Counterinsurgency Lessons: Friend and Foe

The U.S. Military and al Qaeda both have a vested interest in learning how to properly fight an insurgency

The ability to effectively fight an insurgency is critical to both al Qaeda and the United States. In the long-term struggle between the Islamist terrorists and the allies of the civilized world, the ability to fight and win in an insurgency will be crucial to success.

The U.S. military is often accused as being incapable of fighting an insurgency, bot politically and militarily. The Washington Post hails the counterinsurgency efforts in Tal Afar as a model for U.S. forces to follow in Iraq (note the media generally ignored this operation last summer, or when they did address it, they portrayed Tal Afar as just another failed operation in a string of failures). Colonel H. R. McMaster, the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, fought a masterful battle to uproot the insurgency in the outlying areas, then applying pressure to the city itself, in contradiction to Andrew Krepinevich’s “Oil Spot” theory, which advocates occupying the centers of major cities, then slowly moving outward. Mr. Krepinevich’s theory would essentially cede the initiative to the insurgency and al Qaeda in the suburban and rural areas, and allow them to establish safe havens.

The leadership and troops of the 3rd Armored Cavalry are commended for understanding the subtleties of fighting an insurgency, which includes respecting the local populations, assisting with reconstruction and providing humanitarian aid. These skills can and often are counterintuitive for a military trained to fight conventional wars and achieve victory through traditional combat on the battlefield.

The 3rd Armored Cavalry is by no means the only unit in Iraq which understands these concepts and is succeeding in conducting counterinsurgency operations. The Marines of Regimental Combat Team – 2, stationed in Western Iraq and led by Colonel Stephen Davis, have grasped the vital concepts of counterinsurgency warfare and are executing with great success. Lt. Col. Dale Alford’s 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines operating in the Qaim Region, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines operating in the Haditha Triad region have mastered these concepts as well.

I spent time with these Marines and the Iraqi soldiers operating with them as they patrolled the streets and interacted with the local populations and tribal leaders. The professionalism and innate understanding of how to successfully conduct their mission is present in the ranks from the privates to the Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division, Major General Huck. The U.S. military, often slow with adapting to new paradigms in combat, is grasping the essentials in fighting an insurgency, and executing well.

Al-Qaeda also has a vested interest in learning from their mistakes in conducting insurgencies. It is unwise for us to assume the terrorists conduct suicide operations for the sake of committing a violent act. Their leadership has a strategy to wage insurgencies with the end game of establishing a Islamist Caliphate and implementing Shariah law. This introspection on how to successfully wage an insurgency can be seen in a recently released document from the Department of Defense’s Harmony database.

The document is titled “Lessons Learned from the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria” and was written by Abu Musab al-Suri, who has been recently captured by Pakistan security forces in Afghanistan. Al-Suri is a senior commander and prominent al Qaeda strategist, with “extensive ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Taliban, al Qaeda, the European Tawhid network and Jund al-Sham, which morphed into Ansar al-Islam. He was an early suspect in the Madrid 3/11 bombings He was responsible for developing al Qaeda’s chemical weapons program in Afghanistan and ran a terrorist training camp to school operatives in the uses of such weapons.”

al-Suri analyzes the mistakes made during the failed Islamist insurgency in Syria, which was fought from 1976-1982 against the Alawite regime of Hafez al-Assad. The two main groups fighting the Syrian government were the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Attalieaa” – or Vanguard. There were numerous problems which led to the defeat of the Islamist uprising, which al-Suri meticulously documents in his 47 page article.

Some of the mistakes made by the Syrian Islamists were: the lack of commitment to the Islamist cause (particularly among the Muslim Brotherhood, which is portrayed as an ineffective political organization with little zeal or ability for combat operations); a poor overall strategy to conduct combined operations; A poor command structure; a lack of a media/propaganda arm to exploit successes and Syrian brutality; the failure to properly establish training camps and medical facilities; an over relianance on foreign government support, which exposed their networks and made them dependent on these governments, and a host of other problems.

While the date of writing of al-Suri’s missive is unknown, it is clear al Qaeda has learned from the mistakes from the failed Syrian Insurgency. As stated yesterday, a reading of the Harmony Documents will show al Qaeda is an “organization that is highly bureaucratic in nature, with the associated organizational structures, mission statements, bylaws, recruiting guidelines, and employment contracts… the organization does indeed have a foreign policy and a strategy to implement it. The establishment of the Caliphate and the imposition of Shariah law are the centerpieces of al Qaeda’s goals.” al Qaeda is obsessed with the character and leadership traits of their recruits and commanders, and the nature of their military and Islamic training. Like the United States, al Qaeda learns from their mistakes and makes the organizational and training changes needed to adapt to the realities of insurgency warfare.

The situation in Iraq is crucial to both al Qaeda and the United States. If al -Qaeda can wear down the American forces and erode public opinion, and cause a hasty withdrawal, the political and military implications are far reaching, and bode ill for U.S. allies in the region. If the United States can weather the sniping tactics of al Qaeda and establish a credible security environment and legitimate government in Iraq, al Qaeda will have been defeated in the heart of the Middle East. And U.S. forces will have developed the skills and confidence to successfully wage future counterinsurgency operations, which is a very likely possibility give al Qaeda’s global reach and ambitious plans.

While the insurgency in Iraq is by no means defeated militarily, there are positive signs that the insurgency is losing politically as well as militarily. Col. McMaster and Col. Davis’ successes are such signs, as well as the successful elections and recently developing rifts between the domestic elements of the insurgency and al Qaeda.

Also Read:

Soldier’s Dad looks at the attacks in Iraq over the last 6 months by province. The numbers are encouraging but there is still much work to be done.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Michael says:

    Well…. I’ve been missing out for the better part of a month. I thought you were not posting here anymore Bill?
    Suffice it to say, it appears I have much good reading to do!
    🙂 gives me another opportunity just to say thanks for all you’ve done.

  • Laura Greaves says:

    Thanks for your informative and honest reporting, not to mention– brave. my son is a corpsman in the 3/6, and I know he, too, would appreciate your insights. laura

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