The Magazine

The Learning Curve

Rediscovering counterinsurgency in Iraq.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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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.