Small Wars Journal

The Enduring Pillars of Successful Counterinsurgency

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 1:21am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

The Enduring Pillars of Successful Counterinsurgency

Christopher J. Heatherly and Casey T. McNicholas

A frequent criticism of the United States military is it spends too little time contemplating the future of warfare, choosing instead to refight the last war. A related criticism is the military is far too often ignorant of its own history, particularly when exploring lessons learned during operational deployments. These two problems were particularly evident during US and allied counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the Iraq and Afghan theaters. The combination of attempting to refight the last wars – most notably Vietnam and Desert Storm - and fully incorporate lessons learned through 15 years of deployments frustrated American COIN operations. This paper uses fictional vignettes, grounded in real world events, to identify the need to develop and harden combat support and service support units, develop subordinate leaders, and centralize information for units from all branches to operate in a particular battle space. Senior military and civilian leaders must ensure these fundamentals are inherent in any future COIN operation.

1710L. January 27th, 2003. Camp Virginia, Kuwait.

Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Bradley sat in his Pajero SUV outside the V Corps main headquarters watching an approaching sandstorm hurl its way eastward towards the camp. Known locally as a shamal, Bradley knew from experience the storm would do a fair amount of damage to the camp. The last shamal destroyed several tents and scattered personal gear across the Kuwaiti desert. He estimated the storm would hit Camp Virginia in about 30 minutes. Plenty of time for a quick cigarette – well away from the highly flammable tents – before heading inside to ride out the storm. Bradley reached inside his desert camouflage uniform shirt to retrieve a battered pack of Marlboros and a Zippo lighter. Unofficial Army tradition dictated officers do not smoke, but given the circumstance of a pending invasion, many turned a blind eye to it. He turned away from the growing wind and lit a cigarette. Breathing in deeply, Bradley reflected on the meeting he just left at the Combined Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) headquarters in nearby Camp Doha.

Despite months of exercises in Germany and many more weeks of planning in Kuwait, Bradley felt grave concern over the pending invasion of Iraq. Like most of the headquarters personnel, Bradley was confident the coalition would easily defeat the Iraqi military. He was less confident about America’s ability to install a friendly and democratic government made up of Iraqi expatriates that had not lived in Iraq for decades. The lack of a realistic or workable plan to transition to the new Iraqi government was equally disturbing. Today’s meeting only reinforced that concern, as the CFLCC planners were simply unable to give V Corps any substantive planning guidance. I his view, the twenty-something year old State Department representative lacked the experience or authority to help the military prepare for the new Iraqi government and there were no more senior State personnel to be found. The various other federal agencies were largely absent from theater leaving the military to use its already too thin resources to fill the gaps. V Corps headquarters itself, which would lead all Army forces in the ground invasion, lacked interagency representation in the staff. Privately, the plans team believed the US was slowly, but inexorably, creating the conditions for another never-ending mission. Had we learned nothing from the “Six months and home” mission in the Balkans? Evidently not.

Bradley took a last drag on the cigarette and carefully extinguished the flame. He tossed the cigarette into a nearby garbage can. Looking west, he felt the wind pick up as the shamal reached the edge of the camp. Bradley grabbed his newly issued body armor from the Pajero’s passenger seat and pulled his goggles down over his eyes. The sand bit hard as he jogged quickly to the plans tent and ducked inside. Adjusting to the dim light, Bradley saw the rest of the planners huddled over computers eagerly awaiting his arrival. He zipped the canvas door shut, shook off the sand and resigned himself to another long night of work.

Even before hostilities commenced in the Iraqi desert, US military operations were hampered by the lack of interagency representation and coordination. Nor were operational plans fully coordinated between respective Army headquarters. In 2008, the Rand Arroyo Center published a paper analyzing planning at V Corps that found, “plans were developed without any clear strategic guidance for integrating political, economic, and military efforts for stabilization and reconstruction. Military commanders at all levels were unprepared for the magnitude of the policy and legal issues that they confronted during the initial stages of Phase IV operations.”[i] The failure to organize an interagency approach “at the breach” carried into COIN operations when V Corps, now known as CJTF-7, maintained a separate headquarters from CPA. Many said, personality conflicts between the senior US civilian, Ambassador Paul Bremer, and his military counterpart, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, created further friction between the two organizations. CPA’s physical isolation in Baghdad’s Green Zone – which bore little resemblance to the rest of the Iraqi theater in terms of security or stability – created a mindset in its residents that further prevented the military and greater interagency community from coordinating a common operating picture.

1431L. May 16th, 2003. Baghdad, Iraq.

Captain Faris Al-Rubae could not believe the news. With a pen stroke, his 18-year career in the Iraqi Army was over. The irony of the announcement did not escape Al-Rubae having survived the Gulf War against the Americans, including a terrifying retreat north on the aptly named “Highway of Death” and this new war ending in Saddam’s defeat. This morning his battalion commander read a terse announcement from the American’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) directing the complete disbanding of the Iraqi Army. Al-Rubae took the news stoically in front of the men before driving his battered car to a local coffee shop. A pot of coffee sat untouched on the chipped Formica table as he contemplated his now uncertain future. A nominally practicing Sunni and lukewarm Baathist, Al-Rubae had spent his entire adult life in uniform. Sighing heavily, Al-Rubae ran his hand over his chin and tried to make sense of the directive. Why would the Americans disband the army? Certainly, the new government would need soldiers to prevent the Iranians from attacking again. How would the Americans keep order with Saddam out of power? Al-Rubae and his fellow Sunni’s were already concerned about the rumors of Shia gangs exacting revenge following years of abuse under Saddam’s regime. More importantly, how would he provide for his family? His meager savings would not last long and he needed to find a job. Which brought his thinking to the most pressing, and perhaps most dangerous, question. After dismissing the men for the last time, the battalion commander approached Al-Rubae in private with an offer to join a few trusted Sunni comrades waging a new war against the Americans. Al-Rubae was ambivalent on the group’s ideology but needed the money and had few immediate prospects of work given the chaos in Baghdad. 

It may be argued that Ambassador Paul Bremer’s order to disband the Iraqi Army was the single greatest mistake made during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). A politically driven and short-sighted decision, the order ran counter to several of the most enduring principles of counterinsurgency. Former Army Vice Chief of Staff General (Retired) Jack Keane described CPA’s order as, “Not reorganizing the army and police immediately were huge strategic mistakes.”[ii] First, the order all but guaranteed a delayed transfer to host nation civil authority in Phases IV and V of the longer campaign to install a democratic Iraq. Restated, the absence of a functional security apparatus made the efficacy of any new government a moot point given its inability to provide internal or external security. The decision further ensured US and Allied forces needed elsewhere in the larger Global War on Terrorism would be tied down in Iraq for years thereby limiting available options to the US president. Second, CPA based the order on similar guidance barring former members of the Nazi party from assuming government or military duties in post-war Germany but failing to account for the numerous cultural and geo-political differences present in Iraq. It can be argued, Bremer did not appreciate the volatile and longstanding Sunni-Shia sectarian rift would absolutely explode given the subsequent security vacuum. Nor did Bremer understand how disbanding the military would set the conditions for numerous external state and non-state actors to enter the conflict, which changed the Iraqi situation from complicated to complex in nature.

Former Iraqi military personnel and police, who might otherwise have supported a US installed Iraqi government, instead found themselves unemployed in a vortex of sectarian fueled violence. The assorted Shia and Sunni insurgency groups, and their nation state sponsors, received the most direct benefit from CPA’s order in the form of a trained and capable insurgent recruiting pool. Additionally, the order unnecessarily complicated coalition efforts to rebuild the Iraqi military. According to former Army Chief of Staff General (Retired) Raymond Odierno, “We could have done a lot better job of sorting through that and keeping the Iraqi army together. We struggled for years to try to put it back together again.”[iii]

0345L. 15 August 2003. An intersection about a quarter mile from the Green Zone, Baghdad.

I rolled up to the intersection that two of my squads are working today. As the driver began to slow, I could not help but feel grateful we finally arrived. Recently, Iraqi insurgents placed Improvised Explosive Devices along the roads of Baghdad. When they explode, they tear our HMMWVs apart. Well to counter this, someone thought we should put sandbags on the floor of our vehicles to absorb some of the blast. As if there wasn’t enough dust and sand in this place. Anyway, I was glad to get out of the crammed vehicle and stretch my legs a bit.

As my squads began to set up security and close down the intersection, a small convoy of five US HMMWVs raced towards us. As they approached, they slowed down and eventually came to a halt about 50 meters from our emerging Traffic Control Point (TCP). When they stopped, many of the soldiers dismounted the vehicles and began pulling security. While their men got in place, I saw a small soldier, maybe 5’ 7’’ or 5’ 8’’ approach my perimeter. One of my squad leaders and I began walking out to greet him as we assumed the soldier to be their platoon leader (PL). I was about 15 meters from the person when he started yelling at us.

“Who the hell put this TCP in place here?” the small man asked. As he spoke, I noticed he was a Second Lieutenant in an Infantry platoon.

“I have two squads from the 709th MP Battalion at this intersection and two more about 7 blocks south.” I told my heated peer.

“Did you guys clear this with the Battle Space owner? We are going to get set up for an early morning raid three blocks from here. Your TCP might alert the guy we are trying to capture.” He said as he realized I was a fellow junior officer.

As we stood in the street trying to find a solution to the issue, I could not help but think about the tremendous burden it was to even be able to conduct a simple TCP. Not only did we coordinate with our own chain of command, but we also had to work with the 3rd ID to make sure our TCP didn’t conflict with any of their operations. Then we needed to make sure no other support or service support units were operating nearby that could affect our mission. Obviously, someone did not do their job somewhere in the large Army bureaucracy.

We eventually sorted out a solution and they jumped back in their HMMWVs and sped through the TCP to their objective. Once they were gone, we got back to work controlling the intersection.

0430L. August 15th, 2003. Same intersection.

As we waited for the inevitable Baghdad traffic to start, I pondered my time in Iraq. I had been in Iraq for about five months or so. MPs and other combat support and service support branches were not able to keep pace with the maneuver branches in the rushed invasion. I am not sure who was in charge of the whole operation, but when 3rd ID got to Baghdad in early April, they were more or less the only coalition force in the city of over five million people. It’s no wonder thugs looted Saddam’s armories and banks. There was a power vacuum. 3rd ID simply did not have the labor or the training to stop and police the area.

For my platoon, they were constantly on alert. Ever since the 507th Maintenance Company was torn up back in March, the soldiers of the platoon have been on edge. For most of these soldiers, attack on the 507th and the Battle of Nasiriyah illustrated how unprepared combat support and service support units were for this type of warfare. In a way, though, it helped get everyone into a combat mentality quickly, which helped us be extra thorough in our planning and execution of various missions once we arrived in Iraq.

0600L. August 15th, 2003. Same intersection.

The intersection we controlled was part of a network of TCPs set up to surround the green zone. Even though the Green Zone was roughly quarter mile away, this network of TCPs proved helpful in controlling the traffic flow within central Baghdad. It was just about 0600 and it was already 90 degrees. As we sweated away the little water we were given for the day, a civilian approached one of the jersey barriers on the west checkpoint. One of my soldiers radioed the squad leader and asked if we could help him out. Once we arrived, it became clear this was not going to a fun encounter with the older Baghdad man.

“Sir, I really can’t understand this guy. He keeps yelling at me and pointing to our HMMWVs.”

Unfortunately, for us, we did not have a translator attached to our platoon. And many of us barely had enough training on the local customs and courtesies, let alone the language. I talked with the man as best I could and tried to decipher what I believed he wanted to tell us. However, who knows if I got it right. The man eventually walked off, leaving the three of us scratching our heads.

“Nation building at its finest, hopefully he wasn’t an insurgent,” I said to the other young men with me. Then I headed back to check on the rest of the two squads.

As a 23-year-old PL, I feel that my or my platoon’s actions carry more weight than that at a company or battalion level. Most of the fighting is done on the squad and platoon level. Much of the decisions on the ground are made by 22 or 23-year-old men and women who are balancing foreign policy and their soldier’s lives. It is not all bad, but I just hope that every day I make the right choice.

0943L. August 15th, 2003. Same intersection.

Last week, my MPs killed a family of four on their way to a market outside the Green Zone. The small white four-door sedan failed to stop at our checkpoint and we feared it could be another suicide car bomber. Bombings like that have become more prevalent around here in the past month. The family survived the initial ground invasion by U.S. forces and saw the initial elements of the 3rd ID occupy Baghdad back in early April. They may have thought freedom had finally arrived.

These were the thoughts racing through my head as yet again, another white four-door sedan with yellow doors raced towards our checkpoint. My soldier was on the .50 cal. and honed in on the car awaiting my order to fire.

“Sir, 200 meters out!” screamed one of my soldiers who was running for cover behind a jersey barrier.

As sweat beads rolled down my face, from the combination of triple digit heat and adrenaline, I felt the sharp sting of salt in my left eye. It was at that moment that I looked to Specialist Bryce Jackson, a native of Seattle, Washington and ordered him to fire. Jackson pressed down on the butterfly trigger of the .50 cal. and the bullets raced towards the threatening vehicle. I watched the bullets mercilessly tear apart that white sedan as well as the driver. As the car spun out of control and ran into one of our initial jersey barriers, time immediately sped up. I ordered Staff Sergeant James Heughan, one of my squad leaders, to take his second squad and secure the other three roads leading to the intersection. Once security pushed out, the first squad and I pushed out to investigate the vehicle. Staff Sergeant David McGriff, a tall African-American from a small town in New Jersey was my first squad leader. He and I had served together since I arrived at 709th MP Battalion in fall 2002. He was probably my best squad leader as a PL. He always took the initiative and could seemingly read my mind.

As one of his teams approached the vehicle to clear, they found five 155MM rounds in the back seat with wires coming into the front. The thought of the damage those could have done immediately sent shivers down my spine. We immediately pulled them back and called a group I was beginning to get all too familiar with, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). As we waited for EOD, I looked at the body of the man we just killed. Why would he want to do this? Maybe whatever insurgent group he was a part of paid his family or forced him to do it or maybe this man felt that he had no other options. It took EOD hours to show up, but they eventually arrived and took Saddam’s old 155 rounds back and we continued to control traffic in the intersection for the rest of the day. We did not have any more issues that day, but we still had six more months in Iraq. Though summer was winding down, things seemed to be just heating up.


American satirist and writer Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” While no two battles are refought in the same manner, professional military leaders must study history to understand counterinsurgency fundamentals and incorporate the hard won lessons learned into current and future operations. While this paper focused specifically on early US operations in Iraq, the COIN concepts addressed in the fictional vignettes are timeless.

End Notes

[i] Rand Arroyo Center, After Saddam Prewar Planning and the Occupation of Iraq, 2008, (Arlington, VA, 2008), 14.

[ii] “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS,” Time, May 28, 2015.

[iii] Time, May 28, 2015.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies. Additionally, LTC Heatherly is a freelance author with 80+ published works.

Cadet Casey T. McNicholas is soon to graduate from Washington State University with a B.S. in Political Science-Global Politics with a second major in History. Upon graduation, he will commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army as a Military Police Officer. CDT McNicholas has traveled to Senegal as part of a cultural exchange for Army cadets and has earned the United States Army Air Assault Badge. As a young writer with five published works, CDT McNicholas plans to continue to write throughout his Army career.