Sunday, March 1, 2009

Iraq offers new lessons in counter-insurgency

British counter-insurgency doctrine, honed in Malaya, Aden, Oman and Northern Ireland, used to be regarded as the blueprint for other Western armies. But the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan and the rapidly evolving methods adopted by the Americans in particular have forced the British Army to reappraise its approach to guerrilla warfare.

Senior officers based at the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre at Shrivenham in Oxfordshire are poring over the lessons learnt from Operation Telic in Iraq, soon to be wound up, and Operation Herrick in Afghanistan which still has a long way to go.

In many ways, the fundamental framework for counter-insurgency campaigns remains as valid today as it was in Malaya and Northern Ireland. The principles of counter-insurgency were outlined by Lieutenant-General John Cooper, the outgoing British Deputy Commanding General Multinational Force Iraq in an interview with The Times in Baghdad last week: “You need a political not a military solution, the consent of the people, a long-term solution that’s sustainable, a neutralised enemy, achieved either kinetically or non-kinetically, and top-quality intelligence.

“The difference between Malaya and Iraq, however, is that Malaya was a classic counter-insurgency campaign but on a small scale, whereas Iraq has been a classic counter-insurgency campaign on a grand scale,” General Cooper said.

Afghanistan is proving to be in the same league, and while the two campaigns are very different in terms of security conditions and terrain, one of the abiding lessons from each is that to win the support of the local people it is imperative to provide visible signs as quickly as practicable of improving conditions, whether it be an increasingly available supply of electricity and clean water, or new roads, schools and health clinics.

Above all, of course, is the need to ensure the safety of the people, to protect them from the worst excesses of the insurgents and to separate them as far as possible from the violence and mayhem which are an inevitable consequence when foreign armies occupy a nation to subdue or eliminate the cause of the insurgency.

General David Petraeus, the former commander of the multinational force in Iraq and now head of US Central Command, placed this principle at the heart of his campaign after the surge of 30,000 extra US troops into Baghdad and Anbar. “If you bring the people with you, insurgencies can’t survive,” General Cooper said.

Al-Qaeda proved this point. The terrorist organisation applied the reverse principle. Instead of wooing the locals they committed atrocities to try to terrify the inhabitants into submission. The Taleban with their foreign fighters are doing the same in southern Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s approach failed but only after General Petraeus had poured his troops into the most unstable neighbourhoods and made them live among the people to demonstrate that they were their protectors.

The British in southern Iraq never had the troop numbers to live permanently among the people and when they moved out of Basra in September 2007 and took up residence at the airport base northwest of the city, they not only lost situational awareness but they left the inhabitants to the mercy of the Shia militants who were trying, despite the best efforts of the British-trained Iraqi Army 10th Division, to control the streets, with much of the corrupt police force on their side.

It took thousands of troops from Iraq’s 1st Division from Baghdad, linking up with the 14th Division which had replaced the 10th in Basra — a total of 27,000 soldiers — backed by 900 American minders, to seize back the city from the militia in Operation Charge of the Knights nearly a year ago. Since then, 850 British troops have returned to Basra and are embedded with Iraqi 14th Division units, mentoring their patrols and checkpoints before Operation Telic comes to an end on May 31.

Operation Charge of the Knights, an Iraqi government-inspired mission, succeeded because it had the full support of the citizens of Basra, and while the British contribution was limited, the overall impact on the city has been dramatic. So, not exactly a battle honour for the British Army, but a resounding success for the counter-insurgency principle of protecting the people from violence.

With the militia gone, Major-General Andy Salmon, in command down south, has begun implementing a programme in Basra which he hopes will improve the average Iraqi’s life in the city. General Salmon, commander of Multinational Division Southeast, has formed joint reconstruction action teams to clear the city of rubbish and focus on delivering essential services — electricity, water and a proper sewerage system. It took him four months to find an Iraqi engineer who knew about the water system at the Shia flats in Hayania, the worst slum area in the south of the city.

The Royal Marine general has succeeded in energising the members of the Basra provincial council to spend time and money on sprucing up the city. He and the quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy of Nigel Hawyard, the Consul General, and the British Provincial Reconstruction Team, led by Keith Mackiggan, who have been able to get out and about in Basra far more since Charge of the Knights, are helping to give the people of this city renewed hope for the future.

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