Small Wars Journal

The Baghdad Marathon

Thu, 02/22/2007 - 6:12am
[Note: While I have received official approval to offer personal comment at SWJBlog, the following post has not been vetted or screened in any way. It represents personal opinion only, and is strictly Unclassified and based solely on open source material.]

It has been a busy few weeks. Operation Fadr al-Qanoon (which the media calls the "Baghdad security plan") is shaping up. Progress is measurable, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's still too early to know how it will turn out.

The message for all of us, as professionals who do this for a living, is patience, patience, patience. The war has been going for nearly four years, the current strategy less than four weeks. We need to give it time.

It will take time to provide security to the population. To do this right, we need to build trust with the people, engage community leaders closely, develop intelligence and trusted networks, then work our way in and compete with the insurgents and death squads to deny them access to their targets -- their own people, whom they cynically exploit and kill. All these things we are doing, but the process cannot be rushed, and requires detailed local understanding: so we move at the pace the Iraqis can sustain.

Patience and stamina are vital. Political reconciliation -- at the grass roots -- is what will make this work, with security as breathing space. Needless to say, we are not leaving this to chance: some commentators have focused on the troop surge, but the main effort is the political effort, by Iraqis with our support, to reconcile at the local level. This is going to be a lot like heavy peace enforcement or police work, not so much like classical counterinsurgency, let alone conventional combat.

Our task is to stay alert and read the situation, ready to modify our approach as things develop. In outline (and at the unclassified level, of course) these are the major trends:

Muqtada al-Sadr has run off to Iran, leaving some of his people scratching their heads and wondering if they have been Persian stooges all along.

Iraq outside Baghdad remains relatively quiet, as it has been for much of the past year. At least half the incidents in Iraq still happen within Baghdad city limits.

Al Qa'ida in Iraq is increasingly marginalized, with alliances of local Sunni leaders, and some other jihadist groups, opposing its brutality or contesting its self-styled leadership.

Increased targeting of helicopters has led to several shoot-downs (out of hundreds of flights every day) -- a Baghdad helicopter ride is still safer than a cab ride in some major cities, but this is a trend to watch carefully.

Security in certain key neighborhoods of Baghdad shows signs of improving, as Americans and Iraqis partner at the grass roots to reduce violence and insurgent influence.

Terrorists have used car bombs against innocent bystanders in several markets and public places -- a sign that they know where the danger lies (loss of influence with the population) and are trying to sink the "surge" using negative publicity.

Some sectarian and insurgent groups have "come out of the woodwork" to attack outposts, local communities working with the government, and security forces.

This last trend is the most professionally interesting. In counterinsurgency killing the enemy is never difficult, if only you can find them. But finding them, and distinguishing them from the innocent population, can be forbiddingly difficult. By shifting our approach away from directly hunting down insurgents, and towards protecting the population, we have undercut their influence -- they know it, and their options are to flee, wait us out, or come into the open to contest control of the neighborhoods. The fact that some are coming into the open suggests they realize that waiting us out is not an option. It also makes the job of finding the enemy far easier. This is encouraging, as long as we can protect the people.

On this score, again, it's too early to say for sure but initial signs are encouraging. One indicator that's not very useful is car bombs -- we can expect these to be one of the last insurgent tactics to diminish, for two reasons. First, it takes an entire community partnering with its own local security forces to defeat a clandestine suicide bomber, and it will take a while to build effective networks to do this. Secondly, insurgent tactics are driven by the need to make a media splash, and nothing does this better than a big bomb. So the enemy will cling to this method as long as the news media reward it.

Overall, then, though early signs are encouraging, prudence and professional judgment counsel patience. There will be tough days ahead; the problems remain immense, complex and deeply embedded in the social and political structures we deal with. The violence will ebb and flow, and there will be lethal "spikes". But over time, if the strategy works, we should see a downward trend in violence and an increase in trust and reconciliation at the street level -- while remaining ready, as we certainly are, to refine our approach if needed.

The one thing we must not do is to confuse the real country of Iraq, where there is a real war, a real population, and a real obligation to protect them, with the parallel-universe "quagmire Iraq" of popular imagination. As professionals we have a duty to be clear-headed, to analyze and constantly re-assess the situation in a hard nosed fashion, adapting our approach as needed. And we have a duty of care to our people, their families, and the Iraqis, to give this time, take it carefully, and not rush either to judgment or failure. Insh'Allah together with the Iraqis we will run this race to its finish.


bg (not verified)

Sat, 03/03/2007 - 9:43am

It was received well, but in the end, I couldn't even get my own BCT to use it in Iraq. We used it at JRTC, it took the full rotation just to get rolling, and we were beginning to see benefits, and the rotation ended. Since we didn't have time to "proof" it, it was kind of pushed aside a "good idea,", but maybe later. Later came (in Iraq) and everyone was just to busy to want deal with another new system added to the many reports we had to send to higher. No one wanted to force the system on subordinate units because we wanted to encourage a bottom-up approach which I agree with.

No one will volunteer to do more work, and starting up this system and establishing your baseline is labor intensive (especially for the patrolling Battalions). My argument always has been stability is the key, but stability is not a specified task from higher. Specified tasks include check points, guard towers, patrols, targeting specific entities, and tons of extra reports for the sake of reports and fed the beast known as the division staff.

I really wouldn't do much to modify the system, because I know it works, we did it for a couple of months in Baghdad in 2003. Perhaps it is the sales approach that needs to be modified, but I am not sure what else I could do. I think the only way it would work is if someone at a high level mandated it, which is a little bit of cognitive dissonance for me because I personally always resist top-down planning in COIN.

bg, interesting scorecard. I like it. How was it received, what are (if any) any adaptations made by others, and how would you modify it now? ALSO, any other comments by others reading this now on it?

bg (not verified)

Wed, 02/28/2007 - 10:47am

MountainRunner, no problem in regards to the long response, that kind of goes to prove my point. There is no simple answer. When things are complex, such as COIN, we often try to take shortcuts to keep things simple. The media, politicians, and unfortunately, military senior leaders all have the tendency to do this. Body counts, number of attacks, polls and numbers of US casualties is how media and politicians measure our success, and this is a fallacy.

Many of the relevant indicators in COIN can't be measured because they are subjective (and because many do not know what they are). You can read about a plan to measure success that I offered a few years back, I actually used it on a very small scale in Baghdad back in 2003, and it worked well, but I couldn't get others to buy into it because it is somewhat complex and labor intensive. Here is a link:…

It is hardly a perfect system, but it is a system. What we need to do is find a way to take subjective concepts and turn them into an objective, measurable and thus comparable number so we can actually see a direction.

MountainRunner (not verified)

Tue, 02/27/2007 - 4:47am

bg, my apologies for the misunderstanding. To the point you were making, it's a good question and I'm coming from far outside of the realm of practical experience so if I end up kicking my uvula...

Target population: their sway will be slow and possibly sudden because of comfort and trust. They are likely unaccustomed to opinion polls (a huge problem w/ ME polling), so that in and of itself rules that out. I'm not sure if Blue team registrations are the key either. How many can we ask to put their families life on the line, especially if we're not fully committed to the project or if they have strong family/tribe/[insert group here] pressures to resist, not to mention fight against. I think you measure basic features of civic society, such as open shops, diminished actual support for the bad guys.

Insurgent: body count assumes a structured enemy, because these bureaucracies have limited bodies. The insurgent forces, a collection of various elements for various reasons, have the option to leave and turn their back on the insurgency. Don't get me wrong, some of the enemy is increasingly structured / organized and these will react to stacking the bodies, especially as it reflects on their leadership.

By "not conditioned", I mean this is not an "all out war" and the American public has never been mobilized to support the effort. When the going get tough, if you're not mentally in the game it's easy to quit. Three years ago now (2/8/04), Friedman captured in the NYT: The message from the White House has been: "You all just go about your business of being Americans, pursuing happiness, spending your tax cuts, enjoying the Super Bowl halftime show, buying a new Hummer, and leave this war to our volunteer Army. No sacrifices required, no new taxes to pay for this long-term endeavor, and no need to reduce our gasoline consumption, even though doing so would help take money away from the forces of Islamist intolerance that are killing our soldiers. No, we are so rich and so strong and so right, we can win this war without anyone other than the armed forces paying any price or bearing any burden."

Only recently has the Administration's stance changed and have they altered the message to the public, largely as a result of the last election. The fight was to be simple and easy. It was going along smoothly. Last throes, etc. Fox News was the Admin best network, Tony Snow was simply changing the logo behind him. Now, even Fox News has been characterized as anti-Admin. Everybody is rebelling now and largely against the Admin.

And my real apologies for such a long response. To repeat my favorite quote of the moment, as Mark Twain said, I am writing a long letter because I don't have time to write a short one.

bg (not verified)

Mon, 02/26/2007 - 7:23pm

Please forgive my double negative in the first sentence. I meant to say that we are in agreement that polling Americans is not a good measure of effectiveness for how we are doing in Iraq.

bg (not verified)

Mon, 02/26/2007 - 3:22pm

Mountain Runner, I don't think we disagree that polling the American population is a measure of effectiveness for the counterinsurgent (my argument was it is a measure for the insurgent). But how do you measure target populations, insurgent, or otherwise? What does that mean?

Target population: Do you poll them? Do you count how many of them vote or how many of them sign up for security forces? Do you measure their intent and loyalties?

Insurgent: Body count? SWAG's about the size of insurgent forces? What are we measuring?

And what is it do you believe the American public and media is not conditioned to understand? Levers (levels?) of power of the friend and foe? What does that mean?

There's a saying in ultramarathons (any distance greater than 42km/26.2mi), "If you're feeling good, don't worry, you'll get over it." A marathon is easy with its pavement, so-called hills, and structure. What we're in is an ultramarathon where you put in long slogs up and down real hills and along mountainsides, across technical single track, suffering under changing weather conditions and ankle biting rocks and scrub, all of which requires unexpected adaptations. People can fake a marathon, but they can't fake an ultra and that's what we're in. The point is barriers and redirects are expected in a complex environment and short term gains, or loses, don't necessarily mean the race is done nor do the swift necessarily win the race.

BG, measurements must be made of the target populations, insurgent or otherwise. Polls of Americans simply indicate how well or poorly the agenda has been communicated domestically. We're not fighting Americans. Its not our national power that's important, it's levers of power of the friend and foe in theater (and outside to include support systems) that matter. Neither of which have the American public or media been conditioned to understand. Declining poll numbers do not indicate insurgent success but Administration failure to communicate (distinct from military culpability).

bg (not verified)

Thu, 02/22/2007 - 6:40pm

"One indicator thats not very useful is car bombs"

I couldn't agree more with this statement. This is an example of one of the most perplexing problems for the COIN fight in Iraq. What are good measures of effectiveness? How do we know we are winning (or losing?). Number of attacks and body counts (ours and theirs) are the standard measures of effectiveness used by the media and even by political leaders. We know this is an absolute fallacy. While these events can indicate that things are getting worse, the absence of such events doesn't always mean things are getting better (and vice versa).

Another popular measure of effetiveness is polling. But polls have issues as well (as discussed in a previous post). The will of the American people (if that can be measured) is often used as a measure of effectiveness for the insurgents.

So what are good measures of effectiveness in COIN? This is a question I feel we've done a poor job at answering over the last 4 years.