By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 10/01/07):
What makes sense in Iraq? The political debate is becoming sharply polarized again, as President Bush campaigns for a new “surge” strategy. But some useful military guideposts can be found in a new field manual of counterinsurgency warfare prepared by the general who is about to take command of U.S. forces in Baghdad.
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus supervised the development of the manual when he ran the Army’s training center at Fort Leavenworth, before he had any idea he would be heading back to Baghdad as the top commander. In that sense, the document reflects a senior officer’s best judgment about what will work and what won’t — independent of the details of the current “to surge or not to surge” debate. The manual was published by the Army last month and can be downloaded at
Two themes stood out for me as I read the document. The first is that success in counterinsurgency requires a political strategy as much as a military one. The second is that broad political support back home — which buys time on the battlefield — is the crucial strategic asset in fighting such wars.
The manual doesn’t offer any specific advice for the current debate. But its precepts do raise some basic questions for Bush as he frames his new strategy: Will the new approach build bipartisan support for Iraq policy? And will it open a path toward an Iraqi political solution, as opposed to an American military effort to impose order?
“Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare — it is the graduate level of war,” reads a quotation from a Special Forces officer in Iraq that opens the first chapter. And this theme runs throughout the manual: Many of the prescriptions that apply to normal wars don’t apply to counterinsurgencies. Indeed, if they are used, they will backfire. In a summary of “unsuccessful practices,” here’s the No. 1 mistake: “Overemphasize killing and capturing the enemy rather than securing and engaging the populace.”
The field manual summarizes some of the lessons that commanders have learned in Iraq: Long-term success “depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.” Killing insurgents “by itself cannot defeat an insurgency.” Local commanders “have the best grasp of their situations” and should have the freedom to adapt and react to local conditions. As many officers ruefully admit, the Army is learning these lessons three years late — but perhaps that’s still in time to make a difference.
My favorite part of the manual, which I suspect Petraeus had a big hand in drafting, is a section titled “Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency Operations.” The headings give the flavor of these unconventional ideas: “Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be.” (Green Zone residents, please note: “If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents.”) “Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction.” “Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot.” And this military version of the Zen riddle: “The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force Can Be Used and the More Risk Must Be Accepted.” (As the host nation takes control, “Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people.”)
The abiding lesson of this manual comes in one of Petraeus’s paradoxes, and it ought to be engraved as the cornerstone of U.S. policy going forward, regardless of whether there is a troop surge: “The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Normally Better than Us Doing It Well.” In making this point, Petraeus cites the godfather of counterinsurgency warriors, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who said when he was U.S. commander in Vietnam in 1971: ” We can’t run this thing. . . . They’ve got to run it.”
It’s Petraeus’s luck, good or bad, that he has a chance to see whether these precepts of counterinsurgency warfare can still work in Iraq, despite all the mistakes made over the past three years. His chances will be slim if President Bush and the Democratic Congress can’t agree on a bipartisan plan for Iraq. Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker, put it succinctly on “Meet the Press” last month: “This can’t be Bush’s war” — it has to be the country’s. That’s the real danger of a troop surge: It sets up a showdown between the president and his critics that could shred the chances for a stable, sustainable policy that might embody some of the military lessons we have finally learned.