Small Wars Journal

The Four Phases of the U.S. COIN Effort in Iraq

Professor Colin Kahl of the University of Minnesota's Political Science Department has been kind enough to permit the Small Wars Journal to post an e-mail of his that was widely circulated. This e-mail concerns U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in Iraq and a briefing presented by Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled The "New" Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Baghdad Surge: Formula for Success?


There is a lot of confusion about precisely what approach to COIN the U.S. military has pursued since the fall of Saddam's regime. The [widely disseminated] Krepinevich briefing [discussing the evolution of the surge] is very helpful in this regard, although the bullet points, by their nature, only tell a surface level story. Part of the problem in generalizing about U.S. COIN in Iraq is that the approach the U.S. military has taken to COIN has varied by region and commander, and changed over time. That said, at the broadest level of generality, I think U.S. COIN efforts can be usefully divided into 4 phases.

Phase 1: Denial. This period lasted from the fall of the regime until April 2004. During this time, DoD civilians and some within the military denied that there was an insurgency or, if there was one, that it was growing in support and lethality. CJTF-7 under Sanchez had no campaign plan to conduct successful COIN ops, and division, brigade, and battalion commanders were left to "wing it" in their areas of responsibility. Some made attempts to engage and provide security for the population, like the 101st under Petraeus in Mosul (and, to a lesser degree, the 1st AD in Baghdad under Dempsey), while others, like the 4th ID under Odierno (and, to a lesser degree, the 82nd Airborne out west under Swannack) used overly aggressive, enemy-centered search-and-destroy tactics that proved counterproductive and alienated the Iraqi population in their areas. Denial began to erode from the late summer of 2003 (after the bombing of the UN and the substantial uptick in insurgent attacks), but it lingered until the simultaneous Fallujah and Sadr uprising happened in April 2004.

Phase 2: Learning curve. From the spring of 2004 to the late summer of 2005, the U.S. military woke up to the seriousness of the insurgency. CJTF-7 was replaced by MNF-I/MNC-I, a COIN campaign plan was finally developed, efforts were made to rapidly rebuild the Iraqi Security Forces, and American units employed a mix of direct, harder approaches ( e.g., the Marines in Fallujah -- but note: the Marines originally intended to adopt a softer approach, but after the butchering of four contractors in Fallujah in late March 2004, they were overruled and forced by the White House to lay siege to the city), and indirect, softer approaches ( e.g., Task Force Baghdad under Chiarelli and the 1st Cav). Overall, however, the U.S. approach to COIN during this period was still overwhelmingly enemy-centric/search-and-destroy/kill-capture. Only in 2005 does the military appear to really start systematically learning from its mistakes (and some successes), gradually figuring out that the Iraqi population is the center of gravity.

Phase 3: Getting it. By the late summer and early fall of 2005, the mindset of the U.S. military had changed substantially. Training back home was being altered, education revamped, doctrine reworked, etc. In Iraq, the U.S. military began to move gradually to focus more on the Iraqi population and indirect, less-kinetic approaches to COIN. The poster child for this shift was Tal Afar in September 2005, but similar approaches were taken in Anbar, especially by the joint Marine-Army task force in Ramadi, in 2006. Still, despite some limited efforts to implement this new approach in a handful of areas and the November 2005 announcement by the White House of a new "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" designed around the intent to "clear, hold, and build" Iraqi population centers, the ability to effectively implement these changes in much of the country was complicated by a number of factors.

First, beginning in 2004, an effort was made to reduce the American military footprint by removing smaller bases within many Iraqi cities and villages and consolidating into larger Forward Operating Bases in outlying areas. The goal was to lessen the perception of occupation thought to be driving the Sunni insurgency while also improving force protection. The military's conceptual shift to population security failed to reverse this process. Throughout 2006, most American forces remained hunkered down in large bases rather than nested within communities to provide local security, and plans were made to consolidate forces further.

Second, insufficient troop levels devoted to the "hold" portion of the administration's strategy also thwarted implementation. For political reasons, the Bush administration had long resisted sending more troops to Iraq. At the same time, knowing that a large influx of U.S. forces was politically untenable and that pressure was building for withdrawal, Casey and Abizaid increasingly focused on substituting American forces with Iraqi ones. Iraqi army and police units were thus given the responsibility of providing local security in areas cleared by American forces. Indeed, coterminous with the administration's announced intent to shift toward population security was a determination to hand ever larger swaths of Iraq over to Iraqi Security Forces, and significant U.S. force reductions in Iraq were expected by 2007-2008. But, due to a mix of incompetence and infiltration by insurgent and militia groups, Iraq's fledgling security forces were not up to the task. The resulting security vacuum, especially in Baghdad, accelerated the action-reaction spiral between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias that tipped Iraq into all-out sectarian warfare in the spring of 2006.

Phase 4: Doing it. None of this changed until January 2007, when Bush announced his intention to "surge" 17,500 additional forces to Baghdad (and 4,000 more to Anbar). More support troops have since been tapped to also go to Iraq. But, it is vital to remember, the surge is not the strategy -- it is a means to implement a strategy. The strategy is to to provide actual population security, tamp down sectarian violence, and create space for national reconciliation and reconstruction. To implement this strategy, Bush replaced Casey with Petraeus, who appears committed to implementing the COIN manual he co-sponsored, spreading American troops out into smaller bases from which they can work with Iraqi forces to provide local security. Moreover, even Odierno, the new MNC-I commander, appears to have learned something from his early mistakes, and he seems to be committed to treating the Iraqi population as the focus of operations.

As the Krepinevich briefing makes clear, this shift makes sense from the perspective of COIN best practices and the new COIN field manual. There are other successful approaches to COIN, including what the briefing calls "the Roman Strategy" ("make a desert and call it peace"), which was basically the approach Saddam used to prevent sustained insurgency in Iraq. But, as the briefing properly notes, adopting this approach (or even somewhat softer, but still highly coercive COIN practices, such as those used by the Americans effectively in the Philippines between 1899-1902), is incompatible with norms against targeting civilians embraced by the U.S. military and political leadership. So, with the Roman strategy off the table, that leaves the "clear, hold, and build" option. However, as the briefing makes clear, this strategic shift may simply be too little, too late. What the briefing doesn't say is that it is also unclear whether employing COIN best practices will work in the context of not only a raging insurgency (in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala), but also a sectarian civil war (in Baghdad, Diyala, and increasingly Kirkuk), diffuse criminal anarchy and militia rivalry (in the South), and endemic separatist tendencies (in Kurdistan).


Update and a Hat Tip (where I first ran across Colin Kahl's essay): Juan Cole at Informed Comment: Kahl: The US Military and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq.

Update: Badger at Missing Links addresses COIN in Iraq and the Krepinevich brief in his post Flim-flam.

When Andrew Krepinevich briefed senior congressional staff on the government/military thinking behind the current "surge" at the end of February, what he left with them by way of "materials" was only a bullet-point outline. Colin Kahl tried to flesh out the presentation in his listserve essay that Juan Cole excerpted...

That's the flim-flam. If you say "civil war" enough times, you create the illusion that America doesn't have a dog in the fight, and staying would be the only morally-right thing to do.

Who can we expect to beat the drum for this? That's what Krepinevich wanted to know. As he said on page 18 of his presentation: "The administration has lost control of the narrative, and lost popular confidence--who can/should explain the war to the American people?" That's easy, really: start with political scientists.

Much more at the link...


Read more by Colin Kahl:

How We Fight at Foreign Affairs

Time for a National Debate on Plan B at Foreign Policy


Joe S. (not verified)

Tue, 03/20/2007 - 12:32pm

"I didn't know they were violently asserting themselves in the direction of creating their own nation. Been attacking American patrols and convoys have they?"

While they haven't been asserting themselves militarily against us, they have been asserting their independence from us by their continued support for (in the form of lack of action against) the PKK/KGK activities in Turkey. The PKK/KGK (a US-designated terrorist group). They have been much more assertive within the Iraqi national government as they maintain tight control over the Peshmergah in the IA and IP, suppress non-Kurds in Kirkuk and re-import Kurds from the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) into Kirkuk in advance of the referendum and conduct many national diplomatic and financial activities from Irbil independent of Baghdad. Not that all of this is necessarily bad (the Kurds have been our best allies), but it doesn't bode well for a unified Iraq.

goesh (not verified)

Mon, 03/19/2007 - 2:23pm

Kahl says there are "endemic separatist tendencies in Kurdistan". I know the Kurds are doing some fighting in Iran and Turkey. I didn't know they were violently asserting themselves in the direction of creating their own nation. Been attacking American patrols and convoys have they? Been trying to blow up the PM? I thought Bush I made it clear at the end of the Gulf War there would be no nation of Kurdistan.

Ironhorse (not verified)

Mon, 03/19/2007 - 8:36am

P.S. great summary, thanks for posting it.

Ironhorse (not verified)

Mon, 03/19/2007 - 8:35am

<blockquote>this strategic shift may simply be too little, too late</blockquote>
Or it may be enough, though late.
<strong>If</strong> we demonstrate an ounce of domestic political will to win after 2008.