Strenuous American efforts to reduce casualties are prolonging the insurgency that causes them.
When historians try to pinpoint when the American military adventure in Iraq went off the rails, they're likely to focus on a series of damaging steps taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority within months of Baghdad's fall, such as the decision to officially disband the Iraqi army or the deep de-Baathification that effectively removed the managerial level of the Iraqi government. Even earlier, the mission in Iraq was fundamentally altered with repercussions that are felt to this day.
The shift in American priorities from protecting the Iraqi population to protecting U.S. troops began on March 29, 2003, when a taxi packed with explosives blew up at an American checkpoint, killing four soldiers. Fanatical attacks by Iraqi irregulars dressed as civilians in the first days of the war already had unsettled American commanders. That suicide bombing provoked overreaction by U.S. military leaders, the exact result intended by such attacks.
The highly restrictive rules of engagement issued at the beginning of the war were dropped. Soldiers were told to treat all Iraqis, whether they appeared to be civilians or not, as enemies first. The exact wording of the order was cautious, but the tone and meaning were unmistakable: Shoot first, ask questions later, and don't worry about the consequences. In war, civilian deaths are unavoidable. But what has happened in Iraq has gone beyond the unavoidable. Civilian deaths haven't been caused mostly by errant bombs, but by scared 18- and 19-year-old soldiers shooting at civilians and their vehicles at close range.
In the early days of the war, a standing rule that no warning shots were to be fired at surrendering Iraqi soldiers or civilians became an order to fire a single warning shot followed by the use of all means necessary to protect U.S. soldiers' lives. The result? All too often, warning shots went through the front windshields of civilians' vehicles hundreds of meters away from U.S. troops. In their preparations for war, American military leaders failed to plan to deal effectively with large numbers of noncombatants on the battlefield. The problem only worsened as American troops came under attack from Iraqi insurgents, whom Americans found indistinguishable from noncombatants. The U.S. military lacked sufficient Arabic speakers to communicate with the Iraqis. In turn, Iraqis were confused as to how to go about their lives while a foreign army occupied their country.
The tension implicit in a commander's obligation to protect the lives of American troops and those of Iraqi civilians never has been adequately resolved. In her introduction to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Sarah Sewall, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense and now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, notes the contradiction in American counterinsurgency policy: A hearts-and-minds approach to winning over the population is to be carried out by a military obsessed with force protection.
Counterinsurgency policy demands that security forces protect noncombatants to win their support away from insurgents. So insurgents' favorite tactic is to elicit an overreaction by security forces that causes civilians to suffer. "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents," the manual says. But American commanders aren't likely to hew to that sentiment if their soldiers are at risk.
The challenge is distinguishing insurgents from the rest of the population.
The U.S. military is second to none in its ability to destroy an identifiable target from almost any distance, day or night. But in a war fought among noncombatants, "the insurgent's invisibility often tempts counterinsurgents to erase the all-important distinction between combatants and the noncombatants," Sewall notes.
She says the pre-eminence of force protection as a U.S. military mission is a holdover from 1990s peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans and Somalia. Troops were consolidated on large bases and contact with the civilian population was limited to prevent the possibility of "collateral damage" in tense confrontations between Americans and civilians. This practice quickly was extended to Iraq when the American military began battling a determined insurgency and commanders tried to minimize losses.
Nevertheless, in the early days of the Iraq war, some units made efforts to replicate successful counterinsurgency practices of the Vietnam era. In early 2005, Army officers in Iraq lamented that the Marines initially had a better and more productive relationship with the local population than did Army soldiers because the Marines lived in small units among the local people. Army Special Forces teams also lived in small compounds that dotted Baghdad. But as the American casualty count climbed, Special Forces troops were pulled out of those exposed positions to heavily secured bases.
As Iraqi insurgents stepped up their use of roadside bombs, the U.S. military responded by slapping more armor on Humvees, which never were intended for use in combat. While the additional armor saved countless American lives, it also isolated U.S. troops, who now peered out tiny windows through thick bullet-resistant glass at Iraqi civilians who peered in at goggled faces and helmeted heads. The only person to have any contact with the population was the gunner in the Humvee turret who spent most of his time yelling at Iraqi cars and pedestrians to keep their distance.
But counterinsurgency cannot be conducted by drive-by or from armored vehicles. The problem is only increasing with the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles being rushed to Iraq to provide added protection against roadside bombs. The Army and Marines are ordering thousands of the new vehicles, which ride higher off the ground and increase the sense of distance from the population on the streets. The military also is buying more remote controlled weapons mounts to affix atop vehicles to replace exposed gunners, so soon there will be no Americans visible at all. From a force protection standpoint, these moves make perfect sense, but they are deadly to a counterinsurgency effort. In a 2006 article in Military Review, an influential Army journal, Gen. David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, observed that every army of liberation eventually becomes an odious army of occupation. "That has, of course, been the case to varying degrees in much of Iraq," he noted.
Some question whether America has the stomach required to defeat an insurgency, particularly in the age of Al Jazeera, CNN and YouTube, where footage of innocents being killed at the hands of American troops can be viewed instantly around the world. Some commentators say the problem in Iraq is that the United States has not been ruthless enough in its pursuit of insurgents, terrorists and members of troublesome militias. Soldiers have been overly constrained and too concerned about civilian casualties. The answer is to unleash U.S. military power in an indiscriminate fashion, they say.
Edward N. Luttwak, a military historian and strategist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, spelled out the need for a ruthlessness in Harpers magazine in February. He criticized the American approach to counterinsurgency as being too soft. Defeating an insurgency requires an approach akin to the Nazi occupation of Europe, where the Germans carried out brutal reprisals against civilian populations to deter resistance. To be successful, an army of occupation must be willing to "out-terrorize the insurgents," Luttwak wrote. Absent Draconian measures, insurgents retain control of the population, what Luttwak terms the real terrain of any insurgency.
But the scorched earth approach to counterinsurgency is by no means a prescription for success. It was attempted and found wanting by the Soviet Union and Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya. During the nine-year war in Afghanistan, Soviet forces made little effort to protect the population, instead treating civilians as enemies and making few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. Entire villages were leveled by air bombardment.
Free-fire zones and severe reprisals were the norm. As many as 1 million Afghan civilians were believed to have died during the Soviet occupation and millions more were driven from the country. Yet a defeated Soviet Army was forced to retreat.
In Chechnya, the Russians have battled an Islamic insurgency for more than a decade, with little success, even though security forces outnumber insurgents by a ratio of 50-to-1, according to Mark Kramer, a senior fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Upwards of 45,000 civilians have been killed, tens of thousands displaced and huge swaths of the country have been laid waste by Russian bombardment. The Chechen capital, Grozny, remains largely uninhabitable, having been leveled in repeated Russian attacks. Russian troops have employed mass arrests, summary executions, torture and rape. Chechen fighters have been equally ruthless in their treatment of Russian soldiers. But the bombings and ambushes continue and Russian forces appear as far from victory as ever.
So while the scorched earth approach to counterinsurgency might sound appealing, particularly to troops who are bombed and sniped at by an enemy hidden among and concealed by the population, it is no guarantee of victory. If the war in Iraq has demonstrated anything, it is the near impossibility of killing insurgents and terrorists faster than new ones can arise. In Afghanistan, American air strikes are blamed for a rash of civilian casualties-somewhere between 300 to 500 this year alone-that are turning Afghans against the NATO-led counterinsurgency. Taliban fighters ambush American patrols, then purposely retreat into crowded villages and homes where they await American air strikes. More often than not, Taliban fighters slip away before the bombs fall.
In a 2006 interview conducted in Afghanistan, a veteran British special operations soldier, who refused to provide his real name, faulted American tactics as being a product of a nation overly reliant on technology and bombing from a distance, and unwilling to risk casualties in close-in firefights. When American troops encounter Taliban fighters, they pull back and call in the bombers. The result: Taliban fighters often make a getaway as the planes approach, while noncombatants bear the brunt of the bombing. He contrasted the American approach with the British. When British troops encounter insurgent fighters, they aggressively push forward and engage them at close quarters, rather than pulling back and relying on massive firepower to do the killing.
Resolving the Tension
The conflict in counterinsurgency doctrine applied on the streets of Iraq manifests almost daily. Anybody who has spent any time in Iraq quickly realizes that the most dangerous period for Iraqi civilians is immediately following a roadside bomb attack on American troops, when a combination of fear and anger can produce disastrous consequences for civilians who stray too close to the scene.
A U.S. Army brigade commander in Baghdad interviewed in 2005 said one of the biggest challenges he faced was that his soldiers were too lethal. He understood the lasting damage caused by an Iraqi civilian's death. He instituted a policy that any discharge of a weapon, for whatever purpose, would require an immediate investigation (in military terms, known as an Article 15-6) by higher officers. He realized his soldiers would continue to be killed unless Iraqis came to trust American troops more and fear them less than the insurgents. The commander was willing to sacrifice short-term force protection to calm the populace and produce fewer insurgent recruits.
But will the American public accept that successful counter- insurgency will mean more American casualties? The nation appears to have decided that the Iraqi government is not worth the loss of American blood.
But U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency will continue. Both the public and the military must face and attempt to resolve the contradiction that protecting American lives at all costs works directly against the only successful strategy for ending insurgencies: winning the trust of noncombatants in order to drain away support for insurgents.