The Magazine

The Learning Curve

Rediscovering counterinsurgency in Iraq.

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