Translation Introduction:

How did the invasion of Iraq affect the U.S. military's doctrine and combat culture? In this article in Foreign Affairs, Peter Mansour, a retired U.S. Army colonel who previously served in Baghdad, argues that the Iraqi invasion had a Vietnam War-like impact on the U.S. military, shifting its focus from conventional warfare to irregular warfare and counterinsurgency spaces, arguing that the experiences Americans have gained in Iraq may prove to be valuable in the future.

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The United States invaded Iraq twenty years ago, unknowingly unleashing a long struggle for stability and security in the country. US President George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, predicted a brief blitzkrieg that would end once US forces expelled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Many bet that the U.S. military would quickly and ingeniously cross the lines of the Iraqi army with its technologically superior forces, in a quick intervention that ends with the capture of Baghdad. Instead, the false assumptions about toppling Saddam Hussein and sending a smaller U.S. force to invade and secure the country led to a fierce uprising that days proved very difficult to defeat.

In the aftermath of the first invasion battle, the U.S. military found itself trapped in a battle similar to that fought in Vietnam in the sixties and seventies. But many of the lessons of the Vietnam War have been forgotten decades later, despite its enormous cost. After the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the U.S. military shifted its focus to the threat of the Soviet Union, stopped teaching its counterinsurgency forces, and that potential was eroded in the army's doctrine. As a result, it took a few years for U.S. forces to figure out the best way to fight in Iraq. Today, the United States seems to be paying new attention to rivalry between major powers (especially China)*, but it should not repeat its old mistake and turn its back on counterinsurgency doctrine.


U.S. Marines in the 1966 Vietnam War. (Shutterstock)

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military confronted the regular units of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong militias at the same time. By the time U.S. forces withdrew from the battle, they had gained in-depth knowledge of counterinsurgency warfare, stabilization, and nation-building. In the following years, the military ignored that experience, leaving little of it at the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare. The rest of the army is back in gear for possible intense battles with Warsaw Pact countries in Europe.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. military lost its compass, as a conflict between major world powers seemed less likely in the near future, and military leaders struggled to define their mission and find the best way to organize their forces. Some policymakers have embraced the use of U.S. forces in limited operations, peacekeeping missions, and other "operations that do not amount to war," as they were commonly called in the corridors of decision-making in the nineties. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell: "What is the wisdom of having this great army that you always talk about if we can't use it?" Indeed, in the nineties, Washington landed troops in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, operations that allowed food aid to be distributed, forced a dictator from power, helped stop a civil war, and brought a new state to the map. But the operations did not cost much, and the American public quickly asked questions about the objectives of those military operations when some American soldiers were killed.

Although these small numbers of troops were successfully moved here and there, planning for large-scale combat operations remained in the minds of military leaders in Washington. Generals of the Navy and Air Force saw China's rise as the next biggest challenge. Military college teachers continued to prepare combat teams at the National Training Center to confront hostile armies oddly similar to the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command went even further, conducting exercises against hypothetical enemies similar to the United States in its capabilities, as if they were fighting opponents in the mirror that had no parallel in the real world.

It was much easier to destroy the Iraqi army and the Taliban than to inaugurate new governments and stabilize countries that had already suffered from years of poor governance. (Getty Images)

The U.S. military launched a revolution in its conception of military affairs, using state-of-the-art technology, military organization, and combat doctrine, along with guided munitions and state-of-the-art intelligence, espionage, and surveillance systems. Thus, the army theoretically has the possibility of eliminating chaos, reducing friction on the battlefield, and enhancing the chances of winning any future war at the lowest costs. Any potential wars with rival and less powerful states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea have become quick, decisive and less costly.

At first glance, shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, these ideologues seemed right. The goal of regime change in both countries was achieved quickly and at little cost with the blood of soldiers and US Treasury money. But no one thought about what was coming, and the U.S. occupation of the two countries quickly turned into a mess of nation-state-building tasks, in which neither the U.S. military nor its Marines were prepared or trained to succeed. It was much easier to destroy the Iraqi army and the Taliban than to inaugurate new governments and stabilize countries that had already suffered from years of poor governance. As the U.S. military faltered, fierce uprisings erupted backed by neighboring countries with their own agendas, agendas that are of course counterproductive to U.S. goals.

Battlefield. First School

Senior U.S. military commanders began experimenting with counterinsurgency operations in the cities of Tal Afar, al-Qaim, and Ramadi, and forged alliances with tribes and local leaders to counter al-Qaeda and other insurgency movements. (Getty Images)

U.S. military operations have floundered year after year as military leaders come to realize the nature of the war they find themselves in. Initially, it encouraged commanders to launch offensive operations against jihadists and strongholds of the remnants of Saddam's regime, whatever the cost of the Iraqi people's blood. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command at the time, expressed concern that U.S. and allied forces were becoming "antibodies" that over time would create more insurgents than they could defeat. Abizaid ordered his forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities to minimize provocations that anger Iraqis and spark further violence. But, because Iraq's new army and police forces lacked men and were not yet ready, this withdrawal allowed Sunni insurgents and Shia militias to take control of entire residential neighborhoods, and sectarian confrontations erupted when al-Qaeda terrorists blew up the shrines of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari in Samarra in February 2006, leading to a civil conflict that nearly tore Iraq apart.

Even as senior U.S. military commanders insisted on sticking to their strategic and operational concepts, intermediate commanders such as Col. Herbert McMaster, Lt. Col. Dale Alford, and Colonel Shane Macfarland began experimenting with counterinsurgency operations in the cities of Tel Afar, al-Qaim, and Ramadi, placing their forces in small positions on the outskirts of residential areas, and forging alliances with tribes and local leaders to counter al-Qaeda and other insurgencies.

In December 2006, the U.S. Joint Arms Center and the Marine Combat Development Command published a new counterinsurgency manual that focused on protecting the local population from "rebel terrorism" and violence as the key to success on the battlefield. Moreover, Bush made changes in the leadership ranks: Rumsfeld and his battle commander, Lieutenant General George Casey, and replaced them with Bob Gates and Lieutenant General David Petraeus, respectively. Both men are determined to carry out a solid counterinsurgency campaign and enhance the chances of success of coalition forces in Iraq. For his part, Bush gave them the resources to implement their plan while boosting troop numbers from 2007 to 2008, with the goal of doing its utmost to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq and stabilize the country.

By the end of the U.S. troop buildup campaign in the summer of 2008, violent incidents in Iraq had decreased by more than 90 percent compared to the pre-reinforcement period. (Getty Images)

Backed by the Awakening Councils (an alliance of Iraqi Sunni tribes)* The United States and the tribal uprising against al-Qaeda in Anbar province have succeeded beyond all expectations. The United States has changed its goal in Iraq from establishing a Jeffersonian democracy (named after President Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States who focused on democracy, freedoms, and human rights)* to a more practical and implementable goal: to establish sustainable stability that provides a secure environment in Iraq that in turn creates the necessary conditions for long-term democracy. In turn, the U.S. military has shifted its focus toward conducting counterinsurgency operations, securing Baghdad and surrounding territory, and destroying al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces had learned new tactics, techniques, and techniques for counterinsurgency warfare after fighting them themselves in the darkest moments of combat, and also had valuable military knowledge to draw on in the future. At the same time, the number of fighters in the ranks of the Iraqi security forces has risen to 350,<> soldiers and police officers, with U.S. advisers in most Iraqi military and security formations. More than a hundred thousand Iraqis who called themselves "Sons of Iraq" (or Awakenings)* have stepped forward to protect their communities from attacks by terrorists, insurgents, and Shiite militias alike.

By the end of the U.S. troop buildup campaign in the summer of 2008, violent incidents in Iraq had decreased by more than 90 percent compared to the pre-reinforcement period. This relative calm allowed for the first successful elections in 2009 and 2010, which backfired when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was defeated in the ballot and threatened to leave power. Maliki and the administration of President Barack Obama did not reach an agreement on the renewal of the agreement that governed the movements of US forces in Iraq, which led to the withdrawal of troops at the end of 2011. Therefore, the performance of the security forces quickly began to deteriorate without the presence of American advisers, due to Maliki's dismissal of most competent leaders and his allowing corruption to spread in order to empty the army of its meaning (to appease its Shiite militia allies)*.

After the Islamic State overran Iraq in 2014, U.S. forces returned to support the Iraqi army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The coalition has done well against ISIS, supported by solid air power, of course, a limited number of U.S. special forces, similar U.S. infantry, and advisers, who have cooperated with their Iraqi and Syrian allies to defeat the Islamic State fighters.

Forgotten lessons. Forgotten again?

With the defeat of the Islamic State and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, there is a high probability that the counterinsurgency curriculum will disappear again from U.S. military education and combat training. (Getty Images)

Conflicts do not end with the elimination of the opponent's armed forces. Over the years of experience in Iraq, the U.S. military has repeatedly figured out ways to secure and control local populations, conduct precise and selective counterterrorism operations, establish effective local security forces, gather intelligence, prevent the spread of disinformation, cooperate with neighboring countries to prevent terrorist safe havens, establish a stable local economy, and launch efficient government, or nation-state building processes.

While today's "war on terror" seems to be saying goodbye to us, the U.S. military no longer trains its soldiers and officers as heavily as it did at the height of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military has closed the counterinsurgency center, reduced the number of hours allocated to counterinsurgency training at regular military education institutions, and halted the exercises themselves at its combat training centers.

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. military did its best to forget the counterinsurgency lessons it learned there, and the mention of low-intensity conflict disappeared from U.S. military curricula. From the mid-11s until the Sept. 2001, <> attacks, the U.S. military assumed that most of its soldiers, with the exception of a limited number of special forces, were not needed in counterinsurgency warfare. Now, with the defeat of the Islamic State and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, there is a high probability that counterinsurgency curricula will again disappear from U.S. military education and combat training, a prospect exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the possibility of a return to traditional major power conflict (between the United States and China or the West and Russia)*.

Militaries must keep the methods of limited warfare and counterinsurgency alive in the minds of their commanders and war colleges, a small price for what they could incur in a shocking future war. (Getty Images)

It would be a mistake for the U.S. military not to focus on potential conflicts with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, Washington's most serious enemies today. But U.S. military leaders should not ignore the possibility that they will one day return to limited combat against irregular groups here or there. If officers and noncommissioned officers in the U.S. military—and any military in general—studied all kinds of risks they might face in the coming years, including counterinsurgency, they would adapt faster to the circumstances they face in wars of all kinds.

Militaries must keep the methods of limited warfare and counterinsurgency alive in the minds of their commanders and war colleges, a small price for what they could incur in a shocking future war. It would be tragic if senior U.S. military commanders repeated the mistake of their predecessors in the post-Vietnam Cold War, threw the lessons of the Iraq war behind them after suffering for it, imagining that their country would never fight this kind of war again. The history of the United States shows us that this perception is misplaced.


This article is translated from Foreign Affairs and does not necessarily reflect Meydan's website.

Translation: Nour Khairy.