Robert Gates, US Defence Secretary, is reputed for his level-headedness. Ordinarily, he seldom blows his top even when faced with challenging situations. But the hell-hole that is Iraq is giving him the jitters.
On April 20, a visibly agitated Gates warned Iraqis after a meeting with their Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, that US commitment to Iraq was not open-ended. “The clock is ticking,” he told reporters in Baghdad. The visit itself, his third since January, reflects the increasing worry in Washington over the deepening American predicament in Iraq.
This predicament informed President George Bush’s decision, early this year, to increase the number of US troops in the beleaguered country. On January 10, 2007, Bush announced he was deploying some 28,000 more US troops to Iraq, bringing the total to 160,000 by June. While the bulk of the soldiers went to Baghdad, about 4,000 headed to the province of Anbar, an insurgent stronghold to the west of Baghdad.
Apparently, with so much riding on the success of the troop surge, Gates used the visit, which culminated in marathon meetings with the military top brass in Iraq, including the commander of US forces, General David Petraeus, to take stock.
Part of the stock taking was the assessment of the effectiveness of the newly released counterinsurgency doctrine.
Code-numbered FM 3-24, the 280-page counterinsurgency field manual, directed by General Petraeus, in his role as commander of the Combined Arms Centre at Fort Leavenworth, with Marine Corps General James Amos, and released on December 15, 2006, listed some successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency operational practices.
It also stresses that the point of every counterinsurgency operation is to cut off insurgents from their sources of support within the population, not to kill them. Emphasising that fighting in counterinsurgency operation could actually be a distraction, the manual says insurgents should be attacked only “when they get in the way.”
Simply put, FM 3-24 asserts that the ultimate aims of a counterinsurgency program are political – winning legitimacy for the government and undermining the claims of the insurgents. This it refers to as “armed social work.”
These are time honoured counterinsurgency precepts which the British used successfully in the 1950s. In directing the manual, Petraeus may have understudied Sir General Harold Briggs, head of the successful British counterinsurgency operations in Malaya.
Will the manual aid US in Iraq? Petraeus answers in the affirmative. But not many share his optimism.
Pundits claim that in Iraq, even with the field manual, Americans are committing, all over again, the faux pas that led to their nearly unbroken string of frustration fighting insurgencies over past four decades, from Vietnam in the 1960s to El Salvador in the 1980s.
Five reasons are usually advanced for this bleak assessment.
First, US counterinsurgency difficulties in Iraq arose from its failure to emphasise intelligence, resulting in the inability to detect early signs of the insurgency. This gave insurgents time to entrench themselves in civilian population.
Steven Metz, director of research at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute argues that by the time the US refined its counterinsurgency war in 2006, the insurgency had “evolved from resistance to the American presence to a complex war,” concluding that, “this may have come too late.”
Second, even when the fact of the insurgency finally dawned on them, Americans committed another counterinsurgency heresy – focusing Special Forces primarily on raiding, a practice which has persisted till date. Between June and July 2003, they launched a series of large-scale raids – Operation Peninsular Strike, Operation Desert Scorpion, and Operation Soda Mountain. .
Such raids were also carried out both in Fallujah, where thousands of people were killed and half of the city’s 39,000 homes destroyed or damaged, and Najaf, in 2004.
The two bloody campaigns cost Americans the sympathy of many moderate Iraqis, particularly Shiites. Bahr al-Ulum was one of such people. A former ally, when the US wanted a Shiite cleric to strengthen the credibility of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003, it turned to al-Ulum, whose family had lost many members for opposing Saddam Hussein. But after the Najaf sweep, al-Ulum became one of the fiercest critics of the US.
As a counterinsurgency measure, the policy, critics say, failed in Vietnam and Algeria. Even in Iraq, attempts were made in 2005 to surround the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra, Tal Afar and Falluja with raised earth barriers, to prevent insurgents from entering and leaving, without much success.
Fourth, contrary to the manual which says that military forces should not be concentrated in large numbers for protection, the US forces in Iraq are today “far less dispersed in numerous, vulnerable small bases than in 2004, and increasingly consolidated in huge bases such as Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad.”
Fifth, the coalition forces have failed to secure Iraq’s borders. There was a serious underestimation of the work needed to secure, stabilise, and reconstruct Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been toppled. Security in Iraq is labour intensive because of the country’s long borders and extensive territory, and curiously coalition did not deploy forces to prevent the infiltration of foreign radicals and criminals.
Militarily, the manual says that an effective counterinsurgency force should have one soldier per 50 local inhabitants. Presently, the US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad fall short of this target even with the surge. To achieve this, Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, England says the US needs to increase its military strength to about 400,000. “They don’t have the capacity to do that right now or even in the near future,” he says.
Coming at a time when the band of coalition partners in Iraq is dwindling, this policy becomes suspect. On February 21, Britain announced that it will withdraw 1,600 of its 7,100 troops in the coming months (and possibly 500 more by the end of 2007).
Summing up his views on the policies of the Bush administration in Iraq vis-à-vis the manual, Professor Rogers says that the dissolution of the Iraqi army, the de-Ba’athification of the civil service, the failure to guard important historic and cultural sites, the granting of reconstruction contracts to American firms, and the long-term neglect of legal due process were all fatal errors committed by the US
Meanwhile, the insurgents seem to have found their rhythm in their asymmetric warfare. Their ‘flat’ command structure, within collaborative networks of small groups, makes it difficult to target any hierarchy within the insurgency. By adopting classic guerrilla tactics, they attack in place of their choosing and easily melt into the population. Their attacks have become deadlier with the development of anti-helicopter tactics and increasing sophistication of the highly lethal roadside bomb or “improvised explosive device” (IED).
According to Rogers, “For all its power and hundred-billion dollar defence budgets, US is facing the ultimate in asymmetric warfare as its opponents exploit vulnerabilities that would have seemed ridiculous barely five years ago.”
Increasingly, analysts are drawing an analogy between America’s ill-fated Vietnam adventure and the war in Iraq. Paul Reynolds, World Affairs correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), argues that President Bush’s new plan for Iraq – with its reinforcements of 20,000 US troops – has echoes of Vietnam.
As the manual points out, to succeed, the counterinsurgency campaign needs the support of Americans. That, again, is presently lacking.
In the run up to the November 7, 2006 congressional election, Cable News Network (CNN) poll suggested that only 20 percent of Americans think the war is being won. Today, polls suggest that two-thirds of Americans are now opposed to the war. The Democrat-led Congress has strongly waded into the matter. In a move that echoes the way Democrats brought an end to the Vietnam War, on March 8, lawmakers threatened to cut off billions of dollars for troops unless Bush sets a timetable for withdrawal.
Though the president eventually vetoed the bill and had his way after calling the action of the lawmakers irresponsible, Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader in Senate says the war is already lost.
With majority of Americans against the war, the “coalition of the willing,” which followed Bush to war in 2003, disintegrating, Iraqi government wracked by sectarian differences, and Iraq going up in flames, literarily, it is hard to see how the US can succeed in militarily suppressing or even politically quelling the insurgency in Iraq.
Gates may be right after all. In Iraq, time is ticking, not only against the ineffectual government, but also against US occupation.