By Noah Shachtman
June 17, 2008
Iraq cooled from a raging boil to a slow simmer, thanks mostly to tactics taken from the military’s counterinsurgency manual. Or, at least, that’s the accepted wisdom. But a group of military thinkers and Iraq veterans says the established narrative is all wrong. According to them, Iraq may not even be an insurgency at all.
In the classic insurgency scenario, you’ve got a group of guerrillas on one side, and an otherwise-legitimate “host government” on the other. It’s the job of a military like America’s to tip the balance towards stability and order, by keeping the insurgents from overthrowing that government.
But in Iraq, “the bulk” of what used to be the insurgents have “now realign[ed] themselves with the American forces” against “the nihilistic-Islamist terrorist Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Lt. Col. Douglass Ollivant notes in the latest edition of Perspectives on Politics, which is devoted to a critique of the now-famous counterinsurgency manual. “With the Sunni nationalists at least temporarily allied and AQI deprived of its sanctuary among the Sunni population, just who are the insurgents in Iraq against whom a counterinsurgency might be conducted?”
Instead, what seems to be going on in Iraq is a “competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources,” as General David Petraeus put it. Shi’ites are fighting Shi’ites; Sunnis are battling Sunnis; splinter groups from both sects are waging a low-level religious war; AQI and other jihadists are stirring chaos; and criminal gangs trying to profit from the mayhem. It’s an “extremely difficult and lethal problem,” observes Lt. Col. Ollivant, who, until recently, was the chief of planning for U.S. military operations in Baghdad. “But it “is not exactly an insurgency.”
America isn’t exactly following its new manual for fighting such conflicts, writes Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar and former Petraeus advisor, in the same Perspectives on Politics issue. The manual calls for reinforcing the national government’s legitimacy, and power. Instead, U.S. forces help set up a set of groups of neighborhood watchmen, alternatively known as “Concerned Local Citizens” (CLCs) or “Sons of Iraq” And these militias are “largely extragovernmental and independent,” Biddle notes. “Most CLCs provide their own security from continuing fear and distrust of their fellow Iraqis in the government security forces.”
That’s not to say the counterinsurgency manual hasn’t been helpful. “Some aspects of the manual have proven very helpful in Iraq, Biddle writes.
In particular, its guidance, for example, on unity of action, limitation of violence, the need to accept risk in population security, the importance of human intelligence, respect for the laws of war, adaptive small-unit leadership, accounting for the greater difficulty of logistics, or understanding the local society and culture are all sound and important, whether the conflict is ideological, ethnic, sectarian, or merely criminal. In these respects, the manual has contributed importantly to Iraq’s recent decline in violence as these provisions have been implemented. And its emphasis on adaptability has proven helpful in reacting to a war whose premises differ in important ways from those on which the manual was based.
And Petraeus, in an interview last August, argued that Iraq wasn’t simply a matter of guerilla vs. government. “The counterinsurgency operations we’re doing in Iraq are a mix of a number of different operations — offense, defense and stability and support,” he told me.
I mean, there will be major combat operations. There’s no other way to describe the clearance of Ramadi or Baqoubah than major combat operations. Then you’ll have counter-terrorism — in other words, very precision-targeted operations. Then you’ll have what again you might call stability and support operations – [what] we used to do in Bosnia. And it then starts to trend into peace enforcement, and peace keeping. There’s also arguably major crime operations, counter gang. There is nation building, big time. There’s even economic development. I mean, you’re doing a mix of all of those.
Mark Lynch has more outtakes from this roundtable on the counterinsurgency manual. And John Robb, it should be noted, has been making similar points for months and months. As usual, he’s been ahead of the curve.