Posts Tagged ‘COIN’

Militias, Tribes and Insurgents: The Challenge of Political Reintegration in Iraq

10 September, 2008

IRG member David Ucko has a paper published in the October edition of the Conflict, Security & Development journal, entitled Militias, Tribes and Insurgents: The Challenge of Political Reintegration in Iraq. The paper provides a valuable case study of the central role played in post-conflict state-building and counterinsurgency by the reintegration of armed sub-state groups into the political process, and focuses on the evolution of the US approach in Iraq since 2003.

Abstract:

Following its overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the United States was confronted with one of the most complex state-building enterprises of recent history. A central component of state building, emphasised in the literature yet given scant attention at the time of the invasion, is the process of political reintegration: the transformation of armed groups into political actors willing to participate peacefully in the political future of the country. In Iraq, political reintegration was a particularly important challenge, relating both to the armed forces of the disposed regime and to the Kurdish and Shia militias eager to play a role in the new political system.

This article examines the different approaches employed by the United States toward the political reintegration of irregular armed groups, from the policy vacuum of 2003 to the informal reintegration seen during the course of the so-called “surge” in 2007 and 2008. The case study has significant implications for the importance of getting political reintegration right—and the longterm costs of getting it badly wrong.

Access a free copy of the paper here.

Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt

17 July, 2008

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has released a special report written by Daniel Markey – CFR’s senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia – entitled Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt [PDF].

The following is the ‘Introduction & Summary of Recommendations’:

Today, few places on earth are as important to U.S. national security as the tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The region serves as a safe haven for a core group of nationally and internationally networked terrorists, a training and recruiting ground for Afghan Taliban, and, increasingly, a hotbed of indigenous militancy that threatens the stability of Pakistan’s own state and society. Should another 9/11-type attack take place in the United States, it will likely have its origins in this region. As long as Pakistan’s tribal areas are in turmoil, the mission of building a new, democratic, and stable Afghanistan cannot succeed.

Nearly seven years after 9/11, neither the United States nor Pakistan has fully come to terms with the enormity of the challenge in the tribal belt. Washington has failed to convince Pakistanis that the United States has positive intentions in the region and is committed to staying the course long enough to implement lasting, constructive change. Pakistan, for its part, has demonstrated a disturbing lack of capacity and, all too often, an apparent lack of will to tackle head-on the security, political, or developmental deficits that have produced an explosion of terrorism and extremism within its borders and beyond. Islamabad’s conflicted views and priorities with respect to this fight have deep roots; for much of its history, the Pakistani state has employed militants as tools to project power and influence throughout the region.

In order to begin making progress in the tribal areas, the United States must build strong working relationships with Pakistani leaders and institutions, both military and civilian. The alternatives, ranging from reluctant, piecemeal cooperation to an outright rupture in bilateral relations, are bound to be far more costly and counterproductive to American interests over the long run. And despite the inevitable frustrations that will plague the U.S.-Pakistan partnership, it cannot be founded on coercive threats of U.S. sanctions or unilateral military activity. Such coercion is profoundly counterproductive because it empowers those in Pakistan who already suspect U.S. ill intentions and it undermines Washington’s real and potential allies in the Pakistani political system.

Rather than threats, Washington should employ a strategy of enhanced cooperation and structured inducements, in which the United States designs its assistance to bring U.S. and Pakistani officials closer together and provides Pakistan with the specific tools required to confront the threats posed by militancy, terrorism, and extremism.

In his first six months in office, the new U.S. president should articulate a formal, comprehensive vision for U.S. policy in the tribal areas, one that prepares both Americans and Pakistanis for a cooperative effort that extends to other facets of the bilateral relationship and will—even if successful—far outlast the next administration. The U.S. government should place Pakistan/Afghanistan second only to Iraq in its prioritization of immediate national security issues, and should move quickly to reassess assistance programming and to invest in U.S. personnel and institutions required for a long-term commitment to the region.

This report aims to characterize the nature of the challenges in Pakistan’s tribal areas, formulate strategies for addressing these challenges, and distill these strategies into realistic policy proposals worthy of consideration by the incoming administration. It
focuses mainly on U.S. policy, but recognizes that Washington’s choices must always be contingent upon Pakistan’s own course of action. The scope of this report is thus more constrained than exhaustive, and its recommendations for U.S. assistance programming
are intended to provide strategic guidelines rather than narrow prescriptions.

Read the whole report here.

H/T: Pakistan Policy Blog

Badal: A Culture of Revenge – The Impact of Collateral Damage on the Taliban Insurgency

8 July, 2008

The ever-useful Combined Arms Research Library (CARL) has published a report – written by Raja G. Hussain of the US Naval Postgraduate School – that examines the role played by collateral damage in exacerbating the Afghan insurgency.

Abstract:

This thesis examines the impact of collateral damage on the Taliban insurgency. It reveals the relationship between death of innocent civilians and the tribal concept of badal (revenge). Research also analyzes Taliban propaganda leaflets to illustrate the compromise of popular support caused by collateral damage stemming from the Coalition’s tactics.

Research probes into the historical Anglo-Afghan wars and the 1979 Soviet invasion to draw parallels to the current insurgency. In doing so, it highlights the rising role of religion and FATA, Pakistan. FATA is analyzed to show the effects of intrusions by outside actors as well as historical and recent events that have shaped the populace and structure of these tribal regions.

Lastly, the research concludes by offering non-kinetic solutions to curbing the Taliban insurgency. The solutions focus on FATA and offer socio-economic and political remedies to hinder with the Taliban recruitment efforts and cross-border incursions. Thesis recognizes FATA and reduction in collateral damage as pivotal factors to fostering stability in the region.

Access the report here.

Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence – The Discrepancy Between COIN Doctrine and Ground Operations

5 July, 2008

RAND have released the latest in a series of occasional papers addressing counterinsurgency theory and practice. Entitled Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence — The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1960-1970 and 2003-2006, and written by Austin Long, the paper challenges the notion that the development of improved COIN doctrine necessarily translates into an equivalent improvement in the conduct of COIN operations on the ground.

Long compares the conduct of contemporary COIN operations by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq following the release of FM 3-24 with the conduct of COIN operations in Vietnam, and argues that in both cases organisational inertia has inhibited the force adaptation required to actually implement new doctrine on the ground.

Abstract:

The publication of a new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine manual in late 2006 was widely heralded as an indication that the U.S. military was finally coming to understand the problems it has recently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this interpretation assumes a tight linkage between doctrine as written and operations as actually conducted. By comparing modern counterinsurgency doctrine and operations to those of 1960s, this paper tests and ultimately disproves this proposition.

An examination of COIN doctrine and operations in the 1960s reveals that operations seldom matched written doctrine. Instead of winning hearts and minds, improving civil-military relations, conducting small-unit operations, and gathering intelligence, most Vietnam War commanders and units attempted to defeat the insurgency through large-scale operations and overwhelming firepower.

Modern U.S. COIN operations in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate a similar preference for high-intensity warfare and a similar inability to adapt technologically and mentally to the requirements of COIN.

To help explain the discrepancy between written doctrine and actual operations, this paper posits that ingrained organizational concepts and beliefs have a much greater influence on operations than written doctrine. While embedded beliefs can help organizations as they conduct their preferred missions, they can be detrimental in other contexts.

Mental and material preparation for high-intensity warfare has made the U.S. military poorly suited to COIN. Altering these beliefs will require more than just new doctrine and some additional professional education: The services must reorient themselves mentally as well as physically.

Read the paper here.

MNF-I Commander’s COIN Guidance

23 June, 2008

The Small Wars Journal has made available an excellent COIN primer produced by the Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I) headquarters. Although the concepts should already be familiar to COIN students and practitioners, they are rarely expressed so succinctly. The focus is on the current campaign in Iraq, but the principles would form a sound basis for any campaign.

Secure and serve the population. The Iraqi people are the decisive “terrain.” Together with our Iraqi partners, work to provide the people security, to give them respect, to gain their support, and to facilitate establishment of local governance, restoration of basic services, and revival of local economies.

Live among the people. You can’t commute to this fight. Position Joint Security Stations, Combat Outposts, and Patrol Bases in the neighborhoods we intend to secure. Living among the people is essential to securing them and defeating the insurgents.

Hold areas that have been secured. Once we clear an area, we must retain it. Develop the plan for holding an area before starting to clear it. The people need to know that we and our Iraqi partners will not abandon their neighborhoods. When reducing forces and presence, gradually thin the line rather than handing off or withdrawing completely. Ensure situational awareness even after transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces.

Pursue the enemy relentlessly. Identify and pursue AQI and other extremist elements tenaciously. Do not let them retain support areas or sanctuaries. Force the enemy to respond to us. Deny the enemy the ability to plan and conduct deliberate operations.

Generate unity of effort. Coordinate operations and initiatives with our embassy and interagency partners, our Iraqi counterparts, local governmental leaders, and nongovernmental organizations to ensure all are working to achieve a common purpose.

Promote reconciliation. We cannot kill our way out of this endeavor. We and our Iraqi partners must identify and separate the “reconcilables” from the “irreconcilables” through engagement, population control measures, information operations, kinetic operations, and political activities. We must strive to make the reconcilables a part of the solution, even as we identify, pursue, and kill, capture, or drive out the irreconcilables.

Defeat the network, not just the attack. Defeat the insurgent networks to the “left” of the explosion. Focus intelligence assets to identify the network behind an attack, and go after its leaders, financiers, suppliers, and operators.

Foster Iraqi legitimacy. Encourage Iraqi leadership and initiative; recognize that their success is our success. Partner in all that we do and support local involvement in security, governance, economic revival, and provision of basic services. Find the right balance between Coalition Forces leading and the Iraqis exercising their leadership and initiative, and encourage the latter. Legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people is essential to overall success.

Employ all assets to isolate and defeat the terrorists and insurgents. Counter-terrorist forces alone cannot defeat Al-Qaeda and the other extremists; success requires all forces and all means at our disposal—non-kinetic as well as kinetic. Employ Coalition and Iraqi conventional and special operations forces, Sons of Iraq, and all other available multipliers. Integrate civilian and military efforts to cement security gains. Resource and fight decentralized. Push assets down to those who most need them and can actually use them.

Employ money as a weapon system. Use a targeting board process to ensure the greatest effect for each “round” expended, and to ensure that each engagement using money contributes to the achievement of the unit’s overall objectives. Ensure contracting activities support the security effort, employing locals wherever possible. Employ a “matching fund” concept when feasible in order to ensure Iraqi involvement and commitment.

Fight for intelligence. A nuanced understanding of the situation is everything. Analyze the intelligence that is gathered, share it, and fight for more. Every patrol should have tasks designed to augment understanding of the area of operations and the enemy. Operate on a “need to share” rather than a “need to know” basis; disseminate intelligence as soon as possible to all who can benefit from it.

Walk. Move mounted, work dismounted. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot and engage the population. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting with the people face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass.

Understand the neighborhood. Map the human terrain and study it in detail. Understand local culture and history. Learn about the tribes, formal and informal leaders, governmental structures, and local security forces. Understand how local systems are supposed to work—including governance, basic services, maintenance of infrastructure, and the economy—and how they really work.

Build relationships. Relationships are a critical component of counterinsurgency operations. Together with our Iraqi counterparts, strive to establish productive links with local leaders, tribal sheikhs, governmental officials, religious leaders, and interagency partners.

Look for Sustainable Solutions. Build mechanisms by which the Iraqi Security Forces, Iraqi community leaders, and local Iraqis under the control of governmental institutions can continue to secure local areas and sustain governance and economic gains in their communities as the Coalition Force presence is reduced. Figure out the Iraqi systems and
help Iraqis make them work.

Maintain continuity and tempo through transitions. Start to build the information you’ll provide to your successors on the day you take over. Allow those who will
follow you to virtually “look over your shoulder” while they’re still at home station by giving them access to your daily updates and other items on SIPRNET. Encourage extra time on the ground during transition periods, and strive to maintain operational tempo and local relationships to avoid giving the enemy respite.

Manage expectations. Be cautious and measured in announcing progress. Note what has been accomplished, but also acknowledge what still needs to be done. Avoid premature declarations of success. Ensure our troopers and our partners are aware of our assessments and recognize that any counterinsurgency operation has innumerable challenges, that enemies get a vote, and that progress is likely to be slow.

Be first with the truth. Get accurate information of significant activities to your chain of command, to Iraqi leaders, and to the press as soon as is possible. Beat the insurgents, extremists, and criminals to the headlines, and pre-empt rumors. Integrity is critical to this fight. Don’t put lipstick on pigs. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, and then state what we’ve learned and how we’ll respond. Hold the press (and ourselves) accountable for accuracy, characterization, and context. Avoid spin and let facts speak for themselves. Challenge enemy disinformation. Turn our enemies’ bankrupt messages, extremist ideologies, oppressive practices, and indiscriminate violence against them.

Fight the information war relentlessly. Realize that we are in a struggle for legitimacy that in the end will be won or lost in the perception of the Iraqi people. Every action taken by the enemy and United States has implications in the public arena. Develop and sustain a narrative that works and continually drive the themes home through all forms of media.

Live our values. Do not hesitate to kill or capture the enemy, but stay true to the values we hold dear. This is what distinguishes us from our enemies. There is no tougher endeavor than the one in which we are engaged. It is often brutal, physically demanding, and frustrating. All of us experience moments of anger, but we can neither give in to dark impulses nor tolerate unacceptable actions by others.

Exercise initiative. In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should be and execute aggressively. Higher level leaders will provide broad vision and paint “white lines on the road,” but it will be up to those at tactical levels to turn “big ideas” into specific actions.

Prepare for and exploit opportunities. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” (Seneca the Younger). Develop concepts (such as that of “reconcilables” and “irreconcilables”) in anticipation of possible opportunities, and be prepared to take risk as necessary to take advantage of them.

Learn and adapt. Continually assess the situation and adjust tactics, policies, and programs as required. Share good ideas (none of us is smarter than all of us together). Avoid mental or physical complacency. Never forget that what works in an area today may not work there tomorrow, and may or may not be transferable to another part of Iraq.

A PDF version of the whole 3-page document is available from the SWJ site here.

Documents of Note #3

3 May, 2008

The following is the latest in a periodic round-up of reports, papers, monographs, etc likely to be of interest to IRG members and the wider COIN/CT community.

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RAND has published Volume 5 in its Counterinsurgency Study series of monographs, which is co-authored by IRG founder John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy.

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

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The May-June edition of the US Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review includes the following piece by Philip Seib:

The Al-Qaeda Media Machine [PDF]

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The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has published the following studies:

Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims through the War of Ideas – Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur [PDF]

Global Climate Change: National Security Implications (ed. Carolyn Pumphrey) [PDF]

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The SWJ Magazine has published interim versions of the following papers:

Social Epidemics and the Human Element of Counterinsurgency – CPT Nils French

Iraqi Non-Lethal Contributions to the Counterinsurgency – CPT Justin Gorkowski

The Counterinsurgency Cliff Notes – CPT Craig Coppock

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The US Department of State has released the latest in its annual series of terrorism assessments:

Country Reports on Terrorism 2007

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The International Crisis Group has released two new reports on Iraq:

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

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The Combined Arms Research Library has made the following documents available. Original date of publication is provided if the document is not new.

Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 – David Galula, 1963 (2006 Rand edition with foreword by Bruce Hoffman)

War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency – RAND

55 Trends Now Shaping the Future of Terrorism – Dr. Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies

Defeating Cross Border Insurgencies – Thorsten Joergensen, 2007

Tactical Handbook for Operations Other Than WarUK Ministry of Defence, 1998

Strategic Assessment of the Mau-Mau Rebellion – Robert Eatman, 2007

Chechen Suicide Bombers – Robert W. Kurz and Charles K. Bartles, 2007

The Evolution of Al Qaeda – Sean Wilson, 2007

Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare – William Hartman, 2002

Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: A Seamless TransitionJohn Hahn, 2004

Asymmetric Warfare: An Historical Perspective – Frankling Miles, 1999

Why Insurgents Fail: Examining Post-World War II Failed Insurgencies Utilizing the Prerequisites of Successful Insurgencies as a Framework – Frank Zimmerman, 2007

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Secrecy News
has made available the following reports from the Congressional Research Service:

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress [PDF]

Iraq: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy [PDF]

High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments [PDF]

The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

29 April, 2008

The following post was contributed by IRG member, indeed IRG founder, John Mackinlay.

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On Sunday 27 April Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan’s National Day parade with light mortars, RPGs and AK 47 fire. The firing started during the 21 gun salute at the climax of the parade and the presence of camera crews and reporters from every major TV station and international news agency ensured that the story and above all the images were instantly beamed across the world in several major languages in time to make the evening news. After the initial reactions, there has been no intelligent acknowledgement in the US and European print stories which followed on Monday that this attack is part of Taliban’s propaganda of the deed (POTD) campaign and the extent to which the media are its major propagating asset. Are our “defence correspondents” too shy to scrutinise their own indispensable part in the Taliban POTD strategy or genuinely unaware of their central role in post modern insurgency?

In his yet to be published paper “Hearts and Minds: Time to Think Differently” Steve Tatham (researching at UK’s Defence Academy) shows convincingly that Taliban moved to a much more sophisticated propaganda approach in 2006 when it became the “key component in their campaign”. It is also possible that Taliban were increasingly aware that their previous efforts fell far short of the expectations of a potential audience that was multilingual and routinely exposed to the best television products in the world and therefore educated and very demanding in a visual sense. This point is also made in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Paul Baines about to be published 2008 paper “British Muslim Susceptibility to Islamist Propaganda: An Exploratory Study”. According to Steve Tatham Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.

Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself. By doing so they boost up a global interest in the particular aspects of its disgrace, the sense of pantomime, the rout of be-medalled parade soldiers scampering across the parade square before the Taliban fire and worst of all rows of dignitaries diving for cover behind their seats on the flag decked parade stand. Thanks to the media all that remains of this tragic day are these relentlessly unforgiving and unqualified images.

The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

The failure of frontline reporters to understand their role in a POTD campaign is emphasised in BBC 2’s flagship series on terrorist attacks “The Age of Terror”. In it Peter Taylor, who has been reporting on terrorism for 30 years makes a “thoughtful and intelligent examination” of the Palestinian hijack to Entebbe and the PIRA bomb at Enniskillen. But in both programmes so far his cameras dwell endlessly on the kinetic details of the attacks and at no time does he explain the two campaigns in terms of their significance in the evolution of insurgency. In particular the fact that neither attack had any military or tactical significance and that to succeed as part of a nascent POTD campaign their respective stories and images had to reach the outside world via the media, and that the assumption that the media would was central to the operational concept in each case. Taylor seems to view the attacks from a moral island without appearing to understand the concept that was being played out and above all that the media were part of the problem.

In the media’s defence it could be argued that on Sunday in simple, unqualified descriptive terms they showed what took place, and how are we to trust them if they withheld images and stories so that a different account emerges? However newspapers and TV stations have always been biased towards an editorial perspective or a particular audience. They also impose restrictions on themselves for apparently honourable reasons – to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, Prince Harry’s military service and caveats on impending military and police operations. The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

Defending Stalemate

27 April, 2008

In an earlier post on this blog, entitled The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq, Jeff Michaels proposed a ‘stalemate strategy’ as an alternative to current counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Following comments from David Ucko and Stéphane Taillat, Jeff has composed the following response.

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I hope you don’t mind, but for brevity sake I’d like to respond to both David’s and Stephane’s comments in a single response of my own. I must warn you that I will take a somewhat long-winded way of explaining the logic behind the stalemate strategy, but in the process, hopefully respond to all of their points.

1. One of the problems of offering a ‘radical’ take on any given subject is its shock value. In this particular case, to suggest that an approach other than the counter-insurgency type currently being employed in Iraq under Petraeus might be better for US national security in the long-term, definitely seems to go against the ‘dominant discourse’ of the day.

However, please consider this. Iraq does not constitute the only mission for the US armed forces. Nor does Afghanistan. That being said, too many counterinsurgency advocates look at a conflict such as Iraq and immediately see COIN as the ‘only’ strategy, without recognizing the broader context of these conflicts.

2. By contrast, an alternative grand strategy-based outlook must examine the long-term gains versus losses of maintaining the current approach, and compare these with other options.

This outlook mimics in a somewhat analogous way the view of a certain group of Vietnam dissenters (mostly military officers) who objected to US military involvement there, not for any moral reasons, but rather because they challenged the assumption that Vietnam was a critical battleground in the broader Cold War. Instead, they saw Europe as the central battleground, and viewed Vietnam as a sideshow that was consuming a disproportionate amount of national resources.

Obviously, the Vietnam/Cold War and Iraq/Global War on Terror are not entirely analogous. On the other hand, in both cases, the conflicts have been linked to broader struggles, at least within US political discourse. Iraq is purported to be the ‘central front in the GWOT’ and this mantra is used to justify the disproportionately large US military presence there versus Afghanistan, the Philippines, Horn of Africa, etc., which are presumably viewed as ‘lesser fronts’.

3. It is worthwhile considering for a moment the resources devoted to Iraq in relation to the broader GWOT. Why is it that Iraq requires 140,000+ troops, Afghanistan 30,000, Horn of Africa 1,500, and so forth? Is the US choosing its approach to the conflict because it is the ‘ideal’ approach, or because the approach is defined by the amount of resources available?

To put it bluntly, I would argue the fact that following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US actually had hundreds of thousands of troops in the area, that this was the most important factor determining America’s subsequent approach to the conflict. In other words, had the US only had 30,000 troops in theater at the time, the US would have had to decide whether to massively increase the force level in order to wage a counterinsurgency campaign, or to keep its military presence at that level and choose an alternative strategy to deal with the problem.

The real issue here is that there are always different ways of doing things. The basis for the stalemate strategy rests on the assumption that US military resources are limited, and therefore present force levels in Iraq cannot be sustained indefinitely. In this case, keeping in mind that US forces in Iraq are bound to decline in number over time, what options are available?

The option many COIN advocates seem to push for, is to keep force levels at their maximum for as long as possible, until conditions have improved to the point where withdrawals can be justified. There are several faults in this logic.

Firstly, there is the assumption that once Iraqi forces are deemed capable of taking over security, thereby allowing US forces to leave, that this will increase the likelihood of stability. Secondly, is the belief that there actually can be ‘stability’. Thirdly, it presumes Washington would be able to recognize ‘stability’, or define it in terms that would allow for troops to be withdrawn? Fourthly, and perhaps most important, is that it ignores the fact there are many groups interested in, and capable of, maintaining a low-level of violence indefinitely.

Indeed, many COIN experts are well aware that it is usually, if not always, the insurgents that control the rate of attrition. As such, looking at the cost-benefit calculus of groups that wish to keep Iraq unstable and to ensure the US overstretches itself (I would include Tehran amongst these), how much effort on their part is required to ensure the US keeps itself committed at its current level until it exhausts itself. I would say this would not require very much effort at all. Even if violence was reduced by 90% but sustained indefinitely, would the US declare ‘victory’? Or would the prospect of the violence increasing again force the US to wage counterinsurgency indefinitely as well?

4. The stalemate strategy has been developed precisely to counter the notion that violence in Iraq will ever be eradicated or reduced to a ‘manageable level’. Instead, it assumes that low-level violence has the prospect of continuing indefinitely, that this violence in all likelihood has the prospect of escalating again, and that US military intervention can at best play only a limited role in containing the multitude of crises involving a multitude of actors.

The question for US policymakers is not whether a stable Iraq is possible. Even in the best case scenario in which stability emerges, will it be a stability that is beneficial for US interests? For instance, would the US gain anything from a stable Iraq that is run predominantly by pro-Iranian Shiites? Is such a rosy scenario worth the ‘three trillion dollars’ in expense and ‘breaking’ the army? Best-case scenarios are not the most likely ones, and without suggesting that worst-case scenarios of civil war are the likeliest either, the reality will probably be somewhere in between.

5. In the meantime, there seems to be no consensus amongst US policymakers about what they believe can actually be achieved in Iraq, nor about what the long-term US interest is. Instead of knowing what they want, most policymakers can at least agree about what they don’t want. Quite simply put, they don’t want to lose, they don’t want to be seen to lose, they don’t want to overextend the military, they don’t want to risk heavy casualties, they don’t want to break the bank, they don’t want Iraq to be the next Afghanistan, and they don’t want Iran to emerge as a winner.

As such, rather than develop strategies to achieve best case, yet highly unrealistic outcomes, it seems much wiser to develop a strategy that achieves the minimum requirements of policymakers. The stalemate strategy is intended to achieve precisely this.

6. Rather than overextend US forces indefinitely, hoping that elections will bring to power virtuous Iraqi leaders who are capable of reversing Iraq’s sinking fortune, a prospect that not only does not exist, but even if it did, it would take many years to accomplish, it would be at risk from any number of potential catastrophes, it would be opposed by all those groups that stand to lose out, and incidentally it would require a heavy US military presence during this entire process.

As much as I would like to have faith in the Iraqi electorate, Iraq’s politicians, and Iraq’s civil service, I’m not entirely sure history provides any grounds for optimism. It is certainly not the sort of optimism that I would base a strategy on. This is not to denigrate the Iraqis per se; I’d assume it would take US and British civil servants faced with the same circumstances many years to begin making real progress as well. To suggest that elections may provide a ‘real turning point’ seems to be the same sort of false expectation that existed prior to the last elections. As to whether or not elections would be held, or could be held effectively, without a massive troop presence on the ground providing security on election day, one would hope that the Iraqi security forces can turn out in full force and provide an adequate level of protection.

7. Waiting for the Iraqi political and administrative system to reform itself runs completely counter to reaching the set of minimum requirements mentioned earlier. In the meantime, US forces are focusing on managing low-levels of violence that seem to remain low-levels of violence year in and year out. As the years go by with few results to show for all the effort, the army becomes frustrated and the US public becomes restless. At some stage, something will have to give.

It is my contention that the longer US forces remain in Iraq at the present levels, the more likely there will be calls for ‘total’ withdrawal. However, if the forces can be reduced significantly, with a corresponding drop in financial cost, the minimum requirements can still be met, and the American public will more likely support an indefinite military commitment. In other words, the more steep the drawdown, the longer it can be sustained.

8. As mentioned in the article, the US drawdown should be based around the concept of an impregnable force that is based around a division headquarters as its main operational component, rather than the present day corps headquarters. The purpose of the force would not be to take part in countering low-level violence; instead it would act to ensure the long-term survival of the Iraqi state, to include protecting the center of administration.

Maintaining the Green Zone maintains the Iraqi state, or at least the illusion of the Iraqi state. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi government based in the Green Zone has only a marginal impact on the day-to-day running of the country. However, despite the limitations of their actual power, they still constitute a legitimate government, and one that still has far greater capabilities than any other group that could threaten to overthrow it.

With a secure base, the Iraqi government can gradually assert control, or at least grant limited sovereignty to parts of the country until such time as the power of the federal government has strengthened to the point where the balance of power is in their favor.

9. In the event of civil war, or heightened levels of sectarian violence, it is unclear what role either the Americans or the Iraqi government would play, except perhaps to stand aside, or support various factions. Under the present counterinsurgency strategy, there is no way to guarantee that civil war won’t occur, particularly once US troop numbers drop below pre-surge levels.

Likewise, there is no guarantee that a civil war will occur if the US opts for the stalemate strategy. The risk of civil war hangs over Iraq no matter which strategy is chosen. That being said, the US military is not supposed to be in the business of stopping an Iraqi civil war. Again, this is why it is important for the US to remain on the sidelines. No matter which group emerges they will ultimately have to deal with the US. Meantime, maintaining the impregnable force in Iraq would serve to dissuade any Iranian attempt to overtly intervene in the conflict.

10. There is no question the current Iraqi government is ‘far from sacrosanct’. Indeed, this makes any defense of COIN all the harder to justify. How can COIN possibly work if the Iraqi government is such a shambles? How on earth can we tell Iraqis to support a government that we have no faith in ourselves?

The stalemate strategy has no great expectations as far as the Iraqi government is concerned, and is not reliant on this government to improve life for ordinary Iraqis. The US interest in the Iraqi government would be limited to ensuring the Iraqi government continues its support of the US presence.

To clarify this Catch-22 situation, it is necessary to refer back to the minimum requirements. For the US, not being defeated, or seen to have been defeated, is a paramount concern for numerous reasons to include its positive impact on Al Qaeda propaganda, lowering of US public and military morale (the Vietnam syndrome), etc. The best way to avoid defeat is to remain in Iraq, and the only way to remain legitimately in Iraq is to have the support of the Iraqi government.

As such, the impregnable force becomes the guarantor of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi government becomes the guarantor of the US presence. The main purpose of the US presence will have little to do with domestic Iraqi politics except as it relates to the presence itself. As mentioned in the article, because the Iraqis cannot force the US out of Iraq by military means, they can only do so by legislative means. Thus, the US can work to ensure the various factions that constitute the Iraqi legislature do not develop a consensus aimed at removing the US presence.

11. Maintaining the US military presence will not be an end purely in itself, but will give added teeth to enhanced diplomatic and covert efforts, and also provide a reliable staging post should US forces be required for any other regional contingencies. The US should not employ its military forces on direct action missions against low-level adversaries.

Defining the enemy is no easy task as has already been alluded to. The names have changed over time, and different groups have different motivations. The key point that needs to be emphasized is that the only enemy that will potentially be a target for US forces is whatever adversary emerges that challenges to overthrow the state. In other words, the various insurgent groups, to include Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), will not feature on an enemies list for the US military. These groups are too small to merit a massive military campaign aimed at eradicating them.

Instead, the Iraqis (both government and non-government) can take the lead, but supported with US funding, training, and arms; in other words, all means short of direct military intervention. An important goal of US efforts will be to ensure no group gains too much power at the expense of the central government or develops capabilities that could threaten the overthrow of the central government.

12. Should any group emerge as a potential challenger to the state, it is inevitable they will have to mass in which case they will be vulnerable to superior US firepower. Likewise, groups that intend to control territory must have armed forces to defend it. In the recent case of Basra, Mahdi Army militiamen were out in force. Had the Iraqi government forces been better armed and led, they would most likely have inflicted very severe blows on the Mahdi Army, certainly to the extent that it would have severely degraded their capabilities.

The notion behind using heavy firepower is not one that is limited to the stalemate strategy. Indeed, it should be remembered that under Petraeus’s command, the US Air Force has employed B-1B bombers dropping heavy ordnance against reported Al Qaeda sanctuaries. The key difference between the two approaches is that whereas Petraeus has been content to employ heavy ordnance to counter low-level violence, a stalemate strategy would limit use of heavy ordnance only to those cases where the enemy had massed in significant strength and could not be dealt with by other means.

13. The acquisition of intelligence will not be significantly hindered by adopting a stalemate strategy for the fundamental reason that the nature of the intelligence required to aid commanders will undergo a significant shift. The requirements of intelligence in a counterinsurgency are considerably different from those in a stalemate strategy.

For instance, due to the fact they would no longer be carrying out raids, US forces would no longer need to acquire such detailed intelligence on the whereabouts of insurgents living in a unit’s area of responsibility. Intelligence collection would be directed away from providing tactical intelligence and concerned more with strategic warning. Needless to say, HUMINT is just one means of collecting intelligence, and after 5 years of occupation, I am pretty certain the US intelligence system will not come crashing down over night.

14. When conceptualizing what a stalemate strategy would look like in practice, it is necessary to dispense with many of the preconceptions of counterinsurgency. As was mentioned in the article, the goal of stalemate isn’t to win; merely not to lose. This distinction is more than mere semantics. It reflects on an entirely different mindset and strategic approach, and this has operational consequences.

As such, there is no need to achieve ‘momentum and initiative’ for the purpose of ‘winning’, since ‘winning’ is not the objective. Nor is there a need to engage with the populace at the lowest levels. Indeed, apart from the Green Zone, the further away American forces are from the Iraqi populace the better. Engaging with Iraq’s political elites should suffice, and this will be more a function of the State Department and CIA than it will be for the US military.

15. Iraq is not a ‘total war’ for the US. It may be a ‘total war’ for the Iraqis, but US interest in Iraq must be viewed in a broader superpower framework of national security priorities. The counterinsurgency approach in Iraq compromises US security elsewhere.

This is a crucial point. With the bulk of the army committed to Iraq, it is not available for contingencies elsewhere. As a result, all other ‘crises’ become lesser crises, simply due to the fact there are less resources to deal with them. Thus, the ‘war’ in Afghanistan gets less attention from policymakers, and fewer resources devoted to it.

The current counterinsurgency approach in Iraq is unsustainable, and some sort of strategic shift in policy is probably inevitable. This is not to say that COIN is necessarily bad, or that it couldn’t work given time. However, at this particular moment in time, and projecting forward, it is more harmful than helpful. By contrast, the stalemate strategy offers a better chance to bring the US military commitment in Iraq more in line with national priorities, while ensuring that its minimum requirements are met.

An Impregnable Force? A Response by David Ucko

25 April, 2008

The following post, by IRG member David Ucko, offers a response to Jeff Michaels’ earlier post ‘The Impregnable Force: A Case For Stalemate in Iraq’, and has been promoted from the Comments section of that post.

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Jeff, you are a good friend and I often agree with you. This time however, I think you are – well – almost entirely mistaken. In the spirit of fostering debate, let me quickly go over a few problems I had with your argument.

First, I do not think that the approach you suggest in this piece is either feasible or advisable. Your suggested strategy would perhaps be OK if the goal of the exercise was to secure the Green Zone. If we are OK with that plan, of course we would need to change strategy. But I don’t think that protecting the Green Zone would constitute any sort of victory (or absence of defeat), nor would it be sustainable in a country falling back into civil war.

You also seem to suggest that your approach would protect the Iraqi ‘state’, or government, and therefore constitute some sort of victory (by not letting it be overthrown). There are many problems with that assumption. The current government in Iraq is itself far from sacrosanct and I do not think that the US military should or would like to lean on it indefinitely as the answer and manifestation of all things ‘good’ about Iraq. In fact, the ‘government’ – fragmented and intensely identity-driven – has itself been responsible for some of instability, denial of services, deep mistrust that we see in Iraq today. Simply protecting it in the name of ‘having a government’ won’t do, unless you favour endless ethnic violence and cleansing, the type of instability that could just as well be achieved by a complete withdrawal.

This leads to the nature of the current strategy, which I think you mischaracterise, leading to a poor diagnosis. There is much more to the current strategy than gaining hearts and minds on the local level, though this – in a way – is an important part of it (though I wouldn’t characterise it like that). Another major component would be achieving greater buy-in in the political system or central regime, by encouraging peaceful political participation, by integrating tribal fighters into and also reforming the Iraqi security forces. Put differently, as I understand it, the US military is pursuing a top-down process of reform by deterring obstructionist elements, promoting legislation to be passed, professionalising and expanding the membership of the Iraqi security forces, etc., while also achieving local ceasefires from the bottom-up, providing – in aggregate – the security situation and, ideally, buy-in necessary for the top-down reform to take place. The real turning-point for this process will be the provincial elections in October 2008 and the national elections the year after.

Now, I do agree with you that the characterisation of the enemy has at times been confused. Having said that, many of the groups you list, seemingly as interchangeable, can and should in fact be isolated for the purposes of analysis and policy. They have their own motives, origins, etc. Furthermore, the terms you list span the duration of the campaign, from 2003 to now. Better to focus on the particular groups active in one area. In correspondence with a brigade commander who was active in Iraq in 2006, he provided a precise break-down of the groups he needed to address. It was informed by local intelligence and close familiarity and recognised the multitude of distinct but sometimes overlapping motivations for resistance.

Taking this one step forward, you seem to assume that the ‘enemy’ – which for your criticism of the US characterisation, you yourself have not defined – that the enemy’s conception of victory is overthrowing the state. That may not be the case: resource exploitation, local territorial control, or just fostering instability are as, if not more, likely motives. A narrow protection of the Green Zone would therefore bring about a situation similar to 2004-06, when the US military leadership in Iraq by and large favoured FOBs and Iraq experienced rising periodic attacks, ethnic violence, leading to civil war. As I have said before, that outcome can be achieved simply by withdrawing.

And even if the Iraqi state’s survival could be guaranteed through your approach, without any capacity, which the Iraqi state would struggle to maintain without active US support, isn’t the Iraqi ‘state’ just a hollow shell anyway? Then what’s the point of defending it against those who threaten to ‘overthrow’ it…? And how would it be defended? The US can go in heavy but where has this ever truly worked. And why would any ‘enemy’ worth his salt mass for the sake of our JDAMs. The effective use of force in Iraq will always require intelligence and precision and if you think about how intelligence is gained and precision is achieved, you realise that you must return to the ‘dispersal of troops in urban centres’ that you deride in your piece…. Call it counterinsurgency, call it whatever you want, but launching heavy operations from a fortified base simply won’t substitute – in effectiveness – for the understanding, access and relations built up through the on-the-ground, population-centred approach now put in effect.

A final problem with your approach is elections. I assume that you would still want elections to take place. Yet if the Green Zone is an island of tranquillity in a country undergoing civil war, how would those elections be organised and, as important, who would they bring to power, assuming they could be held in the first place?

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Read Jeff Michaels’ original post here.

The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq

24 April, 2008

The following post was contributed by IRG member Jeff Michaels, and offers a radical and controversial take on the current counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

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The US military’s ability to bring heavy firepower to bear in Iraq offers the best means to maintain a favorable balance of power in the long-term. A US policy that reflects this view provides the most effective way of reducing force levels while retaining leverage over the many competing interest groups who seek to challenge the integrity of the state. Rather than continue adhering to the goal of defeating or degrading US adversaries in Iraq, a new approach could aim to achieve a stalemate. In other words, the strategic emphasis would shift from offense to defense, and place the onus of victory on the enemy. The goal of a stalemate strategy would be to ensure the inability of a third party to take over the Iraqi state. As such, the definition of victory would be limited to avoidance of defeat. The definition of defeat would be the forced removal of the US from Iraq, or even a voluntary decision to withdraw, which would in any case be portrayed as being forced out.

This approach contrasts sharply with the current unsustainable counterinsurgency strategy; a strategy that aims to maximize security gains at the local level and win ‘hearts and minds’. For the last five years, the adversaries in the US-led occupation have been what can best be described as ‘flavor-of-the-month’ enemies. The labels US forces have applied to them have shifted regularly over time, and include: ‘dead-enders’, ‘former regime elements’, ‘Al-Qaeda’, ‘illegal armed groups’, ‘special groups’, and so forth. The primary problem with the constant change of terminology has been to entrench within American discourse the perception that the main adversaries that must be confronted are a combination of perpetrators of low-level violence, as well as groups that wish to maintain dominance of their turf rather than cede it to government control. This has had the effect of elevating the importance of these adversaries into a significant threat, instead of the nuisance they actually constitute. Consequently, the US military has been jumping from one hot spot to the next and from one adversary to the next, with little or no conception of what purpose they are serving, other than as local firemen putting out very small fires. It would seem a paradigm shift away from counterinsurgency is long overdue. Such a shift should inform, and be informed by, a revised set of political objectives.

An alternative concept would have the US avoid intervention in cases where it would be countering low-level violence. Unlike the current approach that relies on dispersing forces in cities throughout Iraq, a new strategy should emphasize concentrating US strength outside the main urban centers, thereby allowing a reduction of forces to the point where a division-plus base level commitment can be sustained indefinitely. One of the key benefits this ‘stalemate option’ provides is to give the US the advantage of time; an advantage the enemy currently holds.

Under this new strategy, the US military would remain committed to supporting Iraq’s government, but would limit future interventions only to those cases where the balance of power had shifted away from the government. In other words, any direct action would be limited to countering those groups having the capability to overthrow the state itself. As such, groups with limited capabilities, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), would no longer be a focus for the US forces. This approach would accept the strategic reality that the US has the heaviest firepower, and that groups such as AQI cannot dislodge US forces from Iraq by force. Within the Green Zone, and on their large bases throughout Iraq, the US military constitutes an impregnable force. No other armed force has the firepower of the Americans, and a new US strategy should stress this comparative advantage.

Since 2003, US adversaries have fought on the strategic defensive, even if they have occasionally engaged in tactical offensive operations. However, in every instance when confronted with US heavy firepower, the adversaries disengage from the fight. This firepower advantage guarantees that adversaries must limit their methods to ‘asymmetric’ means. Advocates of the counterinsurgency approach have traditionally argued this reflects a US weakness rather than an enemy one, and is the primary reason they use to justify restructuring US forces to fight this low-intensity type of war. However, if the US chooses to limit its political objective to denying victory to its adversaries, there is no reason to fight the war on enemy terms. Instead, the US can ensure any group attempting to seize power must ultimately fight on American terms.

There are only a limited number of ways US forces will be removed from Iraq. Whether it is political opposition to the war, fiscal strain, armed forces overstretch, or a combination of these that contributes to withdrawing US forces, this will be a decision made in Washington. The only power the Iraqis potentially have to evict US forces is to legislate them out. By contrast, as long as US forces maintain local firepower superiority, they remain a force to be reckoned with, no matter who takes power. It should be remembered that yesterday’s ‘insurgents’ are today’s ‘Sons of Iraq’. US strategy should reflect the reality that employing the US military to take direct action against adversaries is an option rather than a necessity. There are almost always indirect means available that can be employed to ensure a lack of unity amongst the various groups vying for power. At the end of the day, America’s most important long-term objective is to sustain a favorable balance of power, preferably at a far lesser cost in terms of blood and treasure. Such an approach ensures the US ability to deny perceived victory to both Al Qaeda and Iran, avoids the consequences of defeat, and significantly reduces the strain on the US armed forces. The term ‘stalemate’ may be considered a dirty one, but the time has come to dispense with any pretensions of ‘victory’, and not let false expectations serve as an alternative to sound strategy.