The Promise of COIN, the Pitfalls of Iraq

Without getting into speculating about whether the U.S.-Iraqi SOFA deal will get done or not, the fact that the main sticking point is Iraq’s demand for jurisdiction over American soldiers off their bases is telling. Here’s Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi in McClatchy:

“The impression of the Iraqi people is that American troops from time to time exaggerate their reactions, use excessive force and irresponsible behavior,” Hashimi said. “We would like to put an end to that. When this happens in the future there must be prosecution of those who are exceeding the limit of the authorities given to them.”

This is, in effect, one of the lingering costs of the initial failures in post-invasion Iraq, and an illustration of the ways in which some damage just can’t be undone. The Surge (by which I mean the “narrative” of the Surge) has had a major impact on the Stateside image of America’s presence in Iraq. What’s more, either Gen. David Petraeus has managed to seriously rein in the Blackwater cowboys, or else to seriously rein in the press’ coverage of them, because I haven’t seen any OK Corral-type stories for a long time.

The Iraq-side image of America’s presence in Iraq, on the other hand, does not seem to be as benign. I haven’t seen any polling about Iraqi perceptions, but the Iraqi government’s negotiating position, to say nothing of the Iraqi parliament’s reported hostility to it, suggests that notwithstanding the COIN approach that puts an emphasis on winning the population’s allegiance, there is still quite a bit of distrust and resentment of American forces. Which means not so much that the COIN-based Surge was too little, too late, so much as nothing would have been enough.

As Jack Kem’s WPR feature article on the Army’s new Stability Operations manual makes clear, the Army has learned from its mistakes, which were doctrinally determined. If there’s one silver lining perhaps to the Iraq War, it’s that it has forced American military doctrine to recognize and codify the fact that contemporary warfare must only be as destructive as is absolutely necessary to defeat the enemy, and not one bit more.

It’s an incredible evolution in the American conception of warfighting. Hopefully we can avoid the temptation to believe that even that amount of destruction is tolerable in any but the most urgent of cases. In practice, COIN and Stability Ops doctrine might represent the Holy Grail of warfare, depicting an idealized conflict zone where violence is reduced to a minimum until it ultimately fades away. But in theory, it represents a victory for rational humanism. The fact that this realization comes from within the military is all the more noteworthy.