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.

By |  September 10, 2008; 10:00 AM ET  | Category:  Al Qaeda , Iraq
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Is anyone concerned that all we are doing is creating our own terror cells to beat theres??

Posted by: Neil | September 10, 2008 1:44 PM

You are correct in your criticism of Woodward's belief that "fusion-cells" using sophisticated technology and firepower was the cause of lowered violence in Iraq.

However, you hyper-inflate the role of the Surge and the notion that a change in counterinsurgency tactics produced population security and from there information started flowing from the people to target al-queda. Instead it was the US decision to pay large sums of money to our former enemies to stop attacking us, and us them, and to ally with us to go after al-queda. That combined with Sadr's decision to stand down attacks explains the lowering of violence and the concomitant feeling of security among the people. It was in that milieu of conditions that pulled the Surge along and also produced the critical human intelligence that allowed the US to kill alqueda.

Understanding the complexity of cause and effect over the past two years in Iraq is important. Simplistic explanations that offer American military power as the leading force in causation does not advance our knowledge and understanding of the past years in Iraq, where we are at in the present, and how to proceed in the future.

Posted by: Gian P Gentile | September 11, 2008 6:24 AM

Gian, Erin,
I do agree with you both, but for differing reasons for each
Erin: I do agree with your view regarding the link between results from "fusion cells" and the population-centric approach which I would best describe as "counter-rebellion" (in the French Army's new doctrine's words). Virtuous circle of intelligence in these conflicts is best explained by tactical procedures taken since 2005, allowing a better "decapitation" process as a corrolary.
Gian: the correct role of the so-called "surge" in the shaping of current trends in security and political matters remains unclear today, and will certainly become a great debate among historians in the future. But, I think one can raise two issues. First, on the accurate caracterization of the "surge": is it aditionnal troops, a new strategy or a new pattern of opportunities in a very volatile and changing context, especially among Sunnis? Second, my current researches suggest that, in explaining events in Iraq, one has to consider the link between tactical operations and operational and strategic "success" (which I don't take for granted for the time being). Population-centric tactics in Iraq are not new. But they were implemented in 2007-2008 through a campaign plan that took account of the necessity to wage "tribal politics" at the theater (national) level. Indeed, tactical success in "clearing" areas, denying preparatory areas to insurgents and terrorism, and exercising a "constant pressure" on safe haven was made possible by the cooption of local leaders and power brokers, that is by reintegrating them in the political process rather than excluding them, who in turn allowed to gain more and more support by the bottom-up. I don't think that explanation to be very different from the traditional "surge" argument made by so-called "COIN Crusaders" (see BACEVICH article in the october issue of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY). If the strategic goal is to gain popular support in the relevant segment of the population, then the opportunities taken by gen. ODIERNO and PETRAEUS were the key decisions. One has to consider both actions (tactical procedures and operational opportunities to co-opt Sunnis) in order to explain current evolution.
Best (et amicalement for Gian)
St├ęphane TAILLAT

Posted by: St├ęphane Taillat | September 11, 2008 9:16 AM

Erin, I couldn't agree more. Seems to me that a clear danger in extracting lessons from Iraq - or any COIN campaign - would be to separate one particular facet of the overall strategy and depict it as a stand-alone solution.

Rather than conceive of a COIN strategy as a disparate collection of methods, it may be necessary to view it as a cohesive system, where different approaches and techniques complement one another. This might require more research and be less fun, but it will also be necessary to understand what worked and what did not.

If you forgive the blatant self-promotion, I have previously elaborated on this theme with regard to the Malaya campaign - a counterinsurgency that some say have no parallels to Iraq, but which nonetheless was undeniably successful. There, as in Iraq, the use of intelligence-enabled distributed small-unit strike operations were certainly succesful, but they were also embedded within and reliant upon the wider COIN strategy in place, and would probably not have achieved the same effect if isolated from its enabling factors. The small-unit mode of operations was very much the vanguard of a larger counterinsurgency system, which in itself provided the foundations necessary for the military campaign to succeed. I would argue the same applies here.

Posted by: David Ucko | September 11, 2008 10:42 AM

"That combined with Sadr's decision to stand down attacks (...)"

But, Gian, I verily doubt that al-Sadr's JAM and related forces (it gets complicated) would've stepped down had the so-called "Surge" not loomed.

At least in Baghdad.

The reason al-Sadr was reeling before the advent of the influx of forces to MNC-I was due to very poor decisions his leadership made to prosecute terror campaigns in Najaf and Karbala that fizzled against ISCI/Badr.

That didn't mean he necessarily had to stop combat operations against US/Coalition forces in the areas where he still held sway -- or at least could contest for control (Basra, Amara, Nasiriya, East Baghdad, et al).

He went to ground (and later to study in Iran) not because he feared the nascent ISF or Badr Brigade challenging him in his enclaves, but because 1) of internal collapse of his JAM-led coaltion (it's complicated) and, most important, 2) the influx of US troops to the one area he wanted to expand, the Baghdad AO.

As you know, I often argue that the so-called "Surge" gets too much credit for what transpired in the pacification of Iraq. But when it comes to al-Sadr, and especially the formal cadres of JAM, I'd say it gets too little credit.

Posted by: Soldiernolongeriniraq | September 11, 2008 5:12 PM


It is also possible that the events in Karbala in August which brought large public discredit upon Sadr combined with his militia's rampaging sectarian violence in 2006 brought him to a point to where he made the decision to stand down. Yes, perhaps the Surge contributed or reinforced his decision along with the fact that alqueda was being pressed by our former enemies and therefore could not carry out the high number of suicide attacks. But my sense is that these two conditions were the necessary ones that pulled the Surge along, and not the other way around.

Erin's post, as fitting with the conventional Surge narrative, infers that it was exceptional outfits who led the way and then the Surge itself with purported new tactics that pulled the other conditions along. And it is in that conception of things that I don't agree.

Posted by: Gian P Gentile | September 11, 2008 6:53 PM

Another 9/11 aniversary and - -

* Bin Ladin is in hidin' - -

* Dubya is hidin' from McSenile and the RNC - -

* Dick Cheyney is in hidin' - -


* Grandpa McBush is hidin' behind Palin's skirt - -

Posted by: Hussien for America | September 12, 2008 10:59 AM

>>>The population is the prize--not high-value targets.

That takes time and is a complex battle in itself. Killing or taking high value targets is certainly part of the mix too because of the HVT is usually the guy with good organizational abilities in population control. Just like the bad guys, you have to show 'the people' that you have a better vision and mechanism...and the other guy can't protect 'you' because he can't protect himself.

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | September 12, 2008 2:03 PM

To those who skim the Washington Post and have read to this point in the comments, understand one thing: many of those who have written above me in the comments section are the all-stars of the counter-insurgency debate.

While you may not get excited have people like SNLII, Gentile, and Charlie conversing in one area, you should if you give a damn about COIN.

Posted by: Deus Ex | September 15, 2008 11:33 PM

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