Counter Insurgency and the Iraq War

Two presentations on the last day of the Colby Military Writers Symposium at Norwich University examined the ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Dr. Conrad Crane, of the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA, and Col. (Retired) Peter Mansoor of Ohio State University, and former Executive Officer to General David Petraeus, leading the presentations. Dr. Crane largely looked at the history of counterinsurgency warfare, and what lessons were learned with the introduction of the COIN Doctrine and manual on the part of the U.S. Military, while Col. Mansoor largely looked at the issues with the Iraq War, and the lessons that were learned during the fighting.

The United States has a long history with counterinsurgency operations. The War for Independence, the Civil War, and some of the surrounding conflicts, the Indian Wars, the Philippines, the Second World War, and Vietnam all had elements of asymmetrical warfare, but after the Vietnam War, records and documents about how to fight a counterinsurgency force were destroyed, because it was determined at the time that the United States wouldn't fight a war like that again. At the time of the Iraq War, the only counterinsurgency manual was one from Guadalcanal, for a small 50 man force that had been deployed there as advisors. From the 1980s onwards, a rise on counterinsurgency-based conflicts arose. As the United States entered Iraq, it found that the approaches to how the war would be fought would have to be rethought-out, and as a result, theorists with the Army and Marines began to work on a new Counter Insurgency manual, known as COIN.

According to Peter Mansoor, a number of assumptions were made on the part of the United States as to how the war would be fought, with certain reactions to the U.S. forces. Counterinsurgency was not planned for by U.S. planners, and as a result, the invading force was not prepared for that style of warfare. Furthermore, he charged, once U.S. forces had entered the country, and begun reconstruction work, the political groundwork for an insurgency campaign against U.S. forces was aided by the mistakes that were made from U.S. administrators, particularly Paul Bremer.

Amongst some of the elements that helped was the debathification of the country that occurred, removing the dominant party under Saddam Hussein from power. While this was an essential task, the removal of numerous civil servants extended too far, removing people who had only joined the party to advance, but also hampered recovery plans that were contingent upon people remaining at their posts after the U.S. entered the country. To keep the government functioning, roles were filled with people who were not qualified, and corrupt, which allowed for widespread disillusionment with the recovery efforts and left thousands out of work. They turned their frustrations into violence, turning the war in a different direction. Additional issues cropped up, as the changes in the war did not meet with the Bush Administration's plans, and as a result, this led to a lack of critical thinking and planning on the part of war planners. Rising levels of violence between 2004 and 2006 indicated that there was a need for a new approach to the war. At the height of the violence, President Bush allowed for a change in the war with the lauded troop surge.

The surge was not just an increase in the number of soldiers sent to Iraq; it coincided with the introduction of the new Counterinsurgency Manual that had been put together. The manual, authored by General Petraeus and a number of military and historical experts. The surge itself did not improve security: it worked as a catalyst to allow for improvements. The manual focused on a set number of objectives that redefined the war: It was population oriented, noted that a specific force was needed, rather than overwhelming force, military forces were not the only elements of the battlefield, required that the host nation would need to step up its own efforts to regulate its internal security, utilized new methods and sources of intelligence. Furthermore, the doctrine saw the need to change how the military perceived problems prior to engaging in combat, separate out insurgents from the rest of the population, manage information on the battlefield and utilizing perceptions, and utilized a clear/hold/rebuild approach to the battlefield.

Crane noted that there are a number of discrete styles of insurgency: conspiratorial, military, urban, popular, identity and subversive, and that these motivations for violence had both different background and contributing factors, but that these factors were not static: they could manifest at the same time, or the styles could change. In general, each style also requires a different response. The result is that counterinsurgency forces must be prepared and ready to meet a number of different threats at any given time, but also must anticipate and if possible, try to head off problems before they happen. One example cited was the efforts of a unit in a community that worked to pick up trash along the streets. In addition to denying a ready hiding place for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), it demonstrated to the community that there was an effort on the part of the Unit to help improve the community, and won over support of local leaders.

The COIN doctrine was started in Iraq, but was created with the intent that it would be continued to use in the future, for potential conflicts after the U.S. leaves Iraq and Afghanistan. The thinking behind the doctrine and manual is to emphasize good leadership from the top, while also preserving the message and intent of the orders with the greater picture down to the front lines. Modern, flexible leaders will be required along with better schooling and training of soldiers, as well as learning from the lessons of the current wars, with better preparation and implementation of the new doctrine where needed.

The U.S. had problems with Iraq because a number of the lessons that were learned from Vietnam were not remembered. War planners tried to fight a war that the country was very good at, and had experience with: a high tech, conventional war. In the end, the conflict in Iraq turned out to be a very different sort of war, one where technology and sensors were not strategy. The successes of Gulf Storm certainly led to misconceptions about how this war would be fought. Counterinsurgency warfare represents a very large departure from conventional thinking and combat: it is fluid, requires very different roles for the soldiers on the ground and a different attitude in leadership from all levels.