Plan of Attack

Insurgents in Iraq are forging improbable alliances to fight what some analysts call a "netwar." The United States needs to adapt—and to relearn some old lessons

"We know we're killing a lot, capturing a lot, collecting arms," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly told a meeting of defense analysts and retired officers at the Pentagon last year, commenting on U.S. attempts to thwart the growing insurgency in Iraq. "We just don't know yet whether that's the same as winning." Rumsfeld's remark encapsulates the confusion and frustration that have plagued U.S. counterinsurgency efforts around the world for more than half a century—most notably in Vietnam, El Salvador, and now Iraq. The United States is not alone, however. It is the latest victim of a problem that has long afflicted the world's governments and militaries when they are confronted with insurgencies: namely, a striking inability to absorb and apply the lessons learned in previous counterinsurgency campaigns.

Guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations, on the other hand, learn lessons very well. They study their own mistakes and the successful operations of their enemies, and they adapt nimbly. The past year in Iraq has been a case in point: insurgents have moved from sporadic, relatively unsophisticated roadside bomb attacks to more coordinated, even synchronized attacks, with brutally successful results: growing numbers of coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying; security in much of the country remains fragile or elusive; Iraqi resentment of the United States is increasing; and international political support for the American occupation, never exactly formidable to begin with, is withering. By many measures the insurgents are succeeding and we are failing.

From the archives:

"Nation Building 101" (January 2004)
The chief threats to us and to world order come from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Learning how to fix such states—and building necessary political support at home—will be a defining issue for America in the century ahead. By Francis Fukuyama

Regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iraq, in the decades ahead the United States is likely to be drawn into other military occupations and nation-building efforts; America's superpower status and the ongoing war on terrorism make this prospect almost inevitable. To a very important degree our ability to carry out such jobs effectively will depend on an approach to counterinsurgency that makes intelligent use of the lessons that countries around the world have confronted repeatedly throughout history. At root those lessons are basic: First, always remember that the struggle is not primarily military but political, social, economic, and ideological. Second, learn to recognize the signs of a budding insurgency, and never let it develop momentum. Third, study and understand the enemy in advance. And fourth, put a strong emphasis on gathering up-to-the-minute local intelligence.

Political considerations—applied to doctrine, planning, implementation, and, especially, operational coordination—must be at the foundation of any approach to counterinsurgency. The vigorousness of the insurgency in Iraq today stems directly from the fact that the United States did not plan well enough for the occupation; we lost a critical window of opportunity because we failed to anticipate the widespread civil disorder and looting that followed the capture of Baghdad. Despite the detailed planning for occupying postwar Iraq that was under way in many parts of the U.S. government (see "Blind Into Baghdad," by James Fallows, January/ February 2004 Atlantic), the officials directly charged with running the war and handling its aftermath appear not to have seriously considered the possibility that a sustained resistance effort might emerge and snowball into an insurgency. We were simply not on the lookout for the early signs of a social climate favorable to resistance; as a result, we were not able to suppress the insurgency before it had a chance to grow and gain momentum.

In the early 1990s I was the co-author of two RAND Corporation reports that together analyzed seven historical counterinsurgency and counterterrorist campaigns, involving Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Rhodesia. In every case we noted that because authorities failed to detect the signs of incipient insurgency, and because the government was not sufficiently integrated with the military to mount a decisive initial response, the insurgents or terrorists had time to entrench themselves in the civilian population and to solidify their efforts. All was not necessarily lost, but time, money, and many lives were needlessly expended. In Iraq, as in the countries we studied, by the time the authorities realized the seriousness of the situation, they had squandered invaluable opportunities to bring the insurgency to heel.

The military side of the equation cannot be neglected, of course. But in any military operation it is essential to acquire, coordinate, analyze, and disseminate "actionable intelligence." Here, too, the United States has fallen far short of the mark in Iraq. The Washington Post has reported that the CIA station in Baghdad may well be the largest in the world by now, with more than 300 full-time case officers and nearly 500 employees (including contractors) in total—a figure that, according to the Post, is up from an originally planned complement of only eighty-five officers. Yet intelligence collection remains a problem, especially in our efforts to determine how many insurgents are present and who they are—two of the most basic and necessary pieces of information for understanding and fighting any insurgency. The generally accepted number, cited by General John Abizaid last November, was 5,000; most are thought to be Sunni Muslims who belonged to the Baath Party or served in the military, the police, or the security and intelligence services. Tellingly, U.S. officials still estimate the number to be between four and six thousand, despite obvious signs that the insurgency has grown. U.S. and other sources believe that more than 90 percent of the violent acts carried out by the insurgents are the work of these FREs (former regime elements), who are reported to be either doing the job themselves or paying others (often criminals or unemployed "angry young men") to do it. Despite repeated claims from official Washington that a large number of foreign volunteers are converging on Iraq, American military commanders report no indications that this is the case; the most frequently cited figure is around 500, although some estimates put it at 1,000 to 3,000. Of the 5,000 insurgents already in custody (a number strongly suggesting that official U.S. estimates are too low), only about 300 are foreigners. No doubt the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq explains some of the inadequacies in this area. Indeed, it was not until late November—when the daily pace of guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops rose to some forty a day—that many intelligence officers and analysts were reassigned from that search to focus on the insurgency.

Although determining the size of the insurgency is critical to combating it, recent history has shown that to a certain degree the exact numbers are immaterial. For more than twenty years a hard core of just twenty or thirty members of the Baader-Meinhof gang terrorized West Germany—a stable country with much more sophisticated and reliable police, security, and intelligence services than Iraq is likely to have for some time. Similarly, some fifty to seventy-five Red Brigadists imposed a reign of terror on Italy; the worst period, in the late 1970s, is still referred to as the "years of lead." And for thirty years a dedicated cadre of 200 to 400 IRA gunmen and bombers frustrated the effort to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland.

These examples are clearly not parallel to the situation in Iraq, but they do illustrate an important principle: there will always be a fundamental asymmetry in the dynamic between insurgency and counterinsurgency. Guerrillas and terrorists do not have to defeat their opponents militarily; they just have to avoid losing. In this respect the more conspicuous the security forces are and the more pervasive their operations become, the stronger the insurgency appears to be. Insurgents try to disrupt daily life and commerce with their attacks; they hope that security-force countermeasures will alienate the population and create a public impression of the authorities as oppressors rather than protectors. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening in Iraq.

From the archives:

"Abizaid of Arabia" (December 2003)
General John Abizaid has driven big changes in the American military. Now, as he commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, his ideas are being put to the test. By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

General Abizaid has described the current conflict in Iraq as a "classical guerrilla-type campaign." In important ways, however, it is not. The Iraqi insurgency, unlike most others, has no center of gravity. Secular Baathists and other FREs are cooperating with domestic and foreign religious extremists. As a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority wrote to me in February, two months before this phenomenon crystallized in the fight for Fallujah, "Here the Baathist-Islamic divide does not exist in a practical sense. I wouldn't have thought it possible, as they were so diametrically opposed to each other during the [Saddam Hussein] regime—but it is happening." The Iraqi insurgency today appears to have no clear leader (or leadership), no ambition to seize and actually hold territory (except ephemerally, as in the recent cases of Fallujah and Najaf), no unifying ideology, and, most important, no identifiable organization. Rather, what we find in Iraq is the closest manifestation yet of "netwar," a concept defined in 1992 by the RAND analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt as unconventional warfare involving flat, segmented networks instead of the pyramidal hierarchies and command-and-control systems (no matter how primitive) that have governed traditional insurgent organizations. The insurgency in Iraq is taking place in an ambiguous and constantly shifting environment, with constellations of cells and individuals gravitating toward one another—to carry out armed attacks, exchange intelligence, trade weapons, and engage in joint training—and then dispersing, sometimes never to operate together again. It is a battlefield situation that a conventional military often cannot cope with, and we must learn to adapt. We must build effective indigenous intelligence capabilities so that we can identify the signs of an incipient insurgency; establish, train, and forge close cooperative relations with a functioning and capable police force; improve the safety, security, and living conditions of the local population, thereby gaining their confidence; and take advantage of the training capabilities, language skills, and cultural awareness and sensitivities of American special-operations forces, whose mission specifically includes the training of foreign militaries. In the end, however, no matter how sophisticated a response we develop, and no matter how new the insurgents' strategies are, a simple lesson that has been learned and forgotten again and again still applies: Don't let insurgencies get started in the first place.