Thomas E. Ricks, "In Iraq, Military Forgot the Lessons of Vietnam: Early Missteps by U.S. Left Troops Unprepared for Guerrilla Warfare," Washington Post, July 23, 2006; A13


The real war in Iraq -- the one to determine the future of the country -- began on Aug. 7, 2003, when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian Embassy, killing 11 and wounding more than 50.

That bombing came almost exactly four months after the U.S. military thought it had prevailed in Iraq, and it launched the insurgency, the bloody and protracted struggle with guerrilla fighters that has tied down the United States to this day.

There is some evidence that Saddam Hussein's government knew it couldn't win a conventional war, and some captured documents indicate that it may have intended some sort of rear-guard campaign of subversion against occupation. The stockpiling of weapons, distribution of arms caches, the revolutionary roots of the Baathist Party, and the movement of money and people to Syria either before or during the war all indicate some planning for an insurgency.

But there is also strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

The very setup of the U.S. presence in Iraq undercut the mission. The chain of command was hazy, with no one individual in charge of the overall American effort in Iraq, a structure that led to frequent clashes between military and civilian officials.

On May 16, 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-run occupation agency, had issued his first order, "De-Baathification of Iraq Society." The CIA station chief in Baghdad had argued vehemently against the radical move, contending that, "By nightfall, you'll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you'll really regret this."

He was proved correct, as Bremer's order, along with a second that dissolved the Iraqi military and national police, created a new class of disenfranchised, threatened leaders.

Exacerbating the effect of this decision were the U.S. Army's interactions with the civilian population. Based on its experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Army thought it could prevail through "presence" -- that is, soldiers demonstrating to Iraqis that they are in the area, mainly by patrolling.

"We've got that habit that carries over from the Balkans," one Army general said. Back then, patrols were conducted so frequently that some officers called the mission there "DAB"-ing, for Driving Around Bosnia.

The U.S. military jargon for this was "boots on the ground," or, more officially, the presence mission. There was no formal doctrinal basis for this in the Army manuals and training that prepare the military for its operations, but the notion crept into the vocabularies of senior officers.

For example, a briefing by the 1st Armored Division's engineering brigade stated that one of its major missions would be "presence patrols." And Maj. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the commander of that division, ordered one of his brigade commanders to "flood your zone, get out there, and figure it out." Sitting in a dusty command tent outside a palace in the Green Zone in May 2003, he added, "Your business is to ensure that the presence of the American soldier is felt, and it's not just Americans zipping by."

The flaw in this approach, Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a civil affairs officer, later noted, was that after Iraqi public opinion began to turn against the Americans and see them as occupiers, "then the presence of troops . . . becomes counterproductive."

The U.S. mission in Iraq was overwhelmingly made up of regular combat units, rather than smaller, lower-profile Special Forces units. And in 2003, most conventional commanders did what they knew how to do: send out large numbers of troops and vehicles on conventional combat missions.

Few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride and the humiliation Iraqi men felt to be overseen by this Western army. Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted during this time with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children, but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men.

Complicating the U.S. effort was the difficulty top officials had in recognizing what was going on in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at first was dismissive of the looting that followed the U.S. arrival, and then for months refused to recognize that an insurgency was breaking out there. A reporter pressed him one day that summer: Aren't you facing a guerrilla war?

"I guess the reason I don't use the phrase 'guerrilla war' is because there isn't one," Rumsfeld responded.

A few weeks later, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid succeeded Gen. Tommy R. Franks as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East. He used his first news conference as commander to clear up the strategic confusion about what was happening in Iraq. Opponents of the U.S. presence were conducting "a classical guerrilla-style campaign," he said. "It's a war, however you describe it."

That fall, U.S. tactics became more aggressive. This was natural, even reasonable, coming in response to the increased attacks on U.S. forces and a series of suicide bombing attacks. But it also appears to have undercut the U.S. government's long-term strategy.

"When you're facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you'll get the tactics right," said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran of Special Forces in the Vietnam War. "If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war. That's basically what we did in Vietnam."

For the first 20 months or more of the American occupation in Iraq, it was what the U.S. military would do there, as well.

"What you are seeing here is an unconventional war fought conventionally," a Special Forces lieutenant colonel remarked gloomily one day in Baghdad as the violence intensified. The tactics that the regular troops used, he added, sometimes subverted American goals.

Draconian Interrogation Ideas

On the morning of Aug. 14, 2003 Capt. William Ponce, an officer in the "Human Intelligence Effects Coordination Cell" at the top U.S. military headquarters in Iraq, sent a memo to subordinate commands asking what interrogation techniques they would like to use.

"The gloves are coming off regarding these detainees," he told them. His e-mail, and the responses it provoked from members of the Army intelligence community across Iraq, are illustrative of the mind-set of the U.S. military during this period.

"Casualties are mounting and we need to start gathering info to help protect our fellow soldiers from any further attacks," Ponce wrote. He told them, "Provide interrogation techniques 'wish list' by 17 AUG 03."

Some of the responses to his solicitation were enthusiastic. With clinical precision, a soldier attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment recommended by e-mail 14 hours later that interrogators use "open-handed facial slaps from a distance of no more than about two feet and back-handed blows to the midsection from a distance of about 18 inches." He also reported that "fear of dogs and snakes appear to work nicely."

The 4th Infantry Division's intelligence operation responded three days later with suggestions that captives be hit with closed fists and also subjected to "low-voltage electrocution."

But not everyone was so sanguine as those two units. "We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are," cautioned a major with the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, which supported the operations of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. "It comes down to standards of right and wrong -- something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient, any more than we can declare that we will 'take no prisoners' and therefore shoot those who surrender to us simply because we find prisoners inconvenient."

Feeding the interrogation system was a major push by U.S. commanders to round up Iraqis. The key to actionable intelligence was seen by many as conducting huge sweeps to detain and question Iraqis. Sometimes units acted on tips, but sometimes they just detained all able-bodied males of combat age in areas known to be anti-American.

These steps were seen inside the Army as a major success story, and they were portrayed as such to journalists. The problem was that the U.S. military, having assumed it would be operating in a relatively benign environment, wasn't set up for a massive effort that called on it to apprehend, detain and interrogate Iraqis, to analyze the information gleaned, and then to act on it.

"As commanders at all levels sought operational intelligence, it became apparent that the intelligence structure was undermanned, under-equipped and inappropriately organized for counter-insurgency operations," Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones wrote in an official Army report a year later.

Senior U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq later estimated that about 85 percent of the tens of thousands rounded up were of no intelligence value. But as they were delivered to Abu Ghraib prison, they overwhelmed the system and often waited for weeks to be interrogated, during which time they could be recruited by hard-core insurgents, who weren't isolated from the general prison population.

In improvising a response to the insurgency, the U.S. forces worked hard and had some successes. Yet they frequently were led poorly by commanders unprepared for their mission by an institution that took away from the Vietnam War only the lesson that it shouldn't get involved in messy counterinsurgencies. The advice of those who had studied the American experience there was ignored.

That summer, retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, an expert in small wars, was sent to Baghdad by the Pentagon to advise on how to better put down the emerging insurgency. He met with Bremer in early July. "Mr. Ambassador, here are some programs that worked in Vietnam," Anderson said.

It was the wrong word to put in front of Bremer. "Vietnam?" Bremer exploded, according to Anderson. "Vietnam! I don't want to talk about Vietnam. This is not Vietnam. This is Iraq!"

This was one of the early indications that U.S. officials would obstinately refuse to learn from the past as they sought to run Iraq.

One of the essential texts on counterinsurgency was written in 1964 by David Galula, a French army lieutenant colonel who was born in Tunisia, witnessed guerrilla warfare on three continents and died in 1967.

When the United States went into Iraq, his book, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice," was almost unknown within the military, which is one reason it is possible to open Galula's text almost at random and find principles of counterinsurgency that the American effort failed to heed.

Galula warned specifically against the kind of large-scale conventional operations the United States repeatedly launched with brigades and battalions, even if they held out the allure of short-term gains in intelligence. He insisted that firepower must be viewed very differently than in regular war.

"A soldier fired upon in conventional war who does not fire back with every available weapon would be guilty of a dereliction of his duty," he wrote; "the reverse would be the case in counterinsurgency warfare, where the rule is to apply the minimum of fire."

The U.S. military took a different approach in Iraq. It wasn't indiscriminate in its use of firepower, but it tended to look upon it as good, especially during the big counteroffensive in the fall of 2003, and in the two battles in Fallujah the following year.

One reason for that different approach was the muddled strategy of U.S. commanders in Iraq. As civil affairs officers found to their dismay, Army leaders tended to see the Iraqi people as the playing field on which a contest was played against insurgents. In Galula's view, the people are the prize.

"The population . . . becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy," he wrote.

From that observation flows an entirely different way of dealing with civilians in the midst of a guerrilla war. "Since antagonizing the population will not help, it is imperative that hardships for it and rash actions on the part of the forces be kept to a minimum," Galula wrote.

Cumulatively, the American ignorance of long-held precepts of counterinsurgency warfare impeded the U.S. military during 2003 and part of 2004. Combined with a personnel policy that pulled out all the seasoned forces early in 2004 and replaced them with green troops, it isn't surprising that the U.S. effort often resembled that of Sisyphus, the king in Greek legend who was condemned to perpetually roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as he neared the top.

Again and again, in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, U.S. forces launched major new operations to assert and reassert control in Fallujah, in Ramadi, in Samarra, in Mosul.

"Scholars are virtually unanimous in their judgment that conventional forces often lose unconventional wars because they lack a conceptual understanding of the war they are fighting," Lt. Col. Matthew Moten, chief of military history at West Point, would comment in 2004.

When Maj. Gregory Peterson studied a few months later at Fort Leavenworth's School of Advanced Military Studies, an elite course that trains military planners and strategists, he found the U.S. experience in Iraq in 2003-04 remarkably similar to the French war in Algeria in the 1950s. Both involved Western powers exercising sovereignty in Arab states, both powers were opposed by insurgencies contesting that sovereignty, and both wars were controversial back home.

Most significant for Peterson's analysis, he found both the French and U.S. militaries woefully unprepared for the task at hand. "Currently, the U.S. military does not have a viable counterinsurgency doctrine, understood by all soldiers, or taught at service schools," he concluded.

Casey Implements a New Tactic

In mid-2004 Gen. George W. Casey Jr. took over from Sanchez as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. One of Casey's advisers, Kalev Sepp, pointedly noted in a study that fall that the U.S. effort in Iraq was violating many of the major principles of counterinsurgency, such as putting an emphasis on killing insurgents instead of engaging the population.

A year later, frustrated by the inability of the Army to change its approach to training for Iraq, Casey established his own academy in Taji, Iraq, to teach counterinsurgency to U.S. officers as they arrived in the country. He made attending its course there a prerequisite to commanding a unit in Iraq.

"We are finally getting around to doing the right things," Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice observed one day in Iraq early in 2006. "But is it too little, too late?"

One of the few commanders who was successful in Iraq in that first year of the occupation, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, made studying counterinsurgency a requirement at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where mid-career officers are trained.

By the academic year that ended last month, 31 of 78 student monographs at the School of Advanced Military Studies next door, were devoted to counterinsurgency or stability operations, compared with only a couple two years earlier.

And Galula's handy little book, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice," was a bestseller at the Leavenworth bookstore.

Coming Tomorrow: A Lesson in Alienating Iraqis

© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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