The Iraq War: Learning from the Past, Adapting to the Present, and Planning for the Future
Authored by Dr. Thomas R. Mockaitis. | February 2007
Iraq confronts the U.S. military with one of the most complex internal security operations in history. It must occupy, pacify, secure, and rebuild a country of 26 million people with fewer than 150,000 troops organized and trained as a conventional force in predominantly heavy armored divisions. They occupy a land divided into two broad ethnic and three religious groups crisscrossed by hundreds of regional, local, and family loyalties. For the past 3 years, Iraq has been wracked by a Sunni insurgency augmented by foreign mujahedeen terrorists and complicated by general lawlessness. Growing intercommunal violence between Sunni and Shiite militias has taken the country to the brink of civil war.
Developing an effective strategy to counter such a complex insurgency would be challenging for any conventional force. However, the historical experience of the U.S. military compounds the challenge. That experience has engendered a deep dislike for all forms of unconventional war. This aversion naturally reflects American attitudes. Popular democracies have great difficulty sustaining support for protracted, open-ended conflicts like counterinsurgency. The Vietnam War strengthened this tendency and led the Pentagon to relegate counterinsurgency to Special Forces. These factors help explain both the difficulty the armed forces have had in conducting operations in Iraq and the growing impatience of the American people with the war.
Faced with a conflict they did not expect to fight and denied the resources, training, and requisite troop strength to fight it, however, the U.S. military understandably has resented criticism of its efforts in Iraq. American troops have made the best of a difficult situation. They have adapted their methods to an evolving war, learned from their own mistakes, and even learned from the study of history. However, the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq can benefit from further study of current operations and past campaigns. Such study may provide valuable lessons to inform the conduct of this and future campaigns.
The U.S. Military in Iraq faces the most complex internal security operation in its history. As the lead nation in a coalition whose other members, save the British, have contributed very small contingents, they must occupy, pacify, secure, and rebuild a country of 26 million people with fewer than 150,000 troops organized and trained as a conventional force in predominantly heavy armored divisions. They occupy a fractured state divided into two broad ethnic and three religious groups crisscrossed by hundreds of regional, local, and family loyalties. Historically, Iraq?s diverse population has been held together first by colonial occupiers and then by a repressive dictatorship, both of which used a minority to dominate the country. The influx of foreign mujahedeen to fight ?the infidels? further complicates the situation. Diverse insurgent and terrorist groups united by a desire to expel the coalition move through an urban landscape ideal for their operations and hide among a sullen population embittered by the failure of the occupiers to rebuild the country fast enough. In short, it is the insurgency from hell.
Crafting a strategy to counter such a threat would be challenging under any circumstances. The historical experience of the U.S. military and American culture make responding to it even more difficult. The Vietnam War soured the American military on the whole idea of counterinsurgency. Many considered the war in Southeast Asia a wasteful episode fought under difficult circumstances with insufficient political support and far too much interference from on high. The conflict diverted valuable resources from the military?s proper task of defending Western Europe and South Korea. In any case, the U.S. Army, with its preponderance of heavy divisions and commitment to maneuver warfare, seemed ill-suited to unconventional war. The Nixon Doctrine put counterinsurgency under the umbrella of ?Low-intensity Conflict,? which it relegated to Special Forces, who would advise and assist threatened governments as part of ?foreign aid for internal defense.?1
This aversion to irregular warfare naturally reflected American attitudes. Popular democracies have great difficulty sustaining support for protracted, open-ended conflicts like counterinsurgency. Indeed, they have difficulty sustaining any long, costly military effort unless the public perceives that the vital interests, perhaps even the survival of the nation, are at stake. Few low-intensity conflicts in support of allied states fit that bill, so the armed forces understandably seek to avoid them. The Vietnam War and popular reaction against it severely damaged army morale for perhaps as much as a decade.2 The American public?s low tolerance for protracted, unconventional conflict and the long shadow of Vietnam clearly can be seen in the initial response to the insurgency in Iraq. Strong support for the war declined soon after a swift victory and assurances of a speedy withdrawal gave way to a desultory struggle promising to last years. Comparisons with Vietnam began to appear in the popular media and academic journals, and rebuttals soon followed. One such exchange occurred in Foreign Policy between Andrew Krepinevich, a leading authority on the Vietnam War; and Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow in Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Krepinevich argued vehemently that the United States was repeating the mistakes it had made Vietnam and could expect the same outcome unless the Department of Defense (DoD) changed its approach to the war.3 Biddle argued just as passionately that the conflicts differed so fundamentally in nature that little from Vietnam could be applied to Iraq.4 If American officers bristled at references to Southeast Asia, they also objected to comparisons between their counterinsurgency methods and those of other Western armies, most notably the British.
Faced with a conflict they did not expect to fight and denied the resources, training, and requisite troop strength to fight it, the U.S. military understandably has resented criticism of its efforts in Iraq. Since armed forces in a democratic society must fight the wars that they are given, not those that they would choose, American troops have made the best of a difficult situation. They have adapted their methods to an evolving war, learned from their own mistakes, and even benefited from study of historic conflicts. The conduct of counterinsurgency in Iraq can, however, continue to benefit from further study of current operations assessed in the light of past wars. Such assessment must begin with understanding the Iraq insurgency in all its complexity, proceed to an examination of the U.S. approach to countering it, and conclude with recommendations that may inform the conduct of the current campaign and guide future operations. A critique of the U.S. approach also must distinguish clearly between policy failures and military mistakes. Recommendations based upon history should distill broad principles from a range of conflicts and avoid trying to derive a template for victory from any single campaign or national approach.
Iraq has presented the U.S. military with its most serious challenge since the Vietnam War: a complex insurgency in which diverse organizations have cooperated to expel the invaders. Lack of a counterinsurgency strategy combined with inadequate troop levels compounded by an ill-advised decision to disband Iraqi forces allowed the insurgency to take root and spread. Following what many officers have described as a ?wasted year? of ad hoc responses and serious mistakes, American troops have developed effective counterinsurgency tactics based on their own historical experience and that of other nations.The British experience in particular provides useful guidance in shaping an effective approach. Despite improved tactics, U.S. forces continue to be hampered by a shortage of troops and the evolving nature of the insurgency. While they have the means and determination to win in Iraq, American troops still need the political backing for a protracted conflict. How long this political will can be sustained remains to be seen. Whatever the mission?s outcome, Iraq can yield valuable lessons that may improve the conduct of future campaigns.
1. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 100- 20, Military Operations in Low-Intensity Conflict, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 7, 1989.
2. Tommy Franks, American Soldier, New York: Reagan Books, 2004.
3. Andrew Krepinevich, ?How to Win in Iraq,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5, September/October 2005.
4. Stephen Biddle, ?Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 2, March/April 2006.