between the State and Defense departments, these teams now lack the authority, personnel, and resources to run the reconstruction effort effectively. America should reach back to one of its positive lessons from Vietnam, the “Civil Operations and Rural Development Support” program. There, the United States created a unified organization to manage all military and civilian pacification programs, recognizing that only a unified effort could bring the right mix of political, economic, and military solutions to bear on problems.

Indeed, while we’ve spent hundreds of billions in the post-regime change phase of Iraq, we’ve scrimped on civilian reconstruction. Partly, this is owing to that that counterinsurgency efforts have diverted our resources and partly it’s a recognition that our enemies will sabotage these projects given their importance.

UPDATE: Max Boot thinks we’re on the wrong path in training the Iraqi security forces, too.

[S]ome of the best and brightest American officers are being steered away from Iraqi units. Everyone in the U.S. armed forces knows that the way to the top is to command American units, not to advise foreign units — even if the latter task is more difficult and more important.

One Army officer who has served in Iraq and would be well qualified for an advisory role told me recently that he was asked to become an ROTC instructor at home but not an advisor in Iraq. Those he sees being sent to help Iraqis tend to have “marginal career prospects.” “No one is diverted from a school or command,” he told me. “No one is sent after a successful command.”

Another experienced Army officer with a Special Forces background — exactly the kind of advisor we should be sending — actually tried to volunteer. He recalls being told by a personnel officer: “Boy, I would hate to waste you with an assignment like that. With your background and file quality, there are so many other billets I could assign you to.”


… T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, believes that 20,000 to 30,000 advisors are needed and that we should be sending officers who have successfully led American battalions and brigades. “We’re at least an order of magnitude off,” Hammes told me. “If our main effort is advisory, why aren’t our best people going to become advisors?”

Kevin Drum isn’t too far off the mark when he says, “the U.S. Army is still culturally allergic to counterinsurgency and security training.”

There have been numerous attempts to change that culture in recent years. Bill Clinton made Hugh Shelton, a Special Forces officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Don Rumsfeld brought Peter Schoomaker, a retired SF guy, out of retirement to make him Army Chief of Staff. That kind of duty is no longer a career killer. Still, there’s no doubt that the WWII-Cold War mindset of the “right” career path is still strong.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    I’m confused, here we have past and present servicemen suggesting that our Iraq strategy isn’t working. Doesn’t that make them traitors? Can someone from the right please help me out here.

  2. Anderson says:

    Phil Carter neglected to wish for a pony, but he might as well have, b/c we are not going to get any of what he asked for either.

    No diss on Carter, but there are lots of smart officers like him who have excellent advice on what to do. But Rumsfeld ain’t listening, Cheney ain’t listening, and Bush ain’t listening.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: The problems described by Carter and Boot are almost entirely with the uniformed military rather than the civilian leadership. They’re quite longstanding.

  4. legion says:

    While technically you are correct, bear in mind that only those that please the senior civilians get promoted to the highest flag ranks. And Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have been there for almost 6 years now, which is a non-trivial chunk of an officer’s career…

  5. spencer says:

    The Iraq so called army has no helicopters, no air force, no tanks, no artillery, etc., etc.,.

    In effect, it is a sort of untrained police force with a lot of rifles.

    If you really think turning things over to this half-assed militia is a solution I have some shares in a bridge over the East River I would like to talk to you about.

  6. mike says:

    You are 100% correct. This idea that the Iraqi “military” is going to be able to secure the country when the most powerful and technologically advanced fighting force in the world cannot is a farce; but yet the Republicans (I won’t say conservatives b/c they are not conservatives – I am a conservative but no longer a Republican) think that the American people are dumb enough to buy into the idea that they have a strategy to turn the country over to the Iraqis some day.

  7. James Joyner says:

    spencer and mike: With incredibly limited exceptions, fighter jets, helicopters, and tanks are not tools of counterinsurgency.

  8. mike says:

    You are right, but they sure do help when you are outnumbered or need to suppress a target – I guess we can recall all of the jets/artillery/helicopters and other heavy weapons that we are scared of giving the Iraqis for fear that things don’t go our way and then we have to fight these guys again in the future – as history demonstrates.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I have a solution you anti-war types will like. At least for a little while. Let us re-instate Saddam as President of Iraq, pay him for gross amounts of money for the damage we have done. I can assure you, the insurgency will end very quickly, so will the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. But what the hell, you all lied our way to defeat in Viet Nam, why not in Iraq? When the media uses news for political purposes, they no longer serve democracy, but that is ok. After all it is not what we want, it is what you want that counts. See you at Gettysburg.

  10. anjin-san says:


    News flash, the lives of Iraqi’s are ending as we type… are you comfortable with the blood thats on our hands?

  11. LJD says:

    News flash:

    Iraqi lives are being ended, more by other Iraqis and “foreign” fighters than by U.S. bullets. There’s comparatively much, much less blood on OUR hands. However the fundamental difference you guys always seem to miss: We are intentially trying to minimize it. Our adversaries are intentionally trying to exaggerate it. But hey, once again, way to support the troops.

    Again we see here that the critics on the left have no idea what the hell is going on overseas. Tanks? Artillery? How exactly do they help with IEDS and bomb vests? I would say removing the language barrier, adding local resources and know-how, and people who are fighting for a peaceful existence are all pretty effective counter-insurgency measures.