As an alternative narrative, I would like to propose the following considerations.
From my (French and historian) point of view, I must consider two levels when discussing this issue:
–In the field, there’s no doubt that COIN procedures and tactics that are common today were in use in most of units in 2003/2004. Due to prior combat experiences and the necessary adaptation of force projection, many commanders at all levels intuitively understood things such as presence missions, Combat Outpost, assistance and reconstruction tasks. In fact, 2004/2005 (and even most of 2006) were « gap » years in COIN procedures because many thought their previous practices were the main cause that fueled insurgency. Of course, there were flawed postures and actions that helped produce a growing support for insurgents in the population (such as detainees abuses or a slow progress in providing Essential Services, both thus caused US Military to be viewed as an illegitimate force). But the growing insurgency was the product of other factors that historians must account. In 2004/2005, COIN was conceived on the following assumption: success deserves lesser US « visibility ». Previous procedures were partially left until late 2006. In 2003/2004, Tactical procedures did not lead to tactical successes. The reason is COIN procedures need time to achieve any successful effect. Time is a critical factor but enemy’s actions are too: having no time to implement their procedures, US actions were annihilated by constant shifts in insurgent tactics and, worse, became counterproductive. In a similar ways, military time in COIN is a schizoid one: on one way, stability and security have to be built during a very short « window of opportunity », on the other, time to develop relationships and knowledge about the AO can be much longer (e.g. when one have to meet three times with the same sheik, drinking chai with him, before even talking about necessity of change in the area). The second crucial factor is theater-level links through a coherent campaign plan that can build on security and stability gained through a « bottom-up » process. Unlike this model, divisions in 2003 were like « fingers without hand ». In 2005/2006, overall theater strategy defined by general CASEY was not able to gain momentum because it relied on a « top-down » process (recruiting, training and building Iraqi Security Forces that would have a double effect: to unite the ethnic and tribal factions in a National Army, and to relieve US Forces in place). Added to the flawed perception that previous tactical postures were profoundly bad and worsened the security situation in 2003/2004, this campaign plan didn’t let counterinsurgents to gain the initiative. So it was necessary to « clear » the same areas several times (Mosul, Fallujah). A third factor is the connection with the populace and the « situational awareness », i.e. the knowledge of social and economic framework, the personal links with the population and their leaders. Unlike British, French or Portuguese in their former colonies, Americans had to build it from nothing in Iraq. Worse, officers in the field had to overcome their biases and false information coming from flawed intelligence sources. A misperception of this critical factor led many to consider « presence actions » during OIF I as bad procedures. The key of the former and the latter factors is the legitimization of the counterinsurgent force and of its actions, so it lies in the « informational realm » of constructing coherent narratives.
So, what are the major changes in 2007/2008? An institutionalized guidance under a charismatic leader (PETRAEUS), a sophisticated combination of every lines of operations under an holistic campaign plan, more troops are several among many factors. But as important were a greater experience and a greater knowledge. 2007/2008 would certainly be considered as a « turning point » during which US Counter-insurgents achieved to get the initiative (what is the main goal of war). Historically speaking, it was a non-linear move to adapt to the particular context and to various and adaptive tactics by insurgents and terrorists. Having gained Time/Experience and sufficient forces to build security and stability, US Forces were able to pressure their enemies, holding them off-balance and compelling some to surrender or to die. Furthermore, they began to promote governance, to build economic stability and essential services as they did in 2003/2004. But this time, without great disturbance from insurgents, and with greater popular support from Iraqis that are tired of sectarian violence and terrorist extremism.
-The second level is the institutional realm of organizational culture, doctrine conception and bureaucratic challenges. The question of whether US Military (and especially the Army) has already get the « COIN mission » lies here today. Since as far as 2003, US soldiers and Marines tried to incorporate their experiences from Iraq in their training, formation and TACSOP. They did it by informal means (such as CAVNET, or even deployment training by generals MATTIS and AUSTIN during the Winter 2003/2004, or colonel McMASTER in the following summer and winter) and by formal ones (lessons learned, reforms in the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College, creation of cultural center, and so on). When former procedures were emphasized in late 2006 anew, soldiers and Marines were ready to apply them as official and well-known TTP.
But, at various levels in the institutions, some brought into question the conversion to COIN and the willingness to transform to incorporate all lessons learned in the long term. Procurement programs, professional education curriculum, and paths of promotion all seem to match with Paul YINGLING’s assertions. Nevertheless, intellectual debates raged through professional reviews like Military Review and the Marine Corps Gazette (a closer look at their annual indexes taught me that it was the case as soon as 2004 for the former and 2005 for the latter). Looking for an historical model, digging in the past western experiences to find principles and practices, a lot of practitioners and analysts participated through articles, monographs and blogs. Some of the examples that were analyzed turned us to the US Military’s past (Philippines) or to foreign models (British in Malaysia and French in Algeria). Some « COIN gurus » of the past were resurrected by contemporary COIN-fan: Lawrence of Arabia, Robert Thompson, David Galula, Roger Trinquier, and so on. David Galula soon earned a strong reputation of « master counterinsurgent ». Through his medium, US COIN Doctrine acquired a « Maoist » flavor that runs counter to its cultural biases and bases concerning unconventional warfare. It soon began to be evident that this new Doctrine would become the icon of change after its instigator, general PETRAEUS, was named to be the successor of general CASEY as top US Commander in Iraq.
Organizational Theories in Social Sciences assert that military institutions are conservative by nature, due to their tendency to rely on routine and the defense of their core missions, both for bureaucratic interests and cultural biases. In such a view, US Army would fuel many resistance to admit COIN mission which is very far from the « great war » paradigm. But coalitions and influential individuals can induce change to introduce new missions and role or to integrate them in the most traditional core of existing role and mission. To succeed, theses coalitions/networks have to institutionalize change. Recent Doctrine publications are congruent with this view. But this is a protracted effort to legitimize the new mission. These political competitions about institutional identity (as well as for the members’ identity) can have many forms. That is what I observe today in the Army. (In USMC, I observe something slightly different: how to integrate COIN in emerging concepts?) Another potential factor of resistance lies in the constant reluctance by US Military to do « interventionists » contingencies (like in SOMALIA, KOSOVO and HAÏTI). It can be explained through the prism of organizational model: both bureaucratic interests and identity issues after Vietnam led the US Army to rely more on technical tools (what can be called « technology », i.e. a discourse on technic) and less on « boots on the ground » and consequently discarded such humanitarian or stabilization operations. Contrary to this assertion is the fact that « interim Force » program considered the need to build dismounted capacities for the IBCT (with more snipers and mortar teams than anti-tank teams). « Transformation », despite its technological flavor, was far more in support of presence and proximity tactics than one could think.
But, COIN has no principles. In my mind, it’s the contrary, and that can explains this narrative. COIN is « context-driven », so most of the procedures that seem to succeed now come from the field and were implemented at the beginning by many officer and leaders. COIN, as a mission, is a contingent phenomenon. It relies on doctrine, formation and training, tactical procedures that integrates technology, social skills and knowledge as well as situational awareness and leader’s initiatives. It cannot be deduced from principles but rather from a progressive and close intimacy with the social and psychological terrain, both local and of own units. last but not least, remember that today’s insurgencies are not like past insurgencies, as a result of which counterinsurgency can’t simply apply « lessons learned » from History without any harm.
I’d like to conclude by linking operational and institutional issues by the following consideration: it’s crucial both to recognize the true kind of conflict the military has to face (unlike April-July 2003), and to avoid any flawed conception of COIN ops (unlike 2004/2006 when MNF-I focused on building Iraqi Army and diminishing US Presence) or, to say it better, flawed conception of the metrics of success (violence statistics mean nothing in themselves). More important, one must avoid to develop a standardized vision of what are the principles in COIN/Stabilization complex contingencies. In speaking about military forces in COIN, one must consider the adequacy between the use and the utility. In other words, one must consider CLAUSEWITZ’s view of War as Politics by other means (which never meant that War was a « pause » of Politics but that War must achieve political goals). Providing food, training security forces, assaulting safe havens, speaking to local populace or to the media belong to the same « grammar ». More: conventional tactics and guerilla tactics, even if procedures are different, use the same « grammar » and « logic » too: the key is to be able to « flip » from one form to the other and to implement tactical and strategic choices by strong narratives.