Thursday, March 22, 2007

Drawing lessons from the Iraq War (1)

As Gary Hart recently wrote, there will soon be a small industry in the "lessons of Iraq", which I would hope we could call "lessons of the Iraq War". But "lessons of Iraq" is likely to be what we usually hear.

An early entry in this field is
Learning From Iraq: Counterinsurgency in American Strategy by Steven Metz (US Army Strategic Studies Institute) - paper dated Jan 2007 but placed on Web site 12/22/06.

The heavy temptation will be for the armed services to revert back to what they prefer, which is planning for fighting the Soviet Red Army in Europe. But at least for now, the questions of how to plan for counterinsurgency wars, what that requires and what it implies are getting at least prominently lip service from military analysts. Metz writes:

The United States has a long history of involvement in irregular conflict. During the Cold War, this took the form of supporting friendly regimes against communist-based insurgents. After the Cold War, though, the military assumed that it would not undertake protracted counterinsurgency and did little develop its capabilities for this type of conflict. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, forced President Georege W. Bush and his top advisers to reevaluate the global security environment and American strategy. The new strategy required the United States to replace regimes which support terrorism or help bring ungoverned areas which terrorists might use as sanctuary under control. Under some circumstances, such actions could involve counterinsurgency. Iraq was a case in point. It has forced the U.S. military to relearn counterinsurgency on the fly. ...

The Iraq conflict reinforced what national security specialists long have known: the United States is adept at counterinsurgency support in a limited role but faces serious, even debilitating challenges when developing and implementing a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy for a partner state. Most policymakers, military leaders, and defense analysts, though, believe that American involvement in counterinsurgency is inevitable as the "long war" against jihadism unfolds. This means that the United States needs a strategy and an organization that can conduct counterinsurgency effectively. Since 2003, the Department of Defense has undertaken a number of reforms to augment effectiveness at counterinsurgency and other irregular operations. (my emphasis)
One fault that I see in some of the early "lessons of the Iraq War" writing is that two important questions are often treated as one. Or, more precisely, one is avoided. The one that is discussed is the practical benefit of preparing for counterinsurgency warfare and in doing so, to de-emphasize preparation for conventional and/or nuclear war. The question that is not asked nearly enough is, does it make jack for sense for the United States to adopt a foreign policy that requires massive counterinsurgency operations like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Metz does ask in this paper, "At the grand strategic level, does the United States want a security apparatus optimized for counterinsurgency?" What does not come out clearly in his analysis, like it fails to come out in so many others, is that this is a serious foreign policy decision that needs to made in a serious way. It's not just a "military" question.

The Cheney-Bush foreign policy assumes what is effectively perpetual war and massive, absurd levels of military spending.

Metz' account of the early months, April and May 2003, is important. Because it shows that the US military knew very well even then that an insurgency was developing, an insurgency that military and civilian officials should have taken far more seriously than they did. It almost goes without saying that our sad "press corps" was snoozing on that one, too. The Pentagon expected the conventional war to end quickly and that they could draw down the forces to around 30,000 by late 2003. But, as Metz recounts, reality intervened in a rude way:

Unfortunately, events did not follow script. As soon as the old regime was destroyed, Iraq collapsed in a nation-wide spasm of looting and street crime. The Iraqi security forces disappeared. With nothing to take their place, violence ran unchecked. The anarchy sparked public anger which grew into a storm, gathering energy with passing weeks. For a brief interlude, little of the violence was directed against the American forces. But that did not last long. Trouble first broke out in the restive city of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. Fallujah was insular, conservative, intensely religious, and resistant to outside control, attracting radical clerics like moths to a flame. It was a traditional hotbed of smuggling and a city where complex tribal connections mattered greatly, helping define personal loyalty, obligation, and honor. Even Saddam Hussein largely had left the place alone. It was bypassed in the original assault on Baghdad, but elements of the 82d Airborne Division arrived in late April 2003. The citizens did not take kindly to occupation. Within a few days, a rally celebrating Saddam Hussein’s birthday led to angry denunciations of the U.S. presence and heated demands for withdrawal. Shooting broke out, leaving at least 13 Iraqis dead. Two more died the next day in a second round of clashes. Attackers then tossed grenades into a U.S. Army compound. Without drawing a moral comparison, Fallujah was like Lexington and Concord — an inadvertent clash that funneled discontent toward organized resistance.

Still, the turn to violence was not immediate across Iraq. Frustration grew gradually to a storm-like intensity, faster in some places than others. "Thank you for removing the tyrant," more and more Iraqis concluded, "but now go home." At the same time — and contradictorily — they complained that a nation as powerful as the United States could restore order and public services if it desired, so the failure to do so was punishment intended to dishonor them. Even many who had opposed Hussein believed that intervention was designed to control Iraq’s oil and promote Israeli security. Frustration led to anger. Anger began turning violent. At first it was sporadic. In early May two American soldiers were killed in Baghdad, one in a daylight assassination while directing traffic and the other by a sniper. On May 27, two more died during a nighttime attack on an Army checkpoint near Fallujah.
Iraq’s south appeared quieter but was far from stable. British forces, despite a June incident in the town of Majar al-Kabir which left six military policemen dead,
took a more relaxed approach to occupation duties, leaving local religious and militia leaders (and, as it turned out, criminal gangs) to compete for power. In the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, clerics preserved a fragile order.

In the middle of May [the same month Bush made his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech], several thousand Shiites marched in Baghdad, demanding an immediate transfer of power to an elected government. Grand AyatollahAli Hamid Maqsoon al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, issued a fatwa condemning the idea of a constitutional council named by the American occupation authority, saying Iraqis should draft their own constitution. But the most worrisome development in the Shiite areas was the emergence of Moqtada al-Sadr, son of an esteemed cleric killed by Hussein who was gaining fervent supporters, especially in Basra and the sprawling slum on the east side of Baghdad. He quickly discovered that opposing the Americans (along with the social services programs his organization operated) built support among the Shiite lower classes. As often happens during times of political turmoil, extremism trumped moderation in the quest for attention. Controlling Sadr became a persistent and vexing problem.(my emphasis)
If you have days of time to waste, you might consider searching for a statement at the time from administration officials or officers giving press briefings or - I know this really sounds silly - for news articles in the mainstream press that explained that the first violent encounter in Fallujah that Metz describes there was the political equivalent of "Lexington and Concord", key clashes that initiated the American Revolution.

It's worth repeating: what Metz is describing in those paragraphs is the situation in April and May of 2003. A little further on, he continues the account with events of June and July of 2003:
As early as June, some strategic analysts warned that the fighting constituted an organized guerrilla war, not simply the final spasms of the defeated regime. But U.S. officials rejected this idea. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attributed the violence to “the remnants of the Ba’ath regime and Fedayeen death squads” and “foreign terrorists” who were “being dealt with in an orderly and forceful fashion by coalition forces.” Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, described his unit’s operations as “daily contact with noncompliant forces, former regime members, and common criminals.” “This is not guerrilla warfare,” he continued, “it is not close to guerrilla warfare because it’s not coordinated, it’s not organized, and it’s not led.” As summer wore on, though, it increasingly was difficult to sustain that argument. Finally, on July 16, General John Abizaid, the new commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), concluded that the United States was facing “a classical guerrilla type campaign.” “It’s low-intensity conflict in our doctrinal terms,” he said, “but it’s war, however you describe it.” The optimism of a month earlier, the hope of a quick and relatively painless transition to a post-Hussein Iraq, was gone. As Thomas Ricks put it, the insurgency was in “deadly bloom.” The U.S. military thus found itself thrust into
a type of conflict it thought it had left behind with the end of the Cold War - counterinsurgency.
Neither our civilian leaders nor our military leaders nor most of what we generously call our "press corps" was telling the truth about what was going on in those early months. And the Republican Congress, of course, wasn't about to conduct any oversight of war. But I don't want to overstate matters. The quotes he gives there from Odierno and Abizaid were in the public record at the time, and some American reporters like those from Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) were doing a decent job of reporting this. A telling portion of the information was there for readers who were willing to dig a bit.

Metz' paper describes much more about the recent past that influenced American military doctrine away from counterinsurgency considerations. What I want to emphasize in the remainder of this post is the early signs he rocounts of serious trouble in Iraq and how poorly senior commanders responded, and a very disturbing trend in how some military thinkers conceive the priorities in counterinsurgency war.

As terrible as the civilian leadership was and is (Bush, Cheney, Rummy), there were real failures by the military leaders as well that they shouldn't be allowed to alibi off onto the civilians, incompetent and dishonest as the latter were.

Metz writes about 2003:

General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, instructed his subordinate commanders to expect an Iraqi government to be in place within 30 to 60 days, thus relieving them of administration and governance tasks. (p.22)
There also were problems deciding what to make of the violence in Iraq. When it first emerged, DoD portrayed it as a combination of criminal opportunism and the last spasms of a few lingering Hussein loyalists. Secretary Rumsfeld blamed “people who were the enforcers for the Saddam Hussein regime — the Fedayeen Saddam people and the Ba’ath Party members and undoubtedly some of his security guards” and “50 to 100 thousand prison inmates who were put back out in the street, criminals of various types.” In early May, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted, “we continue to root out residual pockets of resistance from paramilitary forces and Ba’ath Party personnel.” During a June press conference, Ambassador Bremer also characterized the attacks on American forces as originating from small groups of “Fedayeen Saddam or former Republican Guard officers.” This led American leaders to conclude that there was no need for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, but only for continued vigilance and assertive action until the criminals and the former regime loyalists grew tired, were caught, or were killed. (p. 26; my emphasis)
Did these fools believe their own propaganda? Sadly, they probably did.

David Galula, a French army officer, noted that counterinsurgency often involves a “vicious cycle” when military operations turn the public against the military and the military, in turn then begins to see the public as the enemy, thus amplifying the mutual hostility and making it more difficult to win public acceptance or support. The June and July [2003] offensives suggested that the vicious cycle had begun. They probably angered more Iraqis than they captured, leading to an aggregate increase in support for the resistance and convincing many that the United States was an occupier, not a liberator. When civilians were killed or mistreated during raids, it increased sympathy and outright support for the resistance. Methods used by American forces during arrests of suspected insurgents were particularly antagonizing. After interviewing a number of detainees, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wrote:

Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into tins room (sic) under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people. Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time of arrest — sometimes in pyjamas or underwear - and were denied the opportunity to gather a few essential belongings, such as clothing, hygiene items, medicine or eyeglasses. Those who surrendered with a suitcase often had their belongings confiscated. In many cases personal belongings were seized during the arrest, with no receipt being issued. Certain CF (Coalition Forces) military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70% and 90% of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.

... Even though most of those arrested by mistake were quickly released, they considered themselves dishonored, often in front of their families, thus amplifying anger, resentment, and hostility. At least some American units treated everyone as potential insurgents. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some U.S. commanders grasped this, others did not. The hostility of the Iraqi public then hardened. This angered the American troops, particularly those who had lost friends in combat. By the end of his unit’s tour, for instance, a company commander in the 4th Infantry Division advised officers coming after him to remember, “most of the people here want us dead, they hate us and everything we stand for, and will take any opportunity to cause us harm.” In the broadest sense, Americans had forgotten, after 225 years of independence, the humiliation and anger that comes from foreign occupation. They had as much difficulty understanding why Iraqis resisted efforts to help and protect them as British colonialists had in the 1770s. (pp. 29-30; my emphasis in bold)
Again, this was back in 2003, four years ago. Where were the Republicans leaders of Congress whose duty it was to exercise oversight on this? Where were most of our "press corps"? What were our Big Pundits saying about all this? It's a sad, sad story of failure on the part of most of them.

Those last two sentences of that quote are important. It's one of the severe faults in Americans' approach to the world - Congress, the press, our foreign policy "wise men" and women, certainly our "press corps" and Big Pundits - that they have next to no understanding of the revolutionary side of American history. And in situations like this, that makes a big difference. His comment on that is more than a rhetorical flourish.


Eventually November 2003 ended as the deadliest month for the United States to that point, surpassing the conventional battles of March and April. In response, military units heightened the emphasis they gave to force protection. Again, the paradoxical logic was at play: limiting casualties was good for morale and public support but hindered pacification. In November, Clay McManaway, a retired ambassador serving as CPA deputy, gave Bremer a paper, arguing that the Army had gone into a “passive mode.” Operations were not running at the same tempo as over the summer, and some units had cut back on patrolling. (p. 37; my emphasis)
Of course, in this case, "pacification" had to rely almost exclusively on US and some British troops, almost none of whom spoke Arabic, with no indigineous government forces - or even a government - to support them. Metz sums up matters at the close of 2003:

In general, the first year of the counterinsurgency was a time of rapid learning for the U.S. military. It had made great strides in many areas. Still, U.S. strategy had shortcomings. This particularly was evident toward the end of 2003 as mounting casualties and hostility from the Iraqi public, combined with the inherent aggressiveness of the military’s warfighting ethos, led some American units to concentrate more on eliminating insurgents than dominating the psychological battlespace. As Major General George Fay later noted in his investigation of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility, “as the pace of operations picked up in late November–early December 2003, it became a common practice for maneuver elements to round up large quantities of Iraqi personnel in the general vicinity of a specified target as a cordon and capture technique.” Such actions did eliminate enemy fighters, but they also amplified public anger and resentment. In many cases, operations which were successful militarily were political and psychological losses, inspiring new recruits or supporters for the insurgency. While most U.S. commanders understood the psychological priorities of counterinsurgency and acted accordingly, they were overshadowed by the negative effects of those who did not. To concentrate on eliminating enemy fighters rather than discrediting them or undercutting their support was very much within the U.S. military’s tradition — it was a strategy of attrition in which victory came from killing or capturing enemy combatants until the opponent’s will collapsed. This often worked in conventional war. It had, after all, led the United States to stunning victories in World War II and the Gulf War. But, history suggests,it seldom brings success in counterinsurgency.(pp. 40-41; my emphasis)
Finally, Metz offers a couple of observations from early 2004 that don't fit well with the administration's preferred history. One is this quotation from the now-dead jihadist Abu Musab al Zarqawi who headed the so-called al-Qaida in Iraq group:

... Shiism is the looming danger and the true challenge. They are the enemy. Beware of them. Fight them. By God, they lie...Most of the Sunnis are aware of the danger of these people, watch their sides, and fear the consequences of empowering them. (p. 42)
With their posturing against Iraq, the Cheney-Bush crew don't want to be reminding people right now that the Al Qaida type jihadists are Sunni Salafists, not Shi'a like most Iranians.

Metz also writes of early 2004:

The jihadists quickly put this concept into practice, using suicide bombers to attack participants at the religious festival of Ashura in Karbala and Baghdad, killing 140. While Iraq’s Shiites recognized the threat to their community from the Sunni Arabs, this did not translate into full support for the occupation and American-engineered transition. Many of them grudgingly accepted the U.S. presence, but others appeared to believe that, with Iranian support, they could take care of themselves. (p. 42)
The deadly potential of these sectarian tensions was evident at the time.


No comments: