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.