Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The very bad architect and his very unstable pillar

I've been meaning to write a bit more about Bush's admission that the US military had been pursuing a grossly incompetant military strategy in Iraq. There's something I should make clear first. In the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, there are three pillars; the security pillar, the political pillar, and the economic pillar. The plan recognises that an insurgency cannot be defeated by military force alone and that progress on the other two pillars is essential. These three pillars are interconnected - good security provides the foundation on which economic and political strategies can be built and this leads to even better security and so on. Good security, on its own, will not defeat an insurgency if no political solutions are available. Without a political solution, providing security will be an essentially endless endeavor.

This post is about the Bush administration's efforts to lay the necessary security foundations for stability in Iraq. The quote again (this time with the link) :
Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step. We also have to win the "battle after the battle" -- by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning. Used to be that after American troops cleared the terrorists out of a city and moved onto the next mission, there weren't enough forces, Iraqi forces, to hold the area. We found that after we left, the terrorists would re-enter the city, intimidate local leaders and police, and eventually retake control. This undermined the gains of our military, it thwarted our efforts to help Iraqis rebuild and led local residents to lose confidence in the process and in their leaders.
- President Bush 7th December 2005
In effect, Bush is describing a change from a "Search and Destroy" strategy to a "Clear and Hold" strategy. As I mentioned in the linked post, exactly the same thing happened in Vietnam in 1969 for pretty much exactly the same reason.* The fact that Bush appears not to know this is extraordinary, inexplicable, outrageous, scandalous, embarrassing, tragic and a whole lot more besides.

In 1997, I, took an Honours course called 'Low Intensity Conflict' (LIC) at Aberdeen University. We studied insurgencies, counter-insurgency strategies and other related matters. What follows is an attempt to explain some of what I learned in the context of Bush's statement. First a brief description of the two approaches, and then some discussion of the implications of each. Some generalisations will be unavoidable, I'm afraid

Search and Destroy
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Troops are normally garrisoned in large well defended military compounds. They are issued with orders to patrol a given area to look for insurgents (areas can be chosen randomly or be influenced by intelligence suggesting insurgent locations). If they find any insurgents they try to kill them. After they've made their way through their given area, they return to their base camp to recuperate and await orders for their next patrol. The next patrol might be in the same area, it might be in a nearby one or it might be another area altogether. The idea is that you keep doing this throughout the country until all the insurgents are dead.

Clear and Hold
In this strategy, the emphasis is on controlling areas rather than sweeping them of insurgents. Troops will be ordered to clear a given area of insurgents and then hold that area to make sure it stays insurgent free. They do not go back to their heavily defended military compound but set up new defences inside their area. The idea here is to start small and then expand the areas you control until you reach the point where you control the whole country (or at least a sizeable part of it).

What's the big deal?
I suspect some of this is already obvious but I'll try to explain some of the implications of these two approaches.

First of all, "Search and Destroy" is based on a false assumption. It assumes that there are a finite number of insurgents and you can just keep killing until they run out of people. The strategy is based on conventional warfare tactics but an insurgency with popular support cannot be defeated that way. New recruits will continue to join the insurgency to support their dying brothers and sisters. In Vietnam, this led to the infamous, but unattributed, claim that "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it". Followed to its logical conclusion, an S&D strategy will eventually lead to a very peaceful but also very empty country.

The mindset of the soldier must also be considered. Search and destroy missions are, obviously, about killing people. Soldiers on these missions are primarily looking for targets. Insurgents are, of course, not likely to be waving a twenty foot square red flag with insurgent written on it in big yellow letters. Soldiers will see all civilians as potential targets and they are likely to err on the side of caution if they feel they might be in danger, ie shoot first. There is also, unfortunately, an added incentive to kill. In this strategy, commanding officers measure success by the number of insurgents their troops have killed. Human nature being what it is, this further primes individual soldiers to shoot anyone they believe is behaving suspiciously. Much "collateral damage" is the likely result of these missions. When the mission is over the soldiers retreat back to their base. Their area will often have suffered considerable death and destruction, much of which will have appeared totally arbitrary to the local populace. Result: an area full of dead people and a whole lot more people who hate the soldiers. Into this environment the insurgents return with words of comfort, offers of support, possibly some intimidation, and a now shared hatred for the troops.

S&D, far from defeating an insurgency, actually fuels it. This was why it was abandoned in Vietnam in 1968. It just doesn't work. At all. The fact that Bush, by his own admission, pursued a very similar military strategy is, I say again, inexcusably incompetant.

"Clear and Hold", the strategy General Abrams adopted in 1969, is much more likely to provide a stable foundation for further improvements. In fact, one of the great debates in LIC theory centres on whether the C&H strategy could have worked in Vietnam if it had been given more time to develop. US public support for that war collapsed, in part due to the fact that the S&D strategy had been so disasterous, and the troops were withdrawn so no-one really knows.

But it is basically a good strategy. In practical terms, it is more dangerous for the troops on the ground, expecially in the initial stages, because most of them will not be garrisoned in large well defended bases. Unfortunately, this danger cannot be avoided. The practical benefits are obvious; embedded troops will be better able to protect the inhabitants of a given area against insurgent activity and deny the insurgents safe havens for planning and launching new attacks. The difficulty of identifying insurgents remains but the mindset of the soldier is different.

In a C&H mission, it should be stressed that the goal is protection of the population of the given area. The soldiers job is first and foremost to protect. This will have a significant impact on their attitude towards opening fire on a suspected target. The need to provide an insurgent body count is no longer present and this will also have some effect. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the soldier knows he's going to be staying in the area for a reasonable period of time is going to have an impact. The soldier is less likely to break things unnecessarily for a start. A good C&H strategy then, is less likely to lead to (possibly unintentional) indiscriminate violence and less likely to antagonise the locals.

This leads to the next, and possibly the most powerful effect of a good C&H strategy. After the soldiers have cleared the area, the local population is now confronted with a whole lot of people with guns. Close proximity to people with guns can have a very strange affect on a person. Just ask Patty Hearst. This needs close contact of course so it doesn't work if soldiers spend most of their time in large heavily fortified compounds. If the soldiers in close contact with the locals behave in a considerate, decent and civilised manner, this can have a create a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome. When the population truly start to believe the soldiers claim that "we're here to help you", you're halfway there. That's when you can really start to make significant progress on the political and economic pillars.

And that is a good strategy to begin to defeat an insurgency. Political progress is then the essential next step. No guarantees though, insurgencies are incredibly durable.

This strategy is the one President Bush has now outlined for victory in Iraq. By his own admission, it was not the strategy initially employed by his troops.
Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step. We also have to win the "battle after the battle" -- by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning. Used to be that after American troops cleared the terrorists out of a city and moved onto the next mission, there weren't enough forces, Iraqi forces, to hold the area.
The question must be asked: why was it necessary to learn this again? Something first learned in 1968? (And by the US miltary for fuc..) These standard counter-insurgency theories, based in large part on the experiences of the US military in Vietnam, are not a secret. Anyone who wants to know how not to fight an insurgency can find out really quite easily. "Search and Destroy? No, I wouldn't do that. Try this C&H instead." I, or any one of the hundreds of thousands of other people who take interest in these things, could have told him that in March 2003.

It appears that he just didn't bother to ask anyone who actually knew what they were talking about. Or perhaps he asked but didn't believe the answers because they were not emmanating from his infamous inner circle. There is, however, absolutely nothing which could possibly excuse the ignorance of President George W. Bush in this. I'm not joking when I say it terrifies me. It frightens me silly.

* I really don't like making Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. There are many differences. Pursuing futile counter-insurgency strategies, unfortunately, is not one of them.

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