In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam
Thomas 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.