Concrete Barriers: A False Counterinsurgency Idol

Concrete Barriers: A False Counterinsurgency Idol by Tommy Daniel, Modern War Institute

In 2013, David Kilcullen, an advisor to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq War, was asked how the US military reduced violence in Baghdad by 95 percent. “We did it by killing the city,” he responded. “We shut the city down. We brought in more than 100 kilometers of concrete T-wall. We put troops on every street corner.” The US military’s counterinsurgency campaign—and the concrete barriers that were an integral part of it—certainly brought impressive, measurable short-term improvements to the security situation in Baghdad. However, by 2014, just after Kilcullen’s explanation, civilian deaths in Iraq had returned to 2006–2007 levels. The concrete barriers emplaced during the “surge” dramatically slowed sectarian violence—for a time—but also cemented the sectarian and ethnic divisions that empowered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab, contributed to government corruption, and set the conditions for the rise of ISIS. These same divisions will threaten Iraq long after ISIS is defeated if a political solution that incorporates and adequately represents all sects and ethnicities is not further developed.

Population-centric counterinsurgency primarily emphasizes securing the population instead of targeting the enemy and seeks to reinforce the legitimacy of the government while reducing insurgent influence. While US COIN efforts produced an array of tactical successes, the overall result cannot be construed as a total success. This is not a reflection of US service members, their efforts, or their sacrifices, but rather a function of the ambiguity typical of a COIN mission, time constraints, and poor quantitative metrics with which to assess mission progress. While policy debates take place at the strategic level, stop-gap measures and temporary solutions are constantly tried and tested in a process of tactical innovation that attempts to compensate for strategic challenges. However, what appear to be militarily successful tactical innovations can inadvertently compound strategic failures and erode progress toward a political objective. The widespread employment of concrete on the streets of Baghdad offers an illustrative example.

In his MWI article, “The Most Effective Weapon on the Modern Battlefield is Concrete,” Maj. John Spencer argues that “concrete contributed to reducing the complexity of the urban environment, served as a major tool in establishing stability, and functioned as a powerful weapon against enemies using safe havens within the city.” He further claims that “no other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats.” Maj. Spencer’s treatment of concrete as an effective tactical tool has merit, but his claims insufficiently consider the classical Clausewitzian maxim that war is a “continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” Portraying this tactical tool as a weapon of undue strategic influence on the battlefield fails to take into consideration the strategic implications that concrete walls have on a counterinsurgency campaign, specifically their long-term destabilizing effect on the host nation that the COIN campaign is meant to assist. Looking beyond the case of Baghdad that Spencer highlights, other examples—namely Jerusalem and Northern Ireland—discourage using concrete walls, as they create physical and mental barriers that affect reconciliation efforts and produce an “us vs. them” mentality among the population. While concrete barriers did help to halt the descent into sectarian civil war in Iraq, the US Army did not mitigate the ensuing political and reconciliatory risks that accompanied our use of concrete.

For military planners, the appeal of concrete barriers during an urban COIN campaign is clear. In Iraq, they allowed the military to freeze a sectarian civil war by isolating insurgents from the population and limiting the movements of combatants and supplies. This reduced both insurgent attacks and civilian deaths, which in turn contributed to the “clear, hold, build” concept employed during the 2007–2009 surge and proved that concrete barriers can have measurable short-term military utility…

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