Home / Articles / Succeeding in Phase IV: British Perspectives on the U.S. Effort To Stabilize and Reconstruct Iraq
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, the other American perspectives (“Changing Tires on the Fly: The Marines and Postconflict Stability Ops,” by Frank G. Hoffman). This essay summarizes the first 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By invading Iraq, the U.S. and its Coalition partners have undertaken probably the most challenging nation-building exercise since the end of World War II. The Coalition has set itself the task of fundamentally transforming Iraqi society, restoring stability to a war- and sanctions-ravaged country and reconstructing Iraq’s political order. This monumental task has been further complicated by a succession of well-documented strategic errors, tactical blunders, and operational shortcomings. The list would surely include: the commitment of too few troops, often with the wrong equipment and training for counterinsurgency warfare; hasty turnover of responsibility to unready Iraqis in the search for an early exit; and failure to seal the borders as part of a larger strategy to gain regional support for the project. Further aggravating the situation is the predictable emergence of a tenacious, resilient, and complex insurgency. This enemy continues to demonstrate its ability to challenge the most powerful conventional military in the world. So far, the U.S. military has achieved only tactical parity with this adversary.
The U.S. government and military are now learning from their experience in Iraq, but the danger remains that not all of the right lessons will be learned, especially by a military that retains a strong conventional-warfare bias. The perspectives of observers who can objectively highlight strengths and weaknesses might be useful in this regard. We interviewed British officials and officers, U.S. military officers, and both British and American subject-matter experts for this study. British interviewees freely acknowledged U.S. preeminence in conventional warfare, but also felt that the greatest strength of the British military—unconventional warfare against asymmetric adversaries—was the greatest weakness of the U.S. military. This is troubling, because the U.S. will not always be able to rely on allies for support in long asymmetric conflicts.
British Doctrine and Observations
The core principles underpinning UK stabilization and reconstruction (S&R) doctrine is founded on its postcolonial operations, beginning with India in 1947, and from experience gained during the Northern Ireland intervention (1969-97) and from numerous interventions undertaken since 1990, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. This British Army doctrine has been validated in Iraq, but it has required significant adaptation to meet the challenges there, not least because each new counterinsurgency operation is as different from those that have preceded it as it is similar.
The British consider the early development of a domestically and internationally recognized political end-state to be an essential part of any S&R operation. Three outcomes are seen as desirable: an honorable withdrawal after a limited but positive effect has been achieved; the restoration of stability before handing responsibility for the reconstruction effort over to an international agency; or, less popularly, the complete transformation of a society—the most difficult. The U.S. strategic approach in Iraq is seen as idealistic, ideologically driven, and not based on a pragmatic assessment of the situation on the ground. The planned end-state for Iraq has therefore failed to secure sufficient Iraqi or international community acceptance.
Most interviews felt that both the U.S. and U.K political leadership unrealistically expected to be welcomed as liberators. a blind optimism that persisted for a considerable time after the invasion, despite an obviously growing Sunni insurgency and the emergence of Shia militias and sectarian violence. There was also broad consensus that the Bush administration failed to appreciate the difference between good government and democracy, which cannot develop and mature without adequate security and effective governance. Other oft-cited flawed decisions included the rush to disband the Iraqi military and the effort to rapidly implement regime change through de-Baathification, encouraged by Shia emigre advisors chosen as interim leaders well before the invasion.
Legitimacy of the Intervening Force.
The British believe that for any S&R operation to be successful, the intervening force’s legitimacy must be established. This legitimacy is derived from three key sources: domestic support for the intervention (in this case, the American and British people); the international community; and most important, the community being rebuilt. Most interviewees felt that in Iraq the Coalition had even today far less legitimacy than was the minimum necessary for success, for reasons including the lack of a second UN resolution; the failure to locate any WMD; excessive civilian casualties owing to the indiscriminate use of force; the failure to properly secure Iraq after the invasion, mainly because of insufficient forces and misunderstanding the situation; a lack of cultural awareness; hugely underestimating the degree of likely opposition; a continued inability to protect ordinary Iraqis; and failure to quell the growing insurgency.
Legitimacy of the Supported Government.
Similarly, the local government must be accepted as legitimate by a significant proportion of the population. Clearly, establishing such legitimacy in an ethnically divided country such as Iraq is difficult. Most interviewees felt that a succession of errors had undermined the Coalition’s efforts to establish the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, including the promotion to powerful positions of Shia émigrés and opposition spokespersons who had little support within Iraq; continued attempts to install leaders acceptable to the U.S.; promoting a democratic system that favored the Shia majority; focusing on national rather than local and regional governance; a premature handover of power to the Iraqis; failure to plan for and prevent the government’s succumbing to preexisting ethnic, tribal, and religious divisions; and an inability or unwillingness to control the corrupt parts of the Iraqi government (e.g. Ministry of Interior). Most interviewees believed that even the current Iraqi government lacked sufficient legitimacy to prevent Iraq from descending into civil war, especially if the Coalition withdrew from Iraq in the next two to three years.
The British military understands that asymmetric conflicts are likely to be protracted undertakings in which patience is a virtue. This patience has to be demonstrated at all levels, both to the adversary and the local population, who must be able to trust both their government and the intervening force to “stay the course.” The consensus view was that what Iraqis really want is not an immediate U.S. withdrawal but a U.S. withdrawal as soon as security and good governance have been reestablished. If the insurgent leaders actually thought the U.S. would be willing to fight on in Iraq for “as long as it takes,” some feel that the war could be over in as little as three years. That is because, the extremists excepted, most Iraqis want a “long war” no more than the Coalition does. Showing the fortitude to battle on indefinitely creates the conditions for a much earlier political settlement, a solution less costly to all parties than a war of indeterminate cost and length.
Winning the Support of the People
British doctrine recognizes that the center of gravity in any S&R operation is the people, who must be persuaded to reject the insurgents. The population can only be won over by a combination of soft and hard power: force alone is insufficient for this task. Most interviewees perceived that the Coalition never secured sufficient support from the Shia community, let alone the much more disaffected Sunni. Iraqis still lack sufficient confidence in their government, and by extension in the Coalition, to be sufficiently emboldened to reject the insurgents and militias.
Many Iraqis believe that the Iraqi government and the Coalition have failed them. They do not feel safe, essential services are intermittent at best, their standard of living has declined, and they have lost hope that the future will be any better. For most, the objective is simply to make it safely through the day. Worse still, many now see parts of their government as a threat to their well-being.
As General Sir Frank Kitson, who served in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland, wrote in 1971, the main characteristic that distinguishes S&R operations from other forms of war is that “they are primarily concerned with the struggle for men’s minds.” S&R operations require engaging in effective dialogue with key segments of the local population, waging an information campaign that challenges the propaganda deployed by the insurgents. Similarly, David Galula, a French army officer who served in China, Southeast Asia and Algeria, wrote, “If there is a field in which we were definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents it was propaganda.” The project team’s research in Iraq has highlighted a number of serious challenges in the information domain.
Because the words and deeds of individual soldiers and marines can have far greater effect than even the most sophisticated and well-executed information campaign, all personnel must be adequately prepared for their role in the Coalition’s information campaign. Yet even today few are. Other fundamental problems identified included: lines of persuasion too often relate to abstract concepts such as democracy and citizenship that have little or no relevance to Iraqis; most Coalition campaigns are aimed at a non-existent “generic” Iraqi audience; the campaigns are too often assessed based on measures of performance, not effectiveness (numbers over impact); the failure to monitor and counter enemy propaganda; and a lengthy approval process that hinders the timely execution of information campaigns.
The consensus British perspective is that the Coalition is losing the war of ideas to the insurgents, who are unencumbered by a public and political reticence to use information as a weapon or by the obstacles that impede the Coalition from rapidly developing and disseminating messages that resonate with target audiences.
The British need no reminding of the importance of cultural awareness, as many of their earlier failures resulted from a lack of understanding of the communities and countries in which they were operating. It is not so much that the British military is particularly culturally attuned but that it is culturally pragmatic, acknowledging the importance of cultural understanding and at least appearing to be culturally sensitive. Its current doctrine can be seen in its military education, predeployment training, and organizational culture.
In contrast, most interviewees and some U.S. analysts noted that in March 2003, at the time of the Iraq invasion, cultural understanding within the U.S. military was woefully inadequate, and it may remain so. More cultural training is now being provided, but this is generally simplistic and inadequate. The education program was also not being reinforced in the field.
A surprising number of interviewees also criticized the U.S. military for presenting a sometimes arrogant attitude, even to allies. While interviewees admired the self-assurance of their U.S. counterparts, they also noted that the U.S. soldiers’ largely uncritical belief that they belong to the “best military” from the “best country in the world” seemed elitist toward all foreigners, not just Iraqis.
Some more experienced British observers also noted that American culture itself also impeded harmonious relations in the Arab world. Many U.S. personnel did not appreciate that they were simply not understood by key target audiences. For example, the can-do, cut-to-the-chase attitude can be seen as brusque in interpersonal relationships in the Middle East. To Iraqis, many Americans appeared disinclined to modify their own cultural behavior while in their country.
While the British military system has made a sustained effort to develop institutional cultural awareness, one cannot underestimate the importance of the deeper cultural awareness that the British enjoy by dint of their history and geography. Conversely, the U.S. military has only recently renewed its appreciation for cultural understanding in S&R operations. Training and education still lag behind operational requirements and have not overcome the cultural unawareness that results from America’s own history and geography.
Involvement of the Local Population. While the British believe in involving the local population as much as possible in the solutions being developed to stabilize and reconstruct their society, they also recognize that local, regional, and national institutions must be sufficiently mature before complete control is handed back to the local population.
British officers were highly critical of the U.S. approach in this regard. Their view, which is shared by the project team, is that in the rush to exit Iraq, the Coalition handed far too much power back to the Iraqis far too quickly. As a result, some elements of the police, the military, and most notoriously the Ministry of Interior security forces promptly divided along ethnic and tribal lines. Some have even become instruments of repression and sectarian violence, thereby undermining public confidence.
The Coalition might have thought that not handing over control would foster Shia resistance. However, from discussions with Iraqi Shia, the review team concluded that this would probably not have been the case. Had realistic expectations regarding the timetable for the handover been set from the outset, had good governance and security been provided immediately, and had Sunnis been included in the transitional process, most Iraqis would probably have accepted a slower transition in return for peace and prosperity.
A number of senior officers and officials felt that in the rush to secure their own early exit from Iraq, the British had far too rapidly handed over authority to local leaders, who had then used that power to consolidate their own positions and to confront and attack their traditional rivals. This transfer of control had also allowed the Iranians to significantly increase their influence in southern Iraq. As a result, the British sector has divided down ethnic, tribal, and political lines, with two powerful militias now vying for control of this key region, leaving the British with little option but to use force to reassert control, thereby becoming one of the protagonists in the conflict.
The British believe that on occasions it is still necessary to temporarily control the population by means of inducements and coercion. The British effort in southern Iraq to try to drive a wedge between the people and the insurgents and to isolate the population both physically and psychologically has enjoyed localized success, but overall, most officers interviewed felt the Coalition had done a poor job of using either physical or psychological tools to separate the local population from the insurgents and extremists.
Most interviewees felt the Coalition had failed to achieve any meaningful degree of population control, for reasons including inadequate troop levels; a force-protection obsession that encouraged seeing all Iraqis as potential threats; the lack of cultural awareness; the excessive use of force and indiscriminate and poorly targeted cordon-and-search operations; and the failure to provide adequate security for most Iraqis, which encouraged many to form or join militias, resulting in the creation of virtual no-go areas. The Coalition’s inability to control the population has allowed the insurgents to train, organize, and operate with relative impunity.
Setting Realistic Expectations.
Interveners must quickly demonstrate the potential benefits to the local population, while avoiding dislocating expectations by promising more than they can actually deliver. The rule should be to promise less but deliver more, and more quickly. However, prior to and immediately after the invasion, the Iraqi people were subjected to what one officer described as a “symphony of positive messaging,” creating the impression that their lives would be immeasurably improved in short order. In reality, Iraq was in far worse shape than almost anyone expected and the Coalition was unable even to maintain a basic level of security. This dislocation of expectations quickly resulted in disillusionment and an increased willingness to entertain the arguments of the insurgents.
To the extent possible, civilian authorities must take the lead in S&R and counterinsurgency operations. This is because most of the soft power that must be applied is political, economic, diplomatic, and informational, not military. Giving overarching authority to military commanders runs the risk that they will seek exclusively military solutions. The consensus view is that the Coalition has not effectively implemented the principle of civilian primacy. Too much control still devolves to the U.S. military, which unsurprisingly continues to pursue a largely coercive solution to the insurgency.
Unity of Effort.
Unity of effort means bringing the full extent of state power (soft and hard) to bear in the S&R effort. The committee system has evolved as a uniquely British institution to ensure this unity of effort. While imperfect, this system has proven effective down to the tactical level for the coordination of S&R and counterinsurgency operations. Many of those interviewed felt that unity of effort was missing from the U.S. approach in Iraq. Many interviewees acknowledged that things had much improved since 2005, thanks largely to the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. However, even now it is felt that the U.S. military is still able to plan and conduct combat operations with insufficient non-DoD civilian oversight. As a result, the military was able to use what many British officers considered to be excessive force to the detriment of the other lines of operation.
The one principle that is enshrined not only in doctrine but in the psyche of all British officers is that of minimum force, i.e., that the military should apply the absolute minimum level of force deemed necessary to stabilize a situation or achieve operational objectives. This is because excessive force will almost always be counterproductive. And yet the perception remains that the U.S. military continues to employ excessive force in Iraq.
A number of officers noted that they had observed that most U.S. military personnel did not understand, nor were they mandated to follow, the British concept of graduated response, which escalates from no action to some action to major action. The U.S. response seemed to be the reverse: to deescalate from major action to some action and finally disengagement. To implement graduated response requires education and training, and officers familiar with U.S. predeployment training commented that it was inadequate to ensure that U.S. troops would and could employ a graduated response to threats.
Many interviewees observed that the differing British and American military perceptions of their role may indirectly lead each to use lethal force. American soldiers see themselves as warriors whose duty it is to close with and destroy America’s enemies, while British soldiers are cognizant that they may be warfighting today and peacekeeping tomorrow. The difference between the “warrior ethic” and “soldiering” is that the U.S. warrior is too ready to resort to force.
Another factor that many British interviewees believed contributes to the U.S. military’s perceived excessive use of firepower is its obsession with force protection, which emphasizes minimizing U.S. casualties over avoiding Iraqi casualties. This strategy quickly alienates the local population, who are then unwilling to support the Coalition, instead lending their support to the insurgency.
The Limited Utility of Military Power.
Experience has conditioned the British to understand the limited utility of military power in S&R and counterinsurgency operations. In the words of Sir Robert Thompson, “priority should be given to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas.” Indeed, the indiscriminate use of force can quickly provoke a desire for revenge, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
Interviewees consistently articulated the theme that the U.S. military did not seem to understand that it was not fighting an army in Iraq, but was dealing with a disaffected people. They praised those U.S. officers who did “get it,” but the consensus was that the U.S. military still did not fully accept the limits of military power against an asymmetric adversary. Many officers commented on the “gung-ho” and overly aggressive attitude of individual soldiers.
It was also noted that the U.S. military often became frustrated when asymmetric adversaries would not engage in “force on force” confrontations. As a result, they sometimes labeled their opponents as cowardly rather than the shrewd fighters they actually are. Interviewees were concerned that the U.S. military will continue to underestimate an intelligent and deadly adversary they do not respect.
Conducting intelligence-led operations is a key principle of British counterinsurgency operations. Underestimating the benefits of intelligence had disastrous consequences in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, from indiscriminate internment to the failure of untargeted cordon-and-search operations. Almost all operations in Northern Ireland were eventually intelligence led. Indeed, terrorist suspects were often allowed to escape or British operations postponed or cancelled when insufficient intelligence was available to justify aggressive action. This principle has continued in Iraq with some success.
The British feel that too many U.S. operations in Iraq are mounted with insufficient intelligence. As a result, the local populace is severely disrupted, property damaged, and innocents detained or injured, thereby providing countless propaganda coups to the insurgents. One senior British officer noted a vicious circle he had observed where insufficient intelligence, resulting from a disharmonious relationship with the population, encouraged largely random, aggressive cordon-and-search operations that affected more innocent than guilty persons. This further alienated an already disaffected community, which reduced the supply of actionable intelligence.
Several British officers familiar with U.S. operations noted that the U.S. military faces a terrible conundrum. Now under constant threat from IEDs and suicide bombers, it has adopted a highly defensive force posture that has distanced units from the local populace. Yet these units need to engage with the local population, which means taking significant risks and accepting increased casualties in the short term in order to reinvigorate the intelligence process and enhance force protection in the long term.
British success in counterinsurgency and S&R operations is also made possible by an organizational culture that embraces this form of warfare. As academic Alum Gwynne Jones noted, the British Army “achieved an enviable expertise [in counterinsurgency] partly because of its imaginative use of past experience, and partly because operations of this type were quite its favorite occupation.” It also recognizes that asymmetric warfare places a premium on selecting, training, and empowering personnel at all levels who can “adapt and overcome.”
The U.S. Army culture in contrast is regarded by most military analysts to eschew “operations other than war” in favor of large-scale, force-on-force conflicts between “worthy adversaries.” This phenomenon has long been recognized by American military analysts. Brian Jenkins noted in his work for the RAND Corporation in 1970 that “the Army’s doctrine, its tactics, its organizations, its weapons—its entire repertoire of warfare was designed for conventional war.” More recently, in Peacekeeping in the Abyss (2004), Robert Cassidy noted, “for about 125 out of the 138 years since the Civil War, the mainstream U.S. Army has consistently failed to seriously consider any type of war except a European-style conventional conflict.” Despite three years of asymmetric combat in Iraq, the U.S. military still retains a largely conventional organizational culture.
Most interviewees also felt that the U.S. military’s retention of a conventional “big army” mindset and organizational culture has limited the freedom of command of more junior officers and stifled low-level adaptation and innovation. Because it remains essentially a peacetime organization, the U.S. military appears to exhibit a “zero-defect” culture that further limits innovation and punishes mistakes. In asymmetric conflict, trial and error is one primary tool of learning, but the culture disincentivizes officers from taking risks and encourages the type of conformity that is so often exploited by insurgents.
Revised policies, strategy doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures need to be developed to prevail in Iraq and to be applied in the inevitable next such operation. Key among our recommendations are the following:
For each operation, a realistic and achievable plan and end-state should be developed, based on a detailed understanding of the country that is to be stabilized and rebuilt. The justification should be self-evident to the majority of the domestic population, the international community, and the society being reconstructed. Additionally, the first priority in any S&R operation should be to stabilize the community without unduly alienating the local populace in the process. This will likely require deploying a large, culturally attuned follow-on force capable of controlling the population and denying operating space to the insurgents, while using minimum force and taking greater risks in order to minimize collateral damage. Moreover, the U.S. must develop multiethnic solutions to future situations like Iraq, including offering disproportionate influence to minority groups in order to bring them onboard. A certain degree of coercive diplomacy will be needed to persuade the majority ethnic group to settle for less than total control, but the alternative is minority exclusion and conflict.
Asymmetric conflicts are almost always “long wars,” and the intervention force must therefore be willing and able to outlast all who would oppose it. If a country does not have the patience and endurance needed for such a protracted, costly, and dangerous endeavor, it may not want to commence the operation in the first place.
Winning the Support of the People
If an operation like Iraqi Freedom is considered again, during the preplanning phase, an intimate understanding of the country/community that forces will soon occupy must be developed. Planning must take account of the likely impact of operations on the local populace. The combat-phase formations have to be trained for peace enforcement as well. The intervention force also needs to be large enough to dominate and prepared to interact with the foreign culture.
All personnel must be constantly reminded that their every word and action will have an effect, positive or negative, on the attitudes of the local populace. Serious consideration should be given to creating a national-level Director for Strategic Communication, possibly serving on the National Security Council. A new discipline should be created that includes tactical, operational, and strategic level communications and PSYOP.
The U.S. needs to design a comprehensive cultural awareness program to provide staff at all levels with the sensitivity and understanding they will need in the field. This should include developing (1) integrated, comprehensive cultural surveys, or human-terrain maps; (2) a comprehensive training and education program for all personnel; and (3) a cultural immersion program to provide personnel with the tools and confidence needed to engage effectively with the local populace.
Every effort should be made to involve the local populace as much possible; however, complete control should only be handed over when local officials have demonstrated their competency and impartiality. While public expectations regarding the timing of the handover can be managed if progress is being achieved, the loss of control resulting from the premature handover of authority is almost impossible to reverse.
A certain degree of population control is essential to ensure that vital facilities and installations, along with individuals, are protected, law is maintained, and freedom of maneuver is denied to opponents, particularly insurgents. This requires deploying a force large and capable enough to secure the country, not just defeat its conventional military forces.
At the outset of an S&R operation, the U.S. government should develop a realistic understanding of the challenges it will likely encounter; the mantra thereafter should be to promise less and deliver more, and more quickly.
While the military will almost certainly have initial control of postconflict stabilization in any intervention, civilian leadership should be installed as quickly as possible. A senior civilian leader can ensure that all the lines of operation are coordinated and in particular that the military end is in harmony with the political, economic, and informational ends.
Senior defense officials and military commanders should undertake an immediate and thorough review of existing doctrine and rules of engagement and tighten both in order to encourage personnel to see the use of lethal force as the last resort, not the first option. Predeployment and in-country training should also be modified to include a dedicated component that highlights the negative consequences of the disproportionate use of force. Moreover, the limited utility of military power in counterinsurgency and S&R operations must be accepted. There are no decisive battles against an insurgency; the defeat of this adaptable and resourceful adversary will likely take years to achieve.
Wherever possible, operations must be intelligence-led. Doctrine must be modified accordingly. Operational planning should begin with the questions, is there sufficient intelligence for this operation to be undertaken at all? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? This new risk-management culture is essential in S&R operations in order to avoid the temptation to do something when doing nothing may be the best option.
Changing the organizational culture of the U.S. military would be a huge, lengthy, and in some respects counterproductive undertaking, if it undermines the preeminence of the U.S. military in conventional warfare. That said, the existing culture does undermine its ability to successfully execute counterinsurgency and S&R operations. A detailed, high-level DoD study should therefore be undertaken to determine how the existing culture can be modified to enable the U.S. military to fight and win America’s symmetric and asymmetric wars.