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Learning from Iraq: Counterinsurgency in American Strategy

Learning from Iraq: Counterinsurgency in American Strategy - Cover

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

December 2006

125 Pages

Brief Synopsis

While the involvement of the United States in counterinsurgency has a long history, it had faded in importance in the years following the end of the Cold War. When American forces first confronted it in Iraq, they were not fully prepared. Since then, the U.S. military and other government agencies have expended much effort to refine their counterinsurgency capabilities. But have they done enough?


When the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power in the spring of 2003, American policymakers and military leaders did not expect to become involved in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. But it has now become the seminal conflict of the current era and will serve as a paradigm for future strategic decisions.

The United States has a long history of involvement in irregular conflict. During the Cold War, this took the form of supporting friendly regimes against communist-based insurgents. After the Cold War, though, the military assumed that it would not undertake protracted counterinsurgency and did little develop its capabilities for this type of conflict. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, forced President George W. Bush and his top advisers to reevaluate the global security environment and American strategy. The new strategy required the United States to replace regimes which support terrorism or help bring ungoverned areas which terrorists might use as sanctuary under control. Under some circumstances, such actions could involve counterinsurgency. Iraq was a case in point. It has forced the U.S. military to relearn counterinsurgency on the fly.

Since the summer of 2003, the conflict in Iraq has taken the form of a deadly learning game between the insurgents and the counterinsurgents (both U.S. and Iraqi forces). By 2006, it had evolved from resistance to the American presence to a complex war involving sectarian militias, Iraqi and American security forces, foreign jihadists, and Sunni Arab insurgents. While, by that point, the United States had refined its counterinsurgency strategy, this may have come too late. In addition, the conflict was placing great stress on the military, particularly the Army.

The Iraq conflict reinforced what national security specialists long have known: the United States is adept at counterinsurgency support in a limited role but faces serious, even debilitating challenges when developing and implementing a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy for a partner state. Most policymakers, military leaders, and defense analysts, though, believe that American involvement in counterinsurgency is inevitable as the “long war” against jihadism unfolds. This means that the United States needs a strategy and an organization that can conduct counterinsurgency effectively. Since 2003, the Department of Defense has undertaken a number of reforms to augment effectiveness at counterinsurgency and other irregular operations.

Whether these are adequate or not depends on future grand strategy. If counterinsurgency does remain a central element of American strategy and the United States elects to play a central or dominant role in it, the current reforms might be inadequate. If, on the other hand, the United States chose to optimize its capability for counterinsurgency it would need an organization which is:

• intelligence-centric;
• fully interagency and, if possible, multinational at every level;
• capable of rapid response;
• capable of sustained, high-level involvement in a protracted operation;
• capable of seamless integration with partners;
• culturally and psychologically adept; and,
• capable of organizational, conceptual and tactical adjustment “on the fly.”

Ultimately, the United States might need to jettison the concept of counterinsurgency in favor of the broader concept of stabilization and transformation operations. This would help clarify strategy and priorities. In particular, it would reinforce the idea that military force is a secondary factor in counterinsurgency. It is not warfighting simply against irregular enemies.

In the final reckoning, the U.S. effort in Iraq has had a number of problems. We used flawed strategic assumptions, did not plan adequately, and had a doctrinal void. There was a mismatch between strategic ends and means applied to them. By signaling in advance that we would go so far and no further, by taking escalation off the table in the insurgency's early months, we made it easier for the insurgents to convince themselves and their supporters that their ability to weather punishment outstrips the willingness of the United States to impose it. By failing to prepare for counterinsurgency in Iraq and by failing to avoid it, the United States has increased the chances of facing it again in the near future. We did not establish security before attempting transformation, thus allowing the insurgency to reach a point of psychological “set” which was difficult to reverse fairly quickly. Linking the conflict in Iraq to the global war on terror skewed the normal logic of strategy. By approaching counterinsurgency as a type of warfighting during its first year, we reverted to a strategy of attrition which did not work.

Whether Iraq ultimately turns into a success or failure, it is invaluable as a source of illumination for American strategy. If it is a unique occurrence then once it is settled, the U.S. military can return to its old, conventionally-focused trajectory of transformation. But if Iraq is a portent of the future—if protracted, ambiguous, irregular, cross-cultural, and psychologically complex conflicts are to be the primary mission of the future American military (and the other, equally important parts of the U.S. security organization)—then serious change must begin.

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