Oil Spots or Casualty Counts?

U.S. Soldiers Iraq Water Treatment Chemicals
U.S. Army Photo

Introduction and summary by Winslow Wheeler:

Critics agree that the prosecution of the war in Iraq by the administration of President George W. Bush has been and continues to be a major problem. Those same critics disagree about what to do about it. They can be broken down into two schools: 1) the ‘we can be better occupiers and make Iraq a democracy‘ school, and 2) ‘the longer we stay, the worse we make it’ school. The former believe we should plan on sticking around in Iraq for up to 10 years; the latter believe our only alternative is to leave before we completely destroy our own Armed Forces and America’s already tattered standing in the world.

Some of the “stick around” school embrace the idea that if only we had done what we have done in Iraq with more of our own forces, more allies, and the Sunni/Ba’athist-led Iraqi Army left mostly intact, things would be fine. It’s interesting logic to argue that a larger occupation would have obviated the opposition to it, and that the Sunni/Ba’athist-led Army would have helped to suppress the Sunni/Ba’athist-led insurrection.

But, there is also a more thoughtful “stick around” school. It is articulated by a former CDI staffer, now working on development issues for the New Zealand Army. Colin Robinson, who has had experience with UN election monitoring missions in Eurasia and Africa, advocates learning available lessons from the Vietnam war (when, as he argues, the ultimate flaw was the corrupt, inept South Vietnamese government). He advocates an enhanced “oil spot” policy for the occupation of Iraq: rather than trying to simply kill insurgents, America should deliberately secure first small, then growing, areas of the insurgency, live among the Iraqis, and nurture their Armed Forces. Assuming an effective, or at least ethical, Iraqi government (a major leap from what now exists), the general population would no longer be the water in which the insurgents swim. Eventually, the Iraqis take over their own security, and U.S. troops leave after several years (up to 10) and more casualties (at least, as he argues, in the short term). He also proposes a U.S. “Principal Stabilization Adviser” in charge of all U.S. military, diplomatic, reconstruction, and any other efforts; and that U.S. Armed Forces study and adopt the Marine Corps’ “Combined Action Platoon” tactics from Vietnam, which many regard as highly successful.

The “leave now” school argues that the above thinking ignores unavoidable, but widely ignored, realities inside U.S. Armed Forces and on the ground in Iraq. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., argues that if U.S. Armed Forces are not now “broken” they will be soon, making then unavailable for more important tasks, such as tracking down Osama bin Laden. More crucial is the question whether the experience the Iraqi population has already had with the American presence in Iraq holds any prospect for “winning their hearts and minds” and allegiance to a moderate, Western democracy—the key goal of the “stick around” school. The death toll of Iraqis civilians is the primary evidence.

Bush recently allowed that “30,000 more or less” Iraqi civilians have died since America invaded in 2003. Consider further that research by a British group, www.iraqbodycount.org, shows that number to be just the combat related killings. There is a higher number of Iraqi deaths from the catastrophic break down of the Iraqi health care system, and other government and services, since 2003. One study, using nationwide sampling in Iraq in 2004, reported in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet, 98,000 additional civilian deaths. Different, more straight forward, statistical analyses calculates alternative death counts of 268,000 or even 511,000 occurring between 2003 and today.

While many in the United States will rush to attack these figures as inconceivable (especially to their own conception of the problem and solution), they merit every American’s serious consideration. Writer Andrew Cockburn, author of "Out of the Ashes," about Saddam Hussein, has taken the pains to research the case, as outlined above. He also offers other insights and gives the reader a brief, but very useful, course in the available data and statistics.

These two points of view are well demonstrated in these two articulate, important essays. To read “Strategy in Iraq Needs to Incorporate Past Lessons” by Colin Robinson, continue below; “How Many Iraqis Have Died Since the U.S. Invasion in 2003?” by Andrew Cockburn in CounterPunch magazine, is available at the CounterPunch website here.

"Strategy in Iraq needs to incorporate past lessons" By Colin Robinson(1)

‘I don’t believe in talking about ‘winning hearts and minds’. We’ll probably never really do that. But we can earn their trust, and we have to. Without that, our mission is impossible.’
-US Army infantry officer, southern Afghanistan, January 2005(2)

Since the end of World War II, extended U.S. and British experience has signposted the way the nations of the West can fight a counter-insurgency war with a reasonable expectation of success. Much of those lessons are directly applicable in Iraq today, yet it seems they are being partly ignored. Andrew Krepinevich makes a cogent case that the U.S. and its allies have not settled on any strategy for defeating the insurgency and achieving their broader objectives.(3) A survey of British efforts in Malaya and Gen. Creighton Abrams’ intelligent approach to fighting the Vietnam War from 1968 onwards make clear some points. Krepinevich lays out a very good way forward for U.S. efforts in Iraq in his article "How to Win in Iraq" (Foreign Affairs, September-October 2005), but application of earlier experience suggests some possible improvements.

In Vietnam, recent reassessments show that while the strategy followed under the Army’s first commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, was severely flawed, his successor Gen. Creighton Abrams followed a much more thoughtful approach that brought the U.S. much closer to success than is generally imagined.(4)

Westmoreland, appointed to command the U.S. military effort in Vietnam in 1964, thought South Vietnam could be saved from Communist takeover though attrition, and the inflicting on the enemy of more casualties than they could tolerate. Success against the Communists would be on the way when more casualties were inflicted on them than they could replace.(5) Thus Westmoreland set out to win the war by defeating the Communists on the battlefield, repeatedly launching large search and destroy operations to crush the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighting forces.

In doing so, Westmoreland failed to grasp the essential trait of an insurgency—that the military campaign is less important than its civil and political aspects. Counterinsurgencies are won by building a government and infrastructure that the people will support, and showing the populace that that government can both look after them and protect them. Westmoreland and his civilian and military superiors did not sufficiently address the problems caused by the weak South Vietnamese government while trying to fight the enemy’s combat troops. The South’s government could not command enough loyalty amongst the population and it was faced with covert Communist assaults at every level—hamlet, village, town, major cities, and in Saigon. Battlefield victories were wasted because the Viet Cong infrastructure was left intact, ready to rebuild after U.S. troops withdrew.

When Abrams assumed command in 1968, he changed the U.S. approach radically, focusing not on destruction of enemy forces but instead on control of the population through what was termed ‘pacification.’(6) His approach was founded on a study prepared by the Army Staff, the ‘Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam’ (PROVN). The PROVN study had been prepared earlier, in 1966, but its recommendations had not been implemented by Westmoreland. Under Abrams, ‘search and destroy’ was succeeded by ‘clear and hold’, in order to protect populated areas under government control. In doing so, support to the civilian authority was made the main effort under Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), a program that had been integrated under the military in 1967 but not with the same impetus behind it. CORDS saw military and U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) personnel work with Vietnamese at province and village level to improve local security and develop infrastructure.(7) A key element of this process was the reinforcement of the Regional Forces and Popular Forces (RF/PF), which also involved improving their equipment and advice. Advisory team numbers were increased and modern weapons issued, with M-16 rifles, for example, being issued to the RF/PF before main-force South Vietnamese Army units.(8) The associated Accelerated Pacification Campaign also focused on identifying and eliminating the Viet Cong infrastructure, which in turn led to less food being diverted from villagers to the enemy, less tax extortion secured by the Viet Cong, and enemy recruiting reduced.

After two years of effort, results became apparent in late 1970. The countryside of South Vietnam had been effectively secured, and in the provinces surrounding Saigon, for example, the Viet Cong had mostly been eliminated and the North Vietnamese forces driven into Cambodia.(9) The potency of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces had dramatically improved, exemplified by the performance of the RF/PF. Though imperfect, measures of village security through the ‘Hamlet Evaluation System’ showed an appreciable improvement; 2,600 hamlets totaling three million people were now ‘relatively secure’.(10) The devastating losses that the Viet Cong had taken in the course of the Tet Offensive of January 1968 also contributed to Allied control of the countryside.

What had not improved was the strength of the South Vietnamese government; the lax, weak, corrupt institution that failed to gain the sustained support of its people and was ultimately to fall under North Vietnamese pressure in 1975. While Abrams’ efforts were successful on the battlefield, no comparable civilian assistance program existed to reform the government, and this lead ultimately to the loss of the war.

Krepinevich’s article lays out a good future US strategy for Iraq, based in part on the lessons from Vietnam and Malaya. He argues that instead of trying to hunt down and kill insurgents faster than they can be replaced—the same strategy that failed so dismally in Vietnam—that U.S. forces should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, denying insurgents popular support. This ‘oil spot’ approach would start by focusing on certain key areas that U.S. and Iraqi forces can guarantee security to, and in time, broaden the effort. While he says that such a strategy would have a good chance of success, it would demand a protracted commitment of U.S. resources and troops, and entail more casualties in the short term.

Krepinevich notes that U.S. and Iraqi forces, including local militias, now provide a high level of security in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The remainder of the country, the ‘Red Zone’, comprising the provinces of Anbar, Baghdad, Ninevah and Salah al Din, is generally unsecured. His projected campaign would start by enhancing security in the Baghdad ‘Green Zone’ and focusing reconstruction efforts there. Iraqi Army units would be bolstered by embedding some of the best of the U.S. Army’s soldiers within them, and be assigned to areas that are generally secure, rather than in the ‘Red Zone’ provinces. This would minimize the risk that new Iraqi formations would find themselves overwhelmed by the situation and without adequate support.

In time, U.S. and Iraqi forces would start offensives to secure more of the country by chipping away at the ‘Red Zone’. Both security and reconstruction resources would be allocated to offensives in these areas. Sweeps by Iraqi units with embedded U.S. advisors would first clear the targeted areas of any major insurgent forces, and then switch to providing local security in the cleared area. Police would arrive, begin patrolling, and start to vet and train local police and paramilitary forces. Intelligence would start the process of infiltrating local insurgent cells, covered by the enduring security provided by the coalition forces. Reconstruction efforts could then begin, and the process of winning the locals’ support via their protection and enhancement of their livelihood would commence. Local elections could be held as soon as the population began to see the benefits of the security and reconstruction effort.

On the political side, Krepinevich sketches out a ‘grand bargain’ plan that would lay the foundations for the broad base that would sustain an Iraqi democracy. It would assume that within each of the major ethnic and religious groups—Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites—there was a significant group willing to support a democratic, unified Iraq; and that the United States would be prepared to sustain if necessary a decade’s effort, or more, to ensure success. Stitching this coalition together would require a good understanding of Iraqi tribal politics, and the establishment of a good intelligence picture of the insurgency.

Once progress is made on implementing the grand bargain and the first oil-spot area offensives are concluded, a second phase could begin with the reduction of U.S. forces and the withdrawal of U.S. advisors from the most capable Iraqi combat units. Krepinevich ends by saying that if the United States is not willing to commit to the task, it should instead settle for creating an ally out of Iraq’s next despot.

Krepinevich’s prescription is a good one for a bad situation, but could be improved in parts. The United States could clearly learn from the British Malaya practice of designating a single individual with the overall responsibility. While a governor-general is out of the question, a single principal advisor to the Iraqi government, instead of a CENTCOM commander, a State Department representative, AID personnel, and others is possible. Perhaps designated the ‘Principal Stabilization Advisor,’ this retired military officer or military officer with added civilian powers would have authority over all U.S. aid efforts to the new Iraqi government. The U.S. military force commander, the U.S. ambassador, AID senior officer, and others would report to him, and he would have an adequate staff to coordinate the entire effort. This officer should stay in place for a worthwhile tour length; Krepinevich laments the practice of sending home commanders who have found success in country, regarding all senior officers as interchangable.

Another useful measure might be the adoption of units such as the Marines’ Vietnam Combined Action Platoons, units that combined U.S. soldiers with indigenous troops that lived within local villages. This highly successful program built links between the two countries and increased the flow of useful intelligence to U.S. forces. If U.S. troops were living beyond the boundaries of their secure base camps in Iraq, more exposure to the population might well improve the situation.

The U.S. strategy in Iraq today is inadequate, as Krepinevich cogently argues. A reassessment and reorientation toward giving the population security, rather than trying to bring insurgents to battle, is urgently needed. Otherwise current rumblings in Congress and elsewhere about withdrawal will finally force a pull-out, leaving Iraq not a nascent democracy but an unstable state ripe for descent into civil war and dictatorship.


Writing Notes
While the Vietnam War as a whole was lost, the experience gained during Abrams’ time in command proves that the United States can successfully fight counter-insurgency wars, and lessons remain to be learnt for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. To place this lesson squarely in today's context, it no surprise that the U.S. field commander in Iraq in late 2003 said that he could not usefully use more deployed troops without better intelligence. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq, said in late August that "putting more soldiers on the ground is not going to solve the problem when I don't have the intelligence to act on it. .. It's an issue of being able to work with the Iraqi people and get the Iraqi people to help us."(11)

The U.S. Army’s attention following the defeat turned completely away, toward an expected mechanized confrontation in Europe, and counterinsurgency was ignored for years, until U.S. forces found themselves starting stabilization missions in Afghanistan. However, despite what happened, the later Vietnam experience is worthy of study.

End Notes

(1) Colin Robinson works in the Force Development Branch of the New Zealand Army General Staff. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the New Zealand Defence Force or government.

(2) Quoted in Lt. Col. Dave Banks, ‘Three Block Warriors Learning from US Infantry Tactical Leadership in Afghanistan’, The Canadian Army Journal, Vol 8, No.1, Winter 2005, p.10.

(3) Andrew F. Krepinevich, ‘How to win in Iraq’, Foreign Affairs, September-October 2005.

(4) Lewis Sorley, A Better War, Harcourt Brace, 1999, and Robert M. Cassidy, ‘Back to the Street without Joy: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam and other Small Wars’, Parameters, Summer 2004.

(5) Sorley, ibid., p.1

(6) Ibid., p.17-18

(7) Robert M. Cassidy, op. cit., p.77

(8) Sorley, ibid., p.72-74

(9) Gen. Michael Davison, letter to William Hamilton, Jan. 5, 1978, citied in Sorley, op. cit., p.217.

(10) Sorley, ibid., p.221-2.

(11) Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, vommander, Coalition Ground Forces, Department of Defense briefing, Baghdad, Aug. 28, 2003, via Federal News Service

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight

By: Winslow Wheeler, Director (2002-2014), Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO

At the time of publication Mr. Wheeler's was the director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center For Defense Information at POGO.