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Tilting at Windmills

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April 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CAN WE DO COIN?....Are 15-month combat tours too long? Definitely. How about 12-month tours? Phil Carter thinks even those are too long, and prefers the 7-month tours mandated by the Marine Corps. This prompted me to ask on Friday, "Are 7-month tours consistent with the learning-curve requirements of counterinsurgency?" Over the weekend, Phil answered:

This is a great question. The short answer is no, not by a long shot.

Counterinsurgency requires detailed knowledge of the human, geographic, political and social terrain, and it takes time to acquire that knowledge. I'd say it became effective around the fifth or sixth month of my tour as a police adviser in Iraq. Arguably, advisers, commanders and troops operating outside the wire should serve longer tours in order to develop and cement their relationships, and capitalize on them.

Phil suggests that deploying units back to the same areas instead of rotating them through different areas on every tour might help, but his overall conclusion is, "It's a real dilemma." Short tours don't give you enough time to learn the ground and the people, but long tours eat up the troops. There's no good middle ground.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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The problems of being an occupying force! Maybe we should put more thought and energy into ending the occupation instead.

Posted by: jc on April 14, 2008 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

Remember when the goal was to quickly train Iraqi police and a new Iraqi army? It cannot be the long-term or even medium-term job of the US Army to do counterinsurgency, because, no matter how we do it, it always comes across as maintaining the occupation.

The Iraqi army has to be doing the counter-insurgency work with support from the US. Anything else is clear evidence that Petraeus failed with 'the surge'.

Posted by: freelunch on April 14, 2008 at 1:13 AM | PERMALINK

I guess there's nothing for it then, but to stay there so long that each unit of the Army will be rotating back into areas it's already been in before. Call it the "Carter version" of a Friedman Unit: seven months instead of Friedman's six, on the rationale that you can't expect a proper COIN strategy to work before the troops get to know the region. If we implement this approach now, it's worth at least 14 more months of time in Iraq. Then, it will be time for Great General Petraeus to move on, and it wouldn't be fair not to give his successor at least six months to show what he can do, then he'll get another six months just because, then it will turn out that seven months deployment wasn't right, besides, the troops weren't stationed in the right regions, and Petraeus was a screwup, anyway, and got it all wrong, so we have to start all over with a brand new strategy, which requires six months before we can assess progress on, and then the whole thing starts over. Iraq has become America's West Bank.

Posted by: MG on April 14, 2008 at 1:23 AM | PERMALINK

This is the pseudo-intellectual dodge of the more overwhelming question, whose answer is painfully obvious: should we be there at all? The centrists will never address that question.

Posted by: gregor on April 14, 2008 at 1:28 AM | PERMALINK

It still annoys the everloving shit out of me that we don't send units back to the same area they were previously deployed to.

Why learn Anbar only to be sent to Kurdistan next time? Asinine.

Posted by: bubba on April 14, 2008 at 2:00 AM | PERMALINK

""It's a real dilemma." Short tours don't give you enough time to learn the ground and the people, but long tours eat up the troops. There's no good middle ground."

Um, how about, "we leave"? That would solve both problems.

Oh, I'm sorry. That wasn't "serious." I'll try to be more "serious" and think of more reasons this war is so awesome. My bad.

Posted by: ResumeMan on April 14, 2008 at 2:04 AM | PERMALINK

This is the pseudo-intellectual dodge of the more overwhelming question, whose answer is painfully obvious: should we be there at all? The centrists will never address that question.

Ding ding ding!

Posted by: Old Hat on April 14, 2008 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

Gee, I have an idea that would solve EVERYONE'S problems!!!! (I'm so S-S-M-A-A-R-R-T!!)

How about developing and sending to Iraq and all the countries in the Middle East a committed cadre of Arabic-speaking trained diplomats???!! And doing so in a time of peace??!! Not while invading and occupying Arabic countries and torturing and bombing and butchering extended families of innocent people??!!

The idea that the length of tours is the problem is a bit ludicrous. It's the problem of ANY LENGTH OF TIME IN A WAR ZONE THAT WE HAVE CREATED. (I don't want to spend one minute facing artillery fire or babysitting a roadside bomb. Do you?) With a real diplomatic program, you can have an active embassy, a diplomatic-type embassy that is there for DECADES, essentially FOREVER, and NO ONE WILL CARE. Scholarly, high-achieving, tactful diplomats versed in the culture could easily live there for THREE YEARS AT A GO with NO PROBLEM.

Yes, this might require sending a few U.S. citizens who are homos to Iraq, but they won't be military personnel, so no problem. They just need to keep a lid on their gay proclivities, reserving their wild blow-outs (so to speak) for weekends in crazy-crazy Tel Aviv.

Poor Georgie would have had to sit and actually listen to diplomats rather than having the fun of bombing off people's limbs. Poor issums.

Posted by: Anon on April 14, 2008 at 2:26 AM | PERMALINK

Looking for "middle ground" in the deployment of people to war? Are WE talking about a war---figuratively or a war, such as where said people are LIKELY to be shot at????Such same people WHOM YOU will drop out on the street later to fend for themselves and ask for 'BONUS' money back form?

Posted by: Mike Meyer on April 14, 2008 at 2:49 AM | PERMALINK

we shouldn't be in the counter-insurgency business at all - leave these people alone to sort out their own stuff.

Posted by: hjmler on April 14, 2008 at 4:06 AM | PERMALINK

Well, there's the middle ground of them not being there. Then you dispense the the learning-curve issue entirely, and you not only don't burn out your troops, they don't get killed and wounded as well.

The perfect solution: give up overseas assignments except when absolutely necessary.

Posted by: jim p on April 14, 2008 at 4:07 AM | PERMALINK

Well, there's the middle ground of them not being there. Then you dispense the the learning-curve issue entirely, and you not only don't burn out your troops, they don't get killed and wounded as well.

The perfect solution: give up overseas assignments except when absolutely necessary.

Posted by: jim p on April 14, 2008 at 4:07 AM | PERMALINK

Ya know, mr military guy, there's lots places you can put troops aside from harm's way but keeping them busy.

They could be in school (like those Marines) or they could go to the same place over and over but get to have time off in between in differing amounts...

...They don't have to sit in one place the whole time doing operations.

But the big problem is that we're using reserve and national guard troops who shouldn't be in offesive combat operations anyhow!

Posted by: Crissa on April 14, 2008 at 5:58 AM | PERMALINK

And our counterinsurgency mission is WHAT? To kill every Iraqi or just the 70% who want us to leave immediately? For fucks sake, why are we talking about tactics relative to a strategy that makes no fucking sense???

GET OUT OF IRAQ NOW!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on April 14, 2008 at 6:06 AM | PERMALINK

Funny thing about your comment, gregor, is that you're the one with the pseudo-intellectual dodge.

Kevin's question was "Can we do COIN?" You can answer "no" and give perfectly adequate reasons like "it's next to impossible to do COIN given current military doctrine and the fact that our troops are stretched dangerously thin. Or you can say "yes" and back that up with "over time we can develop a force capable of doing COIN by staggering the out-rotations of Army units and building a corps of well-trained and tactics-savvy diplomats who speak Arabic and understand the concept of institutional memory."

But saying that the we shouldn't be in Iraq, which is very much the case, is different from talking about strategy. Pointing that we should get out of Iraq is not the same as talking about the army's ability to wage a counterinsurgency.

Posted by: brian on April 14, 2008 at 6:23 AM | PERMALINK

So?

Posted by: Steve Paradis on April 14, 2008 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

Nuts to COIN. Can we at least have a little pretend outrage over Bush, Cheney, and torture? There should be impeachment proceedings. Everyone knows there won't be. That's a crime.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on April 14, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Who the hell ever thought rotating the whole damn force out in a single block was a good idea for doing an ongoing job? (The same people who thought this wouldn't be an ongoing job. Duh.) And now it's too late to get things right.

Posted by: on April 14, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Who the hell ever thought rotating the whole damn force out in a single block was a good idea for doing an ongoing job? (The same people who thought this wouldn't be an ongoing job. Duh.) And now it's too late to get things right.

Posted by: paul on April 14, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Gee Bri, nice disingenuous tripe. You think that weak winger stuff really works around here?

In case you really didn't get it, Gregor, and just about every other poster on this thread, is disagreeing with the major premise of Kevin's post, that we need to "win" Iraq and the only way to do that is through COIN.

The premise is crap, so the argument is mute.

Of course, if you are the type of fellow that just loves to wile away the hours having stimulating discussions on deep topics, such as COIN, I guess most of us just aren't in your league.

I am pretty sure Kevin meant this as a practical discussion, not a philosophical one.

And Gregor is spot on, Kevin still cannot admit that Iraq is a bad idea that needs to be abandoned. He still thinks it can be "won" and keeps that hope alive with lame-o discussions about COIN.

Posted by: says you on April 14, 2008 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

We don't have an army build around occupation duties - yet alone COIN ops.

So of course it's not possible - it's exactly one of the primary reasons why Iraq would be pretty fucked no matter what. How many soldiers do you think can build that "relationship" with the local populace? How many speak Arabic or Farsi?

You go to war with the army you have.. right?

What a joke.

Posted by: Interloper on April 14, 2008 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

Short tours don't give you enough time to learn the ground and the people, but long tours eat up the troops. There's no good middle ground.

Other than, you know, not brutally invading and occupying foreign countries in the first place.

Posted by: Stefan on April 14, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

We can learn all we want & become experts on every block in Iraq. As long as we are occupying their land, their DUTY & OBLIGATION as Iraqis, is to keep fighting & killing us until we leave their land.

Posted by: ZombieNation on April 14, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

Well, if I think that death penalty is wrong, I would not engage in a discussion of the optimization of strategies to minimize the pain suffered by the victim.

The politicians love to transform major issues into engineering problems so that the lesser mortals like us can be bogged down in details of the optimal approaches to solve them while missing the big picture entirely.

Posted by: gregor on April 14, 2008 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

Iraq is the neocon Roach Motel--neocons check in, and they can't check out again.

We have two options: 1. Shirking our responsibility to clean up the Bush/neocon mess, or 2. Going bankrupt.

The first option seems more attractive to me. I must confess I have no particular pride in being an American anymore. Rev. Wright has started to make a lot of sense to me. Goddam American. Like 81% of the population I feel we're on the wrong track, and moreover that this track is self-destructive and irreversible. So what's a little national guilt on top of this? Who gives a shit.

Posted by: Luther on April 14, 2008 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Gregor is right in his second paragraph. It's easy to get bogged down in the details and forget that this discussion shouldn't be necessary at all.

But to follow the analogy in the first paragraph, it's still legitimate to participate in a discussion of how to minimize the pain, even if you're opposed to the death penalty. Likewise, although we ought to be leaving Iraq last week, if not sooner, it doesn't seem to be happening. So it's legitimate, maybe essential, to discuss how to minimize the pain and suffered by and inflicted by our military.

Posted by: thersites on April 14, 2008 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Anyway, the problem of the "learning curve" for counter-insurgency operations may be exagerrated, at least in a theater like Iraq, where operations aren't quite as hot as say, Vietnam was.

Actually, that's not true. Phil Carter did an analysis of the pace of combat in Iraq versus Vietnam and concluded that fighting in Iraq was just as or even more dangerous and intense than Vietnam. (For one thing, there is no real safe "behind the lines" in Iraq as there was in Vietnam. At the height of that war, GIs could live freely through Saigon in a way they simply can't through Baghdad). Not, too, that Carter's analysis was done in 2004, which was not even as deadly as 2005 and 2006.

Iraq 2004 Looks Like Vietnam 1966: Adjusting body counts for medical and military changes.
By Phillip Carter and Owen West
Posted Monday, Dec. 27, 2004, at 6:34 PM ET

After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966—and in some cases more lethal. Even discrete engagements, such as the battle of Hue City in 1968 and the battles for Fallujah in 2004, tell a similar tale: Today's grunts are patrolling a battlefield every bit as deadly as the crucible their fathers faced in Southeast Asia.

....To send infantrymen on their third rotations to Iraq this spring is akin to assigning a trooper three tours in Vietnam: harsh in 1966 and a total absurdity by 1968...The casualty statistics make clear that our nation is involved in a war whose intensity on the ground matches that of previous American wars. Indeed, the proportional burden on the infantryman is at its highest level since World War I.

http://www.slate.com/id/2111432/

Posted by: Stefan on April 14, 2008 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Paul has it right.

It would seem like the correct model for long term engagements/occupations/COIN/whatever would be to rotate INDIVIDUAL soldiers in and out, rather than whole unit blocks. That way you always have some continuity and probably accelerate the learning curve. You could also try to rotate people back into the same region, though I also see some advantage in cross-polinating lessons into different areas.

But of course, the real way to win is not to play the game.

Posted by: kis on April 14, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK
…."Are 7-month tours consistent with the learning-curve requirements of counterinsurgency?"….
That implies that occupying a nation whose people are resisting that occupation is a valid topic for study and discussion. Of course, the very framework of the discussion is tendentious crap. The proper solution is do not invade and occupy nations against the desire of its people. No discussion on how to 'win' a counter-insurgency is legitimate in any form. Posted by: Mike on April 14, 2008 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Stefan wrote:

Actually, that's not true. Phil Carter did an analysis of the pace of combat in Iraq versus Vietnam and concluded that fighting in Iraq was just as or even more dangerous and intense than Vietnam. (For one thing, there is no real safe "behind the lines" in Iraq as there was in Vietnam. At the height of that war, GIs could live freely through Saigon in a way they simply can't through Baghdad).

But it only matters for what the psychological effect on the troops is. We're not interested in an intensity measure that you use to measure, for example, what the economic cost of the war is, or something like that.

American troops don't live out in Iraqi neighborhoods, by and large. They live inside a fortress. Also, they don't experience as frequent casualties as they did in Vietnam. So saying that it's more important to his survival for a modern soldier in Iraq to learn quick about how to survive in theater than it was for a U.S. troop in Vietnam doesn't make any sense at all for me.

Also, my original comment was censored. It stated that we should replace half of each platoon, instead of the whole platoon, every six months. Please don't delete this comment, because this is a good idea which should get spreadm and may save our troops' lives.

Posted by: Swan on April 14, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Too bad the people of Iraq have to endure America's occupation of their country without being able to rotate out of it every 12-15 months. Whatever problems the troops have with their long deployments, the poor Iraqis' problems are much worse because of them.

Posted by: Brojo on April 14, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

But it only matters for what the psychological effect on the troops is.

Carter's article was in part about the psychological stress placed on the troops. Did you read it?

We're not interested in an intensity measure that you use to measure, for example, what the economic cost of the war is, or something like that.

Yes, we are interested in such an intensity measure, because it enables us to do an accurate comparison of a fact which you had stated incorrectly. As Carter notes: Economists like to quote statistics in "constant dollars," where they factor in historical inflation rates to produce statistics that allow for side-by-side comparison. Warfare is more complex than macroeconomics, but it is possible to produce a similar "apples to apples" comparison for casualties across conflicts. Moreover, the intensity measure measures casualties, which translates into stress, which translates into the psychological effect on the troops.

American troops don't live out in Iraqi neighborhoods, by and large. They live inside a fortress.

Which is more stressful, not less, than being able to move freely about.

Also, they don't experience as frequent casualties as they did in Vietnam.

Yes, they do. That was Carter's entire point. Read it again:

Generational contrasts are implicit today when casualties in Iraq are referred to as light, either on their own or in comparison to Vietnam....But a comparative analysis of U.S. casualty statistics from Iraq tells a different story. After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966—and in some cases more lethal....Without controlling for any of the advances in medical technology, medical evacuation, body armor, or military technology, U.S. losses in Fallujah almost equal those of Hue. If you factor in the improvements in medical technology alone, then the fight for Fallujah was just as costly (or maybe more so) as that for Hue, as measured by the number of mortal wounds sustained by U.S. troops.

US forces don't die from their wounds as frequently as they did in Vietnam due to advances in evac, medical technology, armor, etc. But they get wounded at about the same rate.

Posted by: Stefan on April 14, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

There is a successful COIN operation which involved American forces from which some lessons can be learned -- South Korea in the late '60's.

During a three or four year period in the late 60's NK Special Forces were infiltrating/exfiltrating across the DMZ with the goal of causing a nation - wide insurgency in the South which would eventually lead to reunification with the North. There were a fair number of NK sympathizers in the South -- the South was run by a military dictatorship not much less brutal than Kim Il Sung's regime in the North -- as well as NK sleeper agents, etc.

The American forces consisted of two under-strength infantry divisions -- the 2d and the 7th -- stationed at various locations on/near the DMZ. Until the late 60's, their mission was
to act as a "tripwire" to prevent the invasion of the South by the North, i.e., both divisions would be essentially wiped out in the invasion, but that fact would insure a major U.S. response.

With the rise of the insurgency, the American units were also given a COIN mission; however, unlike Vietnam then and Iraq now, the NK insurgency for all intents and purposes ended in the early '70's with little or no success.

Why?

1. The Americans' COIN mission was to support the ROK Army in its COIN operations. Although the American forces in Vietnam had the same mission -- support the ARVNs -- the US forces had to assume the primary role themselves. Not so in Korea -- the ROK Army was professional, tough and absolutely ruthless.

2. The South Korean populace was fairly homogeneous re: religion, ancestry, etc.

3. The American forces' "footprint" was relatively small and confined to the area around the DMZ, which then was a rural, agrarian area with not a large population.

4. Probably the most important factor was Korea did not have a history of being colonized by a Northern European country (or the US). Rather, its colonizers had been the Japanese, who most Koeans aren't very fond of to this day.

5. And even with all the above, the Koreans only tolerated the Americans' presence because they saw us as a necessary evil.

If anyone had thought to apply the above factors to Iraq in, say, 2002, they would have pretty easily concluded that the mess that we have created would have been the result. But then, of course, people did reach that conclusion, only to have their patriotism and sanity questioned.

The Biggest Lesson Of All: Nobody, but nobody, likes to be occupied.

Posted by: fbg46 on April 14, 2008 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK
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