Counterinsurgency takes center stage in Iraq

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Col. Ralph Baker commanded an Army brigade combat team responsible for a volatile area of Baghdad, he found that one of his most effective weapons was the handbill.

That's right, handbills. Fliers. Paper. In the United States, they're generally toss-aways, ads for hair salons or Chinese food. In Iraq, they can be an important way to disseminate information.

In Baker's unit – the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division – every mounted patrol carried standard handbills at all times. They passed out polite ones that apologized for any inconvenience during routine house-to-house searches. They distributed condemnatory ones in affected neighborhoods after bomb explosions or other insurgent attacks.

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The fliers helped drive a wedge between the insurgents and local residents, and they often resulted in intelligence that US units could act upon, wrote Colonel Baker in a recent review of counterinsurgency techniques issued by the Army's Combined Arms Center.

During his tour in Iraq, Baker ended up spending 70 percent of his time on information and intelligence operations. He spent much less time commanding actual fighting than he had anticipated.

"The reality I confronted was far different than I had actually prepared for over a lifetime of conventional training and experience," wrote Baker.

Counterinsurgency is the graduate level of war, according to an officer quoted in the Army's new manual on the subject. It requires flexibility as much as force. Its objective is the population's support, not territory.

And as the US military prepares to implement President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, commanders may face the equivalent of trying to obtain a doctorate in six months. As they work with Iraqi partners of uncertain reliability, their task is to calm the near anarchy in much of Baghdad – before popular support in the US erodes further and Congress begins to press for troop withdrawal harder than it already has.

Even some experts who support the general outline of the president's plan worry that the hour is too late for it to work. Mr. Bush's plan is "extremely demanding," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, at a recent seminar.

"The civilian dimension, the political, the economic, the social engineering aspects of it are huge," said Mr. Pollack.

The best-known aspect of the administration's new plan is probably its call for an increase of 21,500 US troops in Iraq, with most of those dedicated to Baghdad. Yet US officials have cautioned that "surge" is the wrong word to describe this increase, as it implies a sudden arrival. The increase will be phased in, with two brigades arriving relatively quickly, and three more waiting in the pipeline, in essence to see what happens.

"There will be no D-Day," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at a press conference after Bush's Jan. 10 speech to the nation. "It won't look like the Gulf War."

Under the new plan, a US battalion of 400 to 600 personnel will be embedded with Iraqi government forces in each of nine military districts in Baghdad. Administration officials have insisted again and again that Iraqi forces will take the lead in actual fighting, with US troops providing support.

Given the past performance of Iraqi units, this is an assertion many US experts view with extreme skepticism.

"It is still US forces that will do almost all the hard fighting," wrote Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in his military analysis of the Bush plan. "This is likely to sharply increase US casualties, at least initially."

To hold areas newly cleared of Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias, US and Iraqi troops are likely to be spread among 30 or 40 miniforts, or joint security sites, within the nine Baghdad districts.

Past fighting has shown that living in such outposts can be a harrowing experience. Take Dec. 29, 2004, when Sunni insurgents mounted a concerted attack on a four-story building in Mosul. Dubbed Combat Outpost Tampa, the building was occupied by elements of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Division.

At about 2:30 that afternoon, a suicide bomber sped a dump truck loaded with propane tanks and 50 South African-made 155-mm artillery shells down a highway, straight at the building. The truck's tires were overinflated, to try to allow it to bounce over defensive barriers, according to an Army case study of the incident.

The bomber had mounted one of two barrier cordons before a sentry's machine-gun fire detonated the shells. The explosion blew a 15-foot deep crater in the street, and greatly damaged the facade of the building. Prepositioned insurgents then opened fire from nearby buildings.

A patrol of armored vehicles turning to reinforce the building itself ran into a preset ambush. The fierce two-hour battle ended only after airstrikes by Navy and Marine fighter jets.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry earned 20 Purple Hearts during the action at COP Tampa – representing 10 percent of the Purple Hearts the unit earned during that entire tour in Iraq. Three of the unit's five Silver Stars for valor came from the same battle.

Commanders considered the COP Tampa fight a political as well as military victory. "A month later, the Sunni Mansour district in southwest Mosul, not far from COP Tampa and the ambush site, had the highest voter turnout in all of northern Iraq," concluded the Army case study.

The US military's approach to its new Baghdad mission is likely to reflect the precepts of the Army's new field manual for counterinsurgency operations. The effort to produce the manual was directed by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, in his role as commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth. The White House has tapped General Petraeus to be the new overall commander in Iraq; his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled for Tuesday.

The goal of counterinsurgency operations is to foster the development of legitimate indigenous governments, according to the new manual. Thus political actions may be more important than military ones.

Intelligence is key. "Without good intelligence, counterinsurgents are like blind boxers wasting energy flailing at unseen opponents," according to the manual.

The point is to cut off insurgents from their sources of support within the population, not to kill them. Fighting can be a distraction: The manual says to attack insurgents only "when they get in the way."

Counterinsurgency campaigns are generally long and expensive. "At the strategic level, gaining and maintaining US public support for a protracted deployment is critical," concludes the manual.

The book describes, approvingly, the efforts of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in northern Iraq in 2005. First, US troops constructed an eight-foot berm around the city, allowing them to control movement in and out. Then they went house to house, fighting back when they met resistance.

After the city was cleared, US and Iraqi forces recruited a new police force primarily from city residents. They worked with residents to get such services as trash collection restarted. As security improved, so did intelligence, as residents provided information about the insurgency's remaining cells. It was a classic "clear, hold, and build" operation, according to the Army manual.

"Unity of effort" between all US and Iraqi institutions was key, says the counterinsurgency handbook.

But theory is one thing, of course, and the political and economic constraints of the real world another. The manual says that an effective counterinsurgency force should have about 1 soldier per every 50 local inhabitants. Combined US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad will fall considerably short of that, even after deployment of all extra US troops.

And Gen. George Casey, the outgoing US commander in Iraq, last week said that some of the extra units could begin returning home by late summer, a prediction that seems at odd with the Army manual's emphasis on lengthy campaigns.

"It is not clear that increasing US military strength from 132,000 to 153,000 will be enough to win even in Baghdad," according to Mr. Cordesman of CSIS.

The Army's counterinsurgency handbook contains an admonitory example of what happens when campaigns are not well designed. When Napoleon occupied Spain in 1808, he and his commanders gave little thought to how difficult it might be to subdue the Spanish population. Though the French had won an easy initial military victory, they quickly became enmeshed in a protracted struggle with insurgents that lasted six years. In the end, Napoleon had to deploy four times as many troops as he had started with.

The effort drained the resources of the French empire. "It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon," according to the US Army manual.

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