THE BLOG
08/18/2007 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Counterinsurgency for Dummies -- and Chickenhawks

"We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon wrote in their now famous July 30, 2007, New York Times opinion piece.

"Today, morale is high," they continued. They spent all of eight days in country.

The writers, former Iraq war supporters turned quasicritics, took in the sights of Tal Afar, Mosul, Baghdad, and Ramadi. They share no information about how they managed to crisscross wartorn Iraq, nothing about the US combat power that would have been diverted to protect them on their walkabouts in places like Ramadi, where "last week we strolled down its streets without body armor," they write.

Blogger Glenn Greenwald later elicited details from O'Hanlon about their Iraq summer vacation.

"What was the longest you stayed in any one place?" Greenwald asked O'Hanlon.

"Well, we spent each evening in Baghdad," O' Hanlon replied, "and we spent a number of days in Baghdad talking to different people.... Most of the other places we were anywhere from 2-4 hours." Two to four hours. That's a detail worth mentioning when making grand strategic assessments about a place as volatile as Iraq.

Arch conservative William Kristol also sang the surge's praises recently in Time after his own quickie junket. "I spent a week in Iraq recently," William Kristol writes in an August 9 piece, "and here's what impressed me most: the Americans."

"Now that Petraeus and Odierno are pursuing a real counterinsurgency strategy," Kristol continued, "their subordinate commanders and officers are spending a lot of time engaging the local population in security, political and economic efforts."

To create the illusion of progress in Iraq, Pollack, O'Hanlon, Kristol, and other surge promoters extrapolate from mere snapshots. Perhaps more ominously, and irresponsibly, they ignore abundant evidence that the surge isn't working, and that it isn't a holistic strategy, as Kristol asserts, but simply a grab-bag of localized and expedient quick fixes.

Their arguments are tendentious and fundamentally inhumane. Their words are also extremely seductive. They permit us - we Americans - to ignore the consequences of our government's actions in Iraq for just a little bit longer. And I'm afraid, truly afraid, that such tracts are but the first wave in a stay-the-course propaganda onslaught timed to peak with the release of the September status report by US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, US military commander in Iraq.

As someone who has spent a lot of time with US combat troops in Iraq, this new wave of occupation boosterism is deeply troubling. Sickening, actually. I embedded three times in Iraq with 1st Battalion/2d Marine Regiment, a infantry unit from Camp Lejeune, NC, each time for about a month, between 2004 and 2006. I promised the grunts and their families that I would tell their stories straight, but I also committed to reporting what I witnessed - good, bad, and ugly.

One barely needs to scratch the surge boosters' shiny and thin arguments to reveal the ugly and indelible facts beneath. Eighty-six US troops died in Iraq in July 2007, 72 in combat-related incidents, from Private First Class John Rossi on July 1, killed in a "small arms fire attack" in Baghdad, to Specialist Daniel Reyes, who died in an "indirect fire attack" on July 31, in Tunis, Iraq.

According to the website Icasualties.org, which collects information on attacks and casualties in Iraq from news accounts, 1458 Iraqi civilians were killed or discovered dead in July. Pollack and O'Hanlon don't mention this. They do say that their military minders told them that "civilian fatality rates are down a third since the surge began," an interesting statement, since the US military told me repeatedly that it doesn't routinely tabulate - or release - civilian death tolls. File a Freedom of Information Act request with US Central Command and tell me what you get.

The US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction stated in the latest quarterly report, July 2007, that "security problems in Iraq posed a continuing danger for reconstruction staff, management, and contractors."

"Attacks on the International Zone have grown more frequent and more deadly during this quarter." The Green Zone, aka the IZ, is the most heavily fortified piece of real estate in Iraq, and yet attacks are on the rise.

And the much-vaunted reconstruction effort? In April, SIGIR noted that "continuing issues in security, infrastructure degradation, management, capacity development and sustainment have thwarted attainment of the approximate sector goals in oil and gas, electricity, and water systems as well as healthcare and infrastructure."

SIGIR also stated that "Iraq has missed its quarterly [oil] production target every quarter since 2004."

The Government Accountability Office reported last month that 190,000 small arms the US military gave to Iraqi Security Forces are unaccounted for. That's enough to give every Marine in the Corps another gun and still have about 25,000 left over. As of July 2007, the Defense Department still hadn't specified what accountability procedures, if any, are in place for the US military's weapons transfer program. So now it's anybody's guess who has these guns. How many are being used to shoot US troops and Iraqi civilians? How many are being cached for future attacks by anti-US forces or sectarian gunmen?

An enormous portion of the Iraqi population is dead. The most authoritative study, by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and published in The Lancet almost a year ago, reported that "as many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions." This is in a country of around 25 million. It works out to almost three percent of the population. Dead. Millions are displaced or gone, in Syria and Jordan, among them many of the brightest who could help rebuild Iraq - doctors, engineers, teachers.

Brian Mockenhaupt, a former US Army sergeant who served in Iraq, recently spent quality time in-country as a civilian reporting for Esquire. Quality, boots-on-the-ground time, not a drivethru like the pundit-hawks. Mockenhaupt spoke with colonels and generals just like Pollack, O'Hanlon, and Kristol, but he also visited and patrolled with the sergeants, privates first class, and specialists, the folks who are actually executing this surge.

Pollack and O'Hanlon pronounced the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad a qualified surge success. Mockenhaupt does too. Violence there has dropped significantly. But Mockenhaupt tells us why: the US built an 8.5-mile wall around the community. That's not a model for security and stability throughout the country. That's an unsustainable lockdown.

"If you're outside the concrete fortifications," Mockenhaupt continues in his Esquire piece, "then you understand that the surge is but a dust mote in a maelstrom, a tiny island in a raging river."

Although Bill Kristol hails the surge as a triumph of "counterinsurgency strategy" in his Time piece, genuine experts say it's anything but "strategy." Counterinsurgency, or "coin" in military speak, is holistic. What's happening in Iraq is anything but.

"Military efforts are necessary and important to counterinsurgency efforts, but they are only effective when integrated into a comprehensive strategy employing all instruments of national power," says FM 3-24, the US military's handbook for counterinsurgency.

Petraeus co-wrote FM 3-24 with USMC Lt. General James Amos. But for all his wisdom and experience - Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division during and after the invasion, and by all accounts did good works as the military ruler of Mosul - the general is simply borrowing bits and pieces from his own counterinsurgency doctrine because there's no overarching strategy from the administration, no comprehensive understanding of the enemy, and not enough trained personnel to execute all the tasks on our plate. Moreover, too many brutal mistakes have been made to make up for them now.

Instead of planning and strategy on a national, regional, and global level, we surge troops to Baghdad and Anbar, shortchange other places like Diyala; then send troops to Diyala when that province blows up; throw up a wall here, a temporary base there; allow combatant commanders to cut deals with Sunni sheikhs here, Shia leaders there. This is the definition of ad hoc, of tactical and operational free-styling, not strategy.

Retired USMC Colonel Thomas X. Hammes says the doctrine enshrined in FM 3-24, should have been put in place long before the 2003 invasion - and with the resources to back it. But it wasn't. He should know: he wrote "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century Warfare," a widely quoted - and read - treatise on the type of warfare we are seeing in Iraq, variously called "asymmetric" or "fourth-generation".

"I haven't talked to one person who knows anything about counterinsurgency who knows what it's supposed to accomplish other than get more young Americans and young Iraqis killed. It's almost immoral," he told me just days after the administration announced the "surge".

"Soldiers die in war, and most I know are ready to make that sacrifice. I was," Mockenhaupt writes. "And I still would today. But not when my chances of success are so seriously diminished by arrogance, delusion, a reliance on best-case scenarios, and a shocking degree of wishful thinking."

Eventually, facts will speak louder than words, louder than the propaganda of war boosters like Pollack, O'Hanlon, and Kristol, whose work rests on scant boots-on-the-ground experience, a stunning indifference to human suffering, and the presumption of a divine right of do-overs for the Bush administration. The facts on the ground are clear: the US occupation of Iraq is, more than four years on, a tragic improvisation. First let's call it what is. Only then can we figure out what we must do next in order limit greater harm to ourselves and to Iraq.