The Impact of Post-2006 US Counterinsurgency Doctrine on Domestic Politics
Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine became the official United States military policy in the Iraq War in 2007 with the increase in the number of troops deployed, referred to as “the surge.” A new strategy was needed after the defeat of the Iraqi army by the US conventional military due to the rise of a fierce insurgency in Iraq. These insurgents, a mix of al-Qaeda operatives, Shia militants, and disgruntled former Baathists (Saddamists), exploited the leadership vacuum created in the wake of the invasion. The surge refocused the tactical efforts of US Army and Marine personnel, led to the development of an operational art that incorporated “awakened” Sunni militias, and created a national strategy that aimed to bring back public and political support for the war. Lieutenant Generals David H. Petraeus and James N. Mattis worked to implement COIN tactics and training in the Army and Marine Corps. The tribal militias in the Anbar region were a valuable ally in fighting the insurgency, but American popular opinion did not support the continued US presence in Iraq. This perceived failure of COIN in Iraq led to a public opinion against future US combat troop deployment and continues to affect US foreign policy.
The development and implementation of new tactics for the Army and Marine Corps by Generals Petraeus and Mattis were key to the surge plan. Petraeus had long been a proponent of counterinsurgency and training troops to deal with local populations in war zones. His arguments had led to expanded US efforts in Bosnia to connect with the people. In 2006, Field Manual No. 3-24 was created using the methods of Petraeus and Lieutenant General James F. Amos, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps. It was the first work by the Army or Marine Corps regarding COIN doctrine in over 20 years. The manual stresses the importance of both “nation building” and developing relationships with “civilians” - ideas that Petraeus had supported for much of his career. These two ideas make up the core of the manual. The manual argues that COIN is split into the three categories of stability, offense, and defense. Stability is the end goal of nation building. It stressed “civil security, civil control, essential services, governance, and economic and infrastructure development.” Achieving these were essential to Petraeus’ goals.
To achieve these goals, Petraeus knew that tactics had to be changed to create a relationship with the public that was conducive to a transition of power from the American troops to Iraqi security forces. US forces were to engage in a “Clear-Hold-Build” tactic to improve the physical and psychological security of the local population. A medical analogy is used to address the overarching goals of these tactics. The first step is to “stop the bleeding” by minimizing the scale of engagement in battle. The “Inpatient Care – Recovery” stage aims to better coordinate intelligence with Iraqi troops and offer US support in eliminating the most serious threats within a battle. Finally, the “Outpatient Care – Movement to Self-Sufficiency” transitions from tactics to Logical Lines of Operation (LLO) that give more responsibility to the Iraqi forces. The execution of these tactical plans would be key to the surge. The efforts of the Army in Baghdad and the Marines in the Anbar Province are emblematic of the success the surge and COIN had in post-2006 Iraq.
The training and military engagement by Marines in Iraq offers a clear look at the successes and shortcomings of COIN tactics. The Marines have a long institutional memory when it comes to small war operations. For this reason, their training in COIN had started in the early 2000s. Mattis became head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in 2004 and training in COIN became a focal point of his tenure. Colonel John A. Toolan, a protégé of Mattis, became head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. They stressed the importance of small wars using case studies from the Middle East and Vietnam. Furthermore, nation-building strategy was taught through case studies of post-war Japan and Germany as well as lessons on the culture of local populations in Iraq. The Marine Corps provided input to the creation of the Counterinsurgency 3-24 manual from their experiences in the preceding years. In Anbar, the Marine Corps would have the opportunity to implement its training along with the synthesis of information from the new manual.
The Marine Corps University compiled a two-volume series of expertly conducted interviews about the work of the service as well as the response of the Anbari citizens. Major General Richard C. Zilmer explained how the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) would work to clear out rogue elements in Anbar by giving the Sunnis in the region the task of finishing the job. This would give the Sunni tribes ownership of their defense. The Marines were able to help protect local populations, while using smaller numbers of troops in combat. This tactical effort aligns with the “stop the bleeding” step in the COIN manual. I MEF had cleared much of the Western Euphrates River Valley with this strategy, and thus secure a fertile area for locals to grow food. This effort was a step forward in improving the security and livelihood of the Anbari population. Brigadier Generals David G. Reist and Robert B. Neller make clear in their interviews that US efforts in promoting business in Anbar (through partnerships with companies in Dubai) and training local security forces were key in gaining the trust of the Sheiks and building up a friendly Sunni security force. Colonel Sean B. MacFarland states that 400 of the 700 recruits from Anbar that would come to the Marines each month were accepted and trained. Other tribal men had banded together in the al-Anbar Rescue Committee to fight al-Qaeda insurgents. This recruitment was made possible when the I and II MEFs had brilliantly executed COIN by securing populations and weakening rogue elements. With these tactical successes in battle, they were ready for the operational challenge of incorporating the friendly Sunni tribes into their fight against the insurgency.
Major General John R. Allen later said that MacFarland took a big chance in incorporating the Sunni tribesmen, but the effort paid off. Lieutenant Colonel William M. Jurney and his subordinate Daniel R. Zappa tell the story of incorporating the new Iraqi troops. The Marines provided their Iraqi counterparts with the knowledge and resources to neutralize High Value Individuals (HVI). The intelligence sharing with the Iraqi recruits and security forces fit well into “In-Patient Recovery” stage in the COIN manual. Operationally, the Marines were allowing the Sunni recruits to take on a bigger role in the campaign to rid Anbar of insurgents. This was important before the final transition of power to a new Anbari government. This transition of power to an independent Anbari government and security force was taking place in 2008. Paramount Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi describes his people fighting against al-Qaeda and aiding American troops. Mamoun al-Alwani who was the governor of Anbar said that the Marines had enabled the Awakening and made it successful by supporting the government, creating dialogue between the tribes, and supplying equipment and intelligence. The American effort in this region had allowed a disparate group of tribes to successfully defeat al-Qaeda and other insurgents in the region. The campaign in Anbar had been an operational success. The Marines had tactically and operationally implemented COIN doctrine to secure the people of the region and enable it to be autonomous.
The Army was implementing a similar program in its race to Baghdad. The Third Infantry Division and Task Force Marne were key to the COIN effort. The Army’s efforts to gather intelligence on known insurgent cells was its greatest advantage. The Army was attempting to utilize the Marine technique of recruiting the local population to its cause, but with less success. However, the surge had allowed Third Division units to gain ground on the Tigris toward Baghdad. Eventually, by late 2007, the Awakening began to take place amongst tribes outside of the Anbar province. Sunnis from the Baghdad area formed the Sons of Iraq and assisted Task Force Marne in its battle to oust insurgents from the capital. By June 2008, sectarian violence and insurgent threats had died down in Baghdad. According to Major General Rick Lynch, the evidence of success was clear from the growing economy and relative safety of the city. The Army’s use of its tactical intelligence capabilities and the combination of force and civilian outreach had allowed the Sons of Iraq to help it defeat al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the region. The Army and Marine Corps had used COIN tactics to create operational successes in the Anbar and Baghdad campaigns; and now it was left to the military leaders to convince the politicians and the American public to go forward with the strategic goal of establishing a stable and independent Iraq. The situation on the ground had improved, but there were other issues facing the country that were still tenuous. The Iraqis seemed to be getting better on their own, but continued American support was needed for a lasting achievement in the region.
Petraeus, one of the architects and executor of the surge, would now have to defend its progress and future before the American public. The decisions made in Washington would determine the future of Iraq as well as the way the American people would see COIN. In 2007, Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker were to testify before Congress on the effects of the surge. Colonel Peter Mansoor, one of Petraeus’ most trusted officers, has described the efforts that went into crafting a report that would coherently defend the accomplishments of the surge. The report was uninfluenced by politicians and written by Petraeus and five members of his staff. Petraeus had to fight the notion that he was working with politicians to extend the war and improve the political image of the Republican administration. His efforts were simply to make the case that the US needed to stay in Iraq to help build a stable government and prevent a catastrophic collapse. The results of these committee hearings and their influence on the prevailing public opinion would have a significant impact on the war.
The hearings themselves became a partisan proxy war and an opportunity for potential presidential candidates to receive national exposure. On September 11, 2007 Petraeus and Crocker testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Senator Joe Biden (D) of Delaware began the proceedings by challenging the Bush Administration and Petraeus’ tactics. Biden asserted that violence was not down in Iraq and the surge could not put an end to sectarian violence. His argument was that without a political settlement nothing the military could do would be of lasting impact. Senator Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana did his best to defend the Bush Administration and the surge. Crocker defended the military action in Iraq by placing it in a historical context and identifying the positive changes that American troop presence had made. He talked about the human rights progress that had been made after 35 years of Baath Party rule. Then it was Petraeus’ turn to present to the Committee. He acknowledged that sectarian violence was the biggest problem in Iraq, but that it could be quelled with time. He also highlighted the progress of the Marines and the Army in Anbar and Baghdad. During questioning by Biden, Petraeus pointed out that in the Dayal province Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had come together to condemn extremism. The political overtone of the hearing was very evident from the partisan nature of the questions and exchange. Democratic Senators like Chris Dodd and Barack Obama continued to find flaws in the war effort, while Republicans like Jim DeMint and Lisa Murkowski aimed to highlight the military’s achievements to provide an optimistic view of its continued presence in Iraq. It was becoming evident that the Democrats used the war and continued military presence in Iraq as a political weapon to bludgeon the Republicans with. With the upcoming presidential election year and an unpopular war weighing down on the Bush Administration, the Democrats could use this to their advantage to obtain significant gains in the national, state, and local elections. The unpopularity of the war and the political efforts to discredit the surge were the first steps in preventing COIN from running its full course in Iraq. Further hearings in the House of Representatives and Senate yielded similar results. The COIN doctrine’s perceived success or failure depended on the Iraqi political leaders’ willingness and ability to come to peaceful agreements to set their country on the path toward stability.
With COIN and the continued American presence in Iraq, Petraeus had rejected the Powell Doctrine. The American war effort no longer relied on massive force, there were not clearly identifiable goals, and an exit strategy was not present. In spite of this not so favorable climate, if the military could create stability in Iraq through a democratic government, this operation in nation building and COIN could have been deemed a success. However, the Iraqis, with no tradition of democracy in their country, were not able to create a united front. The inadequacy and missteps of the Iraqi government were prime factors in the perceived failure of COIN. David Kilcullen, a State Department official and a leading expert on COIN, wrote that the US or any other government engaged in a military operation could never make up for the ineptitudes or plain unwillingness of the host government in maintaining stability and order. The Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq proved to be the poster child for this type of behavior and a big reason for the perceived failure of COIN.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure in office was a leading cause in the strategic failure of the US war effort in Iraq. American Embassy official Ali Khedery had a close relationship with Maliki for many years and wrote in the Washington Post about the Prime Minister’s transition from an American ally to Shia sectarian. Maliki had been tapped by American leaders because he was thought to be a Shia leader who could create a coalition in Iraq. They believed he would not be hostile toward the Sunnis. He seemed to have proved this with his “Charge of the Knights” operation. This effort involved the Iraqi Shia army neutralizing Shia militias that were backed by Iran. He was thought to have put the security of Iraq above sectarian politics. Furthermore, it was a clear rejection of Iranian influence on Iraqi government. He even aided in the surge by helping the US military form civilian partnerships during the joint Iraq-American invasion of Sadr City. However, it soon became apparent he was consolidating power for himself and his Shia Islamist Dawa Party. He rejected election results, arrested Sunni leaders, and aligned himself with Iran. By 2009, the American people were feeling the brunt of the Great Recession and were witnessing the decline of a nascent democracy in Iraq. They were tired of the war and wanted their soldiers to come home. The Status of Forces Agreement which George W. Bush had signed at the end of his presidency was not extended and President Obama continued withdrawing until nearly all combat forces had returned to the US by 2011. In the Anbar, Baghdad and Sadr City battles COIN tactics had been successful. The campaigns had been operationally successful in their ability to integrate Iraqi troops and civilians. But in the end Iraq had become a strategic US failure. The government was nominally democratic at best and sectarian violence would once again rip the nation apart. COIN had worked, but would now only take the blame for the failures in Iraq.
The War in Iraq has given the American people a sense of malaise when it came to putting American troops into combat. The performance of the Marines and Army had exceeded expectations, but the Iraqi people and government had not lived up to their end of the bargain in creating a stable society. Sectarian divisions would continue to divide their government and people no matter what the American troops had done. The lives and treasure expended into securing Iraq during the insurgency seemed to be too high of a cost. The Powell Doctrine’s rejection of continuous involvement in military conflicts was part of the nation’s collective psyche. Americans had come to accept that limited goals would mean limited results. COIN requires a slow and deliberate process before it shows major results. Military scholars Lewis Sorley and Andrew Krepinevich stated at the 2005 Combat Studies Institute Symposium that the US could have won a strategic victory in Vietnam had public support for the war held out past 1968. In Iraq, the American people and political leadership were not prepared to allow COIN in the Iraq War to run its full course. Though significant progress was made, the success of COIN would not be the final take-away from the war effort.
The American feelings on the War in Iraq are somewhat reminiscent of post-Vietnam America. After both conflicts the nation was war weary and unready to undertake future military action. However, there is a key difference. After Vietnam, the US Army was opposed to undertaking future COIN missions. After the War in Iraq, both the Marines and Army knew that COIN had helped them stabilize Iraq, but the American people were not comfortable with protracted struggles. The Pew Research Center offers significant evidence on American feelings about Iraq. It reports that only 44% of Americans believe the war was worth fighting and 46% saying that the US had achieved its goals. This feeling continues to manifest itself. In 2012, over 66% of Americans were against intervention in Syria, and in 2014, 47% of the public was worried that the US would go “too far” while fighting ISIS. Today a majority of Americans are opposed to ground troops being deployed to fight ISIS. Both the major party candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election opposed ground troops returning to Iraq, but they supported a continuation of airstrikes in the region. It seems as if the new idea is to engage our enemy in ways that do not involve “boots on the ground,” a corollary to the Powell Doctrine that asserts that there should be a clear military plan, but it should not be carried out with American troops.
In 2011, Iraq was in better shape than when the US troops had arrived. This is due to the efforts of the Marine Corps and Army implementing the plan set forth in Field Manual 3-24. The COIN doctrine designed and implemented by General David Petraeus and his team created battlefield tactics that focused on eliminating major threats and securing populations in battle, operational goals that involved partnering with the Sunni tribes, and a strategic component of convincing the American people that Iraq could be stabilized. While the US accomplished the tactical and operational goals, American public opinion prevented a longer stay in Iraq. The Iraqi government had ruined the chance of a democratic and peaceful nation. American politicians used the war as a political tool to further their own agendas. In the end, COIN doctrine received a bad reputation for extending the war and left the American public uneasy about engaging in future conflicts. These feelings affect American policy to this day and guide a military doctrine that stresses clear goals, but little use of ground troops.