Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Changing Tires on the Fly: The Marines and Postconflict Stability Ops

Changing Tires on the Fly: The Marines and Postconflict Stability Ops

Executive Summary

In early 2005 a British-American research team sponsored by FPRI commenced a study of British and U.S. approaches to stabilization and reconstruction (S&R) operations as demonstrated in Iraq. Their complete findings will be presented at a briefing to be held on September 19 in Washington, DC. At that time, two monograph-length reports will be released, one offering British perspectives (“Succeeding in Phase IV: British Perspectives on the U.S. Effort to Stabilize and Reconstruct Iraq,” by Andrew Garfield), the other American perspectives. This essay summarizes the second report.

FPRI hopes that these studies will help U.S. military and civilian planners to refine a set of best practices and develop a set of principles or considerations, which can form the basis of a coherent and integrated national level framework for S&R operations. FPRI acknowledges the research contributions of King’s College in London and the Terrorism Research Center in northern Virginia, and the financial support provided by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

The 2:00-3:30 pm Tuesday, Sept. 19 briefing will be held at the Phoenix Park Hotel, 520 N. Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC. It is open to the public but reservations are required. It will also be video webcast. To reserve to attend the briefing or for information on viewing the briefing online, email

Download the full report.

The Marines spent much of 2002 planning for the invasion of Iraq, what eventually came to be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Their focus, like that of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), was on the complexities of deploying tens of thousands of Marines and their equipment to theater, and then on devising a way to rapidly pierce Iraq’s military defenses. From time to time, some thought was given to the inevitable question, what happens after Baghdad is captured and the Hussein regime is dismantled? The California-based Marines of the I Marine Expeditionary Force were assigned to CENTCOM as part of the intervention. Their leaders anticipated some key challenges during this phase of the operation, which proved to be accurate.[1] However, the conditions existing in the area of operations after OIF were not anticipated, nor was the scale of the postconflict problem. This exacerbated the obstacles brought on by the collapse of an autocratic state and a badly decomposed national infrastructure.

Nor did Marine commanders anticipate other key factors, particularly the decisions of U.S. policymakers regarding Iraq’s existing institutions and military forces. These decisions also severely impacted the postconflict phase of OIF (Phase IV). So too did a lack of cultural sensitivity and basic intelligence regarding the Iraqi people. This gap was further compounded by large-scale “cordon and sweep” operations by U.S. forces that “hoovered” up large numbers of detainees, but little intelligence and even fewer insurgents. These tactics and techniques violated the basic principles of counterinsurgency and stability operations and did much to accelerate a latent but potentially lethal response to the American-led intervention.

The Marines, who found themselves unexpectedly responsible for serving as temporary governors and mayors in April 2003, were not specifically trained for these roles. However, the Marine Corps’ overarching warfighting philosophy, maneuver warfare, is ideally suited for chaotic environments like those found in April 2003.[2] With its emphasis on decentralized leadership, mission orders, and empowerment to lower leaders guided by an overarching commander’s intent, this doctrine is well-suited to fluid and fast-paced environments that cannot be mastered by hierarchal bureaucracies. Likewise, the noted conception of “three-block wars”—where Marines units are conditioned to transition, literally block-to-block, between combat, constabulary, and civil affairs—was well-suited for the conditions found in Iraq.[3]

Thus, the Marines were intellectually prepared for Phase IV. Many were surprised, but most learned very fast. As one Marine Regimental commander observed after the war, “All of the sudden I was the mayor of eight cities. . . . I had no idea I would be responsible for getting the water running, turning on the electricity, and running an economy.”[4]

The combination of events the Marines faced in April 2003 is analogous to changing tires on a moving car. It’s difficult if not impossible. It’s equally difficult to transition from high-intensity conflict to intense civil-military operations with the same people who were antagonists in the combat phases. To shift gears from aggressive fighting to constructive relationship-building in the span of hours is near impossible.

To win over the suspect civilian population, the Marines needed to rapidly establish some sense of public order and begin repairing critical pieces of the infrastructure. They realized that they would enjoy a brief honeymoon with the Iraqis, in which order and services needed to be restored.[5] The Marines’ focus quickly shifted from the violence of combat to the reestablishment of local governance, adequate law enforcement means, and requisite public services, including power production, the distribution of potable water, sanitation, etc. The task was immense given the dilapidated nature of Iraq’s infrastructure. The calamity of what was Iraq at this point in time is not fully understood by analysts reviewing the adequacy of Phase IV operations.

It would have been very natural for the Marines, honed as their skills were and as oriented as they were during high-intensity combat, to continue focusing on the kinetic side of things and chase down the remnants of opposition that were visible and occasionally active. Instead, then-Major General James Mattis, the commander of Marine ground units, adroitly issued a new mission order and a new code phrase to ensure his force made the necessary shift in attitude and deportment. By issuing this order and adding the phrase “Do no harm” to the Division’s rules of engagement, Mattis successfully shifted his troops from fighting against an enemy to fighting for a population. Armored vehicles and heavy weapons were shipped home, and local town council meetings and foot patrols were introduced to enhance local perceptions of self-government and security. A sense of ownership or a stake in events was introduced. A “velvet glove” approach was introduced to replace the mailed fist that had driven out Saddam.[6]

The entire Coalition faced the challenges of establishing security and some semblance of rule of law in a society devastated by a generation of misrule, repression, and neglect. This early period involved constructive stability tasks and tense periods of patrolling to maintain order and to ensure that the former regime elements did not successfully disrupt the transition. This enemy was stunned at first, but eventually became organized and became progressively more lethal. The honeymoon passed, and the marriage produced too many irreconcilable differences.

The nature of transition operations cuts both ways. For the Marines who came to Iraq a year later, in March 2004, both fully prepared and determined to substantially redress the security and overall stability conditions in Al Anbar, the epicenter of the Sunni-led insurgency, it was even more difficult to have to re-transition from people-centric stability operations to offensive urban combat on two days’ notice in Fallujah.[7] That operation, an overly visceral response to a provocation, had to be aborted by policymakers who failed to anticipate the political fallout of their strategic decisions.

That same force again shifted gears and returned to its previous operational areas throughout Al Anbar province determined to employ its ingrained understanding of what the Marines call Small Wars, drawn from its own Small Wars Manual.[8] This 60-year old manual draws from over a century of British and U.S. military experiences, and was adapted and utilized by the Marines in light of the cultural context of Iraq’s own tortured history. But the full-blown adversarial relationship that existed when the Marines returned in 2004 and took up positions in Al Anbar could not be tamed with smiles, soccer balls, or new schools.

It is pretty clear that from the moment Baghdad fell on April 9 the United States did not have the appropriate means or instruments at hand to exploit its military success. Winning the peace has proven to be much harder than winning the war. Instead of full spectrum dominance and strategic success, the desired strategic end state in Iraq was not attained.

The principal responsibility for the enormous challenge created in Iraq is more of a failing in both strategic culture and senior policy leadership than in the military doctrines of the U.S. Army or Marine Corps. The Cold War created an extraordinary emphasis on military muscle at the expense of other instruments of national power. This has badly misshaped the total capacity of the U.S. government in other areas, producing what can be called the “one-armed Cyclops” syndrome.[9] This caricature captures the United States’ predisposition to look at problems through a single military lens and considering itself capable of responding solely with its single military arm. Its diplomatic, assistance, and informational tools are anemic by comparison. Clearly, this lack of governmental capacity has left the military holding a larger and longer role than it was designed for, or culturally disposed to execute.

Thus the U.S. military and its Coalition partners had a difficult uphill challenge. A window of opportunity was missed as the proverbial car sped by on wobbly wheels with dangerously thin tread. The military handled the initial transition period very well, and the U.S. Marines’ response highlighted the mental agility of its leaders and the organizational adaptability of its expeditionary and small-wars legacy. The Marines successfully worked with local Iraqis in a predominantly Shiite area from May to October 2003. They helped establish local security and governance, and only suffered a single casualty in five months. But this experience also revealed shortcomings in specific capabilities or organizational capacities uniquely relevant to protracted complex counter-insurgencies. Shortfalls were found in cultural intelligence, language capacity, and human intelligence. New planning skills for meshing non-kinetic tools, civil affairs, and information operations into more traditional security operations were needed. The depth or capacity of civil affairs units and staff expertise in key areas were found wanting and rectified. An institutional need for formal training and preparation of units to train and advise foreign military forces was eventually “relearned.” In 2004, not all of these shortfalls were yet completely recognized or rectified.

These shortfalls have been identified and are being resolved with appropriate doctrinal, organizational, educational, and materiel changes.[10] The Marines created more robust or more refined units and organizations to ensure that future generations can adapt even faster to the unique demands of postconflict situations and complex contingencies in which military forces must integrate seamlessly with other partners including non-military agencies from the U.S. and international community. Without flogging my metaphor too much, the next generation of Marines will quickly change the tire before the car gains momentum.

Key Insights

Several key insights and perspectives have been derived from the investigation of U.S. Marine efforts before, during, and after OIF.

Plan with the End in Mind

Campaigns should not merely focus on the military aspects, but need to include and be shaped by the end-state defined by political and strategic guidance. Clearly, this did not occur for OIF at the strategic and policy level.[11] Inherent to ongoing efforts within the U.S. military to explore alternative campaign-planning constructs and to establish stability operations as the equivalent of warfighting capabilities in its importance to U.S. interests is the acknowledgment that U.S. planning efforts were incomplete at best. One officer who has been active in the effort to refine U.S. stability operations capabilities and interagency coordination put it this way

We need to better plan for actions and effects during the combat phase that will produce the best complement of subsequent transition and stability operations. I think this was attempted in varying degrees by higher and adjacent commands, but there did not seem to be a unity of purpose throughout the theater in defining a cohesive political end state fully supported in all phases of the operation. As a result, I believe that postconflict operations were complicated by how we waged the combat phase.[12]

Comprehensive and Integrated Approach[13]

The need to employ all tools in the national tool chest, not just the military, is a recurring insight, another lesson relearned at great expense. In particular, the gaps in governance, power, and services during the golden hour materially contributed to the underlying support for the insurgency. The inability of the ad hoc Coalition Provisional Authority to get its arms around the most immediate problems and to integrate the significant American and international resources available is remarkable given the importance of the assignment to U.S. foreign policy. A commonly heard refrain was that America could put a man on the moon but could not fix the sewers or electrical grid.

Nuance counts, heavy handed approaches should be avoided

Heavy units are wrong for stability operations, as confined troops are focused more on the needs of the vehicle than on those of the community and the external operational situation. Even when dismounted, they still tend to think like tankers as opposed to infantry. But a “patrolling” operational culture is essential to successful security and peacekeeping operations. Battalion-sized operations tend not to produce significant results. The enemy simply goes to ground in their houses—“playing Nintendo and drinking tea,” as one Marine put it.[14] Patience, persistence, and restraint must be coupled with resolve to effectively counter an insurgency, always remembering that it’s the people and their support that are ultimately critical to success.[15]

Culture Matters; In Fact, it is Crucial

All interviews emphasized the absolutely essential need for accurate and relevant cultural intelligence when operating in urban environments with direct and recurring contact with the local population. Marine intelligence experts realize that what they call “cultural terrain” can be difficult to navigate.[16] One young Marine squad leader said it best “Learning the language is just as important as live fire training. In some situations it’s even more important.”[17] From planning to interfacing with key leaders at the village and town level, some appreciation of the nature of the culture and its implications is simply indispensable.

Create Gaps, Avoid Surfaces

The American default position was to attack the insurgents head on, essentially an “anti-insurgency” campaign vice a classical counterinsurgency model. The Corps’ maneuver warfare philosophy teaches Marines to avoid strong points, what are called surfaces, and to seek gaps to exploit the enemy’s rear or disrupt his overall system. This has equal application against insurgencies if one understands that the insurgents are a surface, and that the gap that is to be exploited and widened is the gap between the insurgent cadre and the general population. The goal is to widen this gap to the greatest degree possible and avoid more destructive anti-insurgency operations. While few young officers had the benefit of any formal education in counterinsurgency, At least one young Marine captain understood the difference. Coming out of Iraq, he concluded:

What we did little of . . . was execute the basic principles that must be applied to defeat an insurgency. We were never intimately familiar with the millions of people, languages, cultures, and terrain in any of the five provinces that we operated in for two weeks or longer. And we did little to help indigenous security forces protect the populace from the insurgency.[18]

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The Marines stressed the importance of every Marine as an intelligence collector, but they also believed that a commander’s themes need to be pushed down to every man in their area as well—in a sense, every Marine a Rifleman, an intelligence collector, and an IO disseminator. In this sense, the Marines understood that actions would speak louder and with more credibility than leaflets, broadcasts, and posters. Thus, every patrol and every council meeting was an opportunity to influence the population and ensure that the key themes of the American support to Iraq were consistently and frequently communicated. IO was not considered the domain of IO specialists, but a supporting arm with all Marines participating (with the exception of the Public Affairs community, which defends its independence and avoids any taint of propaganda or spin). But many Marines see IO broadly defined as a key supporting arm or form of “fires” in any counterinsurgency. As one Battalion commander put it

A command-wide approach taps into every man and asset you have, to include exploiting all foreign and US media. Politicians do it every day and very effectively. They learn to message and use sound bites. And their Public Affairs Officers have no problems getting on message and focusing media on the “right story.” We need to get past the notion that PAO’s can never talk to Intel and PSYOPS guys. They need to fuse.[19]

Such tactical fusion, however, will not resolve the larger problem of connecting the strategy to strategic IO themes and supporting operational and tactical actions. Regrettably, the processes that the U.S. government put into effect to manage the strategic end of the informational component of the counterinsurgency never seemed to click. Universally, operational commanders could not identify key strategic themes from Washington or gain any additional support for operational/tactical information activities. Equally frustrating were the long production and product-approval cycles for IO products that were completely out of sync with the rapid nature of information processing in modern societies and the need to rapidly counter gossip, misinformation, and outright distortions coming from the insurgents.

Policing over Warfighting

Many Marines emphasized the value of persistent patrolling, or what they called the “cop on the beat.” The Marines, the 101st, and the UK conducted extensive foot patrolling throughout the urban centers, while other Army units tended to operate mobile patrols that limited their penetration into side streets and neighborhoods. The two approaches were compared to the cop on the beat as opposed to police patrolling in squad cars. Although the dismounted approach is in theory more dangerous, the constant interaction between the forces and the locals produced intelligence and foster a relationship that many believed contributed to a relatively lower incidence of violence. This is just one of many paradoxes and counterintuitive aspects of preventing or responding to counterinsurgency.[20]


It might be true that the Marines did not have a formal doctrine for what was to follow their impressive drive towards Baghdad. But as General Mattis has remarked, “doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” More than formal doctrine, military leaders need to be broadly educated and prepared to adapt their operational modes, planning processes and even their organizations on the fly to meet the unique circumstances they find on the ground. Each contingency must be evaluated on its own cultural context, informed by history and political guidance.

Hopefully, history will be exploited in the current case and the proper lessons drawn. The price of rapid and sudden military success need not always rely upon completely ad hoc solutions with tools ill-suited for the purpose. Nor should operations be conducted in such a way that they engender or actively motivate a resistance to our own policy aims. The U.S. military should consult with its allies and study its own history to better prepare for transition operations using predominantly military forces.

Changing flat tires is a messy necessity of modern life, but it doesn’t have to be done on a moving car—while being shot at. Nor does it have to be done with one arm (or agency). This will require additional educational, doctrinal, and some force structure changes within the American national security community. Just as important it will require additional investment in non-military tools to ensure that tomorrow’s Cyclops has a holistic “lens” and is fully armed with all elements of national power.

Download the full report.


[1] Interview with Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC, Aug. 1, 2004, at Camp Fallujah, and interviews with Lt. Gen. Mattis and Col. John Toolan, USMC, Mar. 11, 2006, Quantico, Va.
[2] USMC, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 20 June 1997.
[3] Charles C. Krulak, “The Three Block War: Fighting in Urban Areas,” Vital Speeches of the Day, New York: 15 Dec. 1997.
[4] Marine Colonel following “major combat operations” in Iraq, interviewed by Dr. Janine Davidson, cited in her Powerpoint presentation, “Learning to Win the Four-Block War,” Jan. 23, 2006.
[5] Mattis interview, Mar. 11, 2006.
[6] Carl E. Mundy III, “Spare the Rod, Save the Nation,” New York Times, Dec. 30, 2003.
[7] Interviews with Lt. Gen. Conway and then-Maj. Gen. Mattis in Iraq, August 2004. See also Bing West, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, New York: Bantam Books, 2005.
[8] U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual, Government Printing Office, 1940.
[9] Frank. G. Hoffman, “Transforming the One-Armed Cyclops,” paper delivered at the U.S. Army Strategy Conference, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pa., April 13, 2004.
[10] Gen. Mike W. Hagee, USMC, Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Mar. 9, 2006.
[11] Isaiah Wilson, III, “Thinking Beyond War: Civil-Military Operational Planning in Northern Iraq,” paper delivered at the Peace Studies Program, Cornell University, Oct. 14, 2004.
[12] Col. Christopher C. Conlin, “What Do You Do for an Encore?” Marine Corps Gazette, September 2004.
[13] James Fallows, “Why Iraq Has No Army,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 2005.
[14] Conlin email to the author, Mar. 14, 2006.
[15] Lt. Col. Sam Mundy, “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy,” Proceedings, April 2004. Colonel Mundy commanded 3rd Bn, 5th Marines during OIF and served in Al Qadissiyah during the transition period.
[16] Lt. Col. James L. Higgins, Major Michelle Trusso, and Maj Alfred B. Connable, “Marine Corps Intelligence: Charting a Course Across Cultural Terrain,” Marine Corps Gazette, Feb. 2004.
[17] David Danelo, “The Linguistic Tipping Point,” Marine Corps Gazette, Oct. 2005, p. 30.
[18] Captain Scott Cuomo, “It’s Time to Make ETTs the Main Effort,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2006.
[19] Conlin email to the author, Mar. 14, 2006.
[20] Eliot Cohen, Conrad Crane, Jan Horvath, and John Nagl, “Principles, Imperatives, and Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency,” Military Review, March-April 2006.

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