Archive for the ‘COIN’ Category

Iraq: A Footprint Not So Light

Judah Grunstein, writing at WPR, makes an important semantic point about U.S. military operations in Iraq:

[…] It’s worth pointing out that despite the emphasis placed on a light fingerprint in the COIN tactics that guided the Surge, ‘light’ is used in comparison to war zone environments. What we call the ‘security gains’ in Iraq come as a result of operational measures that remain way off the scale of anything we’d consider viable in a stable civil society and that closely resemble the methods of regimes that we often blame for the emergence of radicalism in the region.

This is indeed worth emphasising. While part of COIN may be armed social work, not everything in Iraq is COIN. Last spring, when I was embedding with the 3ACR in Mosul, using tank fire and Apache strikes in the middle of an unruly metropolis seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. Don’t let the euphemisms fool ya.

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The Washington Independent’s hard-working Spencer Ackerman has attended a bloggers’ roundtable with LTC Richard Hall, commander of the 2-7 Marines in Afghanistan, and comes back with quote-worthy stuff:

Hall is confident, […] largely because the Taliban, he said, has alienated the population through its graft and brutality. When the 2-7 returns home in a few months, Hall will consider his mission successful if his Marines have raised the police ‘to the level where they’re confident and competent to maintain secrity, control their specific districts, [and possessing] the character development… to be respectable even when no one’s looking. … We slowly pull back the reins, and the public will see what ‘right’ is supposed to look like.’

This sounds awfully familiar. The Marines seem to be trying to replicate their Anbar success in faraway Helmand — and believing it’ll work. I’ve blogged about it before, and so have the angry men of Registan:

[…] There is no indication the Marines understand enough about southern Pashtun culture to replicate their success in Anbar. For one, Helmand is not Anbar. Pashtuns are not organized into rigid hierarchical tribes the same way many Arab societies are (this was a painful lesson the British had to learn in the 19th century, when they coopted the tribal leadership of the Balochi but they found no traction in purchasing the loyalties of the Maliks or Lashgars of the Waziri or Mehsuds).

Taken more broadly, the attempt to replicate Anbar in Helmand poses many problems: in Anbar, the tribes rose up on their own, using their own militias against AQI. There is little evidence the local tribal structures in Lashkar Gah and Garmser are as structured as the Anbar tribes, and there is no evidence the Arbaki groups in the area are coherent enough to pose a consistent anti-Taliban front like the tribal militias did in Anbar.

UPDATE: Here’s LTC Hall’s comment to my previous post.

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Oh boy — Gentile’s at it again:

For surge enthusiasts, there is no such thing as declaring victory too soon. Historically, in order for a counterinsurgency to succeed, the counterinsurgent force must operate in a society with a relatively cohesive identity and alongside a government that possesses at least some measure of legitimacy—two conditions plainly spelled out in the new counterinsurgency manual. Neither apply to Iraq, where ministries operate by sect rather than by function, sectarian hatreds have gone well beyond the point where ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns will dampen them, and only a decades-long American occupation can prevent the country from coming apart at the seams. We are fighting an insurgency; they are fighting a civil war.

Now, before the COINsters mount their inevitable counterattack, let me just point out that Gentile’s argument is not that far from the new GAO report, which calls the surge “not a strategic plan” but “an operational plan with limitations”. Gentile:

By asserting […] that the surge amounts to a new strategy, its proponents confuse tactics—ones used widely since mid-2004—with strategy and, further, they credit this “strategy” with success when in fact victory in Iraq is anything but assured. The whole business reflects the surge’s insistence on substituting tactical scoring for genuine strategic measures of effectiveness. The idea is to offer action instead of purpose.

Those interested in a view from the ground, check out COL Dale Kuehl’s comment to my previous Gentile post.

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Just a short note: the June issue of CTC Sentinel is chock-full of goodies, including what is probably the best analysis to date on the insurgency in Mosul.

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There is an interesting notion in Petraeus’s new COIN Guidance, published on Saturday and brought to my attention by the always reliable SWJ:

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.

As for the rest, the same contradictions pointed out months ago by John Robb still persist: on the one hand, troops are encouraged to “look for sustainable solutions” and “foster Iraqi legitimacy”; on the other, classic COIN tenets are offset by a call to “employ all assets”, which means using SoI et al. to “fight decentralized”. As Robb put it,

The improvised theory that led the US military to fund the insurgency (the ‘Awakening’) has transformed the US Counter-Insurgency doctrine (COIN) — a document was so carefully prepared and announced with such fanfare — into a mere pile of paper. Why? Because we have abandoned the doctrine’s binding assumption: that everything we do in counter-insurgency should increase the legitimacy of the host government. Essentially, the abandonment of our doctrine means that the US military is now completely adrift in Iraq without a counter-insurgency roadmap.

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It’s Midsummer Night Eve here in Finland (with predictably crappy weather), so I’ll have to be quick before it’s time to start the barbeque.

I’ll just point the cursor towards two interesting papers on how the militaries of two very different countries deal with transformation in the 21st century.

Here’s Andrew McGregor’s study on Turkey’s arms industry and asymmetrical warfare. Haven’t read it yet, more later.

And here’s what France is planning. Note to EU: our friends in Paris want to set up a 60,000 man QRF force for the Union to tackle peacekeeping, or “crisis management” challenges.

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As the resolution of the Kirkuk Question is as crucial to future peace in Iraq as any elections, I’m surprised no major news outlet has carried the statement by the Kurdistan Region Presidency essentially dismissing the recent UN report as rubbish:

1- The participants expressed their disappointment with the recommendations of the report and stated that the report, in its current form, was far from what had been anticipated. For this reason, this report cannot be a basis to rely on for resolving the issues.

2- Most of the implementation mechanisms mentioned in the report are not close to those agreed to previously for resolving the issues.

3- The report has ignored the crux of the Iraqi Constitution and its call to implement Article 140.

4- de Mistura’s committee has been more preoccupied with irrelevant activities, instead of working on resolving the basic problems. It has allocated a large part of the report to some issues which are not the concern of the Committee.

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Here’s another top-level smackdown: Gentile vs. Mansoor.

LTC Gian Gentile, who commanded an Army battalion in Baghdad in 2006, warns in World Politics Review that “hyper-emphasis” on counterinsurgency “puts the American Army in a perilous condition”:

Its ability to fight wars consisting of head-on battles using tanks and mechanized infantry is in danger of atrophy.

COL Peter Mansoor, unsurprisingly, thinks Gentile’s got it all wrong. In his rebuttal in SWJ he even gets personal:

Gentile’s battalion occupied Ameriyah, which in 2006 was an Al Qaeda safe-haven infested by Sunni insurgents and their Al Qaeda-Iraq allies. I’m certain that he and his soldiers did their best to combat these enemies and to protect the people in their area. But since his battalion lived at Forward Operating Base Falcon and commuted to the neighborhood, they could not accomplish their mission. The soldiers did not fail. The strategy did.

Good point, but what I actually would’ve wanted Mansoor to tackle is Gentile’s reading of Galula:

If Galula needed almost 18 months to succeed in northern Algeria, where conditions were much more suitable to a classic counterinsurgency campaign than today’s Iraq (a multi-sectarian landscape with many sides fighting each other), it is naïve to believe the American surge in Iraq could succeed in a matter of months.

Hard to argue against that.

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Carlotta Gall of NYT is embedding with the Anbar-hardened Marines in Garmser and is reporting that the young platoon leaders are putting their Iraq experience to good use:

As a first step, the marines promised to provide a strong security cordon so those villagers who had fled could return without fear to rebuild their homes and reopen the bazaar.

When on patrol, the marines carry a small gadget the size of an old Polaroid camera that takes fingerprints, photos and an iris scan of people they meet. It is used to build a database of the residents so they can easily spot strangers, the marines say. The Afghans accepted the imposition without protest.

A couple of things make me suspicious.

First is the “Marines saved NATO’s ass” narrative now in vogue with American reporters. We desperately need a Nir Rosen or a Patrick Cockburn in Afghanistan, an intrepid Pashtu-speaking free agent to go and check things out. Before that happens, I’ll have a hard time buying this particular “things are looking up” meme.

Secondly, I wonder if our new-found love for COIN has blinded us from seeing the obvious: no matter what their education, GIs ain’t social workers. From what I remember about Afghans, cordoning off a village and fingerprinting everybody maybe isn’t such a great idea if you want to keep the Taleban at bay. Particularly since the Marines are going to pull out in a few months, leaving the “collaborators” screwed for good.

Related: Seth G. Jones has a new 177-page monograph out at RAND titled “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”. Haven’t read it yet, download at your own risk.

UPDATE: For a more intelligent take on the Gall story, visit Registan.

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Austin Long has an interesting paper out at RAND on the history of COIN doctrine in the U.S. military. Here’s how he sees the situation in Iraq (it’s a long quote but worth reading):

After a near-disastrous 2006 that saw rising violence in most of Iraq, 2007 saw improvement in the security environment, most strikingly in al-Anbar province but also in Baghdad. Some credit changes in military practice related to the new COIN doctrine with this improvement, along with an increase in troop numbers. While a detailed assessment of the situation is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to note that the central improvements in security have resulted from fractures between insurgent groups rather than a major change in U.S. operations.

As late as November 2006, Marine intelligence painted a grim picture of al-Anbar despite the doctrinally sound efforts in places like Al Qaim and Ramadi. However, many tribes were in the process of splitting from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and realigning with the United States (and to a lesser extent the central government of Iraq). While the United States proved flexible in exploiting some of these fractures, U.S. successes occurred independently of doctrinal change. Furthermore, these maneuvers have not resulted in conditions amenable to long-term stability under a unified government. Instead, various tribes and factions jockey for power even as AQI lurks in the hinterland. Elsewhere, success is mixed or absent. In and around Baqubah, north of Baghdad, AQI and Shia militias such as Jaysh al-Mahdi battle to dominate the population.

Some operational shifts have taken place. Many smaller bases have been opened, particularly in al-Anbar and in Baghdad. Partnering with Iraqi security appears to be taken much more seriously. Yet wide variation in U.S. military unit attitudes toward Iraqis (both in uniform and out) persists, and disagreements about COIN are still obvious at senior levels. Sometimes these disagreements have serious consequences in terms of operations undertaken or foregone.

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