The Wrong Lessons from Iraq
By Erin Simpson
Good morning, and thanks to the Post for hosting this motley crew. Some of you may know me better as "Charlie" from Abu Muqawama, but I promise to neither blog in the third person nor subject you to my fashion commentary here.
Following on Colin's discussion on al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the wonders of "fusion cells"--small, hybrid teams of special forces and intelligence officers that are being credited with sapping the strength of the insurgency in Iraq--I wanted to highlight an overlooked aspect of that discussion.
It is very easy to look at the success of the "fusion cells" and their focus on high-value targets and say, "See, I told you. If we just kill enough of the bad guys (or at least their leadership), we can win this thing." And that is a very seductive story to tell. Seductive because it suggests that the "fusion cell" fairy could have just waved her magic wand at any point in the last five years and we could have taken out al-Qaeda in Iraq's leadership and gone home. That, friends, is exactly the wrong lesson to learn.
Why weren't our efforts to target leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq more successful earlier in the war? It wasn't for lack of trying; the "fusion cells" Special Operations teams predate the Surge. The answer lies in the nature of intelligence in counter-insurgency campaigns. Such intelligence seems to function in feedback loops creating virtuous--and vicious--circles of operations. The story Bob Woodward tells is one where good intelligence begets good operations, which beget good intelligence. The catch is that if you aren't working in an information-rich environment--if civilians aren't telling you anything (and are, in fact, telling the enemy everything)--then operations like nighttime raids are little more than stomping around in the dark, generating no new information for the next day or next week. This was the story of the early years of the insurgency (particularly in al-Qaeda in Iraq strongholds).
"Fusion cells" and the decapitation campaigns they enable are key parts of counter-insurgency campaigns. But they rest on a foundation of good intelligence which can really only be generated by population-centric efforts like those employed by military leaders like HR McMaster, Dale Alford, Sean MacFarland, Bill Jurney, and eventually General Petraeus. Winning the population isn't about making them like you. It's about making them tell you things...and civilians only do that when they begin to think they won't get killed over it. The population is the prize--not high-value targets.
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