Gated communities in counterinsurgency are like tourniquets in surgery. They can stem a life-threatening hemorrhage, but they must be applied sparingly, released as often and as soon as possible, and they have side-effects that have to be taken into account. They are never a first choice. But, given the dire current situation in Baghdad, the "urban tourniquet" is the lesser of several evils, because it breaks the cycle of sectarian violence that has caused so much damage and human suffering in Iraq.
This cycle typically involves extremists infiltrating a Sunni neighborhood, intimidating the population, setting up a base (often in derelict houses), then using that base to launch attacks on the Shi'a community in surrounding districts. Shi'a militias then retaliate, striking out at the Sunni neighborhood, killing innocent people, provoking blood feuds and further retaliation. The pall of fear, and the external threat, cements the extremists' hold over the local population. It allows them to pose as defenders of the people -- albeit defending against a threat they themselves cynically created to manipulate the people.
If we cannot break this cycle, then we cannot reverse the deteriorating security situation, and whatever else we do at the political or strategic level, the war on the streets will be lost. Thus, this cycle represents a life-threatening hemorrhage that has to be staunched, even at the cost of short-term political pain.
The "gated community" stops the cycle of sectarian violence in three ways.
First, it makes it much harder for terrorists to infiltrate a community. We only establish perimeter security (checkpoints, T-walls, etc.) once the area has been cleared and secured, close relations are established with the population, and we have troops on the ground securing the district in conjunction with the people. Once the gated community goes in, this makes it much harder for extremists to re-enter.
Second, the perimeter controls make it much harder for terrorists to launch attacks from within that district, because they have to smuggle a car bomb or suicide vest out, through a limited number of controlled access points. This reduces extremists' ability to use gated districts as a base to attack neighboring areas.
Third, if the terrorists do manage to mount an attack, the security controls protect the gated community against retaliation by "death squads". This reduces fear within the community, alienates extremists from the population (since they can no longer pose as defenders) and emboldens people, who would otherwise be too intimidated, to tip off the security forces to enemy presence.
Adhimiya is a case in point. This is the last remaining majority-Sunni district East of the Tigris. It has suffered a hemorrhage of refugees and a huge amount of social and humanitarian damage in the past 12 months. AQI had established a safe haven there, creating bomb factories and raiding bases from which to attack neighboring Shi'a areas in New Baghdad and Sadr City. Many of the most serious spectacular attacks on the Shi'a population originated from Adhimiya, and some extremely bloody revenge attacks were mounted in retaliation. Hundreds have been killed by car bombs emanating from Adhimiya, and hundreds of innocent Adhimiya residents have been killed in retaliation. A gated community in this district could thus save thousands of lives over the next few months.
We had to stop this hemorrhage, not only to protect the population of East Baghdad but to prevent the "cleansing" of Adhimiya and the murder or eviction of the innocent population. The gated community approach was therefore decided on -- in conjunction with the community and the Iraqi security forces -- as an emergency measure to break the cycle. The recent protest against the project originated as a coordinated AQI information operation (more on this in a moment).
Two other gated communities have already been established (in Ameriya and Ghazaliya districts) with no public protest, indeed with great support from the population. I was out on the ground in Ghazaliya a few weeks ago, and several locals thanked me for the security the gated community had brought to their district. Other patrols and interactions with the population tell the same story. And people from Shi'a districts that have been "gated" or provided with protective barriers have expressed the same appreciation to me in meetings over the past week.
Why the protest, then, in the case of Adhimiya? Principally because, if the gated community succeeds, AQI's ability to strike at Shi'a communities, and thus its ability to provoke sectarian violence, will be dramatically curtailed as it loses its base in East Baghdad. Hence AQI appears to have initiated the local protests, organized using cellphone text messages and mass-produced paper flyers in the district. This is classic AQI info ops -- stirring up the population through a combination of manipulation, intimidation and fear of other groups. The level of coordination and media manipulation applied in this case is also a hallmark of AQI info ops.
Incidentally, this was probably also the motivation behind the attack on the Sarafiya bridge (Iron Bridge) two weeks ago, around the time the gated community project started. This bridge is the only access from West Baghdad into Adhimiya, and thus bombing it may have been an attempt by AQI to remain un-molested in their base of operations.
The claims raised by the protesters were all false or exaggerated. The security controls are not permanent, and can be readily removed when the situation improves. They do not create a ghetto, since security forces will live inside the area alongside the population, and access (though controlled through authorized points) remains free-flowing. Thus this project does not represent oppression of the population, but rather protects them from insurgent intimidation.
Of course, there is a political downside, one that we are well aware of. But, on balance, given the extremely serious current situation, we believe this approach is valid -- as a temporary, emergency measure. Just like a tourniquet, this is a necessary technique but it has side-effects that have to be taken into account, and it can only be temporary. The gated community helps break the cycle of sectarian violence. Once it is stopped, other things become possible. And short-term political and media opposition, whipped up by coordinated AQI information ops, may be the price we have to pay in order to "stabilize the patient".
David Kilcullen is Senior Counter-Insurgency Advisor, Multi-National Force -- Iraq. These are his personal opinions, have not been vetted or screened, and do not represent the views of any government or organization.