Small Wars Journal

The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant

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The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant

by Octavian Manea

Download the Full Article: The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant

How would you see today the rationale behind the 2007 Bagdad surge? To act as a buffer between the Iraqi sectarian, ethnic pressures and ontological (group extinction) fears? To protect a Sunni population that could not be protected by the formal Iraqi security forces (either because of weakness or because the Sunnis didn't trust them) and setting the stage for the next level-a rational political space?

Protecting the population is important. But the sad fact is that by early 2007 in Baghdad, the Sunni groups had been pushed back to small enough enclaves that it was fairly easy to protect them, save in Southern Baghdad, where the cleansing continued well into the fall of 2007. The continued cleansing in South Baghdad made me skeptical that things were working until very late in 2007, despite the obvious reduction in violence elsewhere in the city as of late summer.

So yes, protecting the population is important. But I don't think that we could have done much to protect them in mid-2006. The civil war had to burn itself out—the Sunnis had to realize that they had lost and the Shi'a had to realize that we had won—before a settlement could be reached.

I do think that the presence of additional U.S. troops in the urban areas tamped down the end of the civil war faster than it might otherwise have happened. U.S. forces worked with the local trend to accelerate it, and did not impose a totally foreign agenda. Had we started the "surge" plan in Sadr City, for example, I think the outcome might have been much less favorable. I have come to a more tempered view of what military forces are able to accomplish, as I tried to lay out in my Washington Post piece on the "three wars" in Afghanistan.

Download the Full Article: The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior National Security Fellow with the New America Foundation. He most recently spent one year as the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to the Commander, Regional Command-East at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, returning to Washington this spring. He served in Iraq as the Chief of Plans for MultiNational Division Baghdad in 2006-2007 and he led the planning team that designed the Baghdad Security Plan, the main effort of what later became known as the "Surge." An expanded view of his thoughts is presented in Countering the New Orthodoxy-Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency in Iraq.

Octavian Manea is Editor of FP Romania, the Romanian edition of Foreign Policy.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


G Martin

Fri, 07/29/2011 - 3:32pm

<em>had we not been taking the Iraqis in the direction that they already wanted to go, I dont think we would have experienced success--and certainly not on a politically acceptable timeline.</em>

One of the key differences, IMO, between Iraq and Afghanistan. I've yet to see any evidence that we are taking the Afghans in a direction where a majority of them want to go...

The fifth principle of patrolling, common sense, and always the first principle to be disregarded not only in small unit tactics but also in strategic thinking.

A concise and powerful quote from Dr. Ollivant regarding the "handicap" of previous experience. The "I have been there and done that" mentality truly does hinder some of today's military leadership when thrust from one conflict to another.

Dave Maxwell (not verified)

Sun, 07/24/2011 - 2:36pm

The following excerpt is such common sense that it needs to be written in "doctrinal stone". I know that it is said that doctrine is no substitute for common sense but sometimes it would be nice if we wrote some common sense into our doctrine:

"The right lesson is that you have to approach each problem as a unique one. I think there are almost no tactical and operational lessons to be brought forward from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the beginning of wisdom in a new "small war" is to realize that your experience in the last one may well be a handicap."