This Week at War: Life After Insurgency

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Planning for a post-insurgency Iraq

This week the relationship between the United States and Iraq underwent a significant but little noticed change. Until now, military cooperation between the two countries has focused exclusively on defending Iraq from internal threats. This week, the problem of Iraq's external defense came to the fore. With the counterinsurgency phase of the U.S.-Iraq relationship winding down over the next two years, the country's conventional warfare needs are taking on greater prominence.

Planning for a post-insurgency Iraq

This week the relationship between the United States and Iraq underwent a significant but little noticed change. Until now, military cooperation between the two countries has focused exclusively on defending Iraq from internal threats. This week, the problem of Iraq’s external defense came to the fore. With the counterinsurgency phase of the U.S.-Iraq relationship winding down over the next two years, the country’s conventional warfare needs are taking on greater prominence.

It was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who signalled this change in the relationship. At a July 23rd speech in Washington, Maliki opened the door to a U.S. military presence in Iraq after 2011, when, under current agreements, all U.S. forces are to be out of the country. "If Iraqi forces need more training and support, we will reexamine the agreement at that time, based on our own national needs," Maliki said.

Implied in this remark is continuing U.S. assistance for Iraq’s army and police in their ongoing struggle against various insurgent groups. But Maliki has other more conventional military capabilities in mind as well. According to the New York Times, Iraq is seeking to acquire F-16 fighter-bomber aircraft in order to rebuild its jet fighter inventory, which currently stands at zero. The F-16 is a multi-role airplane, designed to attack both other aircraft and targets on the ground. Iraq currently has no indigenous capability of defending itself from air attack. According to Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Iraq has little chance of acquiring that capability by the end of 2011. The U.S. Air Force is sending an assessment team to help Iraq solve its air defense problem.

The future of the U.S.-Iraq security relationship has been a subject of recent focus by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. After speaking with Maliki on the subject at a meeting in Washington on July 23rd, Gates appeared in Baghdad five days later for another discussion with the prime minister. Gates made it clear that any request to modify the existing 2011 withdrawal agreement would have to come from the Iraqis first. Maliki’s speech in Washington and his request for F-16s seem to meet Gates’s requirement.

Does Iraq even face a conventional military threat? At the moment Iran seems plagued with deep internal political problems; the leadership there would seem hard pressed to organize offensive military action. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iraq is chilly but non-threatening. With Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s missile and WMD programs gone, Israel does not seem like a factor. And the United States has gone from being an archenemy to Iraq’s best ally.

Yet this report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that Iraq has major military weaknesses compared to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraqi statesmen looking outward will recall bloody wars fought against foreign invaders who entered Iraq from every direction. No statesman in the region can have any confidence about which country will be up or down, friend or foe a few years from now.

Maliki and his successors will not want to depend on the United States for Iraq’s defense. Nor will U.S. policymakers wish to volunteer for such a commitment. Iraqi statesmen will seek to refocus the military’s attention from battling insurgents to defending Iraq’s borders. That will involve a complicated procurement and military training program extending far beyond F-16 fighters. It will also involve a relationship with the U.S. military extending far beyond 2011.

 

Does Afghanistan need a Phoenix Program?

The Office of the Secretary of Defense hired the RAND Corporation to study the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program and recommend whether some of the program’s controversial techniques might be useful in Afghanistan. RAND’s researchers endorsed a Phoenix-like effort for Afghanistan and in the process, attempted to dispel some of the program’s myths.

What was the Phoenix program? RAND’s relatively brief report summarizes its history: In 1967 the U.S. military command and the CIA created a program — later called Phoenix — that began as an effort to improve intelligence-sharing among a long list of U.S. and South Vietnamese agencies.

Separately but at about the same time, the CIA acted to reassert its control over some South Vietnamese counterterrorism teams it had recruited. The CIA renamed these teams Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), which later became part of the Phoenix intelligence-sharing program.  Former South Vietnamese soldiers, many seeking revenge against the communist Viet Cong, made up much of the PRU membership. The CIA paid and directed these teams back to their home provinces with the mission of infiltrating the Viet Cong’s support infrastructure.

The authors believe it was the PRU portion of Phoenix that became the subject of enduring myths both good and bad. Opponents of Phoenix condemned the program as little more than an illegal assassination rampage which killed many innocent of any involvement with the Viet Cong. Proponents credited Phoenix with virtually eliminating the Viet Cong insurgency, leaving it up to the North Vietnamese army to conquer the south. The new study discounts both of these perspectives.

RAND does, however, record Phoenix as an overall success, both for its ability to gain detailed knowledge about the Viet Cong and its ability to disrupt that organization. The authors believe the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered because the U.S. has apparently failed to aggressively recruit motivated indigenous agents to infiltrate and break up insurgent organizations.

Why wouldn’t the U.S. want to resurrect Phoenix? Infiltrating insurgent organizations would seem to be a basic counterinsurgency tactic. However, the report reminds us of one more thing: fairly or unfairly, Phoenix was very costly to the U.S. government’s reputation. The ruthlessness displayed by some unit members resulted in propaganda opportunities for opponents of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was ultimately decided on the information battlefield. That will also be the case in Afghanistan.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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