The least understood but most important part of the Bush administration’s new plan in Iraq is not more troops, necessary though they are, but a dramatic improvement in military/political strategy. Thus, the divisive debate over an incremental increase of 21,500 additional U.S. combat troops to pacify Baghdad and Anbar province misses a vital point.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are poised to implement a sweeping change in the U.S. military’s approach to the Iraq war. The bible for this new strategy is the just-published, joint Army-Marine Corps manual titled simply "Counterinsurgency."
Its chief apostle is Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq. Petraeus supervised the drafting of "Counterinsurgency," a densely packed, 289-page distillation of how to defeat insurgencies.
The manual’s central point: Winning requires a strategy far more subtle and politically attuned than a clumsy reliance on brute force. More to the point, winning popular support and cooperation is more important and more effective than killing insurgents.
Heretofore, some U.S. unit commanders have recognized this core counterinsurgency truth and operated accordingly. Others have employed overly aggressive tactics that served mostly to alienate the population. Petraeus will ensure that everyone is reading off the same page.
Petraeus is now charged with making the new doctrine work in Baghdad and Anbar, the two decisive political/military fronts in Iraq.
Fortunately, Petraeus is not alone as the author of innovations that could, if given the necessary time and resources, yet stabilize Iraq. Army Col. H.R. McMaster’s textbook counterinsurgency campaign in Tal Afar in 2005 is a case study in how to protect the civilian population and defeat the terrorists. Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis’ efforts to reshape the Marine Corps for counterinsurgency make him the Corps’ David Petraeus. Mattis’ directive for the Marines he led into combat in Anbar was, "no better friend, no worse enemy, first do no harm."
Count Army Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, an Iraq combat veteran and contributor to the new manual, as another visionary. Nagl’s seminal book on counterinsurgency warfare, first published in 2002 and then updated and reissued in 2005, now looks prescient. The book, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," dissects what the British did right in Malaya in defeating a communist insurgency there in the 1950s, and what the Americans did wrong in Vietnam a decade later.
So what does Nagl recommend now in Iraq?
"Protecting the population is the basic principle of counterinsurgency," he said last week at a U.S. Naval Institute conference in San Diego.
He didn’t have to add that Iraqi and U.S. forces are currently falling far short of success in protecting the population of Baghdad, Iraq’s political heart and home to a fifth of its people.
Is Bush’s troop surge necessary?
Citing optimal counterinsurgency force ratios of one soldier for every 50 civilians in the most intense conflict areas, Nagl says, "Additional troops are absolutely essential if we are to win."
Nagl, deferring to his civilian superiors, won’t say whether 21,500 more combat troops is the right number. But, clearly, he believes several more U.S. brigades for Baghdad and at least one more for the insurgent hotbed of Anbar province would be a huge help. A strategy aptly described as "clear, hold and build" simply cannot work without adequate numbers of troops to provide continuous security.
Does Nagl, or anyone else in the U.S. military, believe that Americans alone can win the Iraq war or that any purely military victory is possible? Not for a minute.
"We cannot win this war on our own. Only the Iraqis can win it," Nagl says flatly. But without American help, the fledgling Iraqi government and security forces would almost certainly be overwhelmed by sectarian violence, the simmering Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorists.
Nagl notes the axiom that counterinsurgency wars are typically 80 percent political and only 20 percent military. "Today," he says, "the military is bearing about 80 percent of the effort (in Iraq)."
Reversing this formula for defeat requires immediate improvement on two counts: national unity policies by the new Iraqi government, and, second, an effective U.S. reconstruction program. Without at least minimal political reconciliation between Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, the U.S. mission in Iraq may be doomed. Without a far more effective reconstruction program, widespread unemployment and inadequate basic services for Iraq’s population would breed continuing chaos.
How much can the Iraqis do themselves?
Nagl quotes T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia who led an Arab revolt against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I.
"Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly," advised Lawrence. Good advice, then and now.
Nagl, now a battalion commander at Fort Riley, Kan., training Army advisory teams for Iraq and Afghanistan, concedes that the quality of Iraqi army units "varies widely." But, he insists, "some are very, very good in the basic infantry skills." What they lack is adequate equipment and logistical support of their own.
Will they fight?
Speaking from experience, Nagl says, "there are many brave Iraqis who want a unitary, democratic state and who have given their lives for this cause."
Had the better counterinsurgency strategy now in prospect been adopted in 2003, things might be rather different in Iraq today. Yet, history shows that even winning counterinsurgency strategies take years to succeed. Nagl sees Iraq as inescapably a long, hard war.
He’s equally blunt about the consequences of an American defeat. "If we fail in Iraq, the probable consequences for peace and security in the region and the world are all but incalculable."
John Nagl isn’t ready to give up on Iraq. Nor is David Petraeus, who told Congress that "hard is not hopeless." We will learn soon enough whether their country is similarly resolute.