RCT-6: 6,000
Matthew Yglesias- Counter-insurgency guru

An Education in Military Science

And now that we've finished being nice to people for a little while, let me take a moment for other business.

Strikingly, the big "sweep" against al-Qaeda failed for the exact same reasons that this technique always fails, both in previous iterations in Iraq, and also in other counterinsurgency situations around the world and throughout history.

Emphasis added.  So writes Mr. Yglesias, declaring current operations a failure on account of their not capturing the whole of AQI leadership.  His commenters joyfully pile on: 

The aspect of Operation Ripper I find most disturbing is our failure to learn.

This demonstrates a complete failure to grasp the authorship of a new COIN manual; the change of command in Iraq and of overall military operations; the ascent of officers such as Generals Petraeus and Mattis, or Australian Col. David Kilcullen (who spoke to us here); or the reasons behind any of these things.  It simply ignores everything that has actually happened since last January, in preference for a preferred narrative:  the Surge failed before it began; it is failing now; it must fail in the future.

I realize that Mr. Yglesias is hampered by a Harvard education; that is a disadvantage for anyone.  Harvard was once a great institution for learning, the greatest in America; but that time has long gone.  It no longer educates the complete man, and yet its reputation is such that its alumni believe themselves to be educated to the highest degree.  They do not grasp that their institution has failed them.

In fairness to them, then, a course in counterinsurgency.  Consider it a remedial course for those who consider themselves overeducated, though they have failed to learn the basics of military science.

Two main articles will serve as an introduction: 

A Strategy for the Long War

The Gravity Well

The first of these is the most important for the current claim, i.e., that AQI fleeing battle is the mark of US failure.  (Indeed, to phrase it in plain terms makes it clear how odd a claim it is.)  We just finished talking about this.

AQ leadership normally does flee the battle. This is just what happened in 2004 in Fallujah. However, breaking their strongholds is important precisely because of what it does to their overall strategy, which is to set themselves up as 'the strong horse' versus America. Because they flee, and their strongholds are destroyed, they lose face -- the one thing they cannot afford to lose.

I discussed the question in "A Strategy for the Long War":


"Now consider the example of Fallujah, where this played out in a larger arena. In Fallujah, the enemy convinced a hostile population that it could lead them to victory. As a consequence, the people of Fallujah gave themselves over to the leadership of Islamists, trained with them, and believed them when they said that the Marine Corps would be buried there.

"This, too, was an illusion. When the Marines and US Cavalry came, the terrorist leadership fled. The people of Fallujah who had chosen to believe the myth were left to fight alone, and fight they did -- hard, and according to the Fallujah veterans I've talked to, with a deep determination. In the end, however, they did not survive. Between the second battle of Fallujah and Iraq's elections, terrorist attacks fell forty percent. The elections came off almost without a hitch even there, in what had been the heart of enemy country.

"This was an occasion when our actions unmade the enemy's information strategy. There still remained Sunni insurgents -- their local problems remained in need of a solution -- but al Qaeda in Iraq's fall from popularity began there. Sunni tribes have increasingly turned against al Qaeda and Islamism, as Bill Roggio has journaled.

"Defeating the enemy requires breaking its myths. But its myths can be made anywhere, in any village, in any house. We can break their hold on Fallujah, and when they become rooted in a place, we must break their hold on it."

If we do that consistently, there will come a time when no one anywhere listens to their myths.

It would be impossible to prevent the escape, by any route, of AQI leadership elements from an impending battle.  Running from the US military is what they do; and an urban environment permits an endless number of opportunities for such flight.  What is important is breaking their myths.

Fallujah is the model for this.  We have just finished the RCT-6 email project.  RCT-6 is based in Fallujah, where the 2004 battle mirroring the current fights was undertaken.  Here is what its commander, Col. Simcock, said about the current fighting:

As I told you, we've been here now for about six months. As we progress further, we're using less and less artillery, less and less combined air support, weapon systems, combined arms-type activity less and less; our armored assets have been pulled out of Fallujah. Engagements, if you will -- the enemy that we're fighting here, there is nothing on the ground here that a Marine rifle squad can't quickly take care of. If they stand up and fight us, they're going to lose and they're going to love very, very quickly. Their chosen tactics right now are the improvised explosive devices that they plant on the roadways. Other tactics that we're seeing are suicide vests that they'll use, and a lot of these -- and also, I know you're very familiar with the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, but those tactics we're seeing more and more aimed at the Iraqi security forces vice the coalition forces. That's for, I think, for a couple reasons.

One, the success that the Iraqi security forces are having. The terrorists, the enemy that we're fighting here, they see that the tide is changing, that the support of the Iraqi people are coming over to the coalition force side, and the enemy are trying to use murder intimidation tactics and it's just not working against them. They won't -- the people of Iraq are standing up and they're fighting the terrorists, and it's good to see.

If we see the same success in the Baghdad belts from the current operation that we've seen in Fallujah, is that "failure"?  Or is that victory?

Neither, in fact.  It is a monumental step forward, but it is not sufficient for victory.  For that, Iraq must be established as a stable state based on democratic principles, with a firm and locally acceptable rule of law

It's an Iraq where sectarian violence is not the ruling factor of the day, and the religious community backs a society founded on peaceful coexistence.  As soon as DefendAmerica.mil has the transcript up, I'll have a conversation to post with MNF-I's command chaplain, on the recent religious congress in Iraq, which united to condemn al Qaeda and extremist violence.  It happened to finish up on the morning of the latest Samarra bombing. 

The clerics were together to call Iraqi media, and get out in front in calling for their followers to avoid violence and revenge.  Hear about that on the news?  Well, you'll hear it here.

Who put that conference together?  The United States of America's Department of Defense.  Who asked for it?  The Iraqi clerics themselves -- they sought out our chaplains, respecting them as fellow holy men.  DOD hasn't learned anything about dealing with the local culture?  They've learned enough to engage them, and put up the cash for a congress of this sort, complete with the security needed to get the leading religious figures together in Iraq.

The new COIN policy is a humane, honorable, fighting policy meant to crush the worst elements of violence in the world today.  It is opposed by forces who use as their means suicide, the intentional murder of children and the weak, and the attempt to destroy rather than rebuild the institutions of civilization.

It would be hard to sketch a clearer conflict between virtue and viciousness. 

It is a conflict that we are going to win.  I said we would win in the Sunni Triangle back in 2004, and we are winning there for exactly the reasons I told you we would be.

Our current foe is not the Ba'athists, but the Islamists. For all the worrying about the things we do that might turn the populace against us, it is rarely remembered that the enemy can turn the populace against it too.

There is cause to think that it is doing so.

Consider this: the Sunni Triangle, as mentioned, is largely tribal in culture. People who grew up there are strongly attached to the tribal system, which to them seems as natural and morally right as the sun rising in the east and the moon waxing and waning. The enemy of the tribe is your enemy -- and it is not our side that is wrecking the tribal strength.

An anti-war piece by paleoconservative site Lewrockwell illustrates this:

Last spring, the Marines made a deal with the Baath Party in Fallujah: Keep the place quiet and we?ll let you run it while keeping our hands off it. As has so often been the case in the history of war, it was the right move, too late. Throughout Iraq, the balance had already swung away from the Baath and any other forces that might have been able to re-create an Iraqi state, to non-state, Fourth Generation elements. The experiment in Fallujah was worth trying ? the only other option was destroying the city in order to save it, as we recently did in Najaf ? but the Baath was by then already a fading force. Of its Fallujah Brigade, the [New York] Times writes:

The Fallujah Brigade is in tatters now, reduced to sharing tented checkpoints on roads into the city with the [Islamic] militants, its headquarters in Fallujah abandoned, like the buildings assigned to the national guard. Men assigned to the brigade, and to the two guard battalions, have mostly fled, Iraqis in Fallujah say, taking their families with them, and handing their weapons to the militants.

Instead of the Baath, what we now face in Fallujah is a genuinely dangerous opponent. Its idol is not Saddam, but Allah. The Times reports that:

The militants? principal power center is a mosque in Fallujah led by an Iraqi cleric, Abdullah al-Janabi, who has instituted a Taliban-like rule in the city?with an Islamic militant group, Unity and Holy War [Tahwid and Jihad -- Zarqawi's group -Grim], that American intelligence? [has linked] to al Qaeda?

By invading Iraq, the United States in effect took Fallujah and much of the rest of Anbar Province from Saddam and gave it to Osama bin Laden... From the standpoint of our forces in Iraq, the main problem the third stage in the war there presents is that we have no one to talk to, no one to make deals with. As we saw in Fallujah in April, it was possible to make a deal with the Baath ? a deal the Baath genuinely wanted to carry out, though it proved unable to do so.

We all remember how the Taliban was scorned by the average Afghan -- how men rushed to shave their beards, women to go forth into the sun. We remember how many of the men impressed into service with the Taliban surrendered at first chance to the National Alliance, who embraced them like brothers and then summarily killed the "foreign fighters" who were there.

It is the guerrillas in Iraq who are undoing the tribal structure, scorning the traditional authority, and bringing chaotic change to the Sunni Triangle. The US military has negotiated with tribal leaders, not only in Fallujah but constantly. Had the assualt on Fallujah been completed, we would have emplaced tribal leaders over a town secure enough for them to control, instead of one that still contained a large enemy force. We would not have occupied it ourselves, any more than we have occupied Najaf.

The scorning of the tribes is an offense to the natural order in the minds of many Iraqis. Some will join, heart and mind, with the guerrillas -- they will accept that the tribal order was wrong and deserved to be overturned, in favor of Allah's divine sha'riah. Most will not, though while the guerrillas are present in numbers and with guns, they will be silent. Even the Afghans, a well-armed and fiercely independent people, did not toss out the Taliban, though they were very glad to see the back of them. The guerrillas in the Sunni Triangle, likewise, are their own worst argument.

That is another way of saying: American arrogance, for all we hear about it, does not match the arrogance of the guerrillas. We overthrew a national government that enjoyed some broad support in the Sunni triangle, but we did not try to overthrow the tribes. The insurgents are doing just that, turning the order of daily life upside down. 

Today, as Sunni tribes line up to fight AQI with us, we find ourselves fulfilling that vision.  Victory in Anbar was predictable in 2004, though even last year some said it was impossible.

I'll tell you we're going to win this whole thing, too, for the same reasons.  The only danger, the only danger, is that we pull away from the fight before it's over.  Unless we choose to lose, we will win.