Fighting the Insurgency


Jun 8, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on June 8, 2004.

As fighting intensifies in Iraq leading up to the June 30 transition to limited self-governance, pressure grows on the United States to restore security — and on insurgent forces to make Iraqis even less secure.

Insurgents have proven to be masters of creative strategies and tactics against the more powerful U.S. forces. It is time now for the American military to catch up.

President Bush addressed the people of the world in a speech May 24 to explain the U.S. campaign to reduce the continuing violence. But insurgents in Iraq are addressing the world each day with bombs and rocket-propelled grenades as they wage a similarly ambitious campaign to plunge Iraq into despair and sabotage the transition.

Insurgents recently assassinated the Iraqi Governing Council president and attempted to kill the deputy interior minister. And Americans awake nearly every day to news reports of fresh U.S. or Iraqi casualties from the latest insurgent attack.

Unless the deterioration of security is halted, a new Iraqi government and a democratic and free Iraq will not survive. It is a truism of counterinsurgency that a population will give its allegiance to the side that will best protect it. This is why the chief goal of insurgents is to deprive the population of that sense of security. Through violence and bloodshed, insurgents seek to foment a climate of fear by demonstrating the authorities' weakness and inability to maintain order.

Spectacular acts of violence, such as the suicide bombings that have rocked Iraq since last August, are meant to demoralize the people and undermine trust and confidence in the authorities' ability to protect and defend them. The guerrillas do not have to defeat their opponents militarily — they just have to avoid losing.

As a result, the more conspicuous the security forces become and the more pervasive their operations, the stronger the insurgency appears. The insurgents bank on the hope the disruption in daily life and commerce by security force countermeasures will further alienate the population from the authorities. This will create an impression of the security forces as oppressors rather than protectors.

In a nutshell, this is what the current struggle in Iraq is all about. With June 30 nearing, what is needed now is a new approach fully recognizing the current conflict in Iraq for what it is — a full-blown insurgency — and brings the correct tools immediately to bear by launching an effective counterinsurgency.

There are two fundamental components to this approach:

What's needed first is a demonstration of force and determination. This requires redeploying U.S. forces back to the streets from the predominantly vehicular patrols they now rely upon. This is less risky than it sounds.

Current standard operating procedure has U.S. troops patrolling on the move in "soft skin" Humvees. The Humvees are magnets for suicide terrorists in bomb-laden vehicles and for insurgents firing RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). But by putting boots on the ground in four-man foot patrols that the British perfected in Northern Ireland's urban centers more than a decade ago, U.S. forces would paradoxically be less exposed.

Because troops on foot patrol would not be bunched closely together, as they are when traveling in a vehicle, one rocket or one shooter would be unlikely to kill or injure an entire squad at once, as can happen when an RPG scores a direct hit on a Humvee. The squad traveling on foot would be better able to determine the attacking insurgents' position and engage them.

The second component of the new approach would bring in U.S. special operations forces to oversee training of the indigenous Iraqi defense forces. Because of their foreign language proficiency, cultural awareness and sensitivities, and extensive training, special forces are best suited to so critical a task and the likeliest to produce lasting results.

Unlike conventional military units, special forces are specifically dedicated and trained not just to fight insurgencies but to understand them. However, U.S. special forces have not been given this critical assignment in Iraq.

Greater special forces involvement might have prevented, or at least reduced, April incidents when most Iraqi police and some military units either mutinied, deserted their posts or refused to deploy on operations alongside U.S. forces.

Neither troop redeployments nor greater use of special forces are panaceas to more intractable, systemic problems facing the U.S. effort in Iraq. But the time to take a course that can produce short-term benefits is now, as June 30 draws near.

As many Iraqis question whether the United States will "cut and run," an American demonstration of force, determination and effectiveness would be a stunning depiction of U.S. resolve. It could reverse the current slide toward instability in Iraq and give Iraqis confidence in their ability to rebuild their country.

Bruce Hoffman is acting director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy and is a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.

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