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This article was published in the April 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

Revisiting Old Ideas – The Combined Action Program


Like many Marines preparing to deploy to Iraq in January and February of 2004, my Marines and I were selected to attend a crash course in the Combined Action Program at Camp Pendleton, California in preparation for utilization as a Combined Action Platoon in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. While many of my Marines were wholly unfamiliar with the idea, after attending the periods of instruction, generally all were enthusiastic about the idea, and the difference each believed their participation would make to our overall efforts in country.  While I shared in some of their optimism, my own knowledge of past USMC efforts with Combined Action Platoons in the Banana Wars and Vietnam led me to be a bit more skeptical, for while I believed in the concept, I was not convinced that it was the cure all that others believed it to be, nor did I believe history disproved or contradicted my opinion.

After arriving in country as part of the advance party for 3rd Battalion 24th Marines, I quickly set out to “get out of the wire,” and begin formulating my own opinion on what would be the best course of action for the Marines’ efforts in country. To this end, I mounted up with soldiers from Brigade Combat Team 1 and the 82nd ABD on vehicle convoys and mounted security patrols so as to see as much as possible. Quickly, it became evident that in the area I was to patrol and provide security that little effort had been made to make common cause with the people, or to directly share in their daily struggles. With each new vehicle patrol that furthered the lack of interaction with locals, or verbal abuse I witnessed the locals endure, I became convinced that the USMC way was the right way, and thus trusted the Combined Action Program would satisfy many of the needs I identified of both the coalition and host nationals increased cooperation and security.


My battalion was to provide security for 1st FSSG aboard Camp Taqaddum, located 10 kilometers west of Camp Fallujah along MSR Michigan (Route 10), and ensure freedom of movement and action for FSSG assets supporting I MEF and 1st Marine Division efforts through the country.  Camp Taqaddum was a relatively safe environment to operate, however, support forces continually had to deal with the threat of indirect fires. In the first 30 days I was aboard the base, we were hit 9 times. While these attacks were less than effective, little was being done to stop them, and by the time my battalion arrived in country, attacks were occurring two to three times a week. Obviously, we would need to create a safe zone around the perimeter from which insurgent forces could not penetrate to launch their rockets and mortars.  The irony of this situation is that in 1965 around Phu Bai, South Vietnam, this exact scenario occurred leading to the creation of the Combined Action Program. Viet Cong or National Liberation Front forces were attacking the airfield with indirect fires, thus forcing the Marines to develop a new course of action for interdicting these forces. To this end, Marines of the 3rd Battalion 4th Marine Regiment were deployed with Popular Forces as Combined Action Platoons to ensure security for the base.  As a student of Small Wars, this irony was not lost on me, and thus I set out to continue my research on the CAP in Vietnam beyond my reading of Bing West’s The Village, and try to learn as much as I could so as not repeat mistakes made between 1965 and 1971.

In a time dominated by Search and Destroy tactics and General William Westmoreland, the USMC sought alternative means rooted in their Small Wars history and Banana Wars experiences of the early twentieth century.  While I do not agree with LtGen. Victor Krulak, that “of all our innovations in Vietnam, none were more successful than CAP,” I will concur with British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson’s thought that CAP was one of the best ideas seen in Vietnam, though the CORDS Program and Operation Phoenix were undeniably more useful. With 30 years of review, it is now clear that while moderately successful, Combined Action Platoons were utilized in situations where there success was beyond question, or misused in areas where they had little or no hope of success, thus skewing any true study of CAP accomplishments. At its height, 2,200 Marines participated in the program, and claim to have secured 800 hamlets and over 500,000 South Vietnamese nationals. This force represented about 3% of all USMC forces in South Vietnam. CAP missions as defined by LTC William Corson, Director of the Combined Action Program were as follows:

·         Destroy the communist infrastructure within the platoon’s area of responsibility.

·         Protect public security; help maintain law and order.

·         Organize local intelligence nets.

·         Participate in civic action and conduct propaganda against the communists.

·         Motivate and instill pride, patriotism, and aggressiveness in the militia.

·         Conduct training for all members of the combined action platoon in general military subjects, leadership, language, and increase the proficiency of the militia platoon so it could function effectively without the Marines.


Keeping these previous missions in mind, I set out, as others from 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, 2nd Battalion 7th Marines, and 1st Battalion 23rd Marines did as well, to define my own mission essential task list, and establish reasonable expectations.  While this may be seen as a “no brainer,” setting reasonable expectations appears to be something that we as a society as reflected through public opinion polls and elected civilian leadership are woefully deficient.  I wanted to ensure that we were not being asked to accomplish missions when there was no reasonable hope or expectation of satisfying as was the case with many of the Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam. After much thought, the Mission Essential Task List was comprised of the following:

·         Create a mortar or rocket belt past which the effects of enemy indirect fires would be negligible.

·         Establish security for the locals.

·         Engender a feeling of trust in order to establish a spirit of cooperation and gain intelligence.

·         Come to be considered locals by the locals.

·         Create a positive impression with young males and children of all ages.

·         Remain offensive in spirit.

What these really mean are: create and maintain security for coalition personnel, create security for host nationals, collect information and potential intelligence, create a positive presence, remain aggressive, and leave the neighborhood better than you found it.  While all the Combined Action Platoons put their own spin on their METL, basically, all came down to security and intelligence. (Note: Unlike all other CAPs, at this point, we had little interaction with Iraqi Security Forces due to their small numbers, and lack of any presence in our AO In fact, our first major interaction with the ISF occurred when they detonated a large car bomb against a patrol injuring 4 Marines.) 


On March 25, 2004, 2nd Provisional Rifle Platoon (81mm Mortar Platoon), Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 24th Marines mounted up in 7 ton trucks, and head out to establish a firm base 6km west of Fallujah. The area was dominated by Albu Issa Tribesman, who numbered 400,000 in the area, and dominated the towns of Fallujah, Ramadi, Habbaniyah, Khalidiyah, and Al Amiriyah.  During Saddam’s reign, the area had been dominated by Regional Baath Party members and high ranking military officials living in the area.  Most of the locals either worked as tile or factory workers in Fallujah, or engaged in subsistence farming and herding. The vast majority, maybe over 60%, had no running water, as most of the pumping stations had long sense fallen into disrepair, and were limited to electricity from portable generators scattered throughout local villages. Many reported that they had not had constant electricity or safe drinking water since 1994-1996. While there were several schools in the area, all were adorned with painted slogans such as “God Bless Saddam” and “God Save the Palestinians.” The only hospital in the area was in Fallujah, which would further aggravate the situation during periods when access to the city was denied to locals.  Unlike our Vietnam predecessors, we mixed our CAP, and thus were neither stationary nor purely roving, but a mixture of both. Our AO covered many small town and villages, the largest of which Qaryat al Jaffah sat at a critical intersection and maintained a population of 4000. Approximately 18,000 locals called our area home to include a significant number of Wahhabi Muslims.  In the end, this proved very manageable with our small group of 36 Marines and Sailors.

While most locals simply tried to avoid us, once we demonstrated altruistic intentions, they quickly began simply to view us with benign neglect. As we would often say, “they don’t screw with us, so we don’t screw with them.” While many may disagree with this way of doing business, I had decided that the Iraqis did not need to prove themselves to us, but rather, we had to prove ourselves to them. Thus, not trying to rush the relationship, I decided to take things slowly. While we conducted many checkpoints and hasty and deliberate vehicle stops during this first week amongst the Iraqis, we did everything possible to simply be seen and not heard.  While the Iraqis most assuredly did not enjoy being stopped and searched, they soon realized that the process was less intrusive than it could have been made to be, and in the end was also done in a manner consistent with their local and religious customs. We allow women and children to stay in vehicles and out of the sun whenever possible, we NEVER searched females, and searched men away from their families so as not to embarrass them. At the end of this 5 minute process, they would be handed a bottle of water or two, but asked one of the following questions, who is your sheik, where do you live, what mosque to you attend, who is your imam, where do you work.  When stopping and speaking with 1000 people a day, it was not difficult to quickly get a fix on whom the leaders of the area were, what mosques we needed to observe, and what the professional demographics were in our area. Essential to our operations were Iraqi interpreters, for they could easily recognize subtle differences in dialect or accents that were lost to non-native speakers. We called this process “building the white and yellow pages.”  We found digital photography and a small laser printer to be invaluable to our campaign of goodwill during this process, for most Iraqis had not photos of their families. For locals we would see everyday, we would take pictures, and then print them out, and return them the following day in a covered sheet for their cooperation.  While this may not seem like a big deal, picture taking moments are non stressful moments that afforded us the opportunity to demonstrate our altruism, and share a handshake and smile with potential informants.  Many of our best leads came from these periods of portrait taking.  As is human nature, people did not want their neighbors to have something they did not, thus sought us out to speak and have a family picture. In the end, this allowed us to “paint the picture” for HHQ as to who the head tribal and religious leaders were in the area, what areas each controlled, which mosques were militant or potential weapons caches, demographics, assess local infrastructure, conduct a semi-accurate census, and locate the individual homes of Imams, Sheiks, and former military personnel.   Again, while this may not sound like a large gain or big win, gaining intelligence is one of the keys to combating insurgents.  Within 45 days, this process had created an environment permissive enough to allow/encourage 3 former military members to put their uniforms back on, and drive up to one of our checkpoints to engage in conversation with us directly.

While this initial campaign started out very well, in was done in conjunction with two other operations: 24 hours patrolling and soft knocks.  It was essential for us to always provide a presence, but to do so in a manner where none truly every knew where or how many of us were out and about. By adopting the British method of satellite patrolling, we were quickly able to seemingly be everywhere at all times to may of the Iraqis. While we did everything possible to avoid establishing patterns, one thing was made clear, we were going to patrol the main MSRs, thus if you wanted to put an IED along the road, you did so at great risk. Thus the number of IED emplaced along the roads plummeted. Even in those rare occasions when insurgents chose to engage us, it was done at extreme distances, and for short durations. Insurgents quickly realized that if they were going to be effective against us, they would have to progress to the next step of aggressive intimidation of locals, and Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices.  During these soft knock operations, it was not uncommon for us to search 75 homes in a single day. We ensured that all witnessed that there was no top or bottom to the “ladder of law,” thus making all equals in the eyes of the coalition. This was critical to our efforts to make common cause with females, elderly persons, and children present during daylight operations.

Everything we did or attempted to do was in accordance with the law and lawful behavior. For example, when we searched a home and found a weapon or ammunition, so long as it was in accordance with the one Ak-47 rule and 30 rounds of ammunition, we handed these weapons back. Many simply wanted to retain a weapon for reasons of status or personal safety, thus in the end, we often traded weapons we coveted more such as SKS Rifles for AK-47s we had previously captured, in an attempt to further demonstrate our altruism and desire for their safety. On several occasions, we recovered mortar or rocket systems, yet could not determine who they actually belonged.  Rather than arrest everyone in a show of absolute power and semi-frustration, we would arrest no one, and simply keep observing the area. While not sanctioned by higher, on several occasions, we arranged a “no arrest” policy, and thus allowed people to turn over contraband to use without fearing arrest or detention.  This policy resulted in further intelligence, several light and medium machineguns, and furthered the spirit of cooperation.


While only utilized from March 25 to June 1, 2004, the following were the accomplishments of 2nd Platoon, also known as ARCHANGEL:

·         3 large weapons caches recovered containing over 1000 artillery, rocket, and mortar rounds utilized for IEDs and Indirect Fire attacks on coalition personnel.

·         29 Improvised Explosive Devices Recovered.

·         One 7 man terror cell arrested and sent to detention at Abu Gharib.

·         15 insurgents killed

·         Limited indirect fire attacks to 2 in 57 days with no injuries or damage.

·         Established contacts with local leaders and provided HA to local Iraqis.

·         Provided school supplies and shoes to hundreds of Iraqi children.

·         Provided Hundreds of cases of water to local Iraqis.

·         Recovered 8 complete mortar systems and 2 multiple rocket launch systems.

·         Recovered unknown number of small arms, machineguns, and RPG launchers.

·         Ensured the safety of over 4000 coalition personnel and 18000 Iraqis.



·         First and foremost, we learned not to expect more from the Iraqis than we did from Americans. When reviewing crime statistics, or levels of cooperation in certain inner city neighborhoods in America, we realized that US policemen had little to no reasonable expectation of cooperation, thus we adjusted ours in Iraq accordingly.

·         We always remembered that we had to prove ourselves to them, and not the other way around.

·         It was essential to remember the hierarchy of needs: subsistence, healthcare, schools, and then inter-personal needs. While handing our school supplies and soccer balls were appreciated, hungry people can’t eat those, and in the end, are forced either to sell them or engage in some sort of illegal activity with them to secure food.

·         Just as the collection of intelligence is limited only by one’s imagination, so is basic assistance. The water table was so high in our AO, that when we destroyed explosives, we often sprung water and even oil wells. I am unclear as to why well digging is not a growth industry in Iraq.

·         Always remember that you are being watched and scrutinized, thus every action has second and third order effects.

·         Always “ring the doorbell with your elbow.” In other words, have something in your hands to give them.

·         The enemy will change and modify his behaviors off of your actions, thus predict what the next act will be, and be on the lookout. If IEDs have become too dangerous to attempt, trust that the next logical step is vehicle bombs or suicide bombings.

·         7 ton trucks are intimidating, just as 18 wheel big-rigs are at times on US highways. Insurgents would see these with troops in the back ready to dismount, and know that they wanted none of it.

·         Treat others as you wish to be treated; however, do so in a manner consistent with local and tribal norms. Violence begets violence in the areas we were in, thus when the insurgents attacked us, they fully expected to be hit back. Failure to do so is a sure sign of weakness.

·         Fire discipline is essential. On several occasion the Marines were free to engage targets, however, did not for fear of collateral damage. On one occasion, instead of shooting an insurgent who had just mortared us and tried to throw a grenade, the Marines chose not to fire into a residential neighborhood where there was a potential to injure civilians, and create insurgents.

·         The little things mean the most. On several occasions, we assisted local farmers round-up a cow or ox that had broken free, and were rewarded we further cooperation.

·         Never become too attached to any individual, or become overly trusting. Understand that you are still an invader, regardless of all the good you do.  People that appear to be helping you are interested in survival, thus will work with whomever to meet those ends. The local Sheik who appears to be friendly and cooperative, can secretly be working against you. Trust no one, for you never know if insurgents have intimidated someone into committing an act out of fear for the safety of his family.

·         Risk Aversion is CAP’s biggest enemy. At a time when public support remains our critical vulnerability/center of gravity, leaders must not become risk averse.  Combined Action Platoons are at a much higher risk of attack than other forces, thus leaders must be prepared to answer the question, “How did 30 Marines get killed all at once?, or Why were 30 Marines living out amongst the Iraqis in a position unsupported by organic fire support?”


While not included in the above the list of lessons learned, the most important lesson we learned centered around the revolution of rising expectations.  Unfortunately, while we achieved much success in pushing insurgents away from our firm base and providing security for locals and coalition personnel, we unknowingly created rising expectations amongst the locals that we were unable to meet. After feeling safe, locals quickly pointed out that they had no safe drinking water or electricity, and that the hospital in Fallujah was closed. They continuously came to us for help, yet we were unable to meet these higher order needs.  Once we left on June 1st, the situation deteriorated slowly at first, and then rapidly once it became clear that US forces would no longer create a permanent presence in the area. Locals who had cooperated with coalition forces were intimidated and murdered, while Iraqi Security Forces who had recently been stood up, struggled to keep their ranks from diminishing through desertions and overall apathy.

Just as in Vietnam, the Combined Action Program worked with some success in Iraq; however has been hampered by a lack of semi-trained and competent Iraqi Security Forces, and a general risk aversion amongst civil and military leaders. In the end, I like many others believe that if utilized in a widespread fashion, 50 Combined Action Platoons could quickly push the insurgents out of Iraq, or back into a position of non-hostile non-compliance. 

Maj Adam Strickland is a US Marine Corps infantry officer recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served as a company commander in 1st Marine Division.  He is currently serving as a senior analyst with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab researching Small Wars and urban operations issues.

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