Small Wars Journal

CCO Interview with Colonel Peter Mansoor

10 Questions for Colonel Peter Mansoor, USA (Ret.)

Reposted here in full with permission of the Consortium for Complex Operations with a hat tip to Dan Troy.

COL (Ret.) Pete Mansoor is currently the Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair in Military History at The Ohio State University. COL Mansoor retired this past summer after more than 26 years in the United States Army. Most recently, he served as Executive Officer to General David Petraeus, then Commander MNF-I. Prior to holding that position, COL Mansoor served on a Council of Colonels that advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a new strategy for Iraq and was the founding director of the US Army/USMC Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, KS, where his team assisted in the final revision process of Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24.

COL Mansoor recently released Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq, a memoir of his time leading the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, in Baghdad from 2003-2004. COL Mansoor recently agreed to be interviewed by the CCO on his new book and the counterinsurgency lessons he learned during his first tour in Iraq.

Q1. A number of commentators have mentioned a lack of civil-military coordination in Iraq between 2003-2005 that resulted in money going to local governments that still supported the insurgents, thereby undercutting the plan for bringing security to the region. Brian Linn, whom you quote in your book, wrote about something similar happening in the Philippines last century, where officials assumed that a region had been cleared of insurgents simply because it was pacified. As a result, reconstruction money ended up filling the coffers of the insurgency. You discuss your successes and difficulties with civil-military cooperation during your time there in 2003-2004. Did you find that civil-military coordination had improved between then and when you returned in 2007?

A1. The big problem early in the war was the serious disconnect between the military and civil authorities in Baghdad. The Coalition Provisional Authority and CJTF-7 failed to coordinate their activities in any meaningful way. At the brigade level and below, we had very little contact with CPA officials, who often spent money with little or no input from those of us on the ground with the best situational awareness. The lack of a civilian presence at the brigade combat team level meant that CPA (and later, U.S. Embassy) officials had only sporadic contact with the Iraqi people, so it is not surprising that local leaders were able to play both sides of the fence in some instances. The great leap forward in 2007 was the embedding of provincial reconstruction teams into brigade combat team headquarters, which led to much better synergy between civilian experts and military leaders as the surge progressed.

Q2. You argue that the political maxim, "all politics is local" should have been applied to creating governance structures at the local level as a way of building democracy. You mention the importance of "building indigenous security structures to shoulder the burden of the counterinsurgency struggle." Although the situation may have been different if the Iraqi Army had not been disbanded in 2003, does this maxim about starting at the local level apply to creating security and security forces as well? Given that there were no Iraqi security structures at any level from May 2003, should security, and security structures, have been built from the local level as was later done with the Sons of Iraq in Anbar in 2007 and 2008, or should it have been done from the central government (in this case, the CPA)?

A2. Disbanding the Iraqi army was a serious strategic mistake that created the military conditions for the spread of the insurgency. We dishonored, disenfranchised, and disrespected tens of thousands of Iraqi officers, many of whom ended up forming the military backbone of the insurgency (at least initially). When my brigade combat team arrived in Iraq, the decision to disband the Iraqi army had already been made. Given this course of action, the best thing to do would have been to focus on building the Iraqi police from the ground up. Neighborhood police would have provided the security at the local level that the Iraqi people needed. Building police from the ground up would have required a different organizational construction in our military forces, however. Instead of centralizing military police assets at a brigade headquarters located at Baghdad International Airport, for instance, we could have decentralized military police companies and battalions under the control of brigade combat team commanders, who could then have been given the responsibility of creating police forces in their areas. The tension between centralization and decentralization of assets was an issue that played out in a number of areas in 2003-2004, and unfortunately centralization usually won out.

Q3. You write of the difficulty in recruiting, training and managing Iraqi Civil Defense Corps units at the local level, and the Iraqi army at the national level. How long did this process generally take until they were ready to fight effectively alongside Coalition forces, and until they were able to fight effectively on their own? Given the length of the process, is it preferable for the counterinsurgent, and whatever local forces are available, to secure the population themselves, and put the newly trained troops in charge of "holding" the area as their first test? You are critical of the tendency for Coalition forces, in 2004-2006, to live on large bases outside of cities and towns and "commute" to work. Isn't that a symptom of the larger problem, whereby the strategy was to train indigenous forces to be available in the near term to take over the counterinsurgency, as opposed to securing the population first? As a result, there were more attacks, which forced the decision to move Coalition forces out of the towns.

A3. Senior U.S. commanders made an incorrect assumption early on that U.S. forces were a virus infecting Iraqi society, and therefore we needed to get out of Iraqi cities before the local inhabitants began to view us as an occupation force. News flash -- many already did as soon as we invaded Iraq. The problem was that there was no effective army or police force that could assume responsibility for securing the areas vacated by U.S. forces. Since we had disbanded the only effective security organization in the Iraqi army, it would take years to build other security institutions from scratch. Although soldiers can be trained in a matter of months, the provision of effective leadership is a different matter altogether. Our strategy from 2004-2006 that emphasized a rapid transition of security responsibilities to Iraqi Security Forces was way too optimistic regarding how long it would take for these forces to become truly effective. Until they matured, it was essential to partner newly created formations with U.S. combat units. When we failed to do this, Iraqi units often dissolved in their first contact with determined enemy resistance.

Q4. You are critical of the decision not to take action against Moqtada al-Sadr following the 2004 uprising, allowing him instead to declare a cease-fire, to "rearm his militia for another uprising two months later." This was not the only time he declared a cease-fire, only to rearm for a future uprising, but this past summer, he disbanded most of his militia. Additionally, in March of this year, he admitted that he was losing followers. Is the situation any different this time? Is it any more likely that this cease-fire will be the end to the Mahdi Army?

A4. The difference in 2008, and one that gives me some optimism that this time will be different, is that it was the Iraqi government that took action to reign in the Jaish al-Mahdi. Significant numbers of Iraqi citizens have grown disenchanted with the excesses of the Shi'a militia as well. Muqtada al-Sadr realized he cannot continue to lose political and popular support and survive, so he decided to convert his militia into a social and humanitarian organization (with political overtones, for sure). Now that U.S. forces appear to be on a timeline to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, this takes away the major plank in the platform of the Sadrist politicians. Iran will no doubt continue to sponsor splinter groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi, but the bulk of the militia should wither away as the Iraqi Security Forces gain strength and improve qualitatively as well.

Q5. You write about a meeting you had with the local neighborhood council in Adhamiya, where you told the locals that you would "use every soldier, weapon and ounce of energy at [your] disposal to see that they (the insurgents) are crushed." The Iraqis, however, interpreted that as you using "every soldier, weapon and ounce of energy at [your] disposal to see that you are crushed." Was this an interpretation error or was it something more than that? How can the military increase cultural and linguistic divides like this? Are the cultural terrain teams filling this gap? How can the military institutionalize culture and language learning programs for future complex operations in other areas of the world?

A5. I believe this was a translation error, not a cultural misunderstanding. On the other hand, I didn't stop the Sunnis as they departed the room to ensure we understood one another. Given the length of time necessary to gain fluency in a language, our military forces will continue to rely of translators for the foreseeable future. This does not mean that we should not train language and culture in our professional military education system; just the opposite. A rudimentary knowledge of Arabic would have helped me a great deal as a brigade commander in Iraq, and would have helped my captains, lieutenants, and sergeants even more. Language, history, and cultural education should be a prerequisite in pre-commissioning programs, and continued throughout the course of the careers of our officers and noncommissioned officers.

Q6. Since an important part of counterinsurgency operations continuity involves daily interaction with local populations, leaders and government officials in your city or village, it would seem that a potential hindrance to successful counterinsurgency might be the one year length of most tours. You detail the lengths you went to brief your replacement on the details, including introducing him to all of the local leaders. Are the lengths to which you went to ensure continuity common among unit commanders? If not, how can the Army institutionalize such a practice to ensure seamless transition?

A6. The two weeks my brigade spent in its "relief in place" with our replacements was a standard practice among units in the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, and I believe with other units as well. In addition, we had embedded key elements of the incoming unit's staff, such as intelligence and civil affairs, in our headquarters even earlier. Still, it is difficult for an incoming unit to understand everything being thrown at it in such a short period of time, and transfer of information does not always result in transfer of understanding. One possibility to improve this state of affairs is to rotate the same units back to the same areas in future tours, as the Marines did in a number of cases in Al Anbar Province in Iraq.

Q7. There is currently a contentious debate over the future of warfare -- whether it will resemble Iraq and Afghanistan or whether there will be a return to major combat operations against great or medium sized powers. You argue that the Army was not structured for counterinsurgency in 2003, that the focus on net-centric warfare and the revolution in military affairs in the 1990s was actually five to ten years behind in terms of the evolution of warfare and that the Army still has a ways to go in tailoring its structure for counterinsurgency. What do you see as the likelihood of a near to medium term conflict with a great or medium size power? Does the recent conflict in South Ossetia portend future conventional conflict?

A7. There is always the potential for a state-on-state conflict, and our military forces need to be prepared to engage in conventional warfare should the need arise. But given the overwhelming conventional superiority of our military forces, it is unlikely that we will be challenged in this manner in the near future. Saddam Hussein tried twice, and the lesson he gave the world has not gone unheeded. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other hand, have had more strategic success at a fraction of the cost. In my view the United States needs to learn how to effectively prosecute counterinsurgency operations and structure its forces to do so, or we will find ourselves challenged in this manner again in the near future. This does not mean we should abandon training for high intensity combat. Clearly, a balance must be struck in this regard once our forces disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Until then, we need to fight the wars we have, not the ones we want.)

Q8. As the nation's attention starts to turn toward Afghanistan, there are the beginnings of the debate about whether a "surge," tailored to Afghanistan's realities, would work there like it has in Iraq. Unfortunately much of this discussion rests on the notion that the "surge" was merely the addition of new troops and not a change in strategy as well. What do you think needs to be done in Afghanistan? How does our current strategy there compare to our pre-2007 strategy in Iraq? Will the same basic principles of counterinsurgency -- clear, hold, build to separate the insurgents from the population; involving locals; civil-military coordination; etc. -- allow us to turn things around in Afghanistan? What should be done about the circumstances specific to Afghanistan such as the poppy cultivation, Pakistan and the political realities of operating as part of NATO?

A8. The counterinsurgency strategy used to turn around the war in Iraq, particularly the emphasis on securing the population to insulate them from insurgent and terrorist intimidation, can work in Afghanistan as well. But we should not think that the provision of a few more brigade combat teams and a new strategic approach will succeed in turning around the war effort in Afghanistan any time soon. In Iraq you can see a way forward -- Iraq has all the makings of a modern state once it agrees on a way forward politically. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a highly tribal society that lacks the basis for a modern economy (opium poppies don't count). The Afghan population is mostly illiterate. If we want to see Afghanistan succeed as a state, then we need to build our force structure and strategy there for the long haul. We not only have to counter the Taliban insurgency, but we will have to build the Afghan state as well. We tried the alternative of ignoring the problem and containing the terrorists in the 1990s, and ended up with 9/11. I don't think there is a viable strategic alternative to nation building in Afghanistan at this point.

Having said this, the key to countering the Taliban insurgency (and destroying the Al Qaeda safe haven, for that matter) lies in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. This is a very difficult issue, given that our forces cannot operate across the border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan, where the Taliban enjoys sanctuary. Sitting back across the Afghan-Pakistan border and plinking targets in the FATA with Hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles is a strategy for defeat, as the political backlash in Pakistan will do more harm than the good done by the few terrorists killed by the attacks. We must convince the Pakistani government, therefore, that it is their national interest to embark on a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Given that these entities pose a threat to the Pakistani government (just check out the latest series of suicide attacks against Pakistani targets), this is not necessary as hard as it might seem. Once the Pakistani government decides to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, then we can offer our assistance in a number of ways. The fact is that no military in the world today is as proficient at counterinsurgency as that of the United States.

Q9. Another recent debate focuses on the role of air power in counterinsurgency. One common argument is that the air force plays an important role in transport, evacuation, and ISR, and that Air Force personnel have played an invaluable role on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force, not surprisingly, has been making the argument that there is a kinetic role for air power in counterinsurgency. What is your position on the role of air power in counterinsurgency and what's your opinion on the role of the Air Force in counterinsurgency, since they could lead to different answers.

A9. Airpower plays an enormously helpful role in countering insurgencies through the provision of ISR, through tactical airlift, through space-based capabilities, and through the provision of close air support. We cannot turn counterinsurgency warfare into a targeting exercise, however. As we have seen recently in Afghanistan, it is all too easy for our enemies to defeat us in the information war by claiming civilian casualties in air strikes, even if the claim is false. Without troops on the ground to verify these claims, insurgent propaganda all too often goes unchallenged. Unless we want to ignore public opinion (which would be to deny a fundamental reality of 21st century warfare), then any expansion of air power in a kinetic sense in counterinsurgency warfare will lead to strategic defeat in the information realm.

Q10. An important component of counterinsurgency strategy includes living among the population, engaging in frequent dialogue with the people and their leaders, and utilizing various types of media to make clear your intentions to the locals. At a more strategic level, al Qaeda and other insurgent groups have also been quite adept at using the internet to their advantage. There has been a lot of criticism of our public diplomacy and strategic communication efforts to reach out to Muslims around the world. Is strategic communication as important for the United States at the national and international level as it is at the local level in counterinsurgency and for groups like al Qaeda, or does our democratic nature, the idea of a free press and the reality of the situation on the ground in various war zones inevitably conflict with our public diplomacy efforts?

A10. I don't think that our public diplomacy and strategic communications efforts are the essential component to defeating Al Qaeda's propaganda. It is much better for commentators from inside Islam to challenge Al Qaeda's doctrine as it becomes apparent that Al Qaeda's operations end up killing far more Muslims than any other group. Our efforts at public diplomacy in this regard are merely howling against the wind, as they are quickly discounted as propaganda -- whether or not the statements are correct. It is much more important for the United States to be first with the truth, and let the media do its thing in the great marketplace of ideas. On the other hand, we cannot cede the Internet to the terrorists, either. There are times when terrorist use of the Internet must be challenged directly. One of the great successes of the surge was the destruction of nearly all of Al Qaeda in Iraq's media cells, which led to a substantial reduction in the enemy's ability to communicate his messages. This is a strategy that can be replicated elsewhere in the ongoing struggle against Al Qaeda.