This week’s events in Iraq are a jarring reminder of just how hard it is totally defeat an insurgency.
As the American war effort sputtered in the middle of the last decade, the U.S. military succeeded in getting Sunni tribal militias to effectively switch sides in the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq. That, along with the troop “surge” and the emergence of U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine, seemed to result in a strategy capable of nearly wiping out Iraq’s brutal Al Qaeda franchise.
It seemed like a model counter-insurgency effort — proof that it’s possible to defeat a terrorist guerrilla movement without resorting to indiscriminate violence against the civilian population.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIS) gains over the past week cast doubt on the sustainability of that accomplishment. The victory over Al Qaeda in Iraq now looks temporary, even illusory. So what does a victory over an insurgency really look like — and is such a thing even possible?
The U.S. Army’s 2009 update to its counterinsurgency manual, officially titled Tactics in Counterinsurgency, had some answers of its own.
Simply, defeating a “counterinsurgency” means leaving a government that’s capable of standing on its own, and taking hold as the country’s legitimate source of power.
“The end state of counterinsurgency operations is a legitimate Host Nation government that can provide effective governance,” the manual states. “This includes providing for their populace, eliminating the root causes of the insurgency and preventing those root causes from returning. Counterinsurgent operations can successfully defeat an insurgency; achieve unity of effort along multiple lines of effort; isolate the insurgent from the people; and increase the legitimacy of the Host Nation government.”
Here’s what the process looks like, in graphic form:
A country starts out with a population a majority of which either supports or passively tolerates the insurgency. Through seven “lines of effort” on the part of counter-insurgents, they switch sides, bringing the country to its desired “end state.”
Each “line of effort” has its own desired sub-“end state” with its own set of very specific conditions, as this chart shows:
So defeating an insurgency is a far-from-simple 42-step process.
And by the counterinsurgency manual’s standards, the U.S. wasn’t successful in Iraq in the long run. Iraq isn’t safe, secure, or stable at the moment. Baghdad does require external support — from Iran, no less. And rule of law is so weak in Iraq that much of the uniformed security forces fled Mosul as ISIS approached the city last week.
The U.S. mission met many of these “end state” conditions when American troops left Iraq in 2011. But even a textbook example of American counterinsurgency doctrine couldn’t hold that “end state” for long.