In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam

FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq COVER PHOTOThomas Ricks has a front page feature article in today’s WaPo entitled “In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam.” It is, apparently, the first of a series of previews of his forthcoming book, “FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” This morning’s piece does a fair job of showing why the Iraqi guerrilla movement got so out of hand. While, naturally, aimed at mistakes made by the administration and the leadership on the ground in Iraq, it is apparent that the the prescriptions of both the neo-conservatives and their critics on the left were wrong.

The real war in Iraq — the one to determine the future of the country — began on Aug. 7, 2003, when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian Embassy, killing 11 and wounding more than 50. That bombing came almost exactly four months after the U.S. military thought it had prevailed in Iraq, and it launched the insurgency, the bloody and protracted struggle with guerrilla fighters that has tied the United States down to this day.

There is some evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government knew it couldn’t win a conventional war, and some captured documents indicate that it may have intended some sort of rear-guard campaign of subversion against occupation. The stockpiling of weapons, distribution of arms caches, the revolutionary roots of the Baathist Party, and the movement of money and people to Syria either before or during the war all indicate some planning for an insurgency.

But there is also strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

The very setup of the U.S. presence in Iraq undercut the mission. The chain of command was hazy, with no one individual in charge of the overall American effort in Iraq, a structure that led to frequent clashes between military and civilian officials. On May 16, 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-run occupation agency, had issued his first order, “De-Baathification of Iraq Society.” The CIA station chief in Baghdad had argued vehemently against the radical move, contending: “By nightfall, you’ll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you’ll really regret this.” He was proved correct, as Bremer’s order, along with a second that dissolved the Iraqi military and national police, created a new class of disenfranchised, threatened leaders.

This, most everyone acknowleges, was the biggest tactical blunder of the whole operation (although Don Rumsfeld and others deny that it even happened, arguing that the Baathist army essentially disbanded itself). While I understand the rationale for de-Baathification (see Christopher Hitchens for an eloquent defense) it was exceedingly unwise. As I’ve noted before, our experience with occupation after WWII, especially in Germany, taught us the necessity of integrating the local bureaucratic professionals into the new government. The CIA station chief’s caution was, therefore, not just brilliant in hindsight but maddeningly obvious.

Exacerbating the effect of this decision were the U.S. Army’s interactions with the civilian population. Based on its experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Army thought it could prevail through “presence” — that is, soldiers demonstrating to Iraqis that they are in the area, mainly by patrolling. “We’ve got that habit that carries over from the Balkans,” one Army general said. Back then, patrols were conducted so frequently that some officers called the mission there “DAB”-ing, for “driving around Bosnia.”
The U.S. military jargon for this was “boots on the ground,” or, more officially, the presence mission. There was no formal doctrinal basis for this in the Army manuals and training that prepare the military for its operations, but the notion crept into the vocabularies of senior officers.

The flaw in this approach, Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a civil affairs officer, later noted, was that after Iraqi public opinion began to turn against the Americans and see them as occupiers, “then the presence of troops . . . becomes counterproductive.” The U.S. mission in Iraq is made up overwhelmingly of regular combat units, rather than smaller, lower-profile Special Forces units. And in 2003, most conventional commanders did what they knew how to do: send out large numbers of troops and vehicles on conventional combat missions. Few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride and the humiliation Iraqi men felt in being overseen by this Western army. Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted during this time with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children, but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men.

It should be noted that the critics of the way the war has been handled–from both the left and the right–have long said the problem in the war was Rumsfeld’s stubborn insistence on not having sufficient boots on the ground. Ricks is likely quite right, though, that an even greater U.S. conventional presence would have done more harm than good. In addition to the psychological issues, they would also have created more targets of opportunity.

As to the idea that we should have sent more special ops folks into Iraq, there’s not much doubt about it. There’s one wee problem with it, however: We don’t have them. I’ve been arguing since the 1992 Somalia mission that we needed to reorganize our force to vastly increase the numbers of special forces, civil affairs, psychological operations, military police, linguist, and other forces specializing in what are now called “stabilization operations.” We have paid lip service to this of late but have not done it in substantial number.

Ricks discusses many other issues in this longish piece, including the refusal of senior leaders to acknowledge that we were facing guerrilla war/insurgency, the heavyhanded tactics at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and especially the attempt to win a counter-insurgency operation by use of overwhelming force.

One of the essential texts on counterinsurgency was written in 1964 by David Galula, a lieutenant colonel in the French army who was born in Tunisia, witnessed guerrilla warfare on three continents and died in 1967. When the United States went into Iraq, his book, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” was almost unknown within the military, which is one reason it is possible to open Galula’s text almost at random and find principles of counterinsurgency that the American effort failed to heed.

Galula warned specifically against the kind of large-scale conventional operations the United States repeatedly launched with brigades and battalions, even if they held out the allure of short-term gains in intelligence. He insisted that firepower must be viewed very differently than in regular war. “A soldier fired upon in conventional war who does not fire back with every available weapon would be guilty of a dereliction of his duty,” he wrote, adding that “the reverse would be the case in counterinsurgency warfare, where the rule is to apply the minimum of fire.” The U.S. military took a different approach in Iraq. It wasn’t indiscriminate in its use of firepower, but it tended to look upon it as good, especially during the big counteroffensive in the fall of 2003, and in the two battles in Fallujah the following year.

One reason for that different approach was the muddled strategy of U.S. commanders in Iraq. As civil affairs officers found to their dismay, Army leaders tended to see the Iraqi people as the playing field on which a contest was played against insurgents. In Galula’s view, the people are the prize. “The population . . . becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy,” he wrote. From that observation flows an entirely different way of dealing with civilians in the midst of a guerrilla war. “Since antagonizing the population will not help, it is imperative that hardships for it and rash actions on the part of the forces be kept to a minimum,” Galula wrote.

[…]

In mid-2004, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. took over from Sanchez as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. One of Casey’s advisers, Kalev Sepp, pointedly noted in a study that fall that the U.S. effort in Iraq was violating many of the major principles of counterinsurgency, such as putting an emphasis on killing insurgents instead of engaging the population. A year later, frustrated by the inability of the Army to change its approach to training for Iraq, Casey established his own academy in Taji, Iraq, to teach counterinsurgency to U.S. officers as they arrived in the country. He made attending its course there a prerequisite to commanding a unit in Iraq. “We are finally getting around to doing the right things,” Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice observed one day in Iraq early in 2006. “But is it too little, too late?”

One of the few commanders who were successful in Iraq in that first year of the occupation, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, made studying counterinsurgency a requirement at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where mid-career officers are trained. By the academic year that ended last month, 31 of 78 student monographs at the School of Advanced Military Studies next door were devoted to counterinsurgency or stability operations, compared with only a couple two years earlier. And Galula’s handy little book, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” was a bestseller at the Leavenworth bookstore.

The truly bizarre thing is that they were teaching most of this stuff at the military academies and basic officer courses in the 1980s. If anything, the 1990s should have seen more emphasis on counterinsurgency and stability ops, given that there was no longer a peer conventional competitor and it was obvious to any intelligent observer that they would be the modal type of conflict for the foreseeable future.

As I argued a December 2005 piece for TCS, “Counterinsurgency and the American Way of War,”

Regardless of the institutional preferences to the contrary, though, the United States military has had great success fighting small wars. The Army has a long history of doing so, from the French and Indian War to the War for Independence to the Indian Wars to the Spanish-American War to Vietnam to Afghanistan. The Marines have made it their specialty. Even in Vietnam, which was both the longest war in our history and the biggest loss, the military did an excellent job of adapting to an enemy that fluctuated between conventional and guerrilla tactics. The Army’s Green Berets and the Navy SEALs were specialists at this type of warfare, but the conventional Army and Marines fought it well, too.

The problem in Vietnam and Iraq is not so much that the U.S. military is bad at counterinsurgency but that insurgencies are incredibly hard to defeat. Whereas a conventional force fights in the open and can be taken on directly, an insurgency fights piecemeal and hides among the civilian population. This puts the counterinsurgency force — especially a foreign power — at a great disadvantage. On the one hand, they can go in full force to kill insurgents and almost certainly kill innocents, alienating the local population whose support is desperately needed. On the other, being too patient allows the insurgents to continue their reign of terror, not only killing friendly soldiers but also creating the impression that the host government and/or its foreign backers cannot keep order.

A professional military can defeat an insurgency despite these obstacles but, unfortunately, they can not do it quickly. In a society that demands fast results, that time is usually not a luxury the military has. This is even more true in an age of 24/7 television and the constant clamoring of pundits on the tube, talk radio, and blogs. Add to that an increasingly hostile partisan atmosphere and a never-ending campaign cycle, which means that politics no longer end at the water’s edge, the pressure is even stronger.

The bottom line is that the United States military is pretty good at counterinsurgency. The American public, however, is not.

One wonders how much of the strategic blundering was done in the context of political pressure to get out quickly rather than through ignorance of the nature of counterinsurgency.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    Everybody is an EXPERT.

    I would bet there are lots of people who would disagree with this Ricks guy, so what makes Ricks the “Authority” on Iraq ?

  2. lily says:

    Is the very last sentence of this piece intended to shift the blame for the administration’s mistakes on to those on the left who wanted us to leave? If so, there are a number of things wrong with that argument. 1. If Bush is the strong leader his supporters say he is, then he wouldn’t let left wing urgings effect his policies. 2. The critical mistakes outlined above all happened pretty early in the time line before domestic calls for withdrawal amounted to more that a few whispers. (domestic calls for withdrawal aren’t all that strong even now) 3. The original plan for the war, as devised by the administration, was to be in and out in five minutes, so the rush in the early days came from within, not from outside, the administration.
    But maybe # 3 was your point.

  3. Oldcrow says:

    The de-baathification had to happen. A big difference between WWII the Nazi party is that the Baathist’s brutalized the majority of the countries population where as the Nazi’s had either overt support or covert support of the majority. Lily the point is that the lefts plans are no better than what the administration did and in IMOHO would have been many times worse. I am sick and tired of the Vietnam Iraq comparisons they are not even close why? Well the nine hundred pound gorilla in the room is religion IE. Islam no one foresaw the effect of a fundamentalist psychopathic population on an insurgency. We westerners have a really hard time putting ourselves in the paradigm that the Islamists operate under as a German general once said during WWII the “Americans don’t know how to fight a war very well but they learn very fast” we are learning and it is going to take time which contrary to what people like Ricks say we are winning in Iraq. I defy anyone to name one single strategic goal the terrorist’s have achieved in Iraq.

  4. Michael says:

    Oldcrow,

    The biggest single strategic accomplishment by the insurgency has been keeping US forces in Iraq. The second accomplishment has been driving ethnic tensions to the brink of civil war.

    Remember that the majority in the insurgent leadership are not Iraqi’s, but foreigners. They really don’t have the population’s interest in mind, they have their own interest in mind. And their own interests include having a weak Iraqi government and an unpopular occupational force in the country to continue to give them legitimacy and support among enough of the population to shelter them.

    The De-baathification was not necessary, as you suggest. Sure we needed to get rid of a lot of the top leadership, but no more. Remember that the Baath party was the only legal political party in Iraq. If you wanted to work in government, you had to be Baath. Even public school teachers had to become Baath party members or lose their jobs. It wasn’t an ideological or religious devotion, it was a necessary evil for most of the population.

    Lets also be clear about the role of religion in the insurgency. It isn’t Islam v Christianity, not when they are blowing up a mosque a day over there. It is Sunni v Shia, their equivalent of Catholic v Protestant. We all know how religion will effect an insurgency, we’ve had plenty of historical examples of this. There are also enough parallels with the struggle between Capitalism v Communism that I don’t think the analogy to Vietnam is completely inaccurate.

  5. Anderson says:

    One wonders how much of the strategic blundering was done in the context of political pressure to get out quickly rather than through ignorance of the nature of counterinsurgency.

    Good insight, JJ. One *also* wonders how much effort any top brass made to bring any C-I wisdom to the attention of Rumsfeld et al. Silence is about as useful as ignorance.

    The JCS record in this war is looking to shape up as about as shameful as that in Vietnam. (See McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty.)

  6. anjin-san says:

    Given the Bush admins across-the-board record of blundering, I think we can attribute most of the problems in post invasion Iraq to arrogance and ignorance on their part. Anyone who warned of these complications prior to the war was ignored or silenced.

    Remember just a few short weeks ago when the administration was crowing about how it “got” Zarqawi, proving the correctness of it’s policies. They have been pretty quiet since then, as the carnage has become even bloodier.

    And let us not forget that in May of last year, Cheney told us the insurgency was “in it’s last throes”. Right.

    At any rate, I am waiting for the right to tell us how it is Howard Dean’s fault the the Bush admin has bungled the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon.

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Hey anjin-idiot, what bungling? What are 25,000 U.S, citizens doing in Lebanon? You do not need much of an IQ to understand that Lebanon is not a safe place vacation, work or visit. So, Anjin, who is responsible for those individuals being in what is a war zone? Bush? Blinded by BDS, you are incapable of making rational statments or decisions. There is no comparison between Iraq and Viet Nam, as our forces never entered Hanoi, nor did Ho Chi Minn find it necessary to hide in a spider hole, nor was he put on trial. As we lose more people to automobile accidents monthly than we have soldiers fighting for 3 years in Iraq, obviously to anyone with the ability to use rational thought, leaving you out anjin, there futher is no comparison to the losses we suffered in the stupid way the Democrats fought the war in Viet Nam. Goldwater would have won the Viet Nam war in months by starting at the DMZ and going north, ending the Soviet resupply via Hiphong harbor. The backstabbing democrats abandoned the people of South Viet Nam by refusing financial and military equipment support, lest a Republican Presidents plan succeed. Cowards.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Zelsdorf,

    Dude, take your meds…

  9. Oldcrow says:

    Posted by: Michael at July 23, 2006 14:31
    The biggest single strategic accomplishment by the insurgency has been keeping US forces in Iraq. The second accomplishment has been driving ethnic tensions to the brink of civil war.

    This is incorrect it is not an accomplishment to keep a force in country that destroys or degrades your ability to accomplish your goals on an almost daily basis and kills or captures your leaders, it serves no purpose what so ever. There has never been a danger of civil war in Iraq this is a myth put out by the anti-war crowd. President Bush and his administration have always said Iraq and the GWOT were going to be a long war they never said they would pull the U.S. forces out quickly.

    Posted by: Michael at July 23, 2006 14:31
    The De-baathification was not necessary, as you suggest.

    I disagree when the majority of the population was Shia and the majority of the brutalizers were Sunni Baathists then the Shia would not view any Baathist as friendly so we had to get rid of them all in order to get the Shia majority on board.

    Posted by: Michael at July 23, 2006 14:31
    Lets also be clear about the role of religion in the insurgency. It isn�t Islam v Christianity, not when they are blowing up a mosque a day over there.

    This is correct but not in the way you suggest, it is Islam versus everyone else and thrown in for good measure is Sunni versus Shia and there is no comparison to Communism VS Capitalism thus no comparison to Vietnam is accurate, Communism is a political philosophy not a religion and the NVA and Vietcong did not use suicide attacks as their primary weapon neither did the IRA against the British. The Vietcong had North Vietnam supporting them the terrorists in Iraq do not have a comparable base of support what they do have is piecemeal and mostly private support.

  10. Herb says:

    Anderson:

    Don’t you ever have a thought of your own. If so, you sure don’t show here on OTB.

    Your masterful words are always the words of others and you present them here like they were of your own.

    SHAME, SHAME, SHAME, on you.

  11. pagar says:

    “””” The backstabbing democrats abandoned the people of South Viet Nam by refusing financial and military equipment support, lest a Republican Presidents plan succeed. Cowards. “”””

    Posted by Zelsdorf Ragshaft III at July 23, 2006 16:44

    Excellent post. I might add that one of the democrats bore false witness against his fellow soldiers – in his speech on 22 Apr 1971 in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. And admitted to meeting with America’s enemies(Viet Cong) in Paris.
    href=”http://http://www.nationalreview.com/document/kerry200404231047.asp”>

  12. Michael says:

    The biggest single strategic accomplishment by the insurgency has been keeping US forces in Iraq. The second accomplishment has been driving ethnic tensions to the brink of civil war.

    This is incorrect it is not an accomplishment to keep a force in country that destroys or degrades your ability to accomplish your goals on an almost daily basis and kills or captures your leaders

    And what exactly do you think the goals of the insurgency are that we are destroying and degrading? And leaders of terrorist groups, as I’ve posted in the past, are lead by the members of the group, not the other way around. That is why Zarqawi’s death had no effect on the insurgents tactical abilities.

    There has never been a danger of civil war in Iraq this is a myth put out by the anti-war crowd.

    A myth, evidently, also perpetuated by senior military officials, and ranking members of Iraq’s new administration, as well as civilians on the ground. Go read an Iraqi blog and get the view from them.

    I disagree when the majority of the population was Shia and the majority of the brutalizers were Sunni Baathists then the Shia would not view any Baathist as friendly so we had to get rid of them all in order to get the Shia majority on board.

    Again, go ask an Iraqi who is there. Even under Saddam, there was not the ethnic tension there is now. Sunni’s were favored and put in power because of cronyism, not because of anti-shia sentiments.

    This is correct but not in the way you suggest, it is Islam versus everyone else

    I fail to see how this can be portrayed as Islam vs everyone else, please enlighten me.

    Communism is a political philosophy not a religion and the NVA and Vietcong did not use suicide attacks as their primary weapon neither did the IRA against the British

    Nationalism is political religion. They really do act the same. And how exactly do suicide attacks change the nature of things? It’s just an easier was of delivering a bomb. What difference does it’s delivery method make to the people it kills?

  13. Michael says:

    Pagar

    Excellent post. I might add that one of the democrats bore false witness against his fellow soldiers – in his speech on 22 Apr 1971 in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. And admitted to meeting with America�s enemies(Viet Cong) in Paris.

    He already lost the election, let it go. Or is Kerry the new Clinton, and everything that goes wrong will now be blamed on him until we find another scapegoat?

  14. Oldcrow says:

    And what exactly do you think the goals of the insurgency are that we are destroying and degrading? And leaders of terrorist groups, as I�ve posted in the past, are lead by the members of the group, not the other way around. That is why Zarqawi�s death had no effect on the insurgents tactical abilities.

    The same as any insurgency or terrorist group to intimidate the population into submission and take over the government of the nation or territory they are fighting in. In this they have failed completely and the terrorist’s have no tactical abilities every time they have taken on any well trained military forces whether Iraqi or American they have lost miserably that is why they target civilians.

    A myth, evidently, also perpetuated by senior military officials, and ranking members of Iraq�s new administration, as well as civilians on the ground. Go read an Iraqi blog and get the view from them.

    Exactly which senior military officials? And don’t even try to invoke Zinni or Murtha those dogs don’t hunt as for Iraqi blogs sure try Iraq the model if you want an unbiased view Iraq the Model in my opinion the best blog out there on Iraq. Omar is very good at analysis he lives in Baghdad and is a Sunni.

    Again, go ask an Iraqi who is there. Even under Saddam, there was not the ethnic tension there is now. Sunni�s were favored and put in power because of cronyism, not because of anti-shia sentiments.

    UH HUH and here you prove your total lack of objectivity and lose all credibility. Go tell that line of BS crappola to all the Shia’s and Kurds who are looking for their reletives in the mass graves as I recall there was not much tension between Jews and other Germans in Nazi Germany either maybe because all the Jews were busy dieing in concentration camps.

    I fail to see how this can be portrayed as Islam vs everyone else, please enlighten me.

    Uh I am not sure how to enlighten someone who does not see what is in front of their face everyday as Mark Twain said “Never try to teach a pig to sing it just wastes your time and annoys the pig”.

    Nationalism is political religion. They really do act the same. And how exactly do suicide attacks change the nature of things? It�s just an easier was of delivering a bomb. What difference does it�s delivery method make to the people it kills?

    Sorry have to throw out the BS flag on this one. A person who believes in his religion does not see dying as a bad thing a believer in a political system does and so you can negotiate with them unlike a religious fanatic. No it is not just an easier way of delivering a bomb it is also far more accurate than the most modern smart bomb and much much harder to detect and stop. It is fairly simple to to invent or find counter measures against IED’s or conventional bombs not so of the suicide bomber.

  15. Anderson says:

    Herb: Your masterful words are always the words of others and you present them here like they were of your own.

    Will someone explain to Herb the conventions of blockquoting? I suspect I would muff it.

    Oldcrow: There has never been a danger of civil war in Iraq this is a myth put out by the anti-war crowd.

    Wow. Just “wow.” Herb and Zelsdorf are now merely two members of a triumvirate.

  16. Herb says:

    I see that Anderson has his nose in the dictionary again.

  17. mike says:

    Don’t worry victory is right around the corner. This war will only cost about $2 billion and then the oil revenue will pay the rest. They will welcome us as liberators.

    The Bush Admin is perfect. Watch what comes next: they will start blaming the military for not doing things correctly – and then this will transform into blaming Clinton for downsizing the military – it is inevitable.

  18. Cernig says:

    Herb,

    Did it ever occur to you that, on a blog where over half of the words are blockquoted from some other source, you might be insulting your hosts at the same time as you insult Anderson?

    I see that Anderson has his nose in the dictionary again.

    When exactly did it become a crime on the Militant Right to have a decent vocabulary?

    I’ve another phrase for you to look up, Herb. Ad hominem.

    Regards, Cernig