The Magazine

The Patton of Counterinsurgency

With a sequence of brilliant offensives, Raymond Odierno adapted the Petraeus doctrine into a successful operational art.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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A major assumption of previous U.S. commanders in Iraq had been that "kinetic" operations--the favored neologism for "combat"--were counter-productive, producing more resentment and more insurgents. They emphasized the need to win hearts and minds and to avoid alienating the population. While major combat operations generate resentment among the population, and may encourage indigenous forces to become dependent on outside assistance, Petraeus and Odierno recognized that such problems pale in comparison with allowing the enemy to control key terrain and attack targets at will.

Petraeus as he took command in February 2007 emphasized using combat forces to protect the population in major cities, establish and expand safe areas, and clear insurgent safe havens. It was Odierno's job to figure out how, exactly, to accomplish those tasks with the forces he had available. He came quickly to a counterintuitive conclusion: Securing Baghdad required large-scale offensive combat operations outside the city.

Previous American commanders had recognized that the violence in Iraq resulted primarily from the actions of distinct enemy organizations--rather than from any inchoate hatred between Sunni and Shia--and they had developed very sophisticated understandings of how individual enemy leaders interacted with each other and their subordinates. This approach flowed naturally from the military thinking of the late 1990s that conceived of conventional enemies as networks of technological systems (computers, communications devices, and power grids, among others). There are important nodes of a technological network that can be disabled to disrupt its functions, and, by analogy, there are people--those providing money, ideological guidance, and the human connections to disperse resources--who are the most important nodes of a terror network. Intelligence assets identified the key players, and Special Forces worked to kill or capture them in targeted raids.

According to this approach, the killing of AQI leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in June 2006 should have disrupted the al Qaeda network severely. But AQI rapidly regrouped after Zarqawi's death under a successor, Abu Ayyub al Masri. The American counterterrorism approach disrupted the network but did not eliminate it. AQI's ability to generate violence in Baghdad through its signature vehicle bombs actually increased in the months after Zarqawi's death, as did civilian casualties and Shia retaliatory attacks. The entire cycle of violence that attacks on the terrorist network were supposed to bring under control actually ramped up.

Just as Odierno took command, Coalition forces captured an AQI map depicting Baghdad as the center of the fight. AQI's main focus in 2006 was establishing safe havens in West Baghdad. The rise in power and ferocity of the Shia militias, however, forced them to establish bases outside of the capital from which to attack both Coalition forces and their Shia opponents. The map showed how AQI had divided the areas around the capital into regions, how it used these suburban safe havens (in Baghdad's "belts") as part of a complex system for moving weapons into the city, and how it carried the fight south of Baghdad.

AQI's approach--and Odierno's new understanding of it--made traditional military concepts like lines-of-communication, support areas, and key terrain relevant to the counterinsurgency strategy. Insurgents moving from the belts to the capital required access to particular roads. Maintaining that access required holding neighborhoods bordering the roads. Car-bombers needed factories in which to make their weapons. IED-users needed ammunition stores and ways of moving their IEDs from depots to frontline fighters. Leaders needed safehouses to allow their free movement in the city and headquarters outside the capital from which they could direct operations. Thinking of the enemy as a network, as U.S. forces had previously been doing, underemphasized the importance of geography and of controlling key terrain to the enemy's operations. Odierno prepared to take that terrain away.


Given the enemy's situation in Iraq, Odierno knew he would need more troops to make the counterinsurgency doctrine operational. He asked for them in December 2006, and President Bush announced the "surge" in January 2007.

The surge brigades made it possible to conduct multiple simultaneous operations rather than focusing on one problem or area at a time. U.S. forces within Baghdad would provide as much security as possible for the population, disrupt enemy groups operating from within the capital, and identify the enemy safe havens within the city. At the same time, Odierno planned to deploy troops into the belts around the capital to attack the enemy's support zones and lines of communication and to eliminate the suburban safe havens that were essential to the functioning of the enemy system.