Learning The Hard Way

David Ignatius writes that we’re finally using an effective counterinsurgency plan in Iraq:

Three years on, the U.S. military is finally becoming adept at fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Sadly, these are precisely the skills that should have been mastered before America launched its invasion in March 2003. It may prove one of the costliest lessons in the history of modern warfare.

I had a chance to see the new counterinsurgency doctrine in practice here this week. U.S. troops are handing off to the Iraqi army a growing share of the security burden. As the Iraqis step up, the Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role. This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.

A brutal stress test came on Feb. 22, when Sunni insurgents destroyed a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra. For a moment, Iraq seemed to be slipping toward civil war, but the Iraqi army performed surprisingly well. In many areas Iraqi forces — backed up by overwhelming U.S. firepower — helped restore order. “You never know the tipping point until you’re past it,” says Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces here. With many other U.S. and Iraqi officials, he hopes Samarra may have been such a tipping point, for the better.

We are fighting much more effectively than we did at the beginning of this war when the realities of the insurgency were not well known either in the field or in Washington. However, Mr. Ignatius ignores the fact that the “US stepping down as Iraqi forces step up” plan has been the operational plan for quite some time now. The difference is that our long-term training efforts are just now beginning to bear fruit.

Rich Lowry also offers his thoughts on the situation in Iraq:

[Ignatius] He argues that we finally have an effective counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. A lot of people have written this lately, usually with the implicit suggestion that this is some sudden development, that out of nowhere these fairly effective Iraqi troops are appearing and contributing to a better counter-insurgency effort. But the strategy that is now beginning to bear fruit has been in place for a long time, as anyone would know who actually listened to what the administration was saying over the last year or more. All during the long, long period that the administration was scored for having no strategy in Iraq (a charge, I regret to say, echoed in this very Corner), the strategy that is now being recognized was in place. It just took time to take hold. Apparently few people anymore have enough patience to realize some things take time.

In this connection, Igantius writes of Iraqi forces standing up as we take a more of a support role, “This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.” Of course it should have. But sometimes the real world isn’t so cooperative. The fact is that we started training Iraqi security forces right away, but we were going about it the wrong way and had to start again almost from scratch. Regrettable? Of course. But who seriously thinks you can plop yourself down into the middle of an alien culture and create a major new institution like a military without trail and error?

Lowry’s right on this. The improvements we’re seeing now began a long time ago when we began seriously training the Iraqi military and security forces. The disastrous failure of the Fallujah Brigades made it clear that the old Iraqi Army was worthless as a fighting force. There’s an argument to be made that keeping the Iraqi Army around would have blunted the insurgency, but that in itself is doubtful. The Iraqi Army didn’t know how to fight, and we would have ended up rebuilding it from scratch regardless if it had been disbanded or not. Furthermore, that assumes that the soldiers would have returned to their posts after fleeing the US onrush anyway – there wasn’t much of an Iraqi Army left by April of 2003 to begin with.

The anti-war side loves to argue that Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists. That may be true, but what’s more important to note is that it is also a training ground for us. You can’t just simulate the kind of urban battlefield and nation-building exercises needed to fight 21st Century wars. You have to get your hands dirty and actually perform those tasks in a realistic environment. Iraq is that testing ground. Iraq is the crucible in which our military is forced to confront the realities of 21st Century warfare and counterinsurgency operations head-on.

As Ignatius finds, we’re doing just that. As one anonymous military analyst writes, our military services are adapting their institutional cultures from the bottom up to deal with the kind of warfare we’re likely to face in future engagements. Iraq is not only a battlefield, but the world’s most crucial and important counterinsurgency classroom. It is in Iraq that the US military and their Iraqi compatriots are learning the finer points of combating terrorism in the real world, not the contrived limits of a simulation.

The fact is that we are learning many lessons in Iraq – and often the hard way and far too often at the cost of US, Iraqi, and coalition lives. At the same time, the hits we take now save us taking further casualties down the road. Despite the efforts at military transformation spearheaded by General Shinseki and Secretary Rumsfeld prior to and after September 11, 2001, our military was still largely geared to deal with Cold War-era threats. We had very little experience in the kind of fights that we will continue to face throughout this century. The only way to gain that experience is to go out and get it.

For all the focus on “failure” in Iraq, the reality of the situation is that if we’re not failing in Iraq, we’re not learning. We did not have the institutional culture and skill necessary to effectively engage in long-term peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations in 2003. Afghanistan had taught us much, but the Afghan campaign had only involved a small number of troops in comparison to the Army as a whole. Iraq is proving to be one of the toughest tests of the US Army’s resilience and adaptability we’ve seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain – and make no mistake, we are winning.

Our rates of reenlistment, especially in combat positions, is exceptionally high. The people we need to keep are staying in the service, while the enemy’s cadre of experienced officers keeps diminishing. You can’t have an army that’s effective or a terrorist group that’s effective if your front-line leaders keep getting blown away and your small fish either blow themselves up or get captured before they can develop skills and experience. That’s why IEDs are so frequently used in Iraq – they can be designed elsewhere and stooges can be used to place them – if they get caught or killed, you’re not out much.

We’re getting better at playing by the new rules of asymmetrical warfare, and Iraq is the proving ground in which we’re learning and adapting to those harsh realities. As Ignatius finds, we’re learning more and more each day we’re out there, and that experience and expertise will be vital to us in the future of 21st Century combat.

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