2007 U.S. Shift in Iraq Warfighting Policy: The “Ideal” Counterinsurgency Strategy?

We are in a race against time, give the locals you deal with a stake in the new Iraq, and don’t do anything that creates more enemies than it removes.

General David Petraeus, Commanding General, 101st Airborne Division Mosul, Iraq – 2003[1]

After the initial success of the conventional war against Saddam Hussein’s regular army, the situation rapidly deteriorated into a vicious civil war that pitted rival Sunni and Shia militias against each other and against coalition forces. Initially the U.S. military response was to wage a “kill and capture” battle that largely relied on heavy conventional tactics – massive use of force, large, armored patrols, etc. The goal was to take out as many of the “bad guys” as you could and bring home as many of your troops as possible. For many soldiers it was a demoralizing and terrifying experience as they came to distrust the Iraqi people and view them as the enemy. A 2005 poll conducted by the Department of Defense found that fewer than half of the soldiers and Marines surveyed believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect.[2] These heavy-handed tactics sometimes caused large numbers of civilian casualties. In his work The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, author Thomas Ricks points out that to some American commanders “Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business.”[3] By 2005-06 military and civilian leaders began to realize that the current tactics would not produce the desired result (a stable and independent Iraq with a legitimate government).

It was at this time that General Petraeus was tasked with writing and producing a new counterinsurgency document that would help ground commanders fight counterinsurgent (COIN) warfare. Eventually, he orchestrated the now famous troop surge in Iraq and subsequent shift in American tactics to one that focused on protecting Iraqi civilians, securing their neighborhoods, and building a rapport with them – basically “winning hearts and minds” – something that he had practiced in his command at Mosul with the 101st Airborne early in the war. He believed that “ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force.”[4] He had his commanders on the ground order their men to “Get out of your Humvees, get out of your tanks, your Brads, and walk around.”[5] Joseph Halloran, an artillery officer, later summarized the General’s message as “Stop commuting to war… The concept of a super FOB [forward operating base] is more damaging to the war effort than any Abu Ghraib or Haditha incident could ever be.” Commanders were told that Soldiers and Marines “should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.”[6] And that COIN “requires Soldiers and Marines to be ready both to fight and to build depending on the security situation and a variety of other factors.”[7]

Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, the new Interim Mayor Ghamin Al Basso, and his Deputy Interm Mayor Khursu Goran cut the ribbon to open the new offices for the Interim Mayor and his staff in Mosul, Iraq on May 10, 2003. U.S. State Department Photo

When the surge ended in mid-2008 and the last of the five additional combat brigades were heading home, author Thomas Ricks noted that:

Baghdad felt distinctly better. Kebab stands and coffee shops had reopened across the city, and many ordinary Iraqis felt safe enough to venture out of their homes at night, in part because stores were remaining open to evening shoppers. Some women discarded the head scarves that Islamic extremists had insisted they wear, with violators being attacked. Even as Iraq’s factions remained murderously divided, violence was at its lowest level of the entire war, with only a dozen American soldiers dying in July 2008. Contrary to expectation, the holy month of Ramadan didn’t bring a major spike in violence, as it had in the previous five years. Some 39,000 displaced families safely returned to Baghdad.[8]

Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq.[8]

Today Iraq is not “picture perfect” and hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20; we could have a lengthy discussion about what we could or should have done differently, however Iraq currently has a legitimate government in which the people have a vote. Iraqi democracy certainly is not Western democracy and is rife with violence, however in a way one could say that General Petraeus’s strategy is vindicated in the fact that some of our former enemies are now participating in the democratic process. As far as an outcome goes, it is probably the best we could hope for under the circumstances – notwithstanding President Obama’s 2011 total withdrawal of American troops which many credible strategists believe led to the rise of the Islamic State.

[1] Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2010), Kindle Locations 510-511.

[2] Ibid. Kindle Location 251.

[3] Ibid. Kindle Locations 241-242.

[4] United States Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Field Manual No. 3-24 Counterinsurgency, by Lt. General David H. Petraeus and Lt. General James F. Amos (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2006), 1-27.

[5] Ricks, The Gamble. Kindle Locations 3367-3368.

[6] Department of the Army, Field Manual No. 3-24. 1-29.

[7] Ibid. 1-19.

[8] Ricks, The Gamble. Kindle Locations 5844-5850.