Iraq 2014: Not Repeating COIN


2014-08-10 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003.

Following the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US started on the path of the reconstruction of the country.

A key approach followed, notably in the surge and thereafter, a counter-insurgency or COIN doctrine to create “stability.”

And then with declared “success,” a policy of training of Iraqi troops followed to ensure stabilization.

It became widely accepted that the warfighting strategy followed by the US military in the Cold War would be replaced by a stabilization strategy.

Victory in military operations was no longer enough, but also the role of the military was to shape peace in a post-conflict setting.

Indeed, Secretary Gates made a career of highlighting the new military doctrine and the need for the military to shift from simply from war winning to winning the hearts and minds of the population of Iraq and then Afghanistan. The presumption was that a new template was being put in place for the US military and the US Army has built its field manuals around this presumption.

With the experience of Iraq, 2014, does this strategy make sense?

Notably, with the Afghan drawdown rapidly reaching a conclusion, what lessons learned need to be applied before the Afghan transition looks like the Iraq one?

One answer has been provided by an Obama Administration assessment of the state of play of the Iraqi forces and the implications of this assessment are profound for evaluating COIN as well.

A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.

The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.

Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.

For defenders of COIN, it would have to be explained why time and continued effort would overcome what are clearly deeply rooted fissures within the political texture of Iraq: namely the Sunni-Shite cleavage, the role of Iran and the use of the military by Malki by merely his own political purposes?

In effect, Maliki has used his Shia-dominated military in ways similar to how Saddam Hussein used his Sunni-dominated military , namely to prop himself up in power and to shape domestic political outcomes to his benefit.

It is not about having an effective fighting force for domestic security or defense of the country.

And when the ISIS were able to aggregate forces, the absence of an air enabled ground force, demonstrated a fundamental fact often forgotten: it is not about airpower versus boots on the ground.

It is about an air dominance enabled ground force versus one that it is not.

The point of having a military force is its ability to fight and defend the country, not simply to manage domestic affairs to the benefit of the current despot.

And no amount of COIN training or understanding of the current fad of US Army, Human Terrain Mapping will overcome that problem.

Human Terrain Mapping has been embraced at the highest level of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command:

General Cone (then CG TRADOC) introduces words that make no sense but appear to well on the way to becoming an insider signal of profound wisdom– human terrain mapping.

Is there a human domain” in warfare? Cone asked.

“But he said 12 years later, after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s the biggest advocate of what the Army has learned about human terrain.”

How did that work out with Nuri Kamal al-Maliki?

The French demonstrated in Mali a fundamental point in fighting any enemy which is operating in an area you consider of strategic interest: when they aggregate force, one operates to destroy those aggregated forces.

Fighting set piece battles by an air enabled ground insertion force, with modernization of both air and ground assets and their integration, allows a Western power to deal with insurgents threatening our interests. It does not eliminate them but pulverizes them.

It is not about being loved; it is about being respected.

It is then up to the indigenous population to do the rest; and if it does not then the insurgents who threaten our interests again aggregate power we will return and pulverize them again.

A key element which the US has in 2014, which it did not have in 2003, is a tiltrotar enabled assault force.

For the talking heads who keep bifurcating the air from ground forces, the Marines have created a unique hybrid – the tiltortoor enabled assault force.

Working with other air elements — whether USMC, USN, USAF or allied — this force can be inserted to support humanitarian missions and to perform combat missions and then LEAVE.

It is not about leaving scattered training elements waiting to become hostages for the insurgents; it is about helping those whom you wish to help and being prepared to bring down fire upon those who attack you.

It is about having clear political objectives; using force to support those objectives and to recognize that modern forces like the French and the Americans have air enabled assault forces, not simply ground forces.

And for the US, the Marines have brought a whole new capability to the fight – rapid insertion forces.

And another key element in play in 2014 which we did not have in 2003, is the Russian partnering with the “poor man’s “ Saddam Hussein, Maliki.

Putin is backing Maliki as a partner; let us see if it works better for him than us.

For the US, it is time to embrace the Kurds use the heretofore unique military capability of airpower and the USMC tilt-rotor infantry force and to save innocent lives and pulverize the ISIS along the way.

They will not be completely eliminated; and they certainly will not be COINed.

For some additional looks at the state of Iraqi forces after being COINed: