How to Win in Iraq

Andrew Krepinevich offers a boldly titled plan for “How to Win in Iraq” in the current Foreign Affairs.

The costs of such premature disengagement would likely be calamitous. The insurgency could morph into a bloody civil war, with the significant involvement of both Syria and Iran. Radical Islamists would see the U.S. departure as a victory, and the ensuing chaos would drive up oil prices.

Instead of a timetable for withdrawal, the United States needs a real strategy built around the principles of counterinsurgency warfare. To date, U.S. forces in Iraq have largely concentrated their efforts on hunting down and killing insurgents. The idea of such operations is to erode the enemy’s strength by killing fighters more quickly than replacements can be recruited. Although it is too early to tell for sure whether this approach will ultimately bring success, its current record is not good: even when an attack manages to inflict serious insurgent casualties, there is little or no enduring improvement in security once U.S. forces withdraw from the area.

Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an “oil-spot strategy” in Iraq, which is essentially the opposite approach. Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort — hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success. But it would require a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, albeit at far lower force levels than are engaged at present. If U.S. policymakers and the American public are unwilling to make such a commitment, they should be prepared to scale down their goals in Iraq significantly.

As Jack Kelly notes, though, these are not mutually exclusive options and, indeed,

. . . the U.S. has been doing both. Fourteen of the 18 Iraqi provinces have effectively been oil-spotted; there is no insurgent activity to speak of in them. In the remaining four, the locus of action is being pushed out of the populated areas into the mostly empty desert west of Ar Ramadi.

The key to a successful oil spot strategy is to have Iraqi security forces of sufficient size and competence to be able to hold and clear areas (like Fallujah) from which insurgents (largely) have been driven. This process got off to a woefully slow start, but has been going gangbusters since LtGen. David Petreaus took over responsibility for training the ISF a year ago last Spring. But it takes time. It will be late next Spring at the earliest before sufficient numbers of trained Iraqi soldiers and cops are on hand to make an oil spot to be truly effective.

In the meantime, U.S. troops have been for months transitioning into precisely the role Krepinevich advocates. U.S. advisers are being embedded with Iraqi units; Iraqi companies are being attached to American battalions, and plans are being made to consolidate U.S. forces in four mega-bases around the country, with dozens of bases we’re currently using being turned over, gradually, to the Iraqis.

Quite right. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Petraeus and company will be successful in creating a professionalized Iraqi army that will stand its ground against the terrorist-insurgents, let alone a free, democratic Iraq enduring after the departure of Coalition forces. But the idea that our leadership, military or civilian, is totally ignoring “the principles of counterinsurgency warfare” or engaging mostly in a war of attrition is simply unfounded.

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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. Here’s a liberal plan for Iraq combining a provisional withdrawal timeline with substantial increases in U.S. troop levels in the interim:

    “What Is to Be Done: A 10-Point Plan for Iraq.”