Mark Moyar: Lessons of Iraq

Mark Moyar is the Kim T. Anderson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at the Marine Corps University. He is the author of the revisionist history Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, now available in paperback.
The occasion of this post is Professor Moyar’s new book, noted below. But before getting to that, let us pause to note our friend Professor Mackubin Thomas Owens’s assessment of Professor Moyar and Triumph Forsaken in the Weekly Standard:

A brilliant young scholar with a Cambridge doctorate who is currently teaching at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Moyar is representative of a small but increasingly influential revisionist school that rejects the fundamental orthodox premise that America’s involvement in Vietnam was wrongheaded and unjust…. No review can do full justice to this critically important book. Triumph Forsaken is meticulously documented and bold in its interpretation of the record. Even orthodox historians will be forced to acknowledge the magnitude of Moyar’s scholarly achievement. It should, at the least, reopen the debate about America’s Vietnam enterprise, reminding us that countries are not destined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.”

Mac is a Vietnam veteran who teaches at the Naval War College and edits the foreign policy magazine Orbis. In short, he knows whereof he speaks. And it is worth noting that his endorsement of Triumph Forsaken joined that of James Webb and many others that can be viewed here..
Professor Moyar’s new book, just published by Yale University Press, is A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. Professor Moyar’s new book obviously could not be more timely, and it includes a chapter on Afghanistan, but it stops just short of the current challenge confronting us there. We invited Professor Moyar to draw on his new book in discussing that challenge:

The voluminous theorizing on counterinsurgency during the past eight years has focused almost entirely on identifying the methods and resources required for effective counterinsurgency. In so doing, it has neglected the more important factor–the quality of the leaders using the methods. The impact of this imbalance is evident in recent pronouncements by politicians and pundits about transplanting the strategy and tactics of the Iraq “Surge” to Afghanistan. In actuality, the success of the Surge resulted more from changes in leadership than changes in strategy or tactics, and we must draw lessons for Afghanistan accordingly.
During the bleak years of 2004 to 2006, the United States and its Iraqi allies employed a sound strategy and sound tactics, consistent with tried-and-true counterinsurgency principles. American units cleared insurgent forces from populous areas and then let Iraqi security forces and civil administrators “hold” them, which meant restoring civil administration and keeping the insurgents from returning.
The clear-and-hold approach did not produce lasting victories because the Iraqis failed in the hold phase. After the American forces had swept away the insurgents, the Iraqi governmental personnel who took over the area most often could not prevent the insurgents from coming back, because their officers lacked skill and dedication. De-Baathification had stripped the Iraqi security forces of experienced leaders, and the new Iraqi government chose new commanders based on political and personal connections rather than merit.
The foreign press reported time and again on Iraqi police collapses in 2004 and 2005, but seldom identified the true cause, leaving the impression that the police suffered from general demoralization stemming from the unpopularity of the new Iraqi government and its American benefactors. In reality, the ability of police units to withstand insurgent pressure depended simply on whether they had dedicated and competent leadership, in the form of either Iraqi police chiefs or foreign advisers who compensated for weak chiefs by serving as de facto commanders.
The inspectors general of the U.S. State and Defense Departments reported in mid-2005 that “in instances where good leadership is present (often provided by Coalition military personnel or International Police Liaison Officers), Iraqi Police perform satisfactorily and stand their ground in the face of attacks. The absence of such leaders correlates closely with instances in which Iraqi Police stations have been overrun, often with shocking casualties among ill-prepared and ill-led policemen.”
The Awakening of 2006-2007, in which Sunnis turned against the most radical insurgents, produced a dramatic upturn in Iraqi leadership quality. An American policy decision to scale back ambitions for democracy and grant authority based on tribal affiliation allowed talented and experienced Sunni elites to defect from the insurgent side. But it took more than a policy change to alter their behavior. It also required top-flight American leaders, who had to conduct the military operations, basic governance, and personal interaction required to convince fence-sitting sheikhs to switch sides.
The ensuing Surge likewise resulted mainly from leadership improvements. The Americans and Iraqis employed the same clear and hold approach in 2007 as in prior years, and many American units continued to clear while most Iraqis continued their attempts to hold. The new senior American commander, General David Petraeus, increased the overall quality of the leadership committed to population security, by assigning more American forces to the hold mission.
At the same time, the Iraqi leadership improved because of the spread of the Awakening and renewed pressure on the Iraqi government, from Petraeus and others, to sack bad leaders. To identify Iraqi leaders deserving of replacement, Petraeus spent 30 percent of his long workday with Iraqi leaders, and he studied reports from American advisers and intelligence officers. At times, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker threatened to withhold aid to particular security units in order to influence command selections. Over the course of 2007, the Iraqi government relieved a large number of army commanders, some as high as division commanders, along with seven of nine National Police brigade commanders and more than 2,000 Interior Ministry personnel.
Finding adequate replacements proved most difficult of all. The firings, in combination with ongoing force expansion, created a demand for mid-level officers that could not be met even with the addition of Saddam-era officers via the Awakening. Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command, remarked in June 2007, “We’ve been growing young second lieutenants through the military academies for about three years, but it’s really difficult to grow majors, lieutenant colonels and brigadier generals. It simply can’t be done overnight.”
Iraqi performance, therefore, remained spotty throughout the surge. As Brigadier General Terry Wolff, commander of the coalition military training and assistance mission, noted, “the quality and readiness of Iraqi army units varies widely, and the difference usually comes down to leadership…. We’ve seen that good Iraqi leaders have good units and bad ones don’t, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the fact that the Iraqi army is short of midcareer officers and NCOs.”
In Afghanistan, turning back the insurgents will require major changes in leadership just as it did in Iraq. Like the Iraqi government, Hamid Karzai’s government lacks the mid-level and junior leaders required for success, so American leaders will have to fill the leadership gap. That means assigning more American forces to the mission of population security and enabling more American officers to provide guidance to Afghan forces, either as advisers or as commanders of American partner units.
For that reason, more than any other, the United States needs to deploy tens of thousands of additional Americans to Afghanistan as General McChrystal has recommended. Because Afghanistan has a much larger rural population than Iraq and has fewer seasoned army and police leaders, counterinsurgency is more difficult in Afghanistan today than it was in Iraq in 2007. But, as General Petraeus said concerning Iraq, difficult does not mean impossible.

NRO has posted John Miller’s interview with Professor Moyar about A Question of Command here.


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