COIN Theory and Securing Iraq

In "COIN of the Realm" (Foreign Affairs - November/December 2007), Colin Kahl divided counterinsurgency (COIN) theory into opposing two schools of thought: "hearts and minds" versus "coercion". Khal cited me as an advocate of "coercion", quoting my observation about "a radical religion whose adherents are not susceptible to having their hearts and minds won over."

Kahl is right; Al Qaeda must be destroyed, not converted. But having spent years on battlefields as a Marine in Vietnam and now as a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, I am leery of academic categories. In the actual fight, it's hard to distinguish the 'hearts and minds' from unreconstructed 'coercion'. Counterinsurgency is not an either-or proposition. Kahl rightly praised the Army/Marine manual on counterinsurgency for emphasizing moral behavior. But COIN is still war. It is a bromide to assert that an insurgency is 80 percent political. American soldiers do not win the hearts and minds of al Qaeda in Iraq; they kill them. Killing members of al Qaeda is the essential 20 percent.

In Anbar Province, the heart of the insurgency, the tribes have rebelled against the al Qaeda extremists they welcomed a few years ago. The United States didn't win those Sunni hearts; al Qaeda lost them. The tribes chose to align with our soldiers because, as one sheik told me, "Marines are the strongest tribe." The tribes could not destroy al Qaeda; our military could. To cement the gains, the US military is also acting as an ombudsman for the Sunnis (the "hearts" part) and pressuring the Shiite government we created to provide the Sunnis with resources and assurances. That 80 percent political solution has followed after - and depended upon - the 20 percent battlefield success that was due to the daily grind and grit of our soldiers.

The COIN manual has set the proper strategic tone in Iraq. It has also provided foreign policy elites with an intellectual rationale for grudging acceptance of the fact that the US military is prevailing in Iraq. Nonetheless, Kahl concludes that Iraq remains "a recipe for likely failure" and thus illustrates that even the best counterinsurgency theories cannot change some hearts and minds.

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the actual fight, it's hard to distinguish the 'hearts and minds' from unreconstructed 'coercion'.

I'm sure that Mr West remembers the Vietnam-era quip: 'Grab 'em by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow'. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

I think that many of the war's critics are stuck on the idea that because the US invaded, it is therefore responsible for everything that has happened in Iraq. That line of thought blinds people to just how much al Qaeda screwed up. They started a civil war with the 60% majority that drastically reduced their Sunni allies population by death or flight. Then they put the hard core of their tribal support offside by imposing Sharia in an arbitrary way and demanding their sisters and daughters. Idiots, thank goodness and thank goodness the military have exploited the opportunity ruthlessly.

I wrote that a combination of factors added up to a recipe for *likely* failure, not inevitable failure. That conclusion was not based on a critique of the COIN FM, which I think is sound, but on the fact that the conflict environment in Iraq added up to much more than simply fighting an insurgency. The conflict in Iraq is a combination of a transnational terrorist campaign; a Sunni insurgency in the center, west, and northwest of the country; a Shia-Sunni civil war in greater Baghdad and neighboring provinces; an intra-Shia gangland conflict down south; and a brewing ethnic struggle up north between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen. The point was that *no* doctrine exists for such a complex conflict environment, and given the extraodrinarily difficult hand Petraeus et al. were dealt, the odds were against success no matter how well they performed. Hence, my conclusion was that the sum total of factors added up to *likely* failure. This was not a political or partisan conclusion -- it was an analytic one.

Since I completed my article in July (it took several months to go to press), there has been genuine security progress Iraq, and our military commanders, troops, and diplomats deserve a great deal of credit for that. Implementing the approach outlined in the COIN FM has been part of this success (although only part). But the war is not won and success is not inevitable. The security gains are tenuous and the odds of even minimal "success," while higher than they were 6 months ago, are still long.

Why? Because the security gains are tenuous and could easily be reversed. There are four major reasons for improved security: (1) the surge and a new population-centered approach to COIN; (2) the Sunni awakening (which began in Anbar before the surge and now includes many Sunni Arabs that Bing West and others in the coercion camp would previously have considered irreconciliable religious zealots); (3) the Sadr freeze; and (4) prior sectarian cleansing, which seperated many of the combatant communities and created defensible enclaves. All of this could unwind in the coming months. As the surge ends, population security gains may not survive the transfer of responsibility to ISF units; Sunni tribal militias and "concerned local citizens" (CLC) groups may get frustrated at the failure of the Maliki government to integrate them into the Iraqi police and army and decide to turn their sights on the government; Sadrs freeze may turn out to be a temporary pause rather than evidence of moderation; and the return of refugees and internally displaced people to Baghdad may spark new sectarian clashes.

In the end, while there has been security progress there has been no meaningul political accommodation between rival ethno-sectarian groups (as opposed to some accommodation between these groups and *us*). And, ultimately, security improvements are unsustainable over the medium- to long-term without genuine political accommodation. This is the reason nobody in Baghdad is doing the victory dance that we increasingly witness in conservative quarters in the United States. As General Petraeus said on Dec 6: "Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those phrases. There's nobody in uniform who is doing victory dances in the end zone."

Do I hope we succeed? Of course. Do I think we have a great military and diplomatic team in place in Iraq that is aware of the depth of the challenges they face? Yep. Do I think the odds are higher that they were 6 months ago that we will at least succeed in mitigating the self-inflicted wounds to our national interests created by the war? Yes. But while the probability of such "success" is higher than it used to be, it is still not particularly high unless a number of dramatic advances occur in the political sphere over the next 6-8 months (e.g., an oil law, provincial powers legislation, provincial elections, and, most importantly, integration of the CLCs). Until there is evidence of genuine political accommodation, the Vegas odds would suggest that we are witnessing a tactical pause rather than a turning point.

So, if you disagree with my assessment of the probabilities in question, I encourage you to do so based on the merits of the analysis instead of simply assuming that I based my conclusions on some political motivation.

Academic theories might be reductionist when it comes to getting at the complexity of war in all of its forms, however, the new Coin manual is in fact built on one "academic" theory of counterinsurgency war and that is David Galulas population centric approach. There are other theoretical approaches to conducting counterinsurgency warfare which was what Colin Kahl was getting at in his piece, the most obvious and opposite to the population centric approach is that derived from British imperial officer C.E Callwell, or what David Kilkullen has referred to as "enemy centric." Clearly FM 3-24 is premised on Galula and the population centric approach. The principles of the manual, as expressed through Chapter 1s "Paradoxes," all are centered on the purported absolute necessity of "protecting the people." This principle has become so ensconced in our thinking that it operates as an immutable rule. The Galula theory may have been the right theory to premise our Coin doctrine on, but it seems to me too early to tell in Iraq without the temporal distance and wisdom of history on our side. And to highlight what Dr Sewall said on the Charlie Rose interview Iraq may not fit the model of government legitimacy that the Coin manual calls for. We tend to discern cause and effect in Iraq today viewed through a FM 3-24 prism. We thus see the lowered levels of violence as directly tied to American actions. Dr Sewall in the Rose interview calls this notion into question too.

Iraq is much more than a relatively simple counterinsurgency operation that places the government supported by us against the insurgent force of Al-Queda. In this rendering of the situation, once we defeat Al-Queda then we are clearly on the road to victory. The defeat of Al-queda is important locally in Iraq and strategically for the US. But it is very possible that in defeating AlQueda we have in fact hardened one of the very important sides in the Iraq Civil War, our former enemy the non-alqueda sunni insurgents. If the nature of the war in Iraq is one of simple counterinsurgency then the logic to this move and its outcome seems clear and hopeful. If however, the country is still in the midst of a complicated Civil War with absolute victory as the goal for the warring sides and not reconciliation, then the defeat of Alqueda becomes only a small part of a bigger problem. Viewing the problem through the prism of our new counterinsurgency doctrine and method may be clouding our ability to see the war as it really is and designing appropriate policy to suit it.

Colin Kahl in his "Foreign Affairs" article warned against the notion that perceived success in Iraq due to the Surge and the new Coin doctrine may cause us to go down the Coin path much more often; and, in my mind, potentially to our strategic detriment.

I think that West is making a common fallacy, and that is to equate al-Qaeda with the Iraqi insurgency. At a minimum, there are 3 insurgencies and 1 counter-terror campaign in Iraq -- a Sunni resistance to U.S. occupation, a Shi'a resistance to both U.S. occupation and Sunni revanchist power-seeking, a within-Shi'a conflict between the Sistani-ites and the Sadr-ites, and a foreign-dominated, chaos-producing campaign of terror.

I don't think anyone is promoting a hearts-and-minds strategy against al-Qaeda, which West suggests is implicit in Kahl's commentary. But eliminating al-Qaeda is not the same as prevailing in Iraq.

West is correct that al-Qaeda must be destroyed and is correct in noting that one success of the Surge has been making the Sunni tribes essential allies in that endeavor.

What happens, however, once that mission is accomplished?

West presumably assumes that the U.S.-Sunni tribal alliance will hold -- an assumption that is tenuous, at best. Having eliminated the proximate cause of their grief, al-Qaeda, the tribes will be free to turn their attention to that which has historically been most important to them -- their own position in Iraqi political life.

To the extent promoting themselves requires that they again turn to resisting foreign occupation, we should have every expectation of engaging in combat against our current allies in the not-too-far-distant future.