January 1, 2006  

No silver bullets

Fighting the insurgency in Iraq

Along with impatience, a great American weakness is our belief that every problem has a straightforward solution, if only we can figure it out. Especially in complex foreign endeavors, such as counterinsurgency warfare or the struggle with religious terrorism, this search for a silver bullet hampers our efforts: We demand clear-cut results in a fractured, tormented world in which the best possible outcomes are always flawed and usually slow in coming.

Which approach is better? The fist? Or the warm embrace? Should we smash down doors to demonstrate our power, or build cooperative relationships with local leaders? Are our goals best served by a strategy of securing key population nodes and expanding our control outward? Or by aggressively seeking our enemies and attacking them? Should we strike enemy strongholds fiercely, as in Fallujah, or methodically, as in Tal Afar? The answer is: all of the above. The veiled argument among generals over whether one division’s approach was too heavy-handed compared with another’s dexterous touch, misses the fundamental truth that the right response to the layered problems we’ve faced in Iraq depends on multiple factors, from the atmosphere of the moment to the location and scope of the specific challenge.

No single set of tactical or operational rules leads to comprehensive success. The technique that prevailed in City X in 2004 may be counterproductive if employed in Town Y in early 2006. Local cultures may vary from village to village (and certainly from country to country). The situation, military and political, shifts unexpectedly. Resources dictate what can or cannot be done at a given time. There is no single “right” approach to counterinsurgency or stability operations. While some deficiencies and errors — such as cultural ignorance, poor intelligence work, hitting the wrong target or weak media management — invariably harm our efforts, there is no cheat-sheet formula that leads to an early redeployment back to peacetime garrisons. Commanders at all levels need to master a wide repertoire of “plays” and to develop the tactile sense to call the right ones in sequence under murky, dynamic circumstances. Then the game changes.

Nor does every tactical or operational situation have one ideal solution. Some challenges can be handled in a variety of ways, while others have no good solution at all. At times, one deft touch defuses a potential explosion. At other times, you can only improvise bloodily until you hit on means that work halfway. The clarity of the classroom is singularly lacking in real counterinsurgency operations. Some local problems have no just solutions — or no real solutions at all. We want firm results, but fighting insurgents is sometimes a matter of buying time, not of achieving decisive, final victory. Counterinsurgency warfare is the realm of the officer who can think beyond the textbook, who thrives in the absence of rules. To date, the progress made in Iraq has been achieved solely by the commitment and the quality of our troops and their uniformed leadership. They did it by dealing with on-the-ground complexities that staff colleges cannot teach, that politicians cannot accept and that theorists cannot grasp.

Insurgencies are so complex and different from one to another that one of the worst things that can happen to a force is to have achieved a recent success that is then carried along as a template for operations in a profoundly different culture. After much preening about its experience in counterinsurgency operations in Northern Ireland and self-satisfied observations about American clumsiness, the British military in Iraq, operating in a relatively benign environment, employed the “light touch” it had learned.

The result was to hand Basra and the south to Shi’a militants. The British limited their own casualties and “kept the peace,” but fostered the rise of fanatic parallel power structures that, to put it kindly, are not democracy-friendly. Whether or not the British “won” southern Iraq for Iran, they certainly delivered it unto the most reactionary and intolerant of Iraq’s Shi’as. If Iraq still exists as a state 10 years from now, the most backward and truculent provinces will be those that enjoyed a British occupation.

What worked in Belfast didn’t work in Basra.


Historical examples can deepen our understanding of the problems we face, but they rarely offer appropriate solutions. It’s been fascinating to listen to the phenomenal amount of nonsense offered up as the “lessons of history” about insurgencies by those who have no serious knowledge of the past, still less of the Middle East, and none, whatsoever, of our military.

We have been warned that it’s virtually impossible to defeat insurgencies, which is simply wrong. Down the centuries, few insurgencies succeeded. Those that did triumph generally opposed a decayed state from within or a troubled empire on its vulnerable frontiers. With the sympathy of a minority of the population, an insurgency can cause infernal trouble, but it cannot win against a steadfast power. The key variable is commitment — or, simply put, time (which takes us back to American impatience, exacerbated by the poisonous and irresponsible media). Fighting a robust power, the only hope an insurgency possesses is to outlast its opponent, to win an eventual political victory in place of the military victory it has no hope of achieving. That is what the insurgents — and terrorists — in Iraq intend to do.

Our enemies aren’t wizards of cultural understanding. They’ve gotten much wrong about America, especially by underestimating the courage and skill of our troops. But they cling to one big, promising idea that may yet pay off for them: To our enemies, the crucial lesson of Vietnam is that America gets tired. Media-wise and Internet-savvy, both insurgents and terrorists are very much aware of the political bickering in the United States and the (overhyped) anti-war movement. Their strategy comes down to attritting our forces and staying in the headlines, to win through the media what they cannot win with bombs.

Our own weak grasp of history plays into their hands as commentators insist — forever citing Vietnam — that insurgencies always win. Yet, the United States has been fighting insurgencies and winning since before we were a nation, on the Indian frontier, in a great civil war, against the Ku Klux Klan (a struggle waged on and off for over a century), against the Muslim-fundamentalist Moros and later the Huks in the Philippines, and in Central America. Our track record has been very good. Even in Vietnam, we defeated the insurgency. North Vietnam had to send in its regulars — and still only won after our troops were recalled and aid to South Vietnam was cut off. Saigon fell to a massive invasion, not to an insurgency.

But facts don’t matter. The struggle on our domestic front (where Iraq may well be lost) is all about emotion, resentment and scoring political points. History has often been prostituted, but rarely with such shamelessness. The one historical truth that administration opponents refuse to accept is that defeating insurgencies takes time — about a decade, on average. For purely partisan purposes, an influential segment of our population is in a rush to declare defeat. The insurgency’s most potent weapon is our media and the struggle’s center of gravity is in the U.S. Senate, not in Iraq.

Even those in the military or hovering around it suffer from a selective study of history, endlessly citing T.E. Lawrence out of context — yet, that flamboyant self-promoter’s “revolt in the desert” would have come to nothing without the advance of the British Empire’s conventional forces. Lawrence was colorful. Allenby was effective. Lawrence understood the Bedu. More important, his British masters understood Lawrence and used him as an effective auxiliary — but an auxiliary, nonetheless. While reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” offers enduring insights into Arab behavior and motivations, it doesn’t offer a formula for winning our present war.

Others cite Trinquier and the French in Algeria, proposing an “ink-blot” or “oil-spot” strategy that pacifies a key node, occupies it and expands outward from it, creating zones of security for the population: stability operations instead of aggressive hunting. Apart from the facts that the French lost and that the interim effectiveness of their strategy depended on having a half-million troops on the ground, there is certainly some merit in using such a technique as part of a larger strategy. But if adopted as a sole solution, it relinquishes the initiative to the insurgents (who already have an inherent advantage in that regard); requires a heavy and immobilized troop presence; and effectively hands sovereignty beyond the wire over to the enemy. To be effective, an ink-blot strategy requires local cooperation, dependable native troops and police in large numbers — and relentless offensive actions to keep the enemy on the defensive while the pacified population centers develop and expand.

You can’t just circle the wagons — especially given our national impatience. And you can’t allow the enemy to fortify “liberated” zones while you concentrate on cities X and Y. You have to hold firmly and attack aggressively at the same time. That requires numbers that our forces in Iraq were never allowed.

The point isn’t to attack one worthy approach, but to stress the importance of flexibility, of refusing to limit ourselves to a single formula, of using every play in the playbook and never ceasing to develop new combinations for use against an adaptive enemy.

To study the history of insurgencies seriously, we would have to begin at least 25 centuries ago and march forward. The twin lessons would be that, while insurgencies generally fail, there is no easy formula for suppressing them — other than ruthlessness at a level we cannot presently permit ourselves.


Given the many restrictions under which our forces have had to operate in Iraq, they’ve performed magnificently. The mission is very, very hard, and it was exacerbated by inadequate troop strength, incompetence among civilian leaders and the “lost year” of 2004, when the administration did its best to avoid decisive combat, casualties and images of destruction until after the presidential election (the timing of the Second Battle of Fallujah was far more cynical than any claims about weapons of mass destruction). With more troops and more presidential will, the political renovation of Iraq would have come much farther by now. With iron resolve at the top of our government, even a smaller, special-operations-heavy postwar effort — backed by sufficient political will — might have worked better than our too-small-for-this, too-big-for-that force could do. It’s a tribute to our military that we’ve done as well as we have, given that the National Command Authority got virtually every postwar detail wrong.

From NCOs to division commanders, we’ve seen a praiseworthy ability to figure things out on the ground, to fight effectively under widely varied circumstances, and to cope with extreme cultural obstacles. While the insurgents and terrorists can keep on killing indefinitely, they cannot win — unless we quit, defeated by the media.

The media have been a factor in warfare since the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the press in Imperial Britain and the United States always had plenty to say about the way professional armies dealt with distant insurgencies. Between the world wars, the British media condemned as inhumane the use of aircraft against rebellious tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier, and the U.S. Army’s long-but-successful campaign to defeat the Moros had plenty of domestic critics who worried about the rights of deadly fanatics a century ago.

Yet, the hyperintensity of today’s 24/7 news cycle, the immediacy of reporting and the cutthroat competition for sensation to bolster ratings now combine to make the media not just an observer, but a party to every conflict — and often an enemy at which our troops cannot return fire.

The military appears as naïve about the culture of the media as it long has been about foreign cultures (try thinking about reporters as a tribe of talented cannibals). Just as the need for officers to speak foreign languages was relegated to the don’t-bother-me-now-I’m-on-the-gunnery-range category, so media management tends to be relegated to an unread annex in the operations plan. Yet, the media now possess the power to turn an American victory into a defeat — or at least a mixed result.

Think of any image from Iraq. When you read those words, did a photo from Abu Ghraib come to mind? While impermissible and shameful, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was hardly a strategic matter — until the media made it one. After a brilliant performance by our troops in Second Fallujah, which image was impressed upon the world? A Marine shooting a wounded prisoner, presented out of context as an ambitious reporter grabbed his moment in the spotlight. What is the No. 1 photo request lodged with the government and the courts by the media? To shoot flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq.

Certainly, there are honorable journalists. But they, too, can be infected by the madness of the herd — reporters complain that they want new stories, but flock to cover the same story as their peers. “Press freedom” is their constant cry, but we rarely hear of media responsibility. If there is any self-important, self-indulgent and self-serving major institution running amok in our country today, it’s the media, which long since has sunk from healthy skepticism to smug cynicism. A free press is a safeguard of democracy, but irresponsible media are democracy’s enemy within.

The pertinent points are, first, that the media now can have a decisive influence in overturning the verdict of the battlefield, transforming American victories into defeats through biased reporting, and, second, that the complexity of dealing with the media is yet another aspect of counterinsurgency warfare that has no silver-bullet answer.

What do we do in Iraq? Whatever works. We’re better at learning as we go than we are at adhering to frozen-in-time doctrine. While it would have been better had the Army, especially, gone into Iraq with more serious recent thinking about counterinsurgency warfare, we should all be surprised that an undertaking of such magnitude and difficulty has gone as well as it has. Day-by-day, we see the problems — amplified by the media. But when you stand back, the performance of our forces has been extraordinary.

It’s up to those back home to let our troops win. The surest way to lose an insurgency isn’t by military or cultural blunders. It’s by quitting.


No matter how our efforts end in Iraq, new counterinsurgency doctrine will emerge. It is essential that it be written by recent veterans, not by contractors relying on second-hand accounts. And that doctrine must avoid the temptation to impose a uniform, limited set of rules on a complex form of conflict in which every insurgency has unique qualities. We certainly should stress the criticality of better intelligence work and the role of cultural knowledge as a combat multiplier (or pre-empter of combat), but it’s hard to be hopeful about the present Army leadership (the Marines are different) doing anything much about intelligence, language skills for officers and cultural studies beyond mouthing platitudes, then heading back to the same old rodeo. Still, if only the next iteration of our counterinsurgency doctrine started off, “There are no easy answers or uniform solutions to insurgencies,” we would have made enormous progress.

Fighting insurgencies demands imagination and determination, empathy and patience, power and restraint, boldness and caution, adaptability and unwavering moral strength. The seeming contradictions are nearly endless. The one certainty is that there is no certainty that applies to all insurgencies. If there is anything like a key to dealing with a given insurgency, it’s understanding the insurgents so well that specific knowledge shapes your strategy, operations and tactics. Ultimately, no doctrine can prescribe how we fight all insurgents or terrorists everywhere. The best doctrine written in garrison will be a bare beginning in the field. But if we take the pains to understand our enemy, the enemy will tell us what to do.

And then it will change again.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, a former enlisted soldier and the author of 20 books, including the recent “New Glory, Expanding America’s Global Supremacy.”