Best Defense

Conrad Crane’s insider story on COIN doctrine: Spec Ops screwed up a lot of ops

This isn’t something you see discussed a lot in print.


That’s not the major theme of his new book, which I liked (and blurbed). But I mention it here because, with all the accolades and attention given to Special Operators in recent years, this isn’t something you see discussed a lot in print.

The problem, Crane explains, began with a force structure decision. “One of the unintended consequences of the creation of Special Operations Command in 1987 was an unhealthy intellectual bifurcation in the Army. Special operations forces had no incentive to think about concepts of counterinsurgency beyond the small-scale operations they had run in El Salvador, while conventional forces could ignore COIN altogether, assuming such missions belonged to SOF.

SOF, he shows, isn’t as good as it thinks it is. He offers the example of a Spec Ops raid in Baghdad in which the local U.S. Army battalion “was told just to stay out of the way.” The raid captured five targets of interest, had one escapee, and killed three bystanders. “Ironically, perhaps tragically, the battalion commander has been playing in a soccer game with the targets’ children the morning before the raid, and they all had been watching the game. He could have walked over and peacefully arrested them there.”

Crane continues: “In my years of talking with soldiers and civilians about their experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan, virtually everyone has a similar story to tell, of some special operations raid that might have been good counterterrorism but was terrible COIN.”

Another Spec Ops problem was that, “The CJSTOFs were really fighting seven-month wars, since that was their rotation schedule.” They often would come back into the country after a break and pick up where they had left off, unaware of how the politics of the local forces might have changed in the interim. “The CJSTOF’s assessment of the regions we had visited was very different from those of the commanders there.”

Other interesting stuff:

  • He relays a smart question posed to him by an American general: “whether problems with the Iraqi leadership were the result of the wrong form of government or the wrong people in it.” Simple, sure — but I have never seen the question put that succinctly.   
  • There are several other things in the book that reminded me of how you can never stop learning in war. One of the little lessons is that good medical care for prisoners is smart because it makes moral sense, and even strategic sense. But it also can be a tactical aid, in that sick call gives an inmate a chance to talk with an interpreter present away from other prisoners.
  • Another small lesson: Survey the vacant lots in your area of operations, because that is where the shoot-‘n’-scoot mortar fire will come from.
  • Finally, an interesting quotation: “An Iraqi policeman told me that he had to charge for his services to earn a living, and we called that ‘corruption,’ while in our country, we did the same thing and called it ‘taxes.’”

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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