Iraqi Insurgents ‘Thinking and Adaptive’

Greg Grant describes the constant struggle by American soldiers to adapt to an ever-changing enemy in Iraq.

Even though the Army has been fighting the shadowy insurgency for four years in Iraq, it has been slow to change its conventional approach: massing firepower on an enemy’s formations.

The United States invaded Iraq with the world’s most technologically advanced army and soon found itself losing to a nimble, adaptive enemy whose most effective weapons are the cell phone and Internet. The speed with which insurgents in Iraq adapt has confounded American military leaders. Army officers say they change tactics almost weekly because it takes insurgent cells just days to adjust to new techniques.

Thinking and adaptive. That’s how Army officers almost universally describe the insurgents. They don’t follow the predictable patterns of computer simulations, especially when facing death. Their adaptability stems in part from jihadi Web sites filled with lessons learned, dissections of successful and unsuccessful attacks on American troops, and insight about new tactics and weapons.

The Army remains too laden with tradition, too conservative, too hierarchical and rule-bound to cope effectively with its new enemy. Counterinsurgency is small-unit warfare, so leadership and command must devolve to lower levels. The most important field commanders are sergeants, lieutenants and captains – their decisions have strategic implications. But the Army remains focused on making brigades stronger and empowering generals. The Army must change. Its focus must shift to platoons and empowering junior officers – captains like Ike Sallee, for instance.

The rest of the piece describes how such leaders are bypassing the Army’s “largely useless” centralized intelligence system and building trust networks on the fly.

Where the Army has adapted to counterinsurgency, it has been among small units, led by officers like Sallee, who have gained experience on the ground through two and three deployments, seeing what works and what doesn’t. These officers are willing to deviate from standard operating procedure in order to succeed.

The Army is adapting at an organizational level, too, but, as the piece makes clear, it’s got a long way to go to overcome an Industrial Age personnel development system. There is, however, another model:

Adam Harmon, a former Israeli paratrooper and special operations officer, says the changes that [retired Army Major Donald] Vandergriff and others are promoting resemble Israeli military training. That country’s constant battles with guerrilla fighters have shaped training to produce adaptive soldiers and officers well suited for irregular warfare. Because of its relatively small size and limited resources, the Israeli military is a learning organization. It rarely repeats the same mistake and tends to learn and adapt to new battlefield realities very quickly, he says.

Harmon, who has advised the American military on tactics in Iraq, says new Israeli army recruits are trained to question existing procedures, because the military culture embraces new methods, collaborative discussion and input from the lower ranks. “We have a saying that the officer leads from the front but also listens to the soldier in the back,” he says. Israel is surrounded by potential enemies and maintains a military presence in the Palestinian territories, so new recruits gain operational experience early on in their training. Missions gradually increase in complexity from foot patrols in relatively calm villages to ambushes and raids of suspected terrorist hideouts.

He suggests a similar approach with American troops. New recruits would be flown to parts of Iraq or Afghanistan and learn intricacies of irregular warfare on the ground. There are enough secure areas in both countries where troops fresh out of boot camp could begin learning basic functions, such as convoy operations, staffing checkpoints or patrolling friendly villages. They would then be exposed to more involved tasks, such as the cordon and search of suspected insurgent safe houses. Troops would move up the learning curve far faster than they do now with the training they receive before deployment at mock Iraqi villages constructed on American bases.

Joshua Foust believes the upshot of Grant’s piece is that “we are fighting a superior enemy. ”

This is obviously not in a moral sense, but in a doctrine sense: they intuitively adopted a more modern way of warfare, which is in a big sense a more ancient method—our doctrine is still fundamentally based on Clausewitz, and Clausewitz doesn’t really “do” insurgencies well. Sun Tzu, or Wu Tze, on the other hand, do—in fact, their theories and fables of a numerically smaller, under-equipped force triumphing over a far larger, better equipped one, which forms the underpinning of much of classical Chinese warfare, make a far better match.

There’s something to this. Still, Grant, Harmon, Vandergriff, and others overstate the Army’s inflexibility and top-down leadership system. Even when I was undergoing my training, starting almost quarter century ago, the emphasis was on extreme flexibility at the small unit level. And that was during the Cold War, which we envisioned fighting as large, set piece battles.

Indeed, the very format of operational orders ensures that even the lowest level soldier understands the concept of the operation and what other personnel and units are doing. All mission planning and rehearsals were done with the understanding that the situation on the ground would be fluid and that key personnel could be killed or immobilized, requiring others to step in and execute.

I can’t imagine that the Army of 2007, which has spent the last 15 years engaged in small wars and stability operations, is more rigid than the Army I left in 1992.

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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 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.


  1. legion says:

    I can’t imagine that the Army of 2007, which has spent the last 15 years engaged in small wars and stability operations, is more rigid than the Army I left in 1992.

    At the operational and tactical level, it isn’t. But at the highest levels, it is far, far worse James. Why? Because the CinC has shown over the last several years that he is only interested in advice that coincides with his own preconcieved ideas, and that other advice, regardless of its source, will be discarded.

    How many senior generals have gone to work in Iraq since 2003? How many times has Bush said he won’t override the advice of thiose generals, only to do exactly that? How many great ideas have gone into Iraq for training police, rebuilding infrastructure, winning hearts & minds, only to get reduced to “send more grunts in”?

  2. Andy says:

    We haven’t had enough troops to run a proper security or counterinsurgency strategy from day 1. We still don’t. The end.

  3. Wayne says:

    One of the problems I had with OPFOR forces in training whether I was the OPFOR or going against them was that they were too limited with die in place rules. I understand the need for those rules at times but think we are way too restrictive way to often.

    I would agree that we need to try new tactics and try to be much more flexible. The biggest problem with that is you can’t do it without making mistakes. The military and Congress does not like or tolerate mistakes. Without allowing mistakes, it is hard to grow. Imagine being a basketball player that isn’t allowed to miss a basket and if you miss it all over the news and congress conducts an investigation.


    We have and are conducting counterinsurgency strategy and operations with far fewer troops in other countries.

  4. Andy says:

    We have and are conducting counterinsurgency strategy and operations with far fewer troops in other countries.

    Irrelevant. We needed more troops in Iraq, and we need more troops now.

    We didn’t have enough troops to secure suspect WMD sites and known weapons depots at the start. We don’t have enough troops for security operations with a hot insurgency.

    In other places, like the Phillipines, we are providing mostly support and some spec ops direct action against insurgents, but the main difference is that we are working with a rather more competent and loyal central government and military. So, yeah, if there was a strong central government and a fully functioning, loyal military in Iraq, we might be able to get away with so few troops. On the other hand, we have reality.

  5. Wayne says:

    Your original statement made it sound like one needs large number of troops to do counterinsurgency strategy and operations. The number of troops needed for counterinsurgency operations depends much on the counterinsurgency strategy.

    We have work with inept governments before and made it work. Of course that takes time, which with the attention given to Iraq by the MSM we do not have.

    I am open to the argument that we need more troops but simply stating that we need more troops “The end” isn’t a convincing argument. I have discussed in many previous threads why a great number of more troops at the beginning wouldn’t have been a great idea. I can go into some of those details again. As for the current situation, I have limited knowledge. My understanding has been that the ROE(rules of engagement) have been more of a problem than the number of troops.

  6. legion says:

    We haven’t had enough troops to run a proper security or counterinsurgency strategy from day 1. We still don’t. The end.

    Not exactly… the problem is we have no earthly idea, even from day to day, who in the country is our deadly enemy and who we’re supposed to be ‘protecting’ and helping rebuild Iraq. “More troops”, for any value of troops the US could ever provide, cannot be used to determine this.

    Despite the propaganda machine, the US has _never_ had a single, adhered-to goal or rationale for invading Iraq. The constantly-shifting justifications have led to nobody in Iraq (probably even in our own gov’t) knowing who we’re supporting on any given day – Sunnis? Shia? Who are we arming this week? What about the Kurds? Without that information, tactics are irrelevant – they determine how rapidly our troops die, but not when we’ll be “done”.

  7. Wayne says:

    Our enemy are the one’s that are trying to kill us. It is hard to weed them out in times but it is a job that needs to be done.

    We are not supporting any group but the people of Iraq. The U.S. was once about protecting individuals not groups. Unfortunately many of U.S. has forgotten our heritage.

    There has never been a single goal for invading Iraq because there have always been multiple reasons to do so. Many have explained this to you in the past but you chosen to ignore them and put blinders on.

    There seldom has ever been a clear-cut end to wars. Even when one side surrenders or one captures the others capital, fighting and violence usually continues for some time.