The Duck of Minerva

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Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice


August 4, 2006

I’m currently reading a counterinsurgency classic, David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Published in 1964, its a how-to manual for fighting a counterinsurgency war against a revolutionary insurgent based on the author’s direct observations and experiences in Algeria, China, and Vietnam. I picked up the book after reading a Washington Post on-line chat with Thomas Ricks, who recommended it. Its lessons from then are very insightful for understanding issues in the present day.

A central theme of Galula’s doctrine of counterinsurgency is that the more powerful government can’t wage a conventional war against a guerilla insurgent, its a futile effort. A government can only survive by promoting and ensuring security and order everywhere, while an insurgent can claim victory with insecurity anywhere. The key battleground is not territory, it is a populace, and effective counterinsurgency must be fought by political as well as military means. In fact, military might without political transformation is a recipie for defeat by an insurgency.

Today, the senior Pentagon leadership was on the Hill testifying about Iraq. The picture they paint is far from rosy:

“I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war,” Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of United States forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A similarly sobering assessment was offered by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he can envision the present situation “devolving to a civil war.”

Iraq has entered a state of Civil War. One key observation that Galula makes is that the slide from “peace” to “war” in an insurgency is gradual and gray, with government leaders often the last to recognize and acknowledge the state of on the ground conditions.

The sectarian violence in Iraq has all the hallmarks of a revolutionary insurgency as Galula defines them. Most notable, as General Pace observes:

“Our enemy knows they cannot defeat us in battle. They do believe, however, that they can wear down our will as a nation.”

Textbook insurgent tactics. Lightly armed Iraqi insurgents, using only machine guns, RPGs, and IEDs are certainly no match for an M1 Abrams tank. But the insurgents are not looking to defeat our tanks, they are looking to wear down our will to continue fighting, and more importantly, they are looking to wear down the Iraqi people’s faith in the ability of the US forces and nascent Iraqi government to establish order and secure peace.

The general [Abizaid] gave a positive evaluation of the 275,000 members of the Iraqi police, border security and military forces who had completed training. “They are much improved, and they continue to improve every month,” he said.

One note about this number, 275,000. I had lunch with my uncle today, in town for a conference from his duties as Sgt Maj for the 1 MEF (the whole MEF) in Iraq. He works rather closely with the Iraqi forces out in al-Anbar province, and he reported that at any given time, 25% of all Iraqi forces are on leave. Why? there are no ATMs in Iraq. The soldiers get paid in cash, and they have to go home after each pay-day to hand the money to their families. So, with this in mind, this force of 275,000 only has 206,250 soldiers available on any given day.

In any event, Mr. Rumsfeld said it was difficult to gauge the ideal number of troops the United States and its allies should have in Iraq. Too many troops, and the Iraqis would see them as occupiers, leading to more unrest. To few, and the violence could spiral out of control. “There’s no rulebook,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Actually, there is. Galula offers a clear and basic strategy for counterinsurgency warfare. Deploy a large number of troops to a particuar area. Secure the area and eliminate insurgent forces. In this security zone, recruit the loyal minority of the population to estabilsh political order and win over the neutral majority of the population in such a way to delegitimize the insurgent’s cause. This only succeeds when two conditions are met. First, the concentration of counterinsurgency troops is strong enough to make the population feel secure in its daily life. Only when the people feel safe does the second condition take hold, the development of a political order supportive of the government, not the insurgency. With a stable political order in place, the counterinsurgency can gradually expand its control to other areas of the country.

In a sense, this is what Bush is trying to do when he announced a redeployment of troops to Baghdad.

The flaw with Bush’s approach is that he’s not sending in new forces, rather he’s moving them from one area of Iraq to another. The problem with this, as Galula observes, is that the insurgents will just melt away from where the counterinsurgency troops are and reappear in the areas where they are weak. Its a battle the counterinsurgent can’t win–there are never enough troops to garrison an entire country, especially one the size of Iraq. The NY Times Michale Gordon analyzes the proposal:

For all the talk of new military deployments, however, the plan will depend mightily on parallel moves by Maliki’s government to improve the lot of ordinary Iraqis. This is, in the final analysis, an approach that will require the careful synchronization of military, political and economic moves – no small challenge for an Iraqi administration that is still struggling to develop its capacity to govern.

The American and Iraqi forces may temporarily stabilize a neighborhood, but the ultimate loyalty of its residents, many of whom have been sitting on the fence even while they have been desperate for security, will reflect the government’s ability to demonstrate that there are tangible benefits for cooperating.

After reading Galula, I still think that the US should set a deadline for getting out and stick to it. In that time, invest significant resources in improving the administrative capacity of the Iraqi government. Galula continually emphasizes that the heart of any insurgency is the cause, the promises insurgent leaders make, the ideals insurgents fight for. The way to wipe out an insurgency is to delegitimize its cause. In the case of Iraq, the big cause seems to be the US. Opposition to the American Occupation unites the insurgents in a way that allows the various sects, parties, and groups to paper over their religious and political differences. By making our planned withdrawal a center of our strategy, we take away their enemy. This is not “defeat” nor is it “cut and run.” Its a calculated, strategic move designed to fight the insurgency in Iraq through political means designed to strike the heart of the “cause” that motivates the insurgency. Its quite possibly the most effective weapon we have left.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.