The Magazine

The Learning Curve

Rediscovering counterinsurgency in Iraq.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Baghdad at Sunrise

A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq

by Peter R. Mansoor

Yale, 416 pp., $28

Some years ago, the late Carl Builder of RAND wrote a book entitled The Masks of War, in which he demonstrated the importance of the organizational cultures of the various military services. His point was that each service possesses a preferred way of fighting that is not easily changed.

Since the 1930s the culture of the U.S. Army has emphasized "big wars." This is the legacy of Emory Upton, an innovative 19th-century officer who became a protégé of William Tecumseh
Sherman when Sherman became general-in-chief of the Army after the Civil War. Upton believed that the traditional constabulary focus of the Army was outdated. Dispatched on a world tour by Sherman, Upton was especially impressed by Prussian military policy, Prussia's ability to conduct war against the armies of other military powers, and its emphasis on professionalism. Certainly Prussia's overwhelming successes against Denmark, Austria, and France in the Wars of German Unification (1864-71) made the Prussian Army the new exemplar of military excellence in Europe.

Upon his return home, Upton proposed a number of radical reforms, including replacing the citizen-soldier
model with one based on a professional soldiery, reducing civilian "interference" in military affairs, and abandoning the emphasis on the constabulary operations that had characterized Army roles during most of the 19th century (with the exception of the Mexican and Civil wars) in favor of preparing for a conflict with a potential foreign enemy.

Given the tenor of the time, all of his proposals were rejected. In ill health, Upton resigned from the Army and, in 1881, committed suicide. But the triumph of progressivism, a political program that placed a great deal of reliance on scientific expertise and professionalism, the end of the Army's constabulary duties on the Western frontier, and the problems associated with mobilizing for and fighting the Spanish American War, made Upton's proposed reforms more attractive, especially within the officer corps. In 1904 Secretary of War Elihu Root published Upton's Military Policy of the United States, and while many of Upton's more radical proposals remained unacceptable to republican America, the idea of reorienting the Army away from constabulary duties to a mission focused on defeating the conventional forces of other states caught on.

While the Army returned to constabulary duties after World War I, Upton's spirit now permeated the professional culture. World War II vindicated Upton's vision, and his view continued to govern Army thinking throughout the Cold War. The American Army that entered Iraq in 2003 was still Emory Upton's Army. Focused as it has been on state-versus-state warfare, Upton's army has not cared much for counterinsurgency, and this was apparent during the first years of the Iraq War. It is also the theme of several recent books on the conflict.

Baghdad at Sunrise is one of the best, written by a colonel who commanded the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division during a particularly difficult year (May 2003-July 2004), a period that saw the rapid coalition victory over Saddam Hussein give way to a vicious insurgency that came close to defeating the United States in Iraq. A genuine soldier-scholar, Colonel Mansoor provides the unique perspective of a midlevel ground commander adapting to the requirements of fighting an insurgency under the most difficult conditions.

His perspective is enhanced by the fact that, two-and-a-half years after redeploying his brigade to Germany, he returned as executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus as Petraeus implemented the "surge" and the counter-
insurgency strategy that helped turn the situation around in Iraq. Mansoor not only observed but helped to implement the Army's painful transition from an organization beholden to Emory Upton to one that recognized the necessity to adapt to an enemy who refused to fight the Upton way.

The conventional wisdom holds that it was civilian interference, especially on the part of Donald Rumsfeld, that was to blame for the difficulties U.S. forces faced in Iraq during the first years of the campaign. According to the dominant narrative, Rumsfeld willfully ignored military advice and initiated the war with a force that was too small. He ignored the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations, and he failed to adapt to the new circumstances once things began to go wrong, not foreseeing the insurgency that engulfed the country.

It is undeniable that Rumsfeld made many critical mistakes. But the uniformed military was no more prescient than he. Did Rumsfeld insist on an early attack with a smaller force than that recommended by many uniformed officers? Yes. But the plan he pushed was a version of a scheme developed by an Army officer, Col. Douglas
MacGregor. The military objective of this plan was not to occupy the country but to liberate Iraq from Saddam and turn governance over to liberal Iraqis. The approach was popular with both Rumsfeld and the military because both took their bearings from the Weinberger Doctrine, a set of rules for the use of force drafted in the 1980s which emphasized the quick, overwhelming application of military force to defeat an enemy, leaving postwar affairs to others.

Did Rumsfeld ignore postwar planning? Again, yes. But in doing so he was merely ratifying the preferences of a uniformed military that had internalized the Weinberger emphasis on an "exit strategy." The fact is that if generals are thinking about an exit strategy they are not thinking about "war termination"--how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to stability operations is reflected in the fact that operational planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom took 18 months while planning for postwar stabilization began half-heartedly only a couple of months before the invasion.

Did Rumsfeld foresee the insurgency and the shift from conventional to guerrilla war? No. But neither did his critics in the uniformed services. Mansoor makes this point clear by observing that, for at least the three decades before the Iraq war, the professional military education system all but ignored counterinsurgency operations. This cultural aversion to counter-
insurgency lay at the heart of the difficult years in Iraq (2003-07), and in the absence of a counterinsurgency doctrine the Army fell back on what it knew: conventional offensive operations designed to kill the enemy without protecting the population.

The Army's predisposition toward offensive operations was reinforced in the 1990s by a sort of operational "happy talk" that convinced many (who should have known better) that the American edge in emerging technologies, especially informational technologies, would permit the United States to conduct short, decisive, and relatively bloodless campaigns. This was the lesson many learned from the first Gulf war, and the result was an approach that goes under the name of Rapid Decisive Operations. Mansoor observes that Rapid Decisive Operations misunderstood the timeless nature of war: "What we learned [in Iraq]," he writes, "was that the real objective of the war was not merely the collapse of the old regime but the creation of a stable government." As the old saying goes, in war the enemy has a vote, and in the case of Iraq, our adversaries voted not to fight the kind of war Americans preferred.

As the conflict morphed into an insurgency, U.S. ground troops responded by going after the insurgents, adapting conventional tactics to a guerrilla war. In The Gamble Thomas Ricks quotes a speech by an Army officer that captures the essence of the U.S. approach in Iraq until 2007: "Anytime you fight, you always kill the other sonofabitch. Do not let him live today so he will fight you tomorrow. Kill him today."

This approach made sense when the insurgents stood and fought, as they did in Falluja in April and November 2004. It also made sense during the subsequent "rivers campaign" of 2005, designed to destroy the insurgency in al Anbar Province by depriving it of its base and infrastructure in the Sunni Triangle and the "ratlines" west and northwest of Falluja. It unquestionably killed thousands of insurgents, including Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as many of his top lieutenants, and led to the capture of many more. Intelligence from captured insurgents, as well as from Zarqawi's computer, had a cascading effect, permitting the coalition to maintain pressure on the insurgency.

But while successful in disrupting insurgent operations, there were too few troops to maintain control of the towns of al Anbar. The insurgents, abandoning their Falluja approach of standing and fighting the Americans, simply melted away, only to return after coalition troops had departed. Thus, while soldiers and Marines were chasing insurgents from sanctuary to sanctuary, they were not providing security for the Iraqi population, leaving them at the mercy of the insurgents who terrorized and intimidated them.

As the insurgency metastasized in 2005 the United States had three military alternatives: continue offensive operations along the lines of those in Anbar after Falluja; adopt a counterinsurgency approach; or emphasize the training of Iraqi troops in order to effect a transition to Iraqi control of military operations. Gen. John Abizaid of Central Command, and Gen. George Casey, the overall commander in Iraq, chose the third option, supported by Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

But while moving toward Iraqi control was a logical option for the long run, it did little to solve the proximate problem of the insurgency, which had generated sectarian violence. Based on the belief of many senior commanders, especially General Abizaid, that U.S. troops were an "antibody" to Iraqi culture, U.S. forces were consolidated on large "forward operating bases," maintaining a presence only by means of motorized patrols that were particularly vulnerable to attacks by IEDs. In so doing, we ceded territory and population alike to the insurgents. Mansoor describes this approach as a mistake: "Security of the population is the fundamental basis of any successful counterinsurgency strategy."

The withdrawal of American forces to forward operating bases also contributed to a "kick-in-the-door" mentality among troops when they did interact with Iraqis. This was completely at odds with effective counterinsurgency practice, seriously undermining attempts to pacify the country. And yet, despite many difficulties (including resistance from above), some Army and Marine commanders had been implementing a counterinsurgency approach on their own initiative; that is to say, forming partnerships with the Sunni sheikhs in al Anbar province who had tired of al Qaeda's reign of terror in the Sunni Triangle. By providing security to the people in cooperation with the sheikhs, the Americans were able to isolate Al Qaeda in Iraq. And as U.S commanders were struggling with the insurgency, the Army and Marine Corps were developing a counterinsurgency doctrine based on this insight, and an operational strategy that would successfully be applied as part of the surge in 2007.

As a close associate of General Petraeus, Colonel Mansoor helped serve as midwife to the remarkable shift in Iraq arising from a more general application of the lessons that he had learned during his 2003-04 command. This new approach rejected the position articulated by Petraeus's predecessor, General Casey, who had told President George W. Bush in 2006 that "to win, we have to draw down." And General Abizaid of Central Command, sticking to his belief that American soldiers were an "antibody" to Iraqi culture, seconded Casey.

But Petraeus agreed with Mansoor's observation that "counterinsurgency is a thinking soldier's war," requiring "the counterinsurgent to adapt faster than the insurgent." The time for applying a new approach was at hand, and to his credit, President Bush saw the necessity for change and took action.

One of the debates triggered by our experience in Iraq concerns U.S. force structure. As Mansoor puts it, "If we accept the premise that [counterinsurgency and] stability operations [are] of primary concern, then the Army's organization for combat should [be] different." This debate pits the "long war" school against "traditionalists." The former argues that Iraq and Afghanistan are most characteristic of the protracted and ambiguous wars America will fight in the future, and that the military should be developing a force designed to fight the "long war" on terrorism, which envisions the necessity of preparing for small wars, or insurgencies.

The traditionalists concede that irregular warfare will occur more frequently in the future and that fighting small wars is difficult. But traditionalists also conclude that such conflicts do not threaten U.S. strategic interests, while large-scale conflicts, which they believe remain a real possibility, will threaten strategic interests. They fear that the Long War School's focus on small wars and insurgencies will transform the Army back into a constabulary force, whose new capability for conducting stability operations and "nation-building" would be purchased at a high cost: the inability to conduct large-scale conventional war.

This is by no means a parochial debate, of interest only to the uniformed military, and its outcome has implications for broader national security policy: A force structure aligned with the requirement to fight conventional wars would make it more difficult for the United States to fight small wars. This may be a legitimate choice for the United States, but it is one that should be made by policymakers, and not delegated to the uniformed military. To do so would permit military decisions to constrain policy and strategy questions that lie well within the purview of civilian authority, and our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq demonstrate the dangers of leaving military doctrine and force structure strictly to the military.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.