Lessons Not Learned
Produced to answer distress calls from commanders in Iraq, the Army's new counterinsurgency manual fails to map a response to 21st century enemies.
After four years of fighting, the world's most technologically advanced and best trained and equipped military has proved incapable of defeating the Iraqi insurgency. Instead, the number and capability of insurgents have increased. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have produced a new counterinsurgency manual to aid in the struggle against a complex mix of guerrilla networks and cells in Iraq. But experts say the manual falls short in the one area the military is most lacking: human intelligence. Instead of providing troops the tools they need to develop human sources and informants to infiltrate the insurgency, it restricts them from developing this key component of successful intelligence operations.
By the most telling measure of military effectiveness-the ability of guerrilla fighters to conduct attacks across Iraq, the mostly Sunni insurgency's strength increases nearly monthly. In a September press briefing in Washington, retired Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who now directs the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, showed a graph depicting IED attacks on American troops from summer 2003 through August 2006. The trend line increased sharply. Meigs said IED attacks were at record highs, "three to four times" the number in early 2004. When asked to assess whether those statistics showed the military to be winning or losing, he declined, saying the answer would be too political.
The war in Iraq has revealed that the American military is woefully ill-prepared for guerrilla warfare, says Andrew F. Krepinevich, a retired Army officer now executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that advises the Pentagon. The American military was blinded by its success in 1991, when it destroyed Iraq's Republic Guard in high-tempo battle using the latest technology. Convinced of its battlefield prowess, the military changed little from its Cold War days, he says.
The problem came when substantial ground forces were needed to occupy Iraq and battle a growing insurgency. America had few options but to send what it had available: an Army crafted to repel a Warsaw Pact armored onslaught on the central European plains, Krepinevich says.
During the 1990s, while the defense establishment embraced a capital-intensive, technology-driven revolution in military affairs, small groups of fighters with limited budgets from Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Lebanon studied and traded low-tech, unconventional tactics that could nullify American advantages.
The U.S. military has been transforming itself into irrelevancy for the wars it is most likely to fight, says counterinsurgency expert Frank Hoffman, a researcher with the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, a Marine Corps in-house think tank in Quantico, Va. America's enemies learned an important lesson from Desert Storm: Don't try to take on the United States in a stand-up fight. Instead, lure soldiers into close-quarters firefights in urban terrain where the advantages of technology and U.S. firepower are less pronounced.
In 1996, RAND Corp., a think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., issued a warning in a report presciently titled "The Urbanization of Insurgency: The Potential Challenge to U.S. Army Operations." It said the Army was so ill-suited to urban counterinsurgency that policymakers would be forced to limit American involvement in such operations to assisting a friendly foreign government with training, equipment and financial support. The "doctrine, training and equipment [of U.S. troops] are not geared to counterinsurgency, particularly urban counterinsurgency," the report noted.
The Army took away one central lesson from its painful experience in Vietnam: The best way to deal with counterinsurgency is to avoid it. The Army sought to purge the Vietnam experience from its memory by configuring itself to fight and win large-scale, World War II-style tank battles. But Army officers, particularly Iraq veterans, are realizing that this time around, the Army won't be able to turn its back on another lost counterinsurgency, because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely archetypes of 21st century warfare.
Army officers finally are shelving books about World War II tank battles and dusting off studies of counterinsurgency. Topping the reading list is former French soldier David Galula, whose book on Algeria in the 1950s, Counterinsurgency Warfare (Praeger, 1964), remains the classic source of lessons learned. A veteran of French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, Galula wrote that officers fighting communist insurgents in Algeria operated in an "intellectual vacuum."
"The sad truth was that, in spite of all our past experience, we had no single, official doctrine for counterinsurgency warfare. Instead, there were various schools of thought, all unofficial," he said. The French were a battle-hardened force, fresh from the Indochina battlefield. But because they lacked a counterinsurgency doctrine, units in different parts of the country pursued different approaches. Some officers argued for large military operations, big sweeps to round up or kill suspected insurgents. Others, impressed with the spread of communist ideas through Indochinese society, advocated a hearts-and-minds approach they hoped would spread ideas of Western liberal democracy.
"With all these fantasies, frustration was most intense at company level," wrote Galula, who commanded an infantry company for two years in a rural area near Algiers. The company commander, who had direct contact with the local population and could gauge the mood on the street, had the most important job in counterinsurgency, he wrote. "In the absence of sensible orders from above, he had to make his own if he wanted to achieve anything."
To fill a similar intellectual vacuum in Iraq today, the Pentagon produced a new counterinsurgency manual, titled FM 3-24, the first new manual devoted to the subject in 20 years. It is intended "to fill a doctrinal gap," wrote the two generals who oversaw the effort, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Amos, and establish the fundamental principles for fighting counterinsurgency that have been "generally neglected . . . since the end of the Vietnam War." While drafts could be found on the Internet last summer, the final version had been held up by substantial revisions following extensive critiques, says Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College. The manual is unique in U.S. military history, he says, in that it was produced as a result of clamoring from officers in Iraq and Afghanistan for something they could use to guide their forces.
But some military and civilian officials say the manual comes up short. A primary criticism is that it is too full of the concepts of a Maoist-style people's war and so is more instructive on how to win a Vietnam-style counterinsurgency than those in Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
The manual overly focuses on a single, unified insurgency, and thus fails to adequately capture the complexity of the enemy America faces in Iraq and Af-ghanistan, critics say. Multiple internal enemies with many different faces are fighting many internal wars there, says retired Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, who commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Afghanistan and is now director of the National Coordination Team in Iraq, intended to manage U.S. civilian and military efforts.
In Iraq, Sunni Arab Baathist networks are fighting to regain the power that they long held under Saddam Hussein. Al Qaeda-related terrorist cells stoke the flames of sectarian war. Tribes battle for territory and smuggling rights, and criminal gangs operate primarily for profit in Iraq's lawless environment. Shiite militias fight on behalf of powerful warlords, both inside and outside of the Iraqi government.
Iraqi insurgents are organized entirely differently from those of the Vietnam era. Instead of a pyramid-like structure with a dominant leadership at the top and the group expanding in size at each lower level, guerrilla networks in Iraq are highly decentralized and lack hierarchy. Instead, fighters join small, adaptive cells that operate independently. Olson says defeating Islamic guerrilla fighters requires a deep understanding of clan and kinship ties, values, foreign support, religious inspiration and the motivations that come from deeply held tribal concepts such as blood feuds, honor and revenge killings. A senior military officer, who requested anonymity, criticized the manual for failing to even examine the scourge of Islamic suicide bombers, an enemy the U.S. military is likely to confront for the foreseeable future.
Some military officials say the most grievous shortcomings of the manual are restrictions it places on developing human intelligence sources for accurate collection and analysis of information about an enemy that can stage hit-and-run attacks and remain hidden among the local population. Absent precise intelligence, "a counterinsurgent is like a blind boxer, wasting energy flailing at an unseen opponent," the manual says.
But human intelligence remains the biggest challenge in Iraq, says a senior Army officer who has already served two tours there and is preparing to return: "We still don't have the intelligence we need on the ground in Iraq. Our lack of [human intelligence] remains the major problem four years into the war."
The American military is designed to fight a mirror-image enemy armed with big pieces of equipment that can be spotted by overhead sensors and who talks on radios whose signals can be intercepted and locations triangulated. Baghdad is undoubtedly the most heavily scrutinized piece of terrain in the world. Its skies are flooded with all manner of surveillance: satellites, countless aerial drones, jet aircraft and even blimps festooned with cameras, all trying to spot insurgents placing a roadside bomb, or firing mortar rounds into American bases. Missing is the human element, agents and paid informants who can infiltrate the insurgency and collect information at the street level.
"I would trade all of that high-tech shit, I would trade it all for an informant. I would trade every [sensor] in the sky for an informant," says Lt. Col. Ross Brown, who commanded a squadron in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. "I can win this war with informants. Satellites in the sky aren't going to help me win this war; it's all about people." Brown says he constantly battled with his superiors for money to pay informants to be his eyes and ears on the street. But apart from what are called micro-awards, $20 that can be paid to individuals for tips, the rules say Army officers are not allowed to pay informants. Still, some officers in Iraq said they paid informants larger sums out of their own pockets.
A particularly illuminating 2006 documentary film, Meeting Resistance, by journalists Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, who spent 10 months interviewing insurgents in Iraq, revealed that the weapon the insurgents hated and feared most was the American dollar. Dollars could buy people, Iraqi informants, who could identify the insurgents who otherwise blend into the population.
According to the manual: "All soldiers and Marines may record information given to them by walk-up contacts, including liaison relationships, but they may not develop [human intelligence] sources or networks." That function is reserved for trained counterintelligence personnel. But the Army and Marines have precious few of those troops. Military officials say the regulations against developing informant networks must be reconsidered.
The report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, issued in December 2006, found that the military's efforts and resources devoted to human intelligence collection in Iraq are inadequate. "They are not doing enough to map the insurgency, dissect it, and understand it on a national and provincial level," the group found.
Because the military lacks agents and sources, and thus precise intelligence, "You end up throwing big what we called 'block parties'-searching hundreds of homes in a night to find that holy grail: that one guy. And in the process, you ticked off a lot of people," says an Army officer who commanded a brigade in Baghdad. The net result, he says, is that Iraqis who might have been on the fence about helping Americans will help the enemy. Galula called it the "vicious cycle" that arises when the military's actions turn the population against it, and soldiers then view the population as hostile, leading them to make more mistakes that alienate the population even further.
"It's curious to me that, at the five-year mark in this war, we still get our best [human intelligence] not from the conventional technique, that is, by sending agents in to penetrate their networks, but rather by slicing up parts, small bits, of their network and detaining those guys and getting the [human intelligence] as part of the interrogation process," said Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Nov. 15 speech sponsored by the Association of the U.S. Army's Institute of Land Warfare. "It's a clumsy way to do [human intelligence], and it is not very effective." He said the military is hindered by a lack of language and cultural expertise.
In the early 1970s, the British army made many of the same mistakes in its fight against Irish Republican Army guerrillas in Northern Ireland, says Andrew Garfield, a retired British military and civilian intelligence officer. The British army operated with imprecise intelligence and favored internment sweeps and poorly targeted cordon-and-search operations that did little more than alienate the citizenry. The British began to make real progress only after they painstakingly built a detailed picture of the IRA and its network of supporters. That allowed the British to then infiltrate the IRA with their spies. The effort took many years, Garfield says, and the IRA was much, much smaller than the Iraqi insurgency.
The U.S. Army also is particularly hobbled by a Cold War-style, top-down intelligence structure, said Maj. Gen Thomas Turner, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, on Oct. 10 at the Association of the U.S. Army annual convention in Washington. All the intelligence collection and analysis expertise is concentrated at the higher command levels. To be effective, "counterinsurgency warfare requires inverting that pyramid" and pushing the intelligence experts to the lowest levels, he added.
'Target the Network'
An officer who commands Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan says his troops weren't burdened by the same restrictions that govern the regular Army. They used only precise intelligence they gathered themselves by running their own networks of informants. One of the first things Special Operations units did when the insurgency began in Iraq in 2003 was create scout platoons of Iraqis, "I-scouts," whom they taught targeting and tracking techniques and sent out to gather intelligence. I-scouts proved highly effective. The officer, who, because of the sensitivity of his position, preferred to remain anonymous, says the regular Army might get the same intelligence, but because of its hierarchical structure, that information doesn't filter down to companies and platoons on the street.
While the counterinsurgency manual says additional intelligence analysts are needed at the battalion and brigade level, too few are called for, experts say, and there's no recommendation to push them all the way down to units patrolling the streets.
Meanwhile, the Army is adding intelligence operatives, but not in sufficient numbers or fast enough. Speaking at a defense communications conference on Nov. 1, Collin Agee, the Army's intelligence director, said the service had doubled the number of personnel trained in human intelligence, adding 2,400 people since the beginning of the Iraq war.
But the numbers allocated to combat units remain low. Agee said Army brigades that used to have eight intelligence experts would increase that number to 30 by 2011. Battalions would add five operatives each, bringing them to nine by 2011.
Comparing these numbers with the British army in Northern Ireland is instructive. Garfield says the British inverted their traditional ratios of intelligence professionals who support regular soldiers. Whereas a typical 5,000-person British brigade would have six to eight intelligence professionals, equivalent units in Northern Ireland had up to 500. And intelligence professionals could not be on short-term rotations. The majority served for at least two years, he says, while those in the most sensitive areas stayed in place even longer.
The Iraq Study Group found that there are fewer than 10 analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency with more than two years of experience in analyzing the insurgency, and capable analysts are rotated to new assignments much too frequently.
The new catchphrase in military intelligence circles is: "Target the network." The intent is to penetrate Iraqi insurgent cells and attack them from the inside out. But until the military develops the expertise, enlarges the human intelligence corps and allows military commanders on the ground to develop their own sources, that goal is likely to remain unattainable.
Galula knew that only the locals could provide the intelligence the French required to penetrate insurgent networks. But the locals would not throw in with the French unless they feared them less than the rebels, whose cells always were watching, Galula wrote. "Not until these cells were destroyed could the French hope to break through that barrier of silence."