Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Bad Rabbit" asks a good question

Commenter Bad Rabbit asks, in the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) thread below:

How do the MRAP vehicles (as there are several under-review or for sale) fit into a Counter-Insurgency strategy?

I'm not trying to deprive US troops effective protection, but if we're officially in a counter-insurgency operation you can't use this kind of vehicle.

And that gives us a great opportunity to talk about tactics and strategy.

The mere fact that we have had to react to the tactic of using IEDs to blow up the vehicles that transport our troops means that we're giving up the initiative to the enemy. The enemy in Iraq has the initiative because they are dictating how we move on the battlefield. If you ascribe to the theory that we shouldn't be there in the first place, we should never let the enemy dictate our tactics, and we shouldn't fight a counter-insurgency war with the wrong kind of equipment, then it's hard to justify supporting the administration. And yet, there is no shortage of wingnuts who think we're winning in Iraq. Winning isn't the issue. Winning isn't the goal of the insurgency. Simply bleeding our forces white is their goal.

Consider the vast number of articles written over the past five years. There's no shortage of examples of how to figure out what's going on. I'll pick one at random, and work my way down to an examination of how counterinsurgency is supposed to work.

Here's a nice piece from Lawyers, Guns and Money:

...Matt makes what I think is an important qualification: The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor. Right, but that's part of the point. For the modern military organization, nationalist insurgency is a relatively new problem. It's important to recognize that insurgency and guerilla warfare are not the same thing; the former often (but not always) employs the latter, and the latter can exist without the former. In Iraq, the Saddam Fedayeen that the US encountered early in the war quite clearly employed guerilla tactics, but were not insurgents. European military organizations of the 19th century were accustomed to dominating huge colonial tracts with extremely low troop density. If we accept that the tools that make a military good at counter-insurgency are not the tools that make an organization good at conventional continental warfare, then it becomes apparent that even during the period in which nationalist insurgencies could be expected, many organizations had better things to do. Whereas keeping the colonies down was important, defending the border was usually viewed as the more compelling mission in most military organizations. Simply put, armies haven't had that much incentive to either theorize about counter-insurgency or become proficient at executing it. The two conclusions that follow from this are first that the number of democracies executing these tactics in a competent manner has been quite small, but second that there is no very compelling evidence to think that military organizations cannot improve their counter-insurgency tactics over time. Indeed, we'd even expect it as the incentives for fighting counter-insurgency well increase. Training and doctine matter, and both can be improved over time. It is certainly well known that organizations vary in their capacity to execute counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations; colonially experienced European military organizations (France, UK) tend to do better than continentally oriented ones (US, Germany, Russia). Finally, we can do a bit of process tracing and point to situations in which well-executed tactics worked better than poorly executed ones (see, of course, Andrew Krepinevich's The Army and Vietnam, which points out how much more successful Marine operations were than Army, despite employing less firepower).

Treating insurgency as an intractable problem opens up other difficulties. Not all insurgencies are the same; some are weak, some strong, some have a large popular base, others don't, and so forth. Even if we were to accept that defeating the Iraqi insurgency was impossible from the start (a proposition I regard as unproven) this hardly means that no insurgency can be beaten with civilized tactics. Moreover, simply suggesting that we should discard the project of improving our counter-insurgency capabilities because it's too hard disregards the possibility that the US may be required to engage in difficult counter-insurgency operations. In the case of Iraq, I can think of half a dozen different scenarios in which the US would have come into conflict with an insurgency for entirely legitimate reasons. If Hussein had openly allied himself with Bin Laden, or attacked Kuwait again, or if the state had begun to collapse, US intervention would have been both justified and necessary. It's quite possible that an insurgency would have developed anyway, and the US military would have needed to develop the tools to fight it.

Another piece from Tomdispatch:

On the April day in 2003 when American troops first pushed into Baghdad, historian Marilyn Young noted a strange phenomenon. In a single rush, the Vietnam War vocabulary had returned to our media. She promptly dubbed Iraq, "Vietnam on crack cocaine."

It's true that, for a while, the administration played an eerie opposites game, spending much of its PR time avoiding any whiff of Vietnam terminology. "Body bags" were renamed (and the homecoming dead hidden from the cameras); "body counts" were excised from the official military vocabulary -- or as General Tommy Franks, commander of our Afghan War, put it in 2002: "I don't believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered… You know we don't do body counts" (except privately, of course).

But that was then, this is now. Here we are, well into the second term of Bush's Vietnam-on-crack-cocaine, Global-War-on-Terror policies. Significantly more time has passed, as Newsweek's Michael Hirsh recently pointed out, than it took the U.S. to win World War II in the Pacific:

"We are now nearly five years into a war against a group that was said to contain no more then 500 to 1,000 terrorists at the start (in case anyone's counting, 1,776 days have now passed since 9/11; that is more than a full year longer than the time between Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Japan, which was 1,347 days). The war just grows and grows. And now Lebanon, too, is part of it."

And, as if giving up in its titanic struggle against the undead of our Vietnam experience, the Bush administration is now openly recycling in ever more chaotic, violent, and disastrous Iraq ancient, failed Vietnam-era policies. It's enough to give old-timers that Post-Traumatic-Stress-Syndrome feeling, as Vietnam-era war correspondent Judith Coburn explains vividly below.

Of course, we all know that Iraq is not Vietnam -- and not just because of the lack of jungle or the different language. But here's one difference between the two eras that is perhaps worth a little more attention:

In Vietnam, the U.S. military, the mightiest force then on the planet, was fought to a draw and defeated politically by a remarkably unified Vietnamese national resistance movement led by North Vietnamese communists, but with a powerful southern guerrilla element. The guerrillas in the south were backed by the North Vietnamese (and, as the war went on, by enormous chunks of the North Vietnamese military); North Vietnam was supplied with weaponry and massive support by a superpower, the Soviet Union, and a regional power, emerging Communist China.

Now consider Iraq. The U.S. military -- even more now than then the mightiest force on the planet -- has been fought to something like a stalemate by perhaps 20,000 relatively underarmed (compared to the Vietnamese) insurgents in a rag-tag minority rebellion, lacking a unified political party or program, or support from any major state power. Now consider Lebanon, where the mightiest regional military in the Middle East, the Israeli Army, which in 1982 made it to Beirut in a flash before bogging down for 18 years, has in the last three weeks not managed to secure several miles on the other side of its own border against another relatively isolated minority guerrilla movement. This perhaps tells us something about the way, in this new millennium, we are not in the Vietnam era, but you'd be hard-pressed to know that from the Bush administration's recent policies.

What's so grimly fascinating, as Coburn indicates below, is that our old counterinsurgency policies, which didn't work in Vietnam, have now proved utterly bankrupt against vastly weaker forces. On guerrilla war, our leaders, political and military, are evidently nothing short of brain-dead. Now, consider Coburn's striking piece on two failed wars, two disastrous eras of U.S. military policy abroad, and wonder whether we aren't really in Hell.

And the article referenced above says:

When General George William Casey, Jr. -- whose father, a major general, died in Vietnam in July 1970 -- announced in June 2006 that the Pentagon might soon begin the first American troop withdrawals from Iraq, I couldn't help wondering where the Iraqi version of that sign might eventually go up. In the desert? On the Iranian or the Syrian border? (The "withdrawals" were, however, rescinded before even being put into effect in the face of an all-out civil war in Baghdad.)

However it feels to anyone else, it's distinctly been flashback city for me ever since. One of the great, failed, unspeakably cynical, blood-drenched policies of the Vietnam era, whose carnage I witnessed as a reporter in Cambodia and Vietnam, was being dusted off for our latest disaster of an imperial war. Some kind of brutal regression was upon us. It was the return of the repressed or reverse evolution. It was enough to drive a war-worn journalist to new heights of despair.

While brooding about Iraqification, I was reminded of what historian and Vietnam-era New York Times journalist A.J. Langguth said about Vietnamization. "By [1970], well over a hundred thousand [South] Vietnamese soldiers were dead, crops destroyed, cities in ruins, and we're talking about Vietnamization as though the Vietnamese weren't already bearing the brunt of the war," he told historian Christian G. Appy for his oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. "It was one of those words that gave a reassuring ring in Washington, but it was really insulting."

As you, the reader, start to digest all of that, let's go to this account from the Washington Post, and consider the tactics applied by Colonel H. R. McMaster in Iraq early in the war:

Colonel H. R. McMaster

U.S. military experts conducting an internal review of the three dozen major U.S. brigades, battalions and similar units operating in Iraq in 2005 privately concluded that of all those units, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment performed the best at counterinsurgency, according to a source familiar with the review's findings.

The regiment's campaign began in Colorado in June 2004, when Col. H. R. McMaster took command and began to train the unit to return to Iraq. As he described it, his approach was like that of a football coach who knows he has a group of able and dedicated athletes, but needs to retrain them to play soccer.

Understanding that the key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people, not the enemy, he said he changed the standing orders of the regiment to state that in the future all soldiers would "treat detainees professionally." During the unit's previous tour, a detainee was beaten to death during questioning and a unit commander carried a baseball bat that he called his "Iraqi beater."

"Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy," McMaster said he told every soldier in his command. He ordered his soldiers to stop using the term hajji as a slang term for all Iraqis, because he saw it as inaccurate and disrespectful. (It actually means someone who has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.)

One out of every 10 soldiers received a three-week course in conversational Arabic, so that each small unit would have someone capable of basic exchanges with Iraqis. McMaster, who holds a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina and is an expert on the Vietnam War, distributed a lengthy reading list to his officers that included studies of Arab and Iraqi history and most of the classic texts on counterinsurgency. He also quietly relieved one battalion commander who didn't seem to understand that such changes were necessary.

When the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment moved into northwest Iraq last May, it faced a mess. Just as Fallujah had become a major staging point for attacks into Baghdad, Tall Afar was being used as a base to send suicide bombers and other attackers 40 miles east into Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.

Instead of staging a major raid into the city for suspects and then moving back to operating bases, McMaster said he took a sharply different tack, spending months making preparatory moves before attacking the entrenched insurgents in Tall Afar. That indirect approach demonstrated tactical patience, a key to effectively battling an insurgency and a skill that doesn't come easily to the U.S. military.

McMaster had his unit bolster the security operation along the Syrian border, in an effort to cut off support and reinforcements coming into Iraq. He also sought to eliminate havens in the desert, beginning in June with a move against the remote desert town of Biaj, which had become a way station and training and outfitting post for fighters infiltrating from Syria. As he made the move, he brought Iraqi troops with him.

Immediately after taking Biaj, Iraqi forces set up a small patrol base there for U.S. troops. "This was the first 'clear and hold,' " McMaster recalled in an interview in his plywood office just southwest of Tall Afar. State Department officials heard about this move and briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A month later, she mentioned it in her congressional testimony.

One of the keys to winning a counterinsurgency is to treat prisoners well. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment polled all detainees on how they were treated and interviewed some about their political views.

"The best way to find out about your own detainee facility is to ask the 'customer,' " said Maj. Jay Gallivan, the regiment's operations officer. Some Iraqis told the Americans why they were angry with the U.S. military presence. None of the soldiers from the unit have been charged with abuse during the regiment's current tour in Iraq, McMaster said.

In late summer, McMaster started receiving greater cooperation from Sunni leaders who had been sympathetic to the insurgency. One reason, according to U.S. military intelligence analysts, was that some insurgents were unhappy with foreign allies who seemed determined to start a civil war.

Another was that McMaster was willing to admit that U.S. forces have made mistakes in Iraq. "We understand why you fight," McMaster recalled telling Sunni Arab leaders with ties to the insurgency.

"When the Americans first came, we were in a dark room, stumbling around, breaking china," he said. "But now Iraqi leaders are turning on the lights." The concession helped break down barriers of communication, he said, and made Iraqis willing to listen to his belief that the time for resistance had ended.

With the insurgency's support infrastructure weakened in outlying areas, McMaster moved on the city. But even then he didn't attack it. First, following the suggestion of his Iraqi allies, he ringed the city with dirt berm nine feet high and 12 miles long, leaving checkpoints from which all movement could be observed. This was a nod to the counterinsurgency principle of being able to control and follow the movement of the population.

Building on that idea, U.S. military intelligence had traced the kinship lines of different tribes, enabling the unit to track fighters traveling to likely destinations just outside the city. About 120 fighters were then rounded up from among those fleeing the impending attack.

Next, McMaster and his subordinates recalled, civilians were pressured to leave the city for a camp prepared for them just to the south. Some more insurgents were caught trying to sneak out with them.

In September, after four months of preparatory moves, McMaster launched the attack. By that point, there were remarkably few insurgents left in the city. Many had fled or been caught. They seem to have expected a swift U.S. raid that they would counter with scores of roadside bombs. Instead, U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies moved slowly, clearing each block of the city and calling in artillery strikes as they spotted enemy fighters or explosives.

McMaster had a clear plan in hand for his next step. He also knew how he wanted to measure his success: Would Iraqis -- especially Sunni Arabs -- be willing to join the local police force? Would they "participate in their own security," as he put it?

The first step in this phase was to establish 29 patrol bases across the city. That, along with steady patrolling, gave the American military and its Iraqi allies a view of every major stretch of road in the compact city, which measures about three square miles. And that amount of observation made it extremely difficult for insurgents to plant bombs.

"It gives us great agility," said Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, a 1982 graduate of Chantilly High School in Virginia, who commands the U.S. troop contingent in the city. Hickey said that he can order an attack to come from two or three of the patrol bases instead of predictably rolling out the front gate of his base.

Hickey also has spent months living in the city, perched in the Ottoman-era ramparts that dominate it. He slept at the base only rarely. From his position downtown, he said, "I hear every gunshot in the city." His conclusion: "Living among the people works, if you treat them with respect." When the electricity goes out for Iraqis, he noted, it does for him too, even though he has a generator for military communications.

Hickey also moved a U.S. firing range out of earshot of the city. "I like quiet," he said.

Ultimately, 1,400 police officers were recruited, about 60 percent of whom were Sunni Arabs, many of them from elsewhere in Iraq. In addition, the city has about 2,000 Iraqi troops, and a working city council and an activist mayor. A few feet from where the city council meets is a new Joint Operations Center, set up to collect intelligence tips and act on them. The Army officer running the center, Lt. Saythala Phonexayphoua, said he has been surprised by the amount of "actionable intelligence" troops receive.

Phonexayphoua noted: "We get cell phone calls -- 'There's an insurgent planting an IED.' "

Last summer, there were about six insurgent attacks in the area each day. Now there is about one, according to U.S. military intelligence.

Even now, McMaster said, he understands that his success is "fragile." The city's mayor, Najim Abdullah Jabouri, is unhappy that McMaster and his unit are leaving Iraq this month. "A surgeon doesn't leave in the middle of the operation!" the mayor said intently to McMaster over a recent lunch of lamb kabobs and bread. He waved his finger under the colonel's nose. "The doctor should finish the job he started."

Here's why all of this matters--despite all of the academic research, despite all of the rhetoric, we aren't learning any lessons in Iraq. We're stuck using MRAPs and giving up the initiative to the enemy.

Oh, and Colonel McMaster? His career is essentially over because he "criticized" his superiors. He's been passed over twice for his star. Now if a man can successfully command an ACR in Iraq, and understand the future of counterinsurgency warfare, and then write about it--you can be rest assured that the US military will reject him out of hand and stop him in his tracks.

That inability to learn from our mistakes and accept criticism dooms us to a world where we have to build better and better MRAPs because we don't understand that the correct path is to never put our troops in a position where they need to have an MRAP in the first place.


Case in point:

The Air Force is tightening restrictions on which blogs its troops can read, cutting off access to just about any independent site with the word "blog" in its web address. It's the latest move in a larger struggle within the military over the value -- and hazards -- of the sites. At least one senior Air Force official calls the squeeze so "utterly stupid, it makes me want to scream."

Until recently, each major command of the Air Force had some control over what sites their troops could visit, the Air Force Times reports. Then the Air Force Network Operations Center, under the service's new "Cyber Command," took over.

The best way to make sure no one is exposed to the kinds of radical things I write about here and that countless other people write about much better than I could is to block access and put your head in the sand. What better way to make sure no one gets exposed to Colonel McMaster?

No comments: