Small Wars Journal

Iraq Ain't No Insurgency, Say Former Petraeus Aides

Iraq Ain't No Insurgency, Say Former Petraeus Aides

By Noah Shachtman - Cross-posted at Danger Room

Iraq cooled from a raging boil to a slow simmer, thanks mostly to tactics taken from the military's counterinsurgency manual. Or, at least, that's the accepted wisdom. But a group of military thinkers and Iraq veterans says the established narrative is all wrong. According to them, Iraq may not even be an insurgency at all.

In the classic insurgency scenario, you've got a group of guerrillas on one side, and an otherwise-legitimate host government on the other. It's the job of a military like America's to tip the balance towards stability and order, by keeping the insurgents from overthrowing that government.

But in Iraq, the bulk; of what used to be the insurgents have now realigned themselves with the American forces against the nihilistic-Islamist terrorist Al Qaeda in Iraq. Lt. Col. Douglass Ollivant notes in the latest edition of Perspectives on Politics, which is devoted to a critique of the now-famous counterinsurgency manual. With the Sunni nationalists at least temporarily allied and AQI deprived of its sanctuary among the Sunni population, just who are the insurgents in Iraq against whom a counterinsurgency might be conducted?

Instead, what seems to be going on in Iraq is a "

href="">competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources

," as General David Petraeus put it. Shi'ites are fighting Shi'ites; Sunnis are battling Sunnis; splinter groups from both sects are waging a low-level religious war; AQI and other jihadists are stirring chaos; and criminal gangs trying to profit from the mayhem. It's an extremely difficult and lethal problem, observes Lt. Col. Ollivant, who, until recently, was the chief of planning for U.S. military operations in Baghdad. But it is not exactly an insurgency.

America isn't exactly following its new manual for fighting such conflicts, writes Council on Foreign Relations scholar and former Petraeus advisor Stephen Biddle

href="">Perspectives on Politics

. The manual calls for reinforcing the national government's legitimacy, and power. Instead, U.S. forces help set up a set of groups of neighborhood watchmen, alternatively known as Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs) or Sons of Iraq. And these militias are largely extragovernmental and independent, Biddle notes. Most CLCs provide their own security from continuing fear and distrust of their fellow Iraqis in the government security forces.

That's not to say the counterinsurgency manual hasn't been useful. " Some aspects of the manual have proven very helpful in Iraq, Biddle writes.

In particular, its guidance, for example, on unity of action, limitation of violence, the need to accept risk in population security, the importance of human intelligence, respect for the laws of war, adaptive small-unit leadership, accounting for the greater difficulty of logistics, or understanding the local society and culture are all sound and important, whether the conflict is ideological, ethnic, sectarian, or merely criminal. In these respects, the manual has contributed importantly to Iraq's recent decline in violence as these provisions have been implemented. And its emphasis on adaptability has proven helpful in reacting to a war whose premises differ in important ways from those on which the manual was based.

And Petraeus, in an interview last August, argued that Iraq wasn't simply a matter of guerilla vs. government. The counterinsurgency operations we're doing in Iraq are a mix of a number of different operations -- offense, defense and stability and support," he told me.

I mean, there will be major combat operations. There's no other way to describe the clearance of Ramadi or Baqoubah than major combat operations. Then you'll have counter-terrorism -- in other words, very precision-targeted operations. Then you'll have what again you might call stability and support operations -- [what] we used to do in Bosnia. And it then starts to trend into peace enforcement, and peace keeping. There's also arguably major crime operations, counter gang. There is nation building, big time. There's even economic development. I mean, you're doing a mix of all of those.

Mark Lynch has more outtakes from this roundtable on the counterinsurgency manual. And

href="">John Robb

, it should be noted, has been making similar points for


and months. As usual, he's been ahead of the curve.


Rob Thornton

Wed, 06/18/2008 - 9:39am

Thanks, I just wanted to make sure I understood your position.
Best, Rob

Bill Keller (not verified)

Tue, 06/17/2008 - 10:21pm

Dear Rob;

Think the heart of the Petraeus effort was to extend the breath of control while holding the Iraqi pressure cooker in a somewhat stable condition (like a dormant volcano) while our political leadership ended its term. Additional BCTs enabled the widening of the lid or ,more appropriately, mantle. Churn sits below the mantle.

The short term strategic result was the placement of the war on the back news pages where the reader would be more likely to study the ads for the nearest mall sale than to observe the happenings east of Eden.

It is below the mantle where the turf battles are played. I don't have access to any special information other that I can glean here but I don't think many even in the field are in much better shape.

We are a foreign body there (good or bad maybe of no matter) and are receiving a society's or societies' immune reaction. It will grow and fall back, then grow again. It can be suppressed for a long time; we medically do that all the time. But is that the prognosis desired?

There is another prognosis - keep the suppression on until the immune system collapses. Short term time of peace before the opportunist infections have a field day.

Welcome to the world of failed states or maybe just Lebanon or Somalia.

Rob Thornton

Tue, 06/17/2008 - 1:16pm

I think that is a salient point. Its not just about countering a given insurgent or group - it is about countering the conditions which make insurgency, support and/or apathy possible, viable and tolerable.

Each area, city, province, state etc. is going to have some different political and environmental dynamics. While key tenets such as " seek first to understand" are valuable throughout, they must also be reconciled with those short term requirements driven by both our own politics, and the environment. As such I don't think there is a "one size fits all" approach. The environment is interactive and dynamic so our actions must be flexible enough to account for change.

Principles and tenets are the underpinning logic upon which we base our actions, the form of implementation of those tenets must correspond to the funtions driven by the environment. If the conditions require a major ground assault - the killing of enemy and the destruction of infrastructure - in order to make the next thing possible then that may be the call that is made. If the assault gets to the city and finds the enemy has abandoned it or capitulated, then the conditions in the environment have changed and the nature and function of the operation should change. The art of this is knowing when to transition, and being given the freedom by the higher echelon to do so.

Those leaders need to share the "why" they made a particular call - what event in the environment indicated the need to change and adapt? How did they know it was working, or not working? How did they out-adapt the enemy and retain the initiative? While the programs or tactical and operational forms they ran are important (the science), the key to understanding what drove the implementation (the art)is equally critical.

Best, Rob

Thanks for posting. Interesting, as always here at the SWJ.

But is there much new here? My energy has been spent on studying the Anbar part of the campaign, and even this part cannot be described by a single narrative. In Ramadi it was kinetics plus tribal help. In Haditha it was kinetics plus sand berms to isolate the elements coming from Syria. In Fallujah it was kinetics plus gated communities, biometrics and city block captains (muktars). Over the province there has been Shi'a trouble-makers, AAS, AQI, criminal gangs, and youth trying to make some money selling their services to the highest bidder.

If we cannot even describe a province by a single narrative, how then could we describe an entire country that way? In the balance of Iraq it would appear that the best single narrative at the present is Iranian meddling.

As one officer told me, "The plan Petraeus brought to Iraq was dead on arrival, and that's a good thing. But ... Petraeus is leading us in another one, and that's also a good thing." My beef is that the leaders who are in the best position to know and inculcate these lesssons to posterity absolutely MUST be prepared to belly up to the bar. Whether books, lectures, after action reports, or whatever, the things learned must be passed on.

Rob Thornton

Tue, 06/17/2008 - 10:31am

So Bill, I guess you are of the opinion that:

The central Iraqi government has made no gains in it authority over its citizens and territory

and that

Other competitors to the Central government have not lost any influence or authority as a result of it.

I find your closing paragraph interesting:

"It would appear that Dave Petreaus has achieved the current chaos remittance by adapting a strategy that does not add to the churn."

Did you mean adapting or adopting? One would mean the altering of something existing, potentially so it better fits a need; the other would potentially mean something new. It could also be a hybrid.

I also find your use of "does not add to the churn" interesting.

So putting in additional BCTs and shifting the focus of operations is a risk free decision that "does not add to the churn"? Stronger partnering between coalition forces and ISF does not add to the churn? There is a difference I think between "first do no harm" and being risk aversive - or doing nothing. I think there was certainly new energy injected into the system.

I would submit that the strategic and operational changes in direction are positive actions (in that they are observable) and not non-actions (meaning their occurrence did in fact have an effect). I also think any interaction within a complex environment has both a visible component and a component that is not so visible - meaning its effect on other systems are more subtle.

Establishing causality is tough, however - maintaining, altering, or changing course relies on understanding the significance of an event within its environmental context. Tough to do, but its what senior leaders get paid for. Change with out direction amounts to being lost.

Your closing sentence is interesting as well:

"It is a remission only - one wonders what mutation in chaos is occurring before it reappears."

On what basis are you making your prognosis? Are you saying its a terminal case?

I would add that mutations in chaos not only come from within - the withdrawal or absence of one energy may certainly invite something new by creating a vacuum. The challenge here is to withdraw in such a way that Iraq's own systems grow to fill that void.

Best Regards, Rob

Bill Keller (not verified)

Tue, 06/17/2008 - 7:32am

Is the perspective complete in this debate? If we don't have any insurgency, is it because there is not an authority to insurge against? In the spring of 2004, it looked as if Iraq had with "transformation" degenerated into the chaos of its heritage - families or tribes with well positioned leaders who were fighting over the geographic wealth using peasant armies wearing present fashion religious or nationalist costumes. The chaos was being churned then by an outside army of kids and contractors acting on behalf of other well positioned families who likewise sought the geographic wealth.

It would appear that Dave Patreaus has achieved the current chaos remittance by adaptng a strategy that does not add to the churn. It is a remission only - one wonders what mutation in chaos is occurring before it reappears.