President Bush Iraq New Way Forward A Page In Past

The details of President Bush’s “New Way Forward” in Iraq are beginning to unfold, with the new military strategy apparently presenting an opportunity for US troops to learn from the British colonial experience of occupation and counterinsurgency. 

It has been argued that the lack of experience as an occupying force left the US military ill-equipped to deal with the escalating conflict in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Since the invasion of Iraq, the US focus has been on military force, not on local policing and security, and it is believed that this has served to alienate the local population and increase their support for the insurgency and local militias.  

Mr Bush’s newly-appointed overall commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General David Petraeus, has studied and written extensively on occupation and counterinsurgency.  

His strategy emphasizes grass-roots diplomacy as well as community policing, local security and nation-building – the hallmarks of the British forces’ relatively successful occupation of southern Iraq. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has succinctly described this shift in tactics as one of ‘search-and-destroy’ to ‘stay-and-protect’. 

Lt-Gen Petraeus is said to have been influenced by the strategy in Malaya during the 1950s, where the British defeated the insurgency by developing a civil-military model that enabled intelligence to be gathered from a supportive local population. This contrasts sharply with the US experience in Vietnam, where the US employed overwhelming military force but was unprepared for the subtleties of guerrilla warfare and the need to win the trust of the local population to defeat the guerillas.

Lt-Gen Petraeus recently co-authored the US military’s 282-page manual, Counterinsurgency, published in December 2006. Chapter 2 of the manual deals with ‘Unity of Effort: Integrating Civilian and Military Activities’: 

“A successful COIN [counterinsurgency] operation meets the contested population’s needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents … Political, social, and economic programs are usually more valuable than conventional military operations in addressing the root causes of conflict and undermining an insurgency.” 

Most recently, this approach enabled the British to gain and maintain relative control while occupying southern Iraq. Although they could not effect much-needed political reforms, British troops made an effort to engage the local people while policing the streets, by talking to residents and shopkeepers – the ‘hearts and minds’ work needed to win over the locals. The British also undertook reconstruction projects to repair damaged schools, broken drains and faulty lighting throughout Basra. This restored a sense of hope and pride for the local population, which in turn weakened their support for the insurgency and reduced the level of violence.

Lt-Gen Petraeus also had a significant measure of success as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, northern Iraq, where he reduced violence by combining local diplomacy with military force and policing. He conducted raids with minimal violence and allowed imams to inspect his jails. Meanwhile, he made every effort to revitalize the local economy through reconstruction projects that employed local Iraqis, and he made sure they were paid on time. He said this served the paramount goal of creating a population who felt that they were stakeholders in the new Iraq.   

Under the new strategy soon to be implemented in Iraq, Lt-Gen Petraeus plans to involve local religious and political leaders while providing local employment opportunities for Iraqis through reconstruction projects funded by the recently announced $1.2 billion economic assistance package from Washington. 

The new US strategy is further explained in Chapter 7 of Counterinsurgency, which makes the distinction between ‘Warfighting Versus Policing’: 

“The COIN environment frequently and rapidly shifts from warfighting to policing and back again. There are many examples from Iraq and Afghanistan where US forces drove insurgents out of urban areas only to have the insurgents later return and reestablish operations … US forces then had to deal with insurgents as an organized combatant force all over again … Maintaining civil security entails very different ethical obligations than establishing it.”

Lt-Gen Petraeus plans to reverse the long-standing operational strategy of US troops carrying out raids and patrols in Baghdad, and then retreating to the heavily fortified Green Zone, leaving Iraqi forces to police checkpoints. US troops will now be ‘permanently’ stationed in neighborhoods that have been cleared of militants, to ensure the ongoing security of residents.  

When the US hands over control of Baghdad’s eleven designated security districts next month, US officers will also maintain a presence in the office of the Iraqi commander-in-chief to ensure that both Shia militias and Sunni insurgents are targeted in joint US-Iraqi operations to reduce violence in the capital. 

This change in strategy may well be too late, given Baghdad’s seemingly relentless slide into anarchy.  Certainly, it would have stood a much greater chance of success had it been implemented in 2005, when a similar plan was presented by the British but rejected by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There are also concerns that US troops may not be able to culturally attune themselves to such a significant departure from their training, especially after years of sustained attacks at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. 

It is also fair to say that a meaningful and lasting peace will only be achieved when the Iraqi government puts its sectarian bias behind it, and demonstrates a genuine commitment and ability to lead the new Iraq on a more permanent course towards national reconciliation and unification.


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