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Military Strategy for Democrats - Part 2 – Iraq is not a “classic counterinsurgency”; it’s a full-blown civil war

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On the November 27, 2007 Charlie Rose Show, John McCain said of Iraq:

“This is a classic counterinsurgency we are engaged in right now. This is not a new strategy. General Petraeus has updated it, but the fact is it’s a classic counterinsurgency.”

Political journalists and observers paid little attention to this particular remark, seeing it as a vague generalization. People familiar with military matters, on the other hand, knew McCain was referring to something very specific -- military publication FM - 3-24 -- “The US Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual”.

This publication, written by General Petraeus along with Lt. General James Amos and Lt. Colonel John Nagl, was widely described as revolutionary when it appeared in December 2006. It was rapidly downloaded over 1.5 million times from the internet and generated more commentary than any other modern military publication. Most frequently, it was cited as the basis for Petraeus’ new strategy behind the “surge”.

FM -3-24 is a statement of military doctrine. It presents a “common language and common understanding of how army forces conduct operations” and in two important respects it does indeed represent a radical departure from the past.

First, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual represents a very dramatic break with the “Powell Doctrine” that emerged out of the disillusionment with the war in Vietnam. The Powell Doctrine held among its directives that, for the use of regular Army and Marine forces (1) there must be a clearly defined mission, (2) that force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy and (3) that there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.

The application of the “Powell Doctrine” was clearly evident in the conduct of the first Gulf War and commanded wide approval among U.S. military commanders at the time. From this perspective, anti-guerilla campaigns were perceived as a very distinct kind of military operation that could best be handled by Special Forces and other highly specialized and uniquely trained troops.

The new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, in very stark contrast, defines anti-guerrilla warfare as a central task for the regular Army and Marines. The bibliography of FM-3-24 specifically cites books dealing with the strategy of post-World War II anti-guerrilla campaigns in Malaya, Kenya, Algeria and Indochina as the principle models upon which the new strategy is based.

Along with this radical change in doctrine, the manual also takes a very strong position on a major military debate left over from the Vietnam War -- a debate between the advocates of using virtually unrestricted firepower and military force – symbolized by terms like “carpet bombing” and “free-fire zones” and the advocates of an alternative approach identified with the slogans of “Winning Hearts and Minds” and “Vietnamization”.

FM -3-24 very aggressively and systematically champions the second approach. It defines counterinsurgency operations as nothing less than “armed social work” and bluntly asserts that such campaigns cannot win unless they succeed in protecting the civilian population and rebuilding the economy. More specifically it lists four major objectives (1) Security from intimidation, coercion, violence and crime; (2) Provision of basic economic needs, (3) Provision of essential services such as water, electricity, sanitation and medical care; (4) Sustainment of key social and cultural institutions

Just within the category of “essential services”, the detailed list of the objectives needed for success is startling –

• criminals detained
• timely response to property fires
• water treatments plants functioning
• electrical plants open
• power lines intact
• all schools open, staffed, supplied
• roadways and bridges open
• hospitals and clinics open and staffed
• trash collected regularly
• sewage system operating

There are similarly detailed lists for security, governance and economic development.

The manual energetically argues that nothing less than extensive “armed social work” of this kind can defeat an insurgency. As it dramatically states:

“The decisive battle is for the people’s minds…lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation and restored hope”

But, who and what are the insurgents who must be defeated? In presenting its answer, the manual frequently tends to suggest the mental image of a basically peaceful village or urban area beset by a cadre of subversives infiltrating from outside. One of the most prominent charts in the book, for example, asserts the following:

“In any situation, whatever the cause, there will be –
I. An active minority for the cause
II. A neutral or passive majority
III. An active minority against the cause

Moreover, FM-3-24 asserts, all insurgencies tend to be similar. “All insurgencies”,it states, “adhere to elements of a recognizable revolutionary campaign plan” and “Most insurgencies follow a similar course of development. The tactics used to defeat them are likewise similar in most cases”.

The manual describes five basic varieties of insurgency, each with its most characteristic example.

• Conspiratorial (e.g. Lenin and the Bolsheviks)
• Military focused (e.g. Che Guevara and rural guerilla bands)
• Urban (e.g. the IRA)
• Protracted Popular War (e.g. Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh)
• Identity focused (by religious affiliation, clan, tribe or ethnic group)

The manual notes that the last category is in many respects more accurately classed as a demographic variant of or a subcategory within the fourth variety of Maoist Protracted Popular War.

This typology very strongly reinforces the image of “insurgents” as a subversive minority infiltrating a passive population. The image is powerfully reinforced by a dramatic table that lists the specific tactics these “insurgents” employ:

“Ambushes, Assassination, Arson, Bombing and High Explosives, Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear weapons, Demonstrations, Denial and Deception, Hijacking and Skyjacking, Hoaxes, Hostage Taking, Indirect fire, Infiltration and Subversion, Kidnapping, Propaganda, Raids or Attacks on Facilities, Sabotage, Seizures.”

This quite vividly underlines the image of insurgents as a fringe group of violent subversives who victimize innocent people. With only one or two exceptions, in fact, the list above makes the conceptual category “insurgents” indistinguishable from that of “terrorists”

This leads to medical analogies that identify insurgents with disease.

“With good intelligence, counterinsurgents are like surgeons cutting out cancerous tissue while keeping other organs intact”

“Counterinsurgency operations generally progress through three indistinct stages that can be envisioned with a medical analogy – (1) stop the bleeding, (2) inpatient care – recovery (3) outpatient care – movement to self-sufficiency

This describes the insurgents, but who or what is the government that they oppose and that the U.S. counterinsurgents support? FM-3-24 offers a wide variety of labels

• “constituted government”
• “established government”
• “established government, occupying power or other political authority”
• “an existing authority (which) may be an established government or an interim governing body”
• “an emerging government”

This list quite noticeably avoids the use of the terms “legitimate” or “popular” to describe the governments the insurgents are challenging. In fact, FM -3 -24 quite clearly assumes that in many cases they will not be.

“US forces committed to a counterinsurgency effort are there to assist a HN (Host Nation) government. The long-term goal is to leave a government able to stand by itself”

“(The U.S. role is) helping friendly forces reestablish political order and legitimacy where these conditions may no longer exist”

“Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency”

Democratic liberals and progressives will find these quotes troubling on both moral and political grounds. The final quote above, in fact, has the disturbing implication that, in order to achieve “victory”, a “populace” that is “supporting the insurgency” can or should be compelled by American military power to “consent to the government’s legitimacy”.

The line between propping up an unpopular dictatorship and defending a popular or legitimate government gets entirely lost in this linguistic fog. It gives the U.S. military and political leadership a moral and political “blank check” to designate any force they choose as the “existing authority” or HN (host nation) -- which must be defended by American troops -- and to label any other forces they choose as “insurgents” -- who must be crushed by American forces.

This aspect of FM -3 – 24 will be most strongly objected to by the liberal and progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But an even wider sector of the electorate will find it even more disturbing that – simply as a matter of fundamental military strategy – the simplistic “host nation vs. insurgents” framework of FM-3-24 simply does not work in the case of Iraq.

There are indeed some foreign volunteer fighters – from Western Europe, Iran and other Moslem countries -- in Iraq but they remain a very small percentage of the combatants. The vast majority of the “insurgents” are native-born Iraqis who are not affiliated with either al Qaeda or Iran.

Yet the extraordinary fact is that the Counterinsurgency Field Manual simply defines the crucial concept of “civil war” entirely out of existence. In the series of formal definitions in FM-3-24 the term “civil war” is never defined. It simply does not exist.

This is, to put it bluntly, absurd. Most Americans see on the news that there is now a bitter struggle going on between three sectarian/ethnic groups in Iraq: (1) the Sunni resistance, (2) the ISRI/Badr militia group (which underlies the Dawa political party of the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and (3) the followers of Muktaka al Sadr’s Madhi Army.

Each one of these three sectarian/ethnic groups has substantial armed militias under its command and each one of these militias has been extensively documented engaging in acts of kidnapping, extortion, murder, criminal activity and intimidation. At the present time the United States is paying weekly salaries to 90,000 members of the first group, supporting the second as the “established” government of Iraq and (until recently) officially praising and honoring a cease-fire with the third.

This reality simply does not fit FM -3 -24’s model of a small, subversive movement of “insurgents” duping or terrorizing a passive or hostile population. On the contrary, for most Americans, it is nothing more than an act of common sense to face the fact that for several years now events in Iraq have reflected the ebb and flow of a violent ethnic and religious civil war.

Advocates of the current strategy, however, go to the most extreme lengths to avoid or obscure this reality. For example, in his congressional testimony on April 8th, General Petraeus carefully avoided using the term “civil war” to describe the “fundamental nature” of the conflict. Instead he used different words that defined precisely the same thing:

“In September I described the fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq as a competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources”

Later in his testimony, when asked about the militias of Muktaka al Sadr he replied carefully that they were “a movement that has to be not just acknowledged but addressed, acknowledged, reached out to by the government of Iraq.” Elsewhere, he said they must be “to some degree, accommodated

Yet at the same time, however, he defined the “enemy” – the forces fomenting the violent ethnic conflict in Iraq by saying: “...Various elements push Iraq’s ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists and criminal gangs pose significant threats.”

Yet these are precisely the terms widely used to define the Sadrist militias who Petraeus at the same time argued, must be “acknowledged” and “accommodated”. In fact, in the two weeks surrounding Petraeus’ testimony, the Sadrist militias in Basra were described as all of the following:

“Renegade militias”, “criminal gangs”, “criminals and gang leaders”,” outlaw militiamen”,” Shia gangs and terrorists”, “thugs”, “extremist militias”,” terrorist groups”, "criminals and militia extremists", "Terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists and criminal gangs", “Bad actors”, “hard core extremists”

In short, the Sadrist militias were -- at exactly the same time and by exactly the same people -- being described as a major social force in Iraq that had to be recognized and as a destructive fringe group of insurgents who needed to be crushed.

There is, in fact, a fevered and overwrought, almost desperate quality in the lurid language quoted above – an attempt to keep fitting one of the three contending religious and ethnic groups in Iraq’s civil war into the simplistic “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” language of FM -3 -24 and thereby dismiss them as fringe elements by the force of sheer vituperation.

But it simply will not work. No successful military strategy can possibly be formulated if its authors cannot even maintain a consistent definition of the enemy that it is designed to defeat. This is a matter of common sense that all Americans - either with or without military experience - can quickly understand. The conflict in Iraq is either basically a civil war among major population groups – which then requires one very particular and distinct kind of military strategy on the part of US forces - or it is an insurgency conducted by a small, unrepresentative and subversive fringe – which requires a quite different strategy.

Ironically, FM-3-24 presents a quote from the famous military strategist Von Clausewitz that seems almost directly addressed to this issue. In his book, On War, Von Clausewitz states:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive

Coming tomorrow: Part 3 - "the surge isn't "working", it's just "posponing", and in the long run it's making things worse"