U.S. Military Is Split on Insurgency Strategy

Times Staff Writers

In the region around Qaim, a northwestern Iraqi town near the Syrian border, Marines are fanning out from their main base and moving into villages as part of a new strategy to root out insurgents who enter the country here.

The troops have set up 19 small base camps throughout the area and begun routinely patrolling insurgent hot spots north of the Euphrates River. The deployment follows a strategy favored by a new generation of counterinsurgency experts: disperse, mingle with the population and stay put.

But the shift comes as the Pentagon appears to be moving the overall U.S. military effort in the opposite direction across much of the country. Army units are being concentrated in “super bases” that line the spine of central Iraq, away from the urban centers where counterinsurgency operations take place.

The two approaches underscore an increasingly high-profile divergence -- some say contradiction -- on how best to use U.S. forces in Iraq, and are evidence of a growing debate in the upper ranks about the wisest course of action.


The contrast also reflects the complicated mix of military goals and concerns as U.S. troops begin their fourth summer in Iraq. Top commanders are eager to begin shrinking the U.S. footprint, an implicit step toward a gradual withdrawal of American forces. At the same time, some field commanders are determined to break an endless cycle that allows insurgents to move back into key areas as soon as U.S. forces move on. That requires large investments of manpower.

Some military officials insist that the two strategies can coexist, particularly given that Iraqis are being trained in counterinsurgency and are expected to assume a larger role, with help from American advisors. But critics consider it a choice between a smaller force and an effective one.

On one side of the strategy debate is a growing cadre of military intellectuals and counterinsurgency experts who advocate an on-the-ground effort to deal with the insurgency, military analysts say. This group includes, along with Marine units such as those in western Iraq, mid-level officers such as Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of Army forces in Tall Afar, where a counterinsurgency campaign has been cited by President Bush as a model for the country.

On the other side are senior officers, including those at the U.S. Central Command, who believe a reduced American presence will force Iraqis to take up the burden of fighting the insurgency. Some have also argued that a high-profile U.S. presence in cities stokes resentment.


The debate mirrors a discussion over the general posture of U.S. troops in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, in charge of day-to-day military operations, said in an interview with The Times this week that “heavy-handed” treatment of Iraqis by U.S. forces fueled anti-American attitudes.

In the counterinsurgency debate, experts both inside and outside the Pentagon have begun to question the move to big bases and the push to reduce troop numbers, particularly when Iraqi forces -- especially the Iraqi police, which have in some cases been accused of being branches of sectarian militia -- have yet to prove themselves.

“What we know works is presence; that was most visible in Tall Afar,” said Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School who helped write a critique of counterinsurgency strategy for Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

“The key to counterinsurgency is presence among the population,” Sepp said. “What do mass concentrations of American forces on a large base do? If we put all our troops there and they’re out of sight, what has that accomplished?”


Marines in Al Anbar province, the west-central region that is home to some of the most war-torn cities in the Sunni Arab heartland, appear to have taken that question to heart. Here, as elsewhere, field commanders are given wide latitude to make decisions on the ground, although commanders in the region and in Washington set overall policy, in keeping with U.S. and NATO military tradition.

Marine field commanders said the Qaim model would soon be repeated at bases across Al Anbar, with more Marines scheduled to leave heavily garrisoned encampments in Al Asad, Haditha and Hit to spread forces more evenly throughout the province’s towns and villages.

“We’ll have a continuing presence in these areas,” said Col. W. Blake Crowe, commander of Marine forces in the western part of Al Anbar. “We won’t populate every village -- we don’t have enough force for that. But we’ll continue to contest every town and village. We just need to contest them.”

The idea behind the new campaign is to repeat the military’s success last year in Tall Afar, where Army units cleared out insurgents and flooded the town with patrols and small-unit interactions with residents. Bush and others have touted the approach.


But not all military officials agree with the praise. Some senior Central Command officials have been dismissive of Tall Afar, telling military analysts and scholars recently that too much has been made of the success there. Duplication of that effort across Iraq would require many more U.S. troops than are available, they said.

In Washington, the push for troop reductions has largely been attributed to the Bush administration’s desire to show progress before the November congressional elections.

But current and former military leaders said it was misleading to attribute the push solely to politics. Central Command officers, including Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the Centcom commander, have argued that the large presence fosters a “dependency syndrome” within the Iraqi military, which continues to rely on Americans to do the heavy lifting.

Abizaid, who has specialized in the Middle East in both his military and academic career, has long been doubtful of Americans’ ability to integrate into Iraqi cities. Increasing the number of U.S. troops would simply mean more armed soldiers with little understanding of local culture, he has told colleagues.


In Al Anbar, evidence of a “dependency syndrome” is apparent. In a recent operation with American advisors in the Haditha area, an Iraqi company of 70 soldiers found four men listed by the U.S. military as suspected insurgents and turned them over to the Marines. The operation followed several failed attempts by U.S. troops to find the same suspects.

But some U.S. trainers said the Iraqi soldiers’ success was an exception.

“There’s a lot of lip service being given about letting the Iraqis do independent ops, but nothing much is happening,” said Capt. James Beal, one of the trainers who live alongside Iraqi troops at Haditha Dam. “A lot of our guys just don’t believe in letting Iraqis get out and do things.”

A new and increasingly vocal group of counterinsurgency experts prefers U.S. troops for such roles, even if it slows the learning curve for Iraqi forces. A new joint counterinsurgency field manual, expected to be completed by late summer, recommends that troops move off large bases and into towns for counterinsurgency campaigns, the strategy used in Tall Afar.


“You’ve got to get out among the population,” said Conrad Crane, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is the lead author of the manual. “You can’t lock yourself away in compounds.”

A preview of the manual, which will be published this month in the journal Military Review, calls on U.S. forces to “immerse [themselves] in the lives of the people” and says successful counterinsurgency efforts require long-term commitments.

“Insurgents are strengthened by the belief that a few casualties or a few years will cause adversaries to abandon the conflict,” the Military Review article says. “Only constant reaffirmations of commitment backed by deeds will bolster public faith in government survivability.”

There is also concern that U.S. commanders are pushing Iraqi forces into counterinsurgency roles too soon.


“Abizaid has a wrong notion about prioritization of problems,” said Fredrick Kagan, a former instructor at West Point who is now a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “It’s not that the things he’s worried about are not problems, but he’s trading off providing security to the Iraqi people to solve those problems. We have been pushing the Iraqi security forces out in the fight to do things before they’re ready.”

In Al Anbar, results in the Iraqi police training effort have been decidedly mixed. The Marines see their ability to recruit local Sunnis to police forces as a sign of progress. But as in Shiite regions in the south, where many police forces have been infiltrated by a militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr or the Iranian-linked Badr Brigade, they have been forced into an uneasy alliance with nascent Sunni militias that have sprung up in the province.

Four months ago, for example, in a suburb of Haditha, a band of Sunni Arab tribesmen formed a militia to battle the insurgency and stage security checkpoints around the town. The militia turned over dozens of suspected insurgents to the Marines, who were initially reluctant to endorse yet another paramilitary force in a nation of private armies.

Recently, however, Marine commanders have decided to support the militia with money and training, a risk they believe has paid off.


For Marine Capt. Quintin Jones, the uneasiness of working with an acknowledged militia is outweighed by advantages of being on the ground with locals.

“When they tell us that something is happening or that we can find insurgents in a certain spot, they usually are right. They give us great intelligence,” Jones said. “A lot of times they can just spot the bad guys better than we can.”

Moore reported from Haditha and Spiegel from Washington.