Overview of the New Report on the Rise in Counterinsurgency

Early this summer, after savage fighting, elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit forced Taliban fighters out of Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley, an area they had dominated for two years. Now it was time to talk.

The commander of Alpha Company, from the 6th Marine Regiment’s First Battalion, Capt. Sean Dynan, a soft-spoken Annapolis graduate and fourth-generation fighter, addressed wary members of the village council in Amir Agha.

“I know that all of you want to just live your lives and that you don’t want us to interfere with what you’re doing on a daily basis,” Dynan told two dozen men gathered in the marketplace. “It is our intention to help and to protect you.”

But making friends was proving difficult in a country at war since the failed Soviet occupation of the 1980s. “America came here telling us they’re going to help us, but these are all tricks, the same tricks that Russia played – then they started killing us,” Sayid Gul, an opium-poppy grower and merchant, told Bill Gentile, a PBS journalist embedded with the Marines. “We don’t trust them any more, the foreigners.” Gul was trying to get the Marines to pay him for damaging his house during a battle with the Taliban.

Despite the villagers’ wariness, Dynan’s efforts at on-the-ground diplomacy reflect the Pentagon view that similar counterinsurgency tactics have led to a notable lessening of violence in Iraq this year.

Support for counterinsurgency is a key tenet of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ new National Defense Strategy, which lays out a hearts-and-minds approach for the last phase of what the Bush administration once labeled the “global war on terror” and now dubs “the long war.”

“Military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development,” the document says, “as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.”

That strategy may sound more Peace Corps than Army and Marines. But counterinsurgency advocates argue they’re guided by practicality, not bleeding-heart humanitarianism. Even after major fighting ends in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies will be facing so-called asymmetric conflicts against foes who know every nook and cranny of their home terrains, says John A. Nagl, a newly retired Army lieutenant colonel and leading counterinsurgency expert, now a senior fellow of the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. He has proposed the formation of a 20,000-strong corps of Army advisers to work with U.S.-friendly governments facing insurgencies or potential insurgencies.

“Our conventional superiority is going to drive our enemies to fight us asymmetrically,” says Nagl, who served as operations officer of an armored battalion early in the Iraq War and later helped write the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. But that doesn’t mean U.S. troops will be sitting ducks for traditional military operations, he says. “Even understanding that we’ve been focusing on counterinsurgency, you’re still not going to want to mass tanks against the United States,” he says, because American pilots would make short work of enemy armor.

Beware of such certainties, some military experts warn. One of the most vocal skeptics, Iraq combat veteran Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, argues that counterinsurgency advocates have drawn a false distinction between full-on, World War II-style combat and asymmetrical warfare. Recent events, he says, show that these varieties of combat can be used simultaneously.

As an example, Gentile points to Israel’s painful experience in Lebanon during the 34-day war in the summer of 2006. Israeli troops who had been using counterinsurgency tactics in the Palestinian territories unexpectedly found themselves facing Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon employing conventional military tactics instead of guerrilla warfare to defend their territory. Hezbollah killed 119 Israeli soldiers, a shockingly high death toll for Israel.

“I use that as a way to think about conflicts the United States might face in the future,” says Gentile, who commanded an armored reconnaissance squadron in Baghdad in 2006, often confronting unseen enemies. Now a history professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he notes that the United States must continue to be ready in the future to deal with potential foes, such as Iran and North Korea, with big conventional armed forces.

After Gentile spoke, the Aug. 8 Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia, a strong U.S. ally, prompted a wave of speculation about a rebirth of the Cold War – a period during which U.S. and Soviet forces trained incessantly for full-scale conflict in Europe. But, for now, at least, Secretary Gates said, “I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation.”

In fact, the counterinsurgency-versus-conventional-warfare debate first began during the Cold War years, long before Gentile and Nagl – who both hold doctoral degrees – won their combat decorations in Iraq.

President John F. Kennedy came into office in 1961 determined to challenge Soviet-sponsored guerrilla insurgencies in societies scarred by colonialism or social injustice. Kennedy expanded the limited U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam, pushing for greater use of the military’s “unconventional warfare” unit, Army Special Forces. But after Kennedy’s assassination, the conflict turned into a full-scale war that emphasized the conventional-war strategy known as “attrition” – trying to force surrender by killing large numbers of enemy troops.

Military experts and historians still argue over whether attrition would have succeeded if the U.S. public hadn’t forced an end to the war, or whether an early and total commitment to counterinsurgency warfare would have turned the tide. In any case, from the end of the Vietnam War until 2001, U.S. counterinsurgency operations were mounted as advisory missions – not major troop commitments – as in El Salvador during the 1980s. Indeed, the biggest post-Vietnam military operation, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, followed conventional lines – massive forces of aviation, artillery and armored infantry deployed against another nation-state’s military.

Conventional warfare also dominated the early phase of the Iraq War, though Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld modified it by demanding use of a relatively small, highly mobile ground force, reinforced by massive airpower.

The planning focused solely on toppling Saddam Hussein and defeating his forces, not on what would follow the invasion. “We are not in Iraq to engage in nation-building,” Rumsfeld wrote in The Washington Post six months after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. “The sooner Iraqis can take responsibility for their own affairs, the sooner U.S. forces can come home.”

But nation-building found favor in the Bush administration after U.S. forces came under attack both from Sunnis and Shiites in the years following the invasion.

Nation-building and counterinsurgency are closely related. “Counterinsurgency is nation-building in the face of armed opposition,” in Nagl’s definition. The Bush administration signaled its new strategy with the 2007 appointment of a new top commander for Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who co-directed preparation of the 2006 U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the first publication of its kind for more than 20 years.

Petraeus made his first priority the protection of Iraqi civilians, a shift in emphasis from pouring all resources into hunting and killing enemies.

For American military personnel, deaths have fallen to 221 in the first seven months of 2008 – from 740 during the same period last year. Meanwhile, deaths among Iraqi security forces and civilians have fallen from more than 14,000 during the first seven months of 2007 to about 4,300 during the same period in 2008.

One of Petraeus’ key tactics was forging ties with Sunni tribes who were rebelling against the group Al Qaeda in Iraq and eroding the power of militias on whom Shiite civilians had depended for protection. As a result, says military-affairs specialist Stephen Biddle, who served on Petraeus’ staff in 2007, “By late 2007 you had a situation in which all major internal combatants, for perfectly rational, perfectly self-interested reasons, had declared cease-fires – observing ceasefires of necessity.” Biddle is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Skeptics argue, however, that counterinsurgency strategy had little to do with the increasing stability – because the United States never faced a true insurgency in Iraq or in Afghanistan. “We’re not defending legitimate governments against foreign-inspired insurgencies,” says Douglas A. Macgregor, a former Army colonel who served in the Persian Gulf War. “We’ve established puppet regimes designed to implement our will, and provoked rebellions against those regimes.” Macgregor now consults for the defense industry and writes on military affairs.

Still, says Carter Malkasian, a military expert who has advised Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, precisely labeling U.S. strategy and the nature of the war in Iraq matters less than the ultimate result. “What wins wars?” he asks. “There’s very powerful argument to be made that tactics are much less important than economics and politics.” In Iraq, Sunni tribes’ turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq proved more decisive than U.S. strategy, he says.

Moreover, argues Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., treating counterinsurgency largely as a low-tech exercise of winning the trust of poor villagers downplays what modern air power can accomplish.

“In the early part of the Afghanistan war, the Taliban assumed we would fight like the Russians, and they could simply hold out,” Dunlap says. “What the Taliban didn’t know about was the advent of laser-guided and precision munitions. Suddenly they’re in positions they’ve held for years, and their foxholes are being vaporized by B-52s they didn’t see or hear. What unhinges an adversary is knowing that he’s helpless against his opponent’s weapons.”

Nevertheless, air power without solid intelligence on the ground can be catastrophic. In late August, U.N. investigators and an Afghan government commission said a U.S. air strike in western Afghanistan had killed 90 civilians, including 60 children. The U.S. military said 30-35 insurgents, including a Taliban commander, had been killed, along with five to seven civilians. But two members of the Afghan parliament said tribal enemies of the targeted community had fed false information to the U.S. military about a Taliban presence.

Gen. David D. McKiernan, U.S. commander of the NATO force in Iraq, countered later that the civilian casualty number had been deliberately inflated. “We regret the loss of civilian life, but the numbers that we find on this target area are nowhere near the number reported in the media. We believe there was a very deliberate information operation orchestrated by the insurgency, by the Taliban,” he told The New York Times.

Taliban adaptability to U.S. tactical and strategic shifts helps explain the insurgents’ comeback of the past several years.

That’s one reason why Alpha Company’s Marines made sure that farmer-merchant Gul finally got reimbursed for his damaged house.

Even so, Gul and his fellow villagers could be forgiven for still keeping the Americans at arms’ length. Soon after the Marines entered the village of Amir Agha, they were led to the body of a man lying on a path, his throat slit. The message, villagers said, was clear: Don’t cooperate with the Americans.

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