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New U.S. Counterinsurgency Tactics Face Challenges Ahead

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who has been put forward by the administration as the architect of one of the few successful efforts to stabilize Iraq in the wake of the American invasion in 2003, was selected for the position by the president on Jan. 4 as part of an overhaul of the administration’s military strategy in Iraq.

After receiving Senate confirmation on Jan. 26, he replaced Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

Considered one of the military’s foremost thinkers, Petraeus was stationed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from April 2003 to February 2004. There he commanded the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and combined tough military tactics with reconstruction projects to stabilize the city.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff later reassigned him to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to document the lessons learned in Mosul and to revise the Army and Marine field manual on counterinsurgency warfare, which hadn’t been updated for 20 years. The manual was reworked by Petraeus, along with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, and officially published December 2006.

“There was a sense in Iraq that policy makers and a lot of people who conduct operations on the ground were not well versed enough in the principles of counterinsurgency. These were lessons which had been neglected since the Vietnam war,” Petraeus told the Boston Globe.

The counterinsurgency campaign that Petraeus and his co-author spelled out envisions “a mix of offensive, defensive and stability operations.” This is not easy, he wrote. “Leaders at all levels must adjust their approach constantly, ensuring that their elements are ready each day to be greeted with a handshake or a hand grenade … to be national builders as well as warriors.”

Although the manual is new, the concept of winning Iraqi “hearts and minds” by engaging in the community is not. Troops were employing these kinds of tactics as soon as the government of Saddam Hussein collapsed. Nevertheless, experts contend that the U.S. military was largely unprepared for stability operations when the Iraq war began. Others question whether implementing such a strategy at this point is too little, too late.

“The initial U.S. military response to the unconventional war was very counterproductive. In essence, the generals were caught by surprise and were confronted with a war that they were not mentally prepared to fight,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University.

From roughly June 2003 to June 2004, said Bacevich, the U.S. military “made tremendous mistakes using the wrong tactics, the wrong means and probably ended up exasperating the situation.”

Some officers who served in Iraq say that while they received some basic training in terms of cultural awareness, manning checkpoints and searching houses, they didn’t learn how these skills would be applied to the larger, complex counterinsurgency campaign.

In a June 2006 column in the Baltimore Sun, Erik Swabb, a former Marine infantry officer who served in Fallujah from September 2004 to March 2005, wrote: “We did not understand the dynamics at play, such as the notion that excessive force protection alienates the populace, reduces intelligence and, therefore, makes one less secure.

“We knew how to raid a house, but not how to build local relationships and learn where insurgents were hiding. We did not know these crucial aspects of counterinsurgency because we had never received training about them,” said Swabb.

Swabb goes on to say that the best advice he received was from a friend — an intelligence officer in another unit — who suggested that Swabb focus on helping Iraqis, rather than just conducting aggressive patrols.

“It worked wonders,” said Swabb. “I learned more about counterinsurgency from a 15-minute conversation than I did from two years of military training.”

Experts agree that a lot of stability operations training that troops received was on the fly — a trial-by-fire method.

“When you go into a war and you’re not prepared for the mission, when you’re not prepared for stability operations, or for counterinsurgency, or for conflict termination for that matter, what you do is … blunder your way through events. And that’s what they did,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman noted that by 2004 the Army and Marine Corps had begun to alter their training programs. Many of the stability-operations concepts in the new field manual were part of the counterinsurgency training inside the U.S. military by 2005.

“One of the lessons field commanders found in Iraq was the need to deal with these economic and political issues almost immediately. And some in particular, like general Petraeus, were keys, even when they were dealing with very local commands in places like Mosul,” said Cordesman.

In a 2006 military review, Maj. Paul T. Stanton of the Army wrote about the success of unit immersion in Mosul. “Immersing tactical units into their AOs (areas of operation) is the best way for soldiers to learn the AO, build relationships with the people, identify priorities for making overt improvements and take the fight to any threat element that exposes itself,” said Stanton.

In the report, Stanton emphasized the importance of low-level leaders. He said that soldiers working on the ground — “developing habitual relationships” with the locals — were key to intelligence-gathering.

During one mission, Stanton’s company had cordoned off a section of a marketplace and, as per usual, a crowd developed. An officer noticed that several Iraqi civilians whom he knew from around town had left the scene. Suspicious, the officer told troops to take cover. One minute later, a grenade exploded. Stanton wrote that the officer’s “ability to detect such subtle behavior undoubtedly saved his platoon members from injury or death.”

“Immersion, in short, is the most effective means to address all dimensions of a stability operation,” said Stanton.

But the number of American forces needed to conduct the level of “immersion” Stanton outlines remains a politically charged topic in Washington. The new field manual recommends a troop density of at least 20 combat troops to every 1,000 people in Iraq. There are 6 million people in Baghdad, which means the manual would suggest 120,000 combat troops to effectively secure the city. Right now, there are about 130,000 U.S. troops in all of Iraq, and of those 60,000 are support troops or personnel, American officials say.

According to the president, U.S. troops will be “embedded” with the Iraqi forces to help them secure neighborhoods in Baghdad wrested from insurgents. The U.S. troops will work with 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades, along with local police.

The idea is that the U.S. forces combined with Iraqi forces will comprise a strong enough force to implement the stability operations drawn out in the new field manual.

Some experts, however, say that Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine will face some challenges in Iraq in the coming months.

For one, as the president has admitted, U.S. forces have in the past cleared neighborhoods of insurgents, only to have them return when the troops move out, as happened in Tal Afar. After pushing the insurgents out of the city in late 2005, the U.S. military built a wall to stop insurgents from rolling back in. Experts worry that walling off neighborhoods or entire cities — and creating a kind of gated community — will disgruntle the population, thereby undermining the relationships that soldiers should be building.

Also potentially detrimental to the strategy is that the Iraqi national forces are notoriously weak. “Many members of the Iraqi forces are routinely absent, the army is only partly capable of carrying out its tasks, and the police force is often corrupt and infiltrated by militias,” reported Economist magazine.

Some Iraqi brigades in mainly Sunni Anbar province, according to experts, are only at 25 percent strength.

On top of that, at least two brigades that will be sent to secure Baghdad under Bush’s new plan will be composed of Kurds from northern Iraq. There are questions over whether these Kurds will fight Sunni insurgents in Baghdad when some Sunni organizations have spoken out against aiding U.S troops, reported the Washington Post. Moreover, the prospect that the Kurdish soldiers will be “heavy-handed if sent into heavily Shiite areas” is another concern.

“So in the end, [military commanders have] cobbled together a list of may be, possibly, could be forces that may be, possibly, could be in the right ballpark to give them a possibility of implementing essentially a neighborhood strategy — a control-the-population strategy. But it’s really squishy,” said Barry Posen, political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“A big chunk of what you call a ‘hearts and minds’ approach is really not possible for us to do.”

Despite the skeptics, Petraeus will take command of a force aimed as much at winning a public relations effort as militarily controlling the streets of Baghdad.

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