Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Iraq: Danish Media Storm Amid COIN Lessons

Danish media are on a rampage to get the Danish troops out of Iraq asap: how else, do they seem to think, can one interpret the outcome of the US midterms? Well, first the Iraq Study Group hasn't come out with proposals yet, neither has the Pace study group (see preceding post). Second, in spite of the probable political impossibility, one model would be the one championed by Senator John McCain, namely sending in more troops. The need for more troops is obvious -- given that they do the right things.

But whatever the outcome (which by now looks like a coming rejection of responsibility by the Western political leaders), Iraq still offers lessons on the operational level -- lessons that will be sorely needed the next time around, meaning anywhere the Long War is being fought. One good example comes from
Defense Tech's portrayal of UK Lt. Col. Labouchere.
Accustomed as I am to heavy, bristling, techy American methods in Iraq, I was shocked and little bit unnerved by Labouchere's "keep it simple" philosophy. But when I saw it working ... when I saw the way locals had warmed to his presence ... when I saw how much ground he covered and how quickly ... I declared his methods "revolutionary". "This is actually quite an old way of doing things," Labouchere countered. I saw his point: overlooking for a moment the vital presence of the sophisticated Merlins, there's no new technology in the battlegroup. We're talking diesel engines, machine guns, radios, maps and canvas cots. What's novel, in the context of this war, is Labouchere's confidence in tradition and basic principles. But he's right. Delicate communications networks can't replace a friendly local populace. (...) An American base housing a thousand troops might generate a dozen small patrols per day. Labouchere does twice as much work with half the force -- and he does it more cheaply and with a proportionally smaller footprint that's far less irritating to Iraqis.

But could a force like Labouchere's survive in an urban jungle like Baghdad, where coalition forces have turned to heavier and heavier vehicles for protection against rockets and roadside bombs? "Why couldn't it?" Labouchere asks. He points to another historical lesson, this one from Northern Ireland, where British heavy vehicles just pissed off the natives and provoked a proportional response. If we went light in Baghdad, Labouchere's argument goes, it might help defuse some of the tension. And it would certainly be cheaper.

It's a bold proposal, but one with firm grounding in history ... and one getting an early test run on Maysan's sandy wastes. Imagine a Stryker brigade adopting Labouchere's model. Imagine what we could accomplish combining American resources with Labouchere's no-nonsense methods. Now imagine that American commanders had half his guts and smarts.
The Brits on many levels have a natural advantage over the US forces on this level. Their advantage stems not just from the historical experiences in Malaya and Northern Ireland, but as much from the different warfighting ethos in the British Army, leaving more room for the 'softie' political realm of counterinsurgency. As far as one can tell, SOCOM appears too functionally focused on the hard end of unconventional operations, not least in terms of Human Ressourcing.

On the other hand, the US Army does have some leeway for experimenting during these years, including luckily it seems giving local commanders pretty much freedom to find their optimal way as the comment to the story above on Defense Tech shows:
I spent a tour in an unnamed Iraqi city as an infantryman (not SF, ranger or SEAL: just plain infantry) and we conducted our operations as a hybrid between this Brit tactic and the static base American idea. Our daily patrols were conducted in unarmored stripped command HMMWVs with post mounted 240's and 6-8 troops per truck. We would patrol along, stop and check in with the locals, talk with shopkeepers, police, locals, farmers whoever happened to be there. We also gave some space to mosques on Friday and worked with the Imams to find foreign fighters.

Our other tactic was extensive use of 3-5 man teams walking out to set up OP's wherever we could find a good spot. This was my primary mission, it was against policy, it was very risky, we had very limited support.... and it worked. I could go into a house in the afternoon, sit on a roof be served a great dinner, enjoy some tea and walk out with a couple names of insurgents. We very rarely saw any truly illicit activity mostly because no one knew where the Americans actually were. More than a few times I walked out of a place and the owner didn't know I was there. It was the fact that we did not use trucks for insertion, had and used stealth and the element of surprise that we quickly became an island of silence in a province that was torn by violence.

Just to counter some future post about small town, or little villages, this city grew to over 50,000 during our tour. When we transferred to the next unit they said there was no need for this type of operation. Within weeks they were in the news, with very unfortunate results. (emphasis added).
The challenge will then be for the Army and everyone else to complete the learning circuit by collecting, analysing and incorporating these operational experiments and experiences.

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