Can Another “Iraq” Be Prevented?

Will America soon find itself in a counterinsurgency fight in another “Iraq”? There are responsible people who believe that, notwithstanding the U.S. experience since 2003, the American body politic still retains an appetite for colossal boots-on-the-ground efforts like Iraq. In fact, at least one former Pentagon policymaker, Prof. Joseph Collins of the National War College, thinks another Iraq is actually the “likely” scenario within the “next decade.”[1]

Others seem to agree. In mid-April Defense News reported that the plan to grow the size of U.S. ground forces by 92,000 troops was “aimed primarily at preparing to fight another lengthy irregular war.”[2] Supporting that report is a May 2007 interview with Ryan Henry, the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, in which he insisted that the troop growth for the Army and Marine Corps was “an adaptation to this prolonged, irregular type of campaign that we can find ourselves in.”[3]

Accordingly, however unlikely U.S. participation in such a conflict may seem to some observers, serious consideration ought to be given to a question it raises: how do we prevent an insurgency from arising if the U.S. does another “Iraq” sometime?

The Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, along with a blizzard of other writings, proposes a variety of strategies to counter an insurgency once it emerges. Less attention has been given the matter of how to prevent them from arising in the first place. Addressing the nature of human conflicts is obviously beyond the scope of this essay, but with respect to Iraq in particular, is there anything to learn about the rise of the insurgency there?

Part of the answer is already well known. Much has been made of the failure to adhere to General Eric Shinseki’s prewar admonition that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to secure the country in the aftermath of invasion. No doubt this is true, since it is always easier to loosen control than it is to reimpose it once lost.

Equally thoroughly discussed is the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. Though most experts believe this was a major error that catalyzed the insurgency, the principal person responsible for the decision, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer, makes the argument that, in fact, the Iraqi Army had disbanded itself and there was no army to retain.

It is also hard to say that preserving the Army, one of Saddam’s main elements of repression and totalitarian control throughout his reign, would have been accepted by the Iraqi people. It is especially doubtful that the Shiite majority would have agreed to the retention of the Sunni-officered army. Though popular hindsight readily labels the disbanding as a terrible “mistake” that should have been obvious, its actual quality is less clear, certainly then and maybe now. 

What has not been analyzed much is the way major combat operations (MCO) were conducted and the effect of this on the subsequent insurgency. Thinking about a potential insurgency is vitally important, even during the MCO phase. If MCO are conducted the right way, the chances of a successful insurgency diminish markedly.

Consider the observation of Profs. Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, in their monograph Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response, that during the past century most insurgencies failed. [4] Why did they fail? Because, Metz and Millen argue, the “majority were crushed before they developed a critical mass of skill and support.”

Unfortunately, during MCO for Iraq, airpower was not permitted to completely crush insurgent potentialities. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, then Central Command commander Army General Tommy Franks elected to cut the air attacks short in favor of an early start to ground operations, reportedly out of concern (later proven to be unfounded) that the Iraqis were destroying their oil fields.

As a result of the accelerated ground operation, the Washington Post reported, “about two dozen targets, mostly communication nodes and a few leadership sites,” were dropped from the list of air targets very early in the war, and later “hundreds” of other targets that could have been legitimately struck were also spared.[5] Franks’ “restricted approach” to airpower understandably “drew criticism from some inside and outside the Air Force for weakening the impact of what was widely labeled a ‘shock and awe’ campaign.”

In order to work, a “shock and awe” strategy, whether it is air- or ground-centric, must impose real shock and awe. The truncated air attack and relatively quick land force capture of Baghdad imposed little of either. True, the air attack was adequate to clear the way for ground operations to seize Baghdad with few American losses. But journalist Bijal Trivedi reports that military analysts later concluded that the air “attack was perhaps too precise. It did not trigger shock and awe in the Iraqis.”[6]

While Iraq’s armed forces may have been overcome, the Iraqi people felt no such effect. The rampant looting and theft that followed regime collapse demonstrated that many Iraqis, perhaps most, were in no way awed by the ground forces of the invading coalition. The aggressive energy of a society raised on totalitarianism had not yet been sapped. As a result, the malleability of a truly defeated nation ready for productive change did not exist in Iraq as it did in postwar Germany and Japan.

The insistence upon the accelerated march to Baghdad had another unintended consequence that helped set the stage for the insurgency. As ground forces surged north, lines of communication stretched. This presented opportunity to what proved to be an early variant of the insurgency, the Fedayeen Saddam. These rabid Saddam loyalists fell upon the “Jessica Lynchs’” of the Army, that is, brave and competent soldiers serving in support positions who were not as ready for the high-intensity, near suicidal combat the Fedayeen was wont to conduct.

Though no match for regular U.S. infantrymen, the Fedayeen nevertheless achieved sufficient success against an opponent they viewed as generically “American” to repeatedly stage attacks against U.S. forces. They seemed to have enfranchised the notion that U.S. troops were not invincible but rather vulnerable even to the low-tech attacks these Iraqi irregulars were able to muster. A mindset fertile for renewed resistance was created.

There is, perhaps, a counterinsurgency lesson here that runs completely counter to the philosophy, “the less force the better,” that pervades FM 3-24. Some societies are only prepared for radical change after they consider themselves truly defeated. William R. Weir offers in Turning Points in Military History (2005), his conclusion that “[i]f the enemy population does not accept defeat, you can’t win until you kill every last person in that enemy population.”[7]

To reiterate, no one is suggesting that innocent civilians should be made the object of attack. Rather, it is merely to say that Operation Iraqi Freedom’s too-rapid transition from the air assault, which the coalition was conducting effectively and with impunity, to the ground campaign that stretched hastily established lines of communication to the point of vulnerability, permitted enemy forces to secure some success. That success, however meager, may have had a more seriously negative impact on the ultimate outcome than was apparent at the time.

Norman Friedman alludes to this in a fascinating essay published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 2004.[8] In it Friedman discusses the air assault on Germany during World War II that psychologically crushed the population, and points out that the Nazi resistance movement “smoldered for some years” but died out because the bombing forced Germans to consider themselves “defeated and occupied.”

Friedman concedes that bombing did “not change necessarily the hearts and minds” of the German people “but it did help preclude any post-surrender violence like what is now being seen in Iraq.” He rhetorically asks the question whether modern war has gotten “too precise.” The suggestion is that the insurgency took root, paradoxically, because “the kind of dramatic military victory achieved in 2003 was counterproductive precisely because it was so clean.”

Today, America would not conduct an air campaign that deliberately targeted noncombatants. However, a sustained air assault aimed at annihilating legitimate and fully legal military targets–combatants, for instance–is a wholly different issue. The restraint shown by U.S. forces toward the Iraqi military during the MCO phase did not produce much goodwill in the minds of Arabs in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. Again, the question is whether the way the MCO phase was conducted permitted too many future insurgents to survive believing they could successfully fight American forces.

In State of Denial (2006), journalist Bob Woodward discusses the assessment of Robert D. Blackwill, the former “point man” on Iraq for the National Security Council.[9] Blackwill believed that the core of the Iraqi officer corps, “the Sunni majors and lieutenant colonels in their late 30s and early 40s,” had been “stunned by their defeat” and were initially “intimidated by the U.S. blitzkrieg.”

However, the Sunni officers later became involved in the insurgency leading Blackwill to conclude that the “U.S. had not killed enough of the Iraqi officer corps.” Once they sensed that the insurgency “might have legs” and give them the opportunity to regain power, these former officers came off of the sidelines and joined up. Thus, it seems that even if one ascribes the noblest of motives to the strategy to terminate the air campaign early to facilitate an accelerated ground operation, the decision may have had the perverse effect of preserving a trained leadership cadre that would become a very serious problem for the U.S. military.

It may be, therefore, a more prudent insurgency-prevention strategy to allow the air assault phase to proceed longer, especially when it is conducted under circumstances as in Iraq where there is little effective air defense. The ground forces could have fixed the enemy or funneled their formations into killing fields so to allow as airpower to engage in the progressive destruction of the still-resisting human and material instruments of state power.

Such operations have a grammar all their own. Exposing the repressed people to the spectacle of relentless disintegration of a feared totalitarian regime over an extended period can imprint observers with a profound appreciation of the power of the invader. What is more, enemy efforts to maintain the cohesion of regime forces–not to mention leadership cadres–become increasingly difficult amid the destruction. Collapsing dictatorships can begin to cannibalize their own leaders–at every level–and this may serve to decimate the ranks of those who otherwise may become key insurgents over the longer term.

Saddam Hussein is a good example of the kind of paranoid leader who never hesitated to kill his own senior leaders and gave little thought to the operational impact of such executions. This kind of internecine slaughter can also extend to fielded forces of totalitarian regimes. During the waning days of World War II, as the German war machine suffered repeated setbacks, an increasingly frustrated and desperate Nazis regime executed 15,000 of their own troops in an effort to maintain power.[10]

In short, airpower might be able to induce self-destructive behaviors among those combatants who might otherwise go on to form a vicious insurgency. Both America and Iraq have paid a terrible price for allowing Saddam’s implement of oppression–and especially its leadership–to escape unscathed only to become a brutal insurgency that leaves no atrocity undone in victimizing the innocent.

We will never really know if extending the air campaign might indirectly have discouraged the growth of an insurgency, but we do know from the experience of Germany and Japan that even societies with fanatical extremist elements can be subdued if the people internalize the power and ferociousness of their conquerors in a way that makes them open to embracing democratic change peacefully.


[1] See Joseph J. Collins, “From the Ground Up,” Armed Force Journal, October 2006, p. 44.

[2] John T. Bennett, “DoD: Force Planning Build For Irregular, Lengthy Conflicts,” DefenseNews, Apr. 16, 2007, p. 6.

[3] John T. Bennett, “Interview: Ryan Henry, U.S. Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy,” DefenseNews, May 7, 2007.

[4] Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response, U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, November 2004 (monograph), at pp. vii and 25-26.

[5] Bradley Graham and Vernon Loeb, “An Air War of Might, Coordination and Risks,” Washington Post, Apr. 27, 2003.

[6] Bijal Trivedi, “Inside Shock and Awe,” NationalGeographic.com, Feb. 14, 2005.

[7] William R. Weir, Turning Points in Military History (Citadel, 2005), p. ix.

[8] Norman Friedman, “Is Modern War Too Precise?,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2004, p. 4.

[9] Bob Woodward, State of Denial (Simon & Schuster, 2006), p. 301.

[10] Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Profile Books, 2006), p. 182.