U.S. Response to Insurgency Called a Failure

Times Staff Writer

Almost a year after acknowledging they were facing a well-armed guerrilla war in Iraq, the Pentagon and commanders in the Middle East are being criticized by some top Bush administration officials, military officers and defense experts who accuse the military of failing to develop a coherent, winning strategy against the insurgency.

Inadequate intelligence, poor assessments of enemy strength, testy relations with U.S. civilian authorities in Baghdad and an inconsistent application of force remain key problems many observers say the military must address before U.S. and Iraqi forces can quell the insurgents.

“It’s disappointing that we haven’t been able to have better insight into the command and control of the insurgents,” said one senior official of the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority, recently returned from Baghdad and speaking on condition of anonymity. “And you’ve got to have that if you’re going to have effective military operations.”


It was July 16, 2003, when Army Gen. John Abizaid stood at a Pentagon podium during his first news conference as head of U.S. Central Command and declared -- after weeks of Pentagon denials -- that U.S. troops were fighting a “classic guerrilla-type war” in Iraq.

Now, after a year of violence and hundreds of U.S. combat deaths, some officials and experts are frustrated that a more effective counterinsurgency plan has not materialized and that the hand-over of power to an interim Iraqi government last week was unlikely to significantly improve the security situation.

“We’re going to have the same cast of characters in Washington and the same commander [Abizaid] in the field,” said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. “What gives you a sense of confidence we’re going to become a lot more competent at something we haven’t shown a great deal of competence at doing for a year?”

Some top American officials bristle at the criticism and say the U.S.-led coalition’s plan has been consistent from the beginning: to bring security to Iraq in preparation for an eventual hand-over to Iraqi forces.

“Our strategy is not complicated. It is to train Iraqis as quickly as we possibly can and as efficiently as we possibly can, and to set the conditions so they can take charge of their own security,” said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And, the administration argues, U.S. forces handed a strategic defeat in April to both Shiite and Sunni Muslim insurgents, forcing them to lower their sights. Rather than confronting U.S. forces, those insurgents have turned to bombing Iraqi infrastructure and attempting to assassinate leaders of the new Iraqi government.

“They now cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so they are changing their tactics,” the official said.

Yet one of the biggest problems for U.S. military and intelligence officials remains the paucity of hard intelligence about the structure of the insurgency.

For example, when Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked recently during Senate testimony whether the Iraqi insurgency was being coordinated from a central hub, he responded: “The intelligence community, as far as I know, will not ... give you an answer, because they can’t give me an answer.”

Military experts point out that a counterinsurgency is the most difficult type of war to wage. With the exception of the successful British effort in Malaya in the 1950s, history is littered with examples of unsuccessful counterinsurgency strategies carried out by great powers. As the French learned in Algeria in the 1950s, the United States in Vietnam a decade later and the British in Northern Ireland, the most difficult part of any such operation is to separate the insurgents from the civilians from whom they draw strength. This, some top Pentagon officials say, has been one of the U.S. military’s difficulties in Iraq.

“The hope that the Iraqi people, upon having Saddam [Hussein] deposed, would step forward enthusiastically and embrace this new opportunity, turned out to be more optimistic than it should have been,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Congress.

“That, I think, has led to the opportunity for the terrorists then to be able to operate without fear of being exposed by the population.”

The three-week desert war during the spring of 2003, ending in the collapse of Hussein’s regime, vindicated the idea that a small U.S. ground force, combined with billions of dollars worth of military technology, could make quick work of a larger, yet hollow, enemy army. It was a conventional war that the U.S. military had trained and been equipped for since emerging from the jungles of Vietnam three decades ago; a strategy executed with success during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

What came afterward was far more difficult, and U.S. commanders over the last year have used what critics call a trial-and-error strategy against the insurgency, with varying degrees of success.

Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. commanders set their sights on capturing the biggest stars in the Baath Party constellation, creating the notorious deck of cards depicting the most wanted people from Hussein’s regime. Brigades of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division carried out raids throughout the so-called Sunni Triangle in search of Hussein loyalists such as Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Baath Party’s Revolutionary Command Council.

The raids netted some important figures. Yet U.S. officials now concede that focusing too much on the top regime members did not have the expected impact on the insurgency.

“I think there was probably too great a willingness to believe that once we got the 55 people on the blacklist, the rest of those killers would stop fighting,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told Congress recently.

Defenders of American counterinsurgency efforts argue that the violence in Iraq over the last year is part of a calculated plan by members of Hussein’s former regime, not the result of missteps by the U.S.-led occupation authority.

“It is the military and intelligence and secret police that never surrendered. And they are continuing the fight,” said the senior administration official.

After a string of bombings last summer -- most significantly, the destruction of the United Nations compound in August -- U.S. commanders adopted a get-tough approach in central Iraq. Troops used barbed wire to encircle entire villages, including Al Auja, where Hussein was born. In November, the U.S. launched bombing raids on suspected insurgent hide-outs in Baghdad.

Ground troops scored successes during the period, developing better intelligence about the Baathist insurgents. The 4th Infantry Division drew up complex family trees of suspected party loyalists, ultimately leading to Hussein’s capture in December.

With the new year, the Marines began developing a “velvet glove” strategy for their imminent deployment to the Sunni Triangle -- in contrast to the more confrontational approach of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which had responsibility for that area until March. Relying on the Marine Corps “Small Wars Manual,” the 1st Marine Division planned to carry out more foot patrols in cities such as Fallouja and send Marine platoons into villages to live for extended periods. They also planned to shun the use of aerial bombardment or artillery.

But that strategy went by the boards with the killing and mutilation of four American contractors, which precipitated a Marine assault on Fallouja in April. That offensive was cut short after U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington decided the bloody campaign was having a negative impact on the larger American effort in Iraq. The Marines pulled back, marking another swerve in the counterinsurgency effort.

“We were winning, but we didn’t get a win. It’s a hard pill to swallow,” complained one Marine operations officer who recently returned from Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now, nobody knows what’s going on inside the city.”

In many cases, U.S. troops have been able to adapt on the ground over the past year. The Army’s 101st Airborne, which fought to Baghdad, then assumed responsibility for Kurdish territories after the war, is praised by Pentagon officials for bringing Kurdish leaders into the U.S. fold and keeping the level of violence in northern Iraq to a minimum.

More recently, the Army’s 1st Armored Division is credited with successfully putting down revolts by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s militia in Najaf and other southern towns with a comparatively limited use of force.

“It was a strategic defeat for Sadr,” said the senior administration official. The commander of the 1st Armored, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, “put that mob action down quickly and decisively,” the official said.

Some top U.S. commanders express optimism that as the U.S. military continues to adjust to the difficult warfare conditions in Iraq, the counterinsurgency efforts will produce more positive results.

“I think we’re in good shape going forward,” said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. “It will all come out well if we stay the course.”

At the same time, many experts point out that counterinsurgency work is as much a political mission as it is a military one, requiring a comprehensive strategy involving civilian officials planning reconstruction projects and elections and military officers gathering intelligence and carrying out raids against suspected insurgents.

In Iraq, some top military officials say, the relationship between the U.S. military and the Coalition Provisional Authority was often tense, making such close coordination difficult.

“CPA representatives would not get out in the field to get on-the-spot input for assessment,” Swannack said.

Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands the 1st Marine Division in Al Anbar province in western Iraq, has argued for months with U.S. civilians in Baghdad over the pace of reconstruction and the status of U.S. forces after the hand-over of power, Marine sources say. “He did not pull any punches in his communications” to Baghdad, said one Marine operations officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. military officials hope dissolution of the CPA and creation of an embassy in Baghdad will help mend fences and engender the cooperation that, experts say, is critical for the counterinsurgency effort.

Although the Army recently has been incorporating counterinsurgency work into its training of young soldiers, experts say that for decades after Vietnam, the Army focused almost entirely on fighting large tank battles in the desert, not armed militias in Third World cities.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, when the doctrine of overwhelming force against an enemy became less relevant, the Army found it needed to change course, and quickly. Back it went into the counterinsurgency business.

Said analyst Krepinevich: “It’s like telling General Motors to stop building cars, and then 25 years later telling them you want them to build a car.”


Times staff writers John Hendren and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.