The material reproduced in
its entirety below is the work of the author(s) listed. Its terms of
use at publication or specific grant of permission allow for this
reproduction. SWJ is pleased to be able to present this relevant
material in this forum, and reminds all readers that full credit for the
work is due to its author(s).
Revive Combined Action Platoons For Iraq
Iraq is not going well. With at least 76 Americans
killed in Iraq in September alone, it was one of the bloodiest months
since the war began.
Interestingly, there is widespread agreement on the
solution: Iraqi security forces must be strengthened to the point where
they can provide security themselves, so the often unwelcome foreign
forces can leave soon as possible.
Why, despite this consensus, is the United States
losing this key race? The problem is that the administration is not
learning how to build effective local security forces from one of the few
success stories in the Vietnam insurgency, the Marines’ Combined Action
Platoon (CAP) program.
Marines have taken the initiative to set up a few
similar programs in Iraq, such as one within 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine
Regiment, and with the Iraqi Shahwanis unit. But the model should be
applied on a widespread basis in Iraq’s hot zones if the emergency
situation is to be turned around.
Before the Vietnam War, Army leaders skillfully
resisted President John F. Kennedy’s directive to improve
counterinsurgency capabilities, preferring to focus on the traditional
concept of applying overwhelming firepower against an enemy that would
stand up and fight, as worked in World War II and Korea.
In contrast, the Marines had plentiful experience
fighting insurgencies and conducting interventions, particularly in Latin
America between the world wars. Hence the CAP program, begun in 1966,
found a receptive leadership and institutional climate in the Marine
The CAP program put squads of a little more than a
dozen Marines in villages, to support, train and fight with existing
Vietnamese units defending their own homes. The heavy artillery and air
support used by most U.S. forces would be less readily available for the
CAPs – a risk for the Marines, but a substantial bonus in avoiding the
destruction that lost local hearts and minds.
The early CAP program gained extraordinary results.
Vietnamese units that had refused to patrol or conduct operations began to
do so in conjunction with the U.S. units. Desertions dropped. The
turnaround time of local units could be measured in weeks and months, not
Beyond the training they received, probably most
important to the new military effectiveness of the local units was the
morale benefit of working alongside Marines stationed with them for the
long haul. The local forces knew the Marines were committed to them, and
trust developed from the personal contact of living and dying together.
What’s more, living near the people in the villages
engendered the trust of the locals. That trust yielded the most important
ingredient of fighting a guerrilla war – intelligence. Soon enough, the
much-vaunted Viet Cong simply abandoned the struggle in some of the CAP
The program had its difficulties and setbacks, of
course, including challenges finding suitable personnel, shortage of
language training, lack of integration with U.S. aid and economic
development teams, too-scattered implementation and little focus on
underlying political issues. But its successes were remarkable given how
the top military commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, and
other institutional players opposed and undercut the program, since it was
in direct competition with their conventional war strategy.
Could a program that learned from the successes and
failures of the CAP program be applied in Iraq? U.S. casualties could
rise, but it is interesting that the volunteers in the Vietnam CAPs felt
the program was doing so much good they often extended their tours,
despite the dangers.
The main difference from Vietnam – the more – urban
setting of Iraq – does not affect the underlying concepts of the program.
The virtuous cycle for local security forces of increased morale, better
training, successful engagements, more intelligence and gaining trust from
the local population should all combine to get tactical trends moving in
the right direction again.
It is not enough to have a crash-training program for
local forces, and to deploy U.S. troops as backups, which the U.S. forces
are already doing. Without morale improvements, the recruits will run away
just as fast – or take their newly developed military skills to the other
It is not enough to conduct joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols.
What is needed is true combined units that work together over time.
Such a shift in the U.S. military focus can only
provide tactical success, however. No matter how proficient local security
forces are in an insurgency, political improvements must be made as well.
If citizens don’t get the leaders, jobs, independence and pride they want,
the war will drag on regardless of an "improvement" in the security
Developing effective Iraqi security forces is merely the prerequisite,
not the answer, to how to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.