U.S. Response To Insurgency Called A Failure

LA Times – U.S. Response To Insurgency Called A Failure

Almost a year after acknowledging they were facing a well-armed guerrilla war in Iraq, the Pentagon and commanders in the Middle East are being criticized by some top Bush administration officials, military officers and defense experts who accuse the military of failing to develop a coherent, winning strategy against the insurgency. Inadequate intelligence, poor assessments of enemy strength, testy relations with U.S. civilian authorities in Baghdad and an inconsistent application of force remain key problems many observers say the military must address before U.S. and Iraqi forces can quell the insurgents. “It’s disappointing that we haven’t been able to have better insight into the command and control of the insurgents,” said one senior official of the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority, recently returned from Baghdad and speaking on condition of anonymity. “And you’ve got to have that if you’re going to have effective military operations.”

From my understanding of the situation, the problem with understanding the command and control of the insurgents is that there is no command and control of the insurgents. The insurgency, to the extent that it’s even an insurgency, is a circumstance rather than an organized single movement. There’s a semi-organized jihadist terrorist component, several regional militias, some Ba’athist hangers on, and some disgruntled youth. The level of coordination between these groups isn’t fully known–at least to me–but it appears informal at best.

Now, after a year of violence and hundreds of U.S. combat deaths, some officials and experts are frustrated that a more effective counterinsurgency plan has not materialized and that the hand-over of power to an interim Iraqi government last week was unlikely to significantly improve the security situation. “We’re going to have the same cast of characters in Washington and the same commander [Abizaid] in the field,” said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. “What gives you a sense of confidence we’re going to become a lot more competent at something we haven’t shown a great deal of competence at doing for a year?”

Some top American officials bristle at the criticism and say the U.S.-led coalition’s plan has been consistent from the beginning: to bring security to Iraq in preparation for an eventual hand-over to Iraqi forces. “Our strategy is not complicated. It is to train Iraqis as quickly as we possibly can and as efficiently as we possibly can, and to set the conditions so they can take charge of their own security,” said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Krepinevich is a smart guy and one of the leading experts in the RMA debate; this is the first I’ve heard of him being an expert on counter-insurgency, however. And, if nothing else, our military has always shown a remarkable ability to learn from its mistakes on the fly. The reason we’re going to be better at counter-insurgency after months of failure is precisely because of the months of failure. As the old saying goes, we now know hundreds of things that don’t work.

UPDATE: Phil Carter reacts to this article as well as a Thomas Ricks article I have on my reading list and a book by John Nagl that I mentioned some time back.

But, I think there’s also a very credible argument that these wars have made the military better. The impact of combat experience in the ranks is hard to understate; it really does sharpen the combat readiness of a unit to have so many combat veterans. It’s also hard to underestimate the impact of these wars on Army doctrine, because of the awesome extent to which the Center for Army Lessons Learned has gathered after-action reports from the battlefield. The hard question is how long these effects last, and what the long-term effects will be. Ironically, I think that if we pull out of Iraq with something less than a complete victory, the U.S. military may learn and improve more in the long run, because of the historic tendencies of armies to evolve more in response to defeat than to victory.

That’s certainly true. The “good” news on this front is that there have been many tactical failures along the way even if things ultimately go our way. Outside of the special operations community, our military hasn’t fought counter-insurgency since Vietnam. The lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq will be valuable for years to come, as something like counter-insurgency appears to be the modal conflict type we’re likely to face throughout the war against terrorism.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Anthony C says:

    Krepinevich was a counter-insurgency wallah before he ever got into the RMA and Net Assessment business. Surely you’ve heard of “The Army and Vietnam”? He spent most of his military career arguing that a) the US Army doesn’t really get COIN and b) they really don’t WANT to face up to it. I believe he teaches graduate courses on the Vietnam War at Johns Hopkins, too, though these days he seems to concentrate on the Net Assessment side of it.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.

  3. John Anderson says:

    Even Kerry says “we” don’t have enough personnel or means to really handle the situation. What he and many others fail to take into account is that “we” includes the Iraqis – and numbers of police and army are coming into play, complete with great knoweldge of the language and culture of the country and greater opportunity for development of intel sources.