Lessons from the Past for Iraq's Future


Jul 23, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on July 23, 2004.

Iraq's new government and its American and coalition allies are faced with the challenge of simultaneously fighting the insurgency raging across the country on both the military and political levels. They can get good advice on how to do this by studying the views of Sir Gerald Templer, the architect of Britain's victory in the Malayan insurgency during the 1950s.

Templer said victory in counterinsurgency can't be derived exclusively from battlefield successes. Victory is dependent on isolating the insurgents from popular support and reversing Mao Tse-tung's famous dictum that insurgents are "fish that must swim in a friendly sea." Dry up the friendly sea (support from the local population) and the fish die.

Only by providing positive incentives for the population to support the government, Templer believed, could an insurgency really be crushed. Foremost among these incentives is fostering a sense of safety and security by separating the insurgents psychologically as well as physically from the population upon whom they depend.

Such an integrated approach is precisely what military special operations forces are best prepared to do. Yet U.S. special forces teams have been noticeably absent from the training and advising of indigenous Iraqi security forces almost from the start.

The American-led coalition and the Iraqi government now need greater special forces involvement in Iraq to help stabilize the country. U.S. Army Green Berets are experts not just in the critical area of armed combat against insurgents, but in training indigenous forces to win the trust of their fellow citizens. Increasing the number of U.S. military special forces in Iraq in coming months could enhance the training of Iraqi military forces and police in counterinsurgency.

Most people think of special forces troops as courageous fighters deployed on hazardous commando assaults or hostage rescues – John Waynes going in with guns blazing. But in the real world, foreign internal defense and internal development are the central missions of U.S. military special forces.

Foreign internal defense refers to the training and advising of indigenous military forces. Internal defense and development addresses the counterinsurgency operational environment in its totality: focusing specifically "on building viable institutions (political, economic, social, and military) that respond to the needs of society." This official U.S. Department of Defense definition comes closest to describing exactly what needs to be done in Iraq to prepare that country for full self-governance, security and stability.

The foreign language capabilities and communications skills of special forces, their cultural awareness and sensitivity, and their training and experience in working directly with local populations and security forces could enable U.S. special forces to most effectively address the military and political sides of the counterinsurgency equation in Iraq.

Training offered by U.S. special forces could teach local Iraqi forces how to effectively protect citizens from insurgent attacks and reprisals, how to organize indigenous populations for their own self-defense, and how to thereby give the Iraqi people a greater stake in the outcome of their government's success. With this training, Iraqi security forces could play a pivotal role directly promoting sound civil-military relations and building public confidence in the government, while simultaneously depriving the insurgents of support.

Building solid relations with the population is perhaps the key to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The recent upsurge of insurgent violence in Iraq thus threatens not only to reverse whatever progress has so far been made, but to compromise the effectiveness of Iraq's new government.

Poor relations with the Iraqi people will inevitably prolong, if not thwart, the new government's struggle against its insurgent opponents. Intelligence for the United States and coalition as well as new Iraqi forces will become even more difficult to gather. And without good intelligence, efforts to attack insurgents will at times inadvertently attack innocent Iraqis instead – making it far harder for the Iraqi government to win and hold the support of its citizens.

At the foundation of counterinsurgency is the salience of the political dimension – in doctrine, planning, implementation and most importantly, operational coordination. The critical nexus between the political and military dimensions has been widely acknowledged even by those practitioners of counterinsurgency whose natural inclinations were to emphasize force and coercion in place of reform and persuasion.

Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, the defense minister at the height of the insurgency in El Salvador during the 1980s, for example, was often quoted as stating that 90 percent of countering insurgency "is political, social, economic and ideological and only 10 percent military."

The failure by the United States and its coalition allies both to treat the conflict in Iraq as a counterinsurgency from the start and to focus sufficient attention and resources on its non-military imperatives arguably breathed life into the sustained violence that began last summer and that has continued to gather momentum ever since.

The new Iraqi government will need the support of U.S. and coalition military forces for the foreseeable future to restore security and stability. Clearly, a massive increase in the overall number of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq is not in the cards. But the overwhelmingly conventional U.S. military force that defeated the armed forces of Saddam Hussein could use an assist from special forces to train Iraqi forces to wage the integrated military and political counterinsurgency campaign needed to stabilize Iraq.

Hoffman is a counterinsurgency expert with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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