Friday, October 05, 2007
No Soup for You
Honestly, I don't know if successful counterinsurgency operations are possible in a densely populated urban setting. I have serious doubts, but I'm sure some of the more enthusiastic scholars in the field would be able to present at least a mildly compelling case.
Either way, whatever reservations I have concerning COIN operations in urban areas generally speaking, our current entanglement in Iraq presents an exceptionally problematic case for at least three reasons (there are many more of course):
1) We began applying COIN doctrine fairly late in the game, which has allowed attitudes ("hearts and minds" if you will) to harden - calcifying around a general hostility and suspicion, when not bitterly oppositional. If COIN could ever succeed in such a challenging environment (more on that below), capturing the momentum and trust of the people from the onset of the conflict is imperative.
2) We are not simply fighting an insurgency, but rather a complex mosaic of civil wars, insurgencies, lawlessness and vigilantism, all against the backdrop of a failed/failing state. This makes it exceedingly difficult to distinguish actual insurgents, or even "adversaries" in the loose sense, from potential allies/neutral parties that have taken up arms in the vacuum created by the state's collapse. While COIN doctrine might be a useful guide for approaching such an intricate matrix of conflicts, it is less effective the more diffuse the parameters of the conflict become.
3) Even now we are not applying COIN best practices. Aside from the fact that our language skills, and knowledge of local customs, norms, tribal affiliations and other cultural nuances, is below what are considered necessary levels, our military tactics have been wanting. Despite the supposed virtuosity of Petraeus and his counterinsurgency gurus, we have been over-reliant on the use of airpower, and prone to employ collective punishment as a tactic (here and here, ie). We continue to approach entire neighborhoods (Sadr city) with heavy-handed belligerence. See, also: 30,000-50,000 armed mercenaries operating outside the chain of command, and with de facto, if not de jure, immunity.
Another day, another example. Another group of Iraqi hearts and minds lost forever. Another dozen families whose extended networks will fight against our presence with fervor:
U.S. forces backed by attack aircraft killed at least 25 Shiite militia fighters north of Baghdad Friday in an operation targeting a cell accused of smuggling weapons from Iran, the military said.
An Iraqi army official claimed civilians, including seven children, were among those killed in the raid, which the U.S. said targeted the commander of a rogue militia group believed to be associated with the Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Gunmen opened fire on the soldiers in Khalis, a Shiite enclave about 50 miles north of Baghdad, with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least one man was carrying what appeared to be an anti-aircraft weapon, the military said. Ground forces called for air support when the fighters kept coming, the military said. Two buildings were destroyed in airstrikes, it said.
The Iraqi army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said U.S. aircraft bombed the neighborhood repeatedly and he claimed civilians, including seven children, were among those killed and three children were among the 28 wounded.
He said the civilians were killed when families rushed out to help those hurt in the initial bombing.
The town's mayor said U.S. forces targeted areas built up by locals to protect their Shiite neighborhood against attacks by al-Qaida gunmen. The guards were armed and worked around the clock, he said.
"These places came under attack by American airstrikes," said Khalis Mayor Odai al-Khadran. "Locals were protecting themselves by guarding their village. They are not militias killing people."
Just imagine if that was your kid. Regardless of who the targets were, would you care? There is no question that if our military remains in Iraq, similar missions - and collateral damage - will result. Cutting down on the use of air-power would help, but doing so would also leave our own soldiers more vulnerable. How do you justify that to American families?There is a reason fighting counterinsurgency is analogized to eating soup with a knife. It's nearly impossible to thread such a needle in even ideal circumstances - and we are several steps removed from anything resembling an ideal situation. You know what the alternative to fumbling with the knife and soup is: put the bowl down and leave the restaurant.
(photograph courtesy of Ali Yussef / AFP - Getty Images)