The Debate

The Bloody Audit of Iraq

Recent Features

The Debate

The Bloody Audit of Iraq

Despite debate on Iraq’s future, it carries important counterinsurgency lessons. A new book draws some interesting conclusions.

Ten years after the beginning of the Iraq war, and reminiscent of the years following the Vietnam war, many are chanting the slogan “never again.” We must avoid multi-trillion dollar, protracted state-building experiments unless our core national security interests are threatened: survival, economic vitality and global leadership.

However, given that international terrorist organizations can – and have – threatened our livelihood, the United States can’t wish away counterinsurgency. Yet, we must be smart about it: rely on local partners when we can, and engage directly in large numbers only as a last resort.

As the post-9/11 conflicts wind down abroad and America begins to focus on nation-building at home, it is imperative that we honestly reflect on Iraq. This requires us to go beyond the usual dichotomous view whereby supporters of the war argue that Iraq is a stable oil-producing burgeoning multiethnic democracy with a soft spot for Uncle Sam; and critics chide the Bush administration for creating an Iranian client state. Despite the debate on Iraq’s unclear future, it carries important counterinsurgency lessons.

Richard Shultz’s new book, The Marines Take Anbar: The Four Year Fight Against Al Qaeda, on Marines in Iraq’s Anbar province is an excellent reflection from a longtime American national security expert. Shultz presents a rigorous study of when, why and how Marines created calm in the midst of chaos by focusing on protecting the population through a potent combination of brute force, cultural acumen, and information asymmetry. Luck also played a major role as did other elements outside of Anbar and Iraq. Yet U.S. Marines, nimble and adaptive, stayed true to their history and made remarkable strides to become the backbone of the ‘surge.’

Shultz discusses three distinct periods of learning for the Marines: the lack of post-war planning and the rise of the insurgency in 2004; the apex of the insurgency in 2005 and the eventual adoption of effective counterinsurgency 2007. In the first phase the Marines only aided the insurgency by relying on force without smart intelligence or local partners. Yet even when they leveraged the human terrain by respecting and protecting the local population violence still shot up before it went down. Insurgents did their own after-action-reviews, innovated their weapons and applied religious and ethnic demagoguery. Still, many insurgents attacks were thwarted, many innovations failed, and many insurgents were divided on local and national goals: local tribal disputes, cooperation with Al Qaeda, sectarian battles and national liberation. Marines were adaptive but were partially reliant on the slow moving mountain of the U.S. military. In the end, like most successful counterinsurgents, U.S. Marines learned the most from the bloody audit of battle.  

Shultz highlights several lessons from Anbar for U.S. and allied militaries engaging in counterinsurgencies. In general, Shultz argues that 21st century insurgent groups are diverse nebulous syndicates; both united and fractured, innovative and archaic, criminal and devout and ideological and profit-seeking. The trick is to identify this moving target, capture when you can, and shoot when you must. The age old dictum of knowing your enemy still applies, but it’s easier said than done. Cultural understanding is essential for effective intelligence-driven police actions. Even after two wars that immersed thousands of U.S. troops and diplomats in foreign cultures, there is a dearth of cultural, religious and linguistic training. Many who have succeeded in engaging the local population, like the Marines in Anbar, learned on the job. 

Shultz book does an excellent job of highlighting successful counterinsurgency approaches: engaging the local population, improving intelligence, and exploiting inter-insurgent group cleavages. The book, however, is wanting on describing the insurgent side of the equation. How did the insurgent strategy evolve? What were the strengths and weaknesses of insurgent propaganda, recruitment, training, and financing? What were their counter-intelligence capabilities and how did they exploit the cultural ignorance of the Marines? Such questions are vital to understand the panoply of factors that brought Iraq back from the abyss. 

Shultz concludes by stating, “…in counterinsurgency warfare, as with its conventional counterpart, the only constant is that the unexpected will always be present in the fight.” Despite its importance, Iraq is but one important case study, and the lessons from it are not a panacea for all future counterinsurgencies. 

Haider Ali Hussein Mullick (@haidermullick) is a lecturer at the Naval Post Graduate School (LDESP) and Provost Fellow at the Tufts University. His website is