Our Way or the Highway


Jan 15, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on January 15, 2005.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) — By now, just about everyone has heard U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to a soldier's question about the need for more armored vehicles to protect U.S. troops from insurgent attacks along Iraq's dangerous highways. But there is a more fundamental question: Why are the highway attacks still succeeding?

A key reason for the success is that there are not enough U.S. and coalition forces to both provide security in Iraq's cities and along key highways at the same time. Insurgents with a choice of mounting operations against powerful but sparse concentrations of potent U.S. forces or attacks on lightly guarded highway lines of supply and communication have, not surprisingly, chosen the latter.

A strategic approach to counterinsurgency that guarantees security throughout government-controlled areas and projects an aura of growing strength that will eventually expand to uncontrolled areas is possible; however, getting there will test the patience of those looking for fast results.

Part of this approach would assign new Iraqi forces to road security tasks as an introduction to operations. Road security tasks provide situations that are less complex and better matched to the limited skills of new Iraqi units. Indeed, road security rules of engagement can be made so clear to new Iraqi troops, insurgents and innocent civilians that the situation is made safer for all — including the insurgents, who are deterred more than they are actually defeated.

Even the untested reliability of these new units might be tolerated with some creative assignment of mission and locations. Some will never be up to much more than the task of guarding roads. Others will move on to more sophisticated missions with greater confidence, replaced by new units as they are created. Only as units are fully tested and grow reliable with increased confidence in their combat cohesion would they be assigned to the more daunting tasks like urban combat.

Securing supply lines has long been a difficult but critically important task in counterinsurgency operations. Throughout the 1980s, U.S.-supported mujahedin attacked Soviet convoys on Afghan highways with U.S.-supplied AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, land mines, and what we would now call improvised explosive devices. The mujahedin themselves were encouraged by their successes and did not lose often enough to discourage further attempts.

The mujahedin made videos of successful attacks showing exploding Soviet vehicles and dead and dying Soviet soldiers. These pictures never appeared on Soviet television, but the mujahedin used them to encourage their supporters. Outside Afghanistan, anti-Soviet audiences, including many Americans, relished the videos as proof that the Soviet Bear was not just evil but vulnerable.

As the Soviet forces continued to falter in Afghanistan, experts started assembling a picture of an incompetent Soviet military filled with demoralized draftees. The Soviets knew they could do better in Afghanistan, but they could never build up enough of their own forces or create enough reliable Afghan allies to properly control all the roads that they had to travel, including the critical Salang Highway. Instead, the Soviets were constantly moving forces from one troubled region to another, hoping that their next offensive would be the last. Their episodic occupations and abandonment guaranteed defeat.

In the end, erudite Soviet officers were left to collect their experiences in lessons learned and staff studies. These writings were then studied and interpreted by U.S. experts such as Les Grau at the Foreign Military Studies Office, who published clear prescriptions on the implications of the mujahedin weapons and tactics in the military professional literature throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. forces in Iraq face the same problems as the Soviets did in Afghanistan. The insurgents even use the same weapons: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. The insurgents are encouraged by successes and do not lose often enough to discourage further attempts. The Iraqi insurgents make videos of exploding U.S. vehicles and dead Americans and distribute them via the Internet and Arab TV networks for their supporters and win new adherents. Outside Iraq, foreign radicals see the images as confirmation that the Americans are vulnerable.

Painful experience shows us that transport convoys cannot protect themselves. Their security must come from security forces that patrol the road and guard key features along it. The problem of securing areas is accepting the commitment of troops and surveillance resources to the frustrating and seemingly unproductive task of guarding a road on which nothing happens as long as the troops are there.

U.S. forces have not been able to remain committed to road security for long. The First Armored Division had the road to the Baghdad airport largely secured before it was moved off to more urgent tasks.

The Iraqi forces now coming into being are also being pressed to do other things that seem to offer more immediate return. Focusing the efforts of Iraqi units on guarding the nation's highways instead would give them a job they can handle now and would protect the lives of Americans and allied forces and civilians. This would delay their entry to other missions but help ensure their reliability and cohesion when they eventually were assigned to these other tasks.

© United Press International

James T. Quinlivan is a senior analyst at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, which seeks solutions to problems worldwide.

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