Killing is a necessary precursor to successful counterinsurgency
The six years of Operation Iraqi Freedom have seen a fundamental shift in how the U.S. military fights. In early 2003, the Rumsfeldian doctrine of a highly technological, agile and overwhelming force was successful and responsible for routing Saddam’s forces and toppling his regime. Shock and awe coupled with maneuver warfare validated the concept of the “single battle” — a short and decisive campaign that achieved its tactical, operational and strategic objectives in less time than it takes to close escrow on a new home. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld’s doctrine and policies, which so decisively resulted in military victory in 2003, proved wholly unsuited for the insurgency that rose from the cities, towns and countryside of Iraq.
By the end of 2005, the insurgency was in full swing. Coalition forces across Iraq were fighting a real war against an elusive enemy, with tactical successes and strategic setbacks that made parallels to the war in Vietnam inevitable. The pendulum swung from a purely martial operating environment to a broad and multidisciplined policy of attraction. The military, in the absence of credible and effective support from the other elements of national power, devolved into areas usually left to other agencies. American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were expected to become experts in governance, employment, reconstruction, health care and myriad other nonkinetic “lines of operation,” or LOOs. These LOOs became de rigueur for military commanders, and the emphasis on aggressive offensive combat operations was lessened in an attempt to win the support of the populace through nonkinetic means. The focus of the effort was to attract the population away from the insurgency by demonstrating that the coalition would and could meet the needs of the Iraqi people and rebuild the national government. Married with the policy of attraction was the goal of retrenchment, in which coalition forces would train and employ the nascent but growing Iraqi Army and police as leverage, putting an “Iraqi face” on combat operations and allowing the Iraqis to take the lead in countering the insurgency.
Unfortunately, this policy of attraction failed miserably. As in all combat, the enemy gets a vote. In this case, the enemy voted in the streets of Iraq with IEDs, AK47s and RPGs hundreds of times a day. Across the country, the best intentions of the coalition to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people were quashed by active combat operations. Despite the time and treasure devoted to placing the “Iraqi face” in the fight, development of Iraqi security forces failed to provide the credible and effective force needed to decouple coalition forces from the battlespace. As a result, the coalition’s best efforts to provide governance, employment and reconstruction foundered on the rocks of the active insurgency. The policy of attraction failed, and America’s military was mired in an intractable conflict that more resembled an interminable Vietnam than a Marshall-esque post-war Germany or Japan.
Fast forward to 2009. The war in Iraq is now largely won. The fundamental shift in doctrine from the specialization of military operations to the generalizations of counterinsurgency has resulted in a stark turn of events for the better. To those who arrived later in the fight, those who were schooled in the lessons of counterinsurgency, the policy of attraction seemed to have resulted in ultimate success. Forces that are in Iraq now are reaping the fruit borne of a successful counterinsurgency campaign: Attacks are at an all-time low, and the LOOs that were so unsuccessfully pursued a few short years ago are resounding successes. The softer side of COIN has largely won the war, and many of its adherents now vociferously pontificate about the tenets of our new way of war and how all of the good that has come to Iraq is a result of the predominantly nonviolent efforts that won the collective allegiance of the populace.
These acolytes of attraction say this because by and large, they didn’t experience the hard times that preceded their arrival. One of the realities of this new way of American war is the introduction of the unit-based deployment cycle. Iterative deployments, which see units cycling in and out of theater on a rotational basis, bring those to the fight who have received the latest training in COIN but lack the depth of context that has been garnered by the departing unit; the relief picks up where the relieved lets off. Often, the presupposition of the incoming unit is that they “know better” as a result of their training, while the experiences of the outgoing command go home with them and are never fully imparted to the new guys. These presumptions have largely been validated by the recent stunning changes in Iraq. With this validation comes a new assumption that such success is the result of the policy of attraction that the recent arrivals have had the good fortune to be able to perform. The recent arrivals with their new ideas were only present for half of the story, however. The policy of attraction that is now proving so successful was made possible through the harder side of COIN: old-fashioned kinetic operations.
The application of overwhelming combat power to depose Saddam’s regime was successful because it drove straight into the heart of Iraq’s center of gravity: Baghdad. The city was Saddam’s centralized seat of power. Once active combat operations were concluded, the center of gravity that was the aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom ceased to exist. Unfortunately, the vacuum created by its destruction was filled with nothing of substance, and much as nature abhors a vacuum, the people of Iraq quickly became disenfranchised with the fractured economy, shattered infrastructure and lack of governance. This disenfranchisement, coupled with an utter lack of governance and control, made conditions ripe for an insurgency.
With the rise of the insurgency came a fundamental shift in the center of gravity. U.S.-led forces failed to realize that, in their attempts to create a strong and democratic central government, they missed the mark entirely. Generally speaking, the population of Iraq was much less interested in voting for a new and democratic government than they were in trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire between insurgents and coalition forces, finding a job securing enough food to feed their families. As the coalition fervently sought to reintroduce the center of gravity that was centralized control in Baghdad, nascent insurgents across the country began to exploit the true center of gravity for the new Iraq: the people.
Top-tier insurgents quickly realized that the key to their success was to establish control over the populace of Iraq and, by extension, to delegitimize the central government and the control established by coalition forces. They used asymmetric and information operations to cast their influence on the Iraqi people, and with a lack of viable alternatives, the populace largely fell in line.
The insurgents, in classical warfighting terms, had stolen the march and established their own area of influence. Joint Publication 1-02, “Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms” defines area of influence as “[a] geographical area wherein a commander is directly capable of influencing operations by maneuver or fire support systems normally under the commander’s command or control.” The coalition, however, because of over-restrictive rules of engagement and lack of understanding about how the rules of the game had changed, ceded the control of the battlespace and yielded the all-important initiative to the enemy. While friendly commanders were assigned their own areas of operation — that battlespace for which they were responsible — in reality, their areas of influence extended no further into insurgent-dominated terrain than the maximum effective range of their direct-fire weapons. The insurgents had a grip on the population, and by proxy, they had a grip on every bit of terrain where coalition forces were not.
Iraq became an active battleground between the coalition forces and the insurgency in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Friendly forces patrolled and conducted limited objective raids across the battlespace, inserting their presence through limited-duration combat and civil engagement operations. There was little or no persistent friendly presence in the cities, towns and rural area. Instead, coalition combat power was laagered in forward operating bases that were essentially island citadels awash in a turbulent sea that they could not calm. As they left the protective gates of the FOB, they ventured forth into the Wild West: IEDs, small-arms and RPG fire was the expected reception for a coalition element when it left the wire. The bubble of security they provided the local population existed only when the bullets weren’t flying, and it extended only as far as those on patrol could see or shoot. Further, the bubble of security that they provided promptly deflated as soon as the coalition forces returned to the FOB, leaving a vacuum that was refilled by the insurgents.
The Iraqi people, soon termed the “human terrain,” were placed on the horns of a dilemma: If they took advantage of the benefits offered by the coalition, they would fall victim to intimidation and possible, if not probable, murder by the insurgents. If they aligned with the insurgency, they had the real possibility of being imprisoned or dying for it. Led by tribal sheiks, the vast majority assumed a posture of wary apprehension and waited to see which side would gain the upper hand.
Turning the tide
The critical vulnerability of the insurgency was its inability to counter a deliberate offensive combat operation. This was exploited by aggressively taking the fight to the enemy and taking away his area of influence. These operations were certainly tempered by the rules of engagement and the goals of protecting the people while countering the insurgency, but they were full-scale kinetic fights nonetheless. Armored, mechanized and dismounted forces, backed by aviation and surface fires, conducted deliberate attacks that exploited the enemy’s critical vulnerability. In doing so, they established a foothold in the insurgent’s backyard that became the starting point of the inkblot method of establishing dominance. The introduction of persistent presence of effective combat power within the insurgent area of influence was the all-important first step toward wrenching the initiative from the grasp of the insurgency.
Tactically, coalition forces would penetrate into the battlespace to seize an objective, which would become a permanent friendly outpost. Once such a presence was introduced, it had to weather the storm as the enemy fought hard to dislodge it. It is during this fight that the population stood by and waited to see which side would prevail. The area surrounding the new emplacement more often than not became a microcosm of the battles for Fallujah — savage urban combat in which soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fought desperately from house to house to dislodge the entrenched insurgents. As the outpost matured, it became the center of an expanding sphere of stability created by continued offensive actions such as combat patrolling, killing or capturing high-value targets, and active information operations. Street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood, the insurgents were violently removed from the outpost’s immediate surroundings. As the ink spread, the security it provided painted the vicinity in the hopeful colors of a new Iraq and pushed out the baleful blackness of the insurgency.
When it became clear that the coalition outpost was there to stay, the local sheiks and tribesmen could not help but take notice. Active patrolling and engagement with the locals and their leaders, coupled with effective humanitarian and reconstruction efforts, led the populace to reassess its loyalties. Many of the insurgency’s information operations themes, which were largely based on lies and inflammatory propaganda, were invalidated by the positive effects made possible by the introduction of stability. It was only then that the softer side of COIN could truly be brought into play to bring the population into the fold. Without the hard-fought, highly kinetic gunfights that took and held the initial lodgments in insurgent territory, the ability to introduce legitimate authority and sway the loyalties of the population would never have been possible.
And so to Afghanistan
Odds are that insurgent warfare is not likely to go away anytime soon because another fight continues on the other side of the Persian Gulf. As the U.S. divests itself from the newly empowered nation of Iraq, it is shifting its focus toward reinvestment in Afghanistan. Although the many of the operant realities are significantly different in Central Asia, COIN’s basic tenets remain unchanged. The center of gravity is still the people, and as long as they live under the thumb and within the areas of influence of the Taliban or other nefarious organizations, NATO and American forces will have to fight the same fights and in the same places time and again. Exerting friendly influence is as important in Afghanistan as it is was Iraq, and establishing it will require the same level of investment of people, time and treasure. It has often been said that we cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan, and that is certainly true. We can, however, kill the right people and take away their chokehold on the populace. In doing so, we will set the conditions for a successful counterinsurgent campaign that can attract Afghans of all persuasions to embrace a new Afghanistan. The first step to achieve such attraction is security, however, and security comes from good old-fashioned offensive operations that employ the kinetics needed to drive out the enemy and bring hope to the people that so desperately need it. AFJ
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mike Grice did two combat tours in Ramadi, Iraq, from 2005 to 2007. He is currently the expeditionary fire support branch chief at Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps or the Defense Department.