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Counterinsurgency 101

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A new model emerges from Iraq

By Frederick Kagan and Kimberley Kagan


Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno took command of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) on December 14, 2006. Iraq was in flames. Insurgents and death squads were killing 3,000 civilians a month. Coalition forces were sustaining more than 1,200 attacks per week. Operation Together Forward II, the 2006 campaign to clear Baghdad’s most violent neighbourhoods and hold them with Iraqi Security Forces, had been suspended because violence elsewhere in the capital was rising steeply. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) owned safe havens within and around Baghdad, throughout Anbar and in Diyala, Salah a-Din, and Nineveh provinces. The Iraqi government was completely paralysed.

When Gen. Odierno relinquished command of MNC-I on February 14, 2008, the civil war was over. Civilian casualties were down 60 percent, as were weekly attacks. AQI had been driven from its safe havens in and around Baghdad and throughout Anbar and Diyala and was attempting to reconstitute for a “last stand” in Mosul - with Coalition and Iraqi forces in pursuit. The Council of Representatives (Iraq’s parliament) passed laws addressing de-Baathification, amnesty, provincial powers, and setting a date for provincial elections. The situation in Iraq had been utterly transformed.

As is well known, Gen. Petraeus oversaw the writing of a new counterinsurgency doctrine before being sent to Iraq. But the doctrine did not provide a great deal of detail about how to plan and conduct such operations across a theatre as large as Iraq. It was Odierno who creatively adapted sophisticated concepts from conventional fighting to the problems in Iraq, filling gaps in the counterinsurgency doctrine and making the overall effort successful.

THE LEGACY OF 2006
The commanders who preceded Petraeus and Odierno had put a priority on encouraging the nascent Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to take responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people.

The overwhelming majority of American combat forces were concentrated on Forward Operating Bases, from where they acted to reinforce Iraqi Security Forces and to patrol areas in which there was significant violence. The insufficiently trained and equipped ISF had been pushed prematurely into the fight and, rather than conducting counterinsurgency operations, relied on ineffective checkpoints. As a result, security ebbed and flowed through neighbourhoods and towns but was rarely lasting.

Odierno was far less interested in shifting responsibility to the ISF. As he prepared to deploy to Iraq, he succinctly defined his objectives:

Bottom line? Full restoration of civil authority in Baghdad. Sectarian violence reduced. Extra-governmental armed groups diminished, and their influence diminished. And the government of Iraq viewed as a legitimate institution in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

Odierno had absorbed Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency doctrine and knew the importance of establishing legitimate government institutions by protecting the population from the insurgents trying to alienate them from the government.

UNDERSTAND THE ENEMY
A major assumption of previous US commanders in Iraq had been that “kinetic” operations - the favoured neologism for “combat” - were counter-productive, producing more resentment and more insurgents. While major combat operations generate resentment among the population, and may encourage indigenous forces to become dependent on outside assistance, Petraeus and Odierno recognised that such problems pale in comparison with allowing the enemy to control key terrain and attack targets at will.

Petraeus, as he took command in Feb. 2007, emphasised using combat forces to protect the population in major cities, establish and expand safe areas, and clear insurgent safe havens. It was Odierno’s job to figure out how, exactly, to accomplish those tasks with the forces he had available. He came quickly to a counterintuitive conclusion - securing Baghdad required large-scale offensive combat operations outside the city.

Previous American commanders had recognised that the violence in Iraq resulted primarily from the actions of distinct enemy organisations - rather than from any inchoate hatred between Sunni and Shi’ites - and they had developed very sophisticated understandings of how individual enemy leaders interacted with each other and their subordinates. This approach flowed naturally from the military thinking of the late 1990s that conceived of conventional enemies as networks of technological systems (computers, communications devices, and power grids, among others). There are important nodes of a technological network that can be disabled to disrupt its functions, and, by analogy, there are people - those providing money, ideological guidance, and the human connections to disperse resources - who are the most important nodes of a terror network.

According to this approach, the killing of AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006 should have disrupted the al-Qaeda network severely. But AQI rapidly regrouped after Zarqawi’s death under a successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. AQI’s ability to generate violence in Baghdad through its signature vehicle bombs actually increased in the months after Zarqawi’s death.

Just as Odierno took command, Coalition forces captured an AQI map depicting Baghdad as the centre of the fight. AQI’s main focus in 2006 was establishing safe havens in west Baghdad. The rise in power and ferocity of the Shi’ite militias, however, forced them to establish bases outside of the capital from which to attack both Coalition forces and their Shi’ite opponents.

AQI’s approach - and Odierno’s new understanding of it - made traditional military concepts like lines of communication, support areas, and key terrain relevant to the counterinsurgency strategy. Insurgents moving from the belts to the capital required access to particular roads. Maintaining that access required holding neighbourhoods bordering the roads. Car-bombers needed factories in which to make their weapons. IED-users needed ways of moving their IEDs from depots to frontline fighters. Leaders needed safehouses. Thinking of the enemy as a network, as US forces had previously been doing, underemphasised the importance of geography and of controlling key terrain to the enemy’s operations. Odierno prepared to take that terrain away.

ALLOCATE FORCES
Given the enemy’s situation in Iraq, Odierno knew he would need more troops to make the counterinsurgency doctrine operational. He asked for them in Dec. 2006, and US President Bush announced the “surge” in January 2007.

The surge brigades made it possible to conduct multiple simultaneous operations rather than focusing on one problem or area at a time. US forces within Baghdad would provide as much security as possible for the population, disrupt enemy groups operating from within the capital, and identify the enemy safe havens within the city. At the same time, Odierno planned to deploy troops into the belts around the capital to attack the enemy’s support zones and lines of communication that were essential to the functioning of the enemy system.

Odierno worked with the US Special Operations Forces to make sure they kept up the pressure on key leaders within the terrorist network. Their precise and skilful attacks not only took out insurgent leaders but also provided valuable additional intelligence that Odierno used to refine his plans.

The five additional brigades President Bush was sending to Iraq arrived gradually, at the rate of about one a month beginning in Jan. 2007. Petraeus and Odierno used these months to develop a sense of how long it would take a brigade to reconnoitre and master urban and rural terrain before operations could begin, and how fast a brigade could clear that terrain with the mixture of forces it had available.

INTEGRATE OPERATIONS
When Petraeus took command in February, he set to work integrating Odierno’s developing operational plan into an overarching political and military strategy. He established a Joint Strategic Assessment Team to review Coalition strategy and to work in conjunction with the US Embassy in Baghdad to develop a Joint Campaign Plan to harmonise military and non-military operations throughout the country. While this team produced a superb product, the overall effort to integrate all elements of American national power within Iraq was only partially successful due to resistance from civilian agencies in Washington and some US officials in Baghdad. It was US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s arrival in Baghdad in March 2007 that transformed the US mission in Iraq. He pushed hard to implement the Joint Campaign Plan - an effort worthy of a story all its own.

Petraeus also challenged the relationship between US leaders in Iraq and their Iraqi counterparts. His predecessors’ emphasis on encouraging the Iraqis to do things for themselves had led them to defer to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whenever possible. Petraeus took a more activist approach and relentlessly pressured Maliki and other Iraqi officials to make critical decisions and to abandon counterproductive behaviours.

Petraeus and Odierno also placed a heavy emphasis on the non-kinetic aspects of counterinsurgency. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Odierno’s immediate predecessor, had long argued that improving the quality of life of Iraqis and addressing the rampant unemployment of military-age males was essential to the success of Coalition efforts. But he got tepid support for these non-military efforts from other US agencies. Petraeus and Odierno breathed new life into them by pushing their forces out into Iraqi neighbourhoods with instructions to spend money to create temporary jobs and conduct immediate-impact reconstruction projects in any areas that were secure enough to permit them.

The Petraeus-Odierno command team, ably supported by Crocker, thus dramatically increased the pressure on all of the major Iraqi actors to abandon violence and start making compromises while also encouraging the average Iraqi to believe that there was hope of a better future if he stopped fighting. Odierno’s forces hit both Sunni and Shi’ite insurgent and militia groups hard, forcing them into a defensive posture - and generally making violence a much less attractive option. At the same time, Petraeus and Crocker pushed the Iraqi government to support the military operations with their own military and police efforts and with political negotiations and reconciliation efforts.

SIMULTANEOUS & SUCCESSIVE OPERATIONS
For all the sophistication of this integrated political-military and kinetic/non-kinetic approach to the conflict, Odierno is likely to be remembered in military history as the man who redefined the operational art of counterinsurgency with a series of offensives in 2007 and 2008.

“Operational art” is the concept of how to fight wars, developed most comprehensively in the Cold War era - when doctrine called for multiple, simultaneous, and successive operations across a theatre. Before 2007 there had been considerable debate within the army about whether there even was an “operational art” in counterinsurgency, let alone what it might be. Odierno demonstrated that there was.

He believed that the surge allowed for “simultaneous and sustained offensive operations, in partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces.” In conjunction with Petraeus and his staff, Odierno planned and conducted three successive, large-scale military operations in 2007, and a fourth in early 2008. The first was Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (“Enforcing the Law” in Arabic), also known as the Baghdad Security Plan, which starting in Feb. 2007 dispersed US and Iraqi troops throughout the capital in order to provide security for its inhabitants. The second was Operation Phantom Thunder, which in June and July cleared al-Qaeda in Iraq from its major sanctuaries. The third offensive was Operation Phantom Strike, in which, from mid-August on, Coalition and Iraqi forces pursued AQI operatives and other enemies as they fled their sanctuaries and attempted to regroup in more remote areas. Odierno’s last major offensive was Operation Phantom Phoenix, launched just weeks before his departure, to pursue the enemy into Diyala and set the conditions for the battle for Mosul.

The key to the success of these operations was the combination of breadth and continuity. All of them struck multiple enemy safe havens and lines of communication at the same time - in contrast with previous US military operations that had generally attacked enemy concentrations one at a time. Enemy groups could no longer move easily from one safe area to another and those that tried to move suffered serious losses as they dispersed. As scattered insurgent leaders and fighters attempted to reconsolidate in new areas, Coalition forces hit them again and again.

As a purely military operation, the series of MNC-I offensives easily bears comparison with Patton’s race across France or the Soviet destruction of German forces in 1944 and 1945. That the Iraq operations occurred in the midst of a counterinsurgency and helped gain the support of the local populations is a testimony to the tactical skill and precision with which American forces fought.

IRAQ AWAKES
There is a common myth that the “Awakening” movement in Anbar occurred independently of - even in spite of - the Coalition military operations in 2007. It is true that it began emerging in 2006, thanks to the hard and skilful fighting and negotiating of Army Colonel Sean MacFarland and a number of Marine officers and their subordinates. But Odierno leapt on it and further encouraged it not only in Anbar, but throughout Iraq.

This was no easy decision. Americans had been dying at the hands of Sunni Arab resistance groups since 2003. Many of the “concerned local citizens” (CLCs, now called “Sons of Iraq” because “concerned local citizens” translates poorly into Arabic) were themselves former members of the insurgency. There was much concern that the “transformation” of these insurgents into partners would only be temporary.

Petraeus and Odierno, however, saw it as an opportunity. Contrary to popular misconception, they refused requests to provide weapons to the CLCs (who almost invariably had their own weapons anyway). They insisted that all CLCs provide detailed biometric data (fingerprints and retinal scans), the serial numbers of their weapons, their home addresses and family relationships. Counterinsurgency experts have often wryly remarked that it would be easy to end an insurgency if the enemy would only wear uniforms. By collecting all of this information about the CLCs, Odierno and Petraeus were in essence putting uniforms on them. Any CLC who turned against the Coalition or Iraqi forces could be readily identified if he, or his weapon, were captured. There have been very few reports of any CLC members taking the risk.

“Will you stay this time?” That was one of the first questions prospective CLCs asked of US troops in 2007. Because of the change in strategy and operations inaugurated by Petraeus and Odierno, American soldiers could promise to stay. As more and more Iraqis came to believe in this promise, the movement blossomed, spreading rapidly to Baghdad, Diyala, Babil, and parts of Salah a-Din province as it consolidated in Anbar. In Dec. 2006, Iraqi society was mobilising for a sectarian civil war; by Dec. 2007, it was mobilising to stop the violence.

The Awakening movement begun in 2006 has turned out to be more than just a revulsion against violence and terror. It has evolved, at least in some areas, into grassroots political movements responding to Iraqis fed up with the gridlock in the central government in Baghdad. While the Anbar Awakening continues to efficiently combat AQI efforts to reinfiltrate the province, it is also forming a complex set of political parties and factions that should pose a serious challenge to the Iraqi Islamic Party that nominally represents most of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in the Council of Representatives.

The attempts by Shi’ite tribal leaders south of Baghdad to form their own “awakenings” puzzled many at first, as did the virulence of the Iraqi government’s objections to such movements within the Shi’ite community. Visiting the area in February, we met with several of these tribal leaders, and the issue became clear. Even within Iraq’s Shi’ite population, frustration with the Maliki Government runs high.

That frustration is increasingly expressed not simply as resentment of Maliki and his allies, but in a rejection of clerical government; of Iranian influence; and of regionalism, factionalism, and sectarianism. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’ite, are increasingly defining themselves as Iraqis, rather than Sunnis or Shi’ite.

THE FIGHT GOES ON
Ray Odierno did not win the Iraq war - indeed, the war is still very much ongoing and victory is by no means assured.

Even as you read this article, US and Iraqi forces are waging a battle for Mosul, and Coalition troops continue to confront AQI, Mahdi Army militiamen, Iranian-backed fighters, and other insurgent and terrorist groups. Americans and Iraqis are killing and dying in a struggle to preserve and expand the gains of 2007. If America and its military and political leaders do not remain committed to continuing and improving the strategies that have brought us this far, if they do not provide our troops and civilians in Iraq with the tools and resources they desperately need, then all of the gains we have made can still be lost. Insurgencies don’t end with treaty-signing ceremonies or parades. Often it is not possible to know that they have ended until years after the fact.

Odierno’s tenure as commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq was an astonishing period in American military history, and his contribution deserves note as he and his staff return home to new postings. Their efforts showed that there is a need even in sophisticated counterinsurgency theory for skilful combat operations, that traditional ways of thinking about war can be appropriately adapted to novel circumstances, and that it is possible to be a warrior, nation-builder, mediator, diplomat, economist, and role model all at once.

Dr. Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805. Dr. Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, is the author of The Eye of Command. © Copyright 2008, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.

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