Dear Victor,

My reaction to your call for more aggressive tactics can best be summed up with that classic phrase beloved of Supreme Court justices: concur in part, dissent in part.

I am all in favor of aggressive action to stamp out the insurgency. But we need smart aggression. Dumb aggression can do more harm than good. That’s what we saw in 2003-04 when many U.S. units employed large-unit sweeps supported by heavy firepower. Those kinds of conventional tactics never work against a counterinsurgency—they failed for the Americans in Vietnam and for the Russians in Afghanistan and were failing for the British in Malaya in the late 1940’s, before Britain adopted more appropriate tactics in the early 1950’s.

The difficulty lies in the fact that insurgents are seldom obliging enough to mass their forces and then wait patiently to be destroyed by superior firepower. Guerrillas almost always melt away before large opposing forces, snipe at their flanks, and return in force only when the army has gone back to its bases.

The only way to defeat this tactic is to garrison the area with small outposts of soldiers who interact with locals and develop the intelligence needed to identify insurgents. Once identified, that’s where the good kind of aggression comes in—anyone taking up arms against the government needs to be killed or captured. The problem is that Western militaries, including our own, have a surfeit of aggression but usually lack the patience and know-how to figure out whom to focus their aggression on. Unfocused displays of brutality only serve to alienate the population and recruit more manpower for the insurgency.

It’s a delicate balancing act, and I’m afraid we haven’t gotten it right. Our soldiers (and also contractors) have displayed too much casual brutality toward the populace of Iraq, often (understandably) motivated by “force protection” considerations. I’m thinking of Humvees or armored Chevy Suburbans careening through traffic, causing accidents, their occupants shooting at vehicles that get too close; soldiers opening fire at checkpoints and riddling cars full of confused civilians with bullets; or soldiers cordoning off neighborhoods and breaking into houses in the middle of the night.

When it comes to dealing with actual insurgents, our troops have had their hands tied, especially after the Abu Ghraib scandal in the spring of 2004. Aggressive interrogations are out. Detainees in American custody have the option of remaining silent, and they have an excellent chance of being released through one of the multiple layers of legal review, Iraqi and American. That needs to change if we are to have any chance of success.

Of course there are limits to how brutal American—or any other Western—troops can be without causing a backlash on the home front, as the French learned in Algeria. The Iraqis have much more freedom of action; nobody would be terribly shocked if they behaved the way the Algerian or Egyptian security forces did in putting down Islamist uprisings in the 1990’s. The problem is not so much that the Iraqi Security Forces are too brutal; it’s that they are stupidly brutal—or rather that their brutality is too often designed to advance a sectarian, not a national, agenda. They are murdering and torturing Sunnis indiscriminately, not reserving their venom for actual insurgents. Again, there has to be a balancing act, and the Iraqis aren’t getting it right—perhaps can’t get it right.

I should add the obvious: it’s much easier to describe the balancing act while sitting in the safety of one’s study than to actually figure out how to act while under fire. That’s why counterinsurgency has been described as the graduate level of warfare. Our troops are slowly acquiring the skills they need but, as we both agree, the big question is whether they will have the time and support needed to apply what they’ve learned.


Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson III

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