Archive for the ‘COIN’ Category

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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In the comments section of another post I promised to look into the perplexingly sudden semantic change, both in U.S. military jargon and mainstream media coverage of Iraq, from ‘Sunni insurgents’ to ‘al-Qaeda’.

Reading David Ucko’s new article on the SoI phenomenon in SWJ I found the answer. It’s simple. The Petraeus command needed the change in terminology just as it needed to stop referring to Shia fighters as the Mahdi Army and instead call them ‘special groups’. The Americans didn’t want to alienate their new Sunni partners by labeling them insurgents, so they started calling all the other Sunnis still fighting the coalition ‘al-Qaeda’ — a name that not only has no overt sectarian meaning but which also sounds conveniently foreign.

Of course, none of this is an excuse for journalists to tamely go along, but it does give you yet another glimpse of the brilliance of Petraeus’s media strategy.

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The COIN generals

The big news today, at least in the COIN community, is the upcoming promotion of a number of Iraq-tested colonels and Petraeus confidantes to brigadier generals. According to WaPo, the promotions list, put together by a Petraeus-chaired board, is topped by H.R. McMaster and Sean MacFarland.

In case you haven’t read it, you can find McMaster’s thought-provoking essay On War: Lessons to be Learned (published in Survival, Vol. 50, Issue 1, Feb. 2008) here.

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An interesting paper by LTC Andrew Pavord at SWJ arguing that COIN brigades should be added to the U.S. Army’s force structure. As I’m still reeling from my experiences in Mosul — I have mixed feelings about the American performance there — I was happy to read this:

The Army’s Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) have too much armor and artillery and too few infantry Soldiers for counterinsurgency operations which is why units deploying to Iraq routinely trade in tanks and artillery for humvees. Designed to defeat enemy forces operating in battalion/brigade sized concentrations, the BCT uses intelligence superiority, rapid maneuver, and massed fires to annihilate the enemy. The BCT is less efficient at managing dispersed small unit combat.


Too often strategic leaders do not understand that the absence of flames does not mean that the fire has been put out. Security operations must continue until the ashes of insurgency are cold. This pattern of failure may be exacerbated by using the wrong kind of units for security operations.

I know this is probably self-evident to those of you trained in the art of COIN, but let me ask this: if everyone agrees this is the way to do it, why are places like Mosul stuck in their bloody Groundhog Day?

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A lion’s peep in Mosul

I’m intrigued by press accounts coming out of Mosul of yet another government offensive — more precisely, by the amount of buzz this is generating. LAT reports that residents were “caught off guard” by the operation, called Lion’s Roar, while over at Abu Muqawama, Dr. iRack outlines competing theories of why here and why now.

It all sounds cool, but here’s the thing: despite the sexy name, this is probably just a glorified cordon and search. I was in Mosul recently and came back with the feeling that while the city remains totally screwed in terms of infrastructure and security, it is definitely not under insurgent control, foreign or local. The violence is fleeting and the perpetrators elusive. Their favourite MO is suicide by explosion, not fighting back from fixed positions. By nature, then, military operations in Mosul tend to be tedious affairs with a lot of knocking on banged-up steel gates and zip-tieing angry young men.

There isn’t much by way of COIN going on there. Basically, the 3rd ACR in the west and the 1-8 in the east provide overwatch while the Iraqis drink chai and get blown up. Sure, they’ve built a string of COPs in bad neighborhoods, but whether one can say al-Qaeda is on the run remains highly doubtful, particularly since by their nature they’re kind of always on the run. With basic services non-existent, trash piling up on streets, no clean water, and power out most of the time, and with the fringes of the city taken over by jobless IDPs, Mosul is more a human stinkpot and a giant political failure than (I wish they’d stop calling it that…) “the last urban hub of al-Qaeda in Iraq”.

Also, I find it ironic that of all places Mosul — the city that made Petraeus — should be the one where there is least effort in trying to win over a hostile population. Putting heavily armoured U.S. units, with massive air power at their disposal, in the middle of an unruly urban sprawl is kinda inviting disaster. The guys pulling mind-numbing OP duty, or doing dismounts with their sphincters permanently cramped, tend to respond to the slightest provocation with all they’ve got. Hellfires end up being put into houses and tank rounds used as insurance, and when you see someone suspicious running on a contested stretch of road you take him out with your coax without thinking twice.

I don’t want to blame soldiers for what they’ve been taught to do, and sure, life was cheap in Mosul even before the cavalry arrived. But jeez, does it have to be this cheap…?

QED: “U.S. forces killed two gunmen and two civilians near the northern city of Mosul on Saturday. The U.S. military said its forces were following suspected associates of an al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist and fired on a vehicle, killing two armed men, a woman and a child. The military says it regrets the deaths of the civilians.”

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