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A piece of Anthropology: local structures of power and COIN in Iraq

COIN, guerre en Irak, in english too, Pays de l'insolence, sciences politiques 0 commentaire »

Note: this is a translation of a previous entry regarding this post.

This subject is capital, not only within the framework of the counterinsurgency, but also in my study on the procedures to rebuild safety in Iraq.

First : it is important because the counterinsurgency, except the “ Roman” methods , requests to know the social structures. Sociology is thus a major element in the “cartography” of the “human terrain”, to which is added the political anthropology since it is a question of understanding the “actions aiming at the maintenance or the modification of the established order « , through the political institutions (of power) which are places “of emergence of confronted and faced social dynamics  » (two quotations from Georges BALLANDIER). Indeed, the counterinsurgents must not only determine the conditions which will enable them to separate the insurgents from the populace, but also those which will allow the re-establishment of safety, in a “bottom-up” process . Of course, the insurgents work in the same way, through the population (in addition to the Western and, here, Arabic/Moslem public opinions), to annihilate every progress in this direction.

Second : in Iraq, the attempts of the American officers on the ground to contact local leaders and empower them in the reconstruction process started early. Since 2003, the Marines in TIKRIT then in the Shia South, the various units present at Fallujah , tied contacts and tried to reconstitute the networks to be able so as to identify the “leaders”. Another alternative aimed at constituting local councils (on the level of the cities or communities of inhabitants but also of the provinces) so as to rebuild the State starting from the base. The most famous example , but it is far from being alone, was that of general PETRAEUS in MOSUL (April-December 2003).

However, these attempts largely failed or did not last. It seems to to me that the post referred to above, like my studies of political anthropology, provide the reasons of this failure.

  1. the first holds in identification of the holders of local power. However, in numerous societies, they are not visible, that is to say for reasons of protection of the community, or because of the complexity of the competition for such power. A gold rule: all that wears a long white beard is not not inevitably the leader and especially, not inevitably the real one. That explains how candidates to power have sometimes fooled Americans in order to obtain their support in the internal competitions within groups (recall: solidarity between group members does not mean the absence of political conflicts for the domination of the aforesaid group). One example : the former baasists officers responsible for the “Brigade of Fallujah  » failed to affirm face Abu Musab Al Zarqawi during the summer 2004. The error made by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’ s staff was to empower such personalities who did not represent a real authority but who aimed to conquer it.
  2. The second holds in the ethnocentric vision which governed the cartography of the Iraqi tribal societies by the Americans. The concept of « social network » cannot account for the complexity, not only of alliances but also of the real relations (which wants what? Who dominates who? Who is in competition with which?) So if it were precociously possible to determine, inside insurgents networks, the responsibilities for principal chiefs (financier, bomb disposal expert, supplier of weapons, etc), it was not in the same way for the local societies. If insurgent organizations and terrorists can enter such a cybernetics scheme, it is not the same for the patchwork of tribes, families, etc
  3. Third is related to Time factor, and in particular to the adjustment of insurgents’ tactics vis a vis Coalition forces. In particular, campaigns of murder and intimidation clearly made clear to the sheiks (especially Sunnite) that it became necessary to form an alliance with insurgents and terrorists.
  4. the fourth corresponds to the need for tightening the cultural nuances by the counterinsurgent (and especially regarding customs and Tradition). This is crucial to avoid critical errors that can harm nascent relationships but also to correctly identify power relations within and between groups.

(Picture: Paul McLeary)

Which are thus the current issues of this “bottom-up Iraqisation ” one can observe since late 2006?

Indeed, the movement of the “Anbar Awakening  » as well as the programs aiming to the constitution of local militia share a common process: starting from local structures to create safety and then to restore the socioeconomic relations. (Their difference: the “Awakening” is a movement where demands of the local sheiks for security and American procedures in the field progressively combined each other , whereas the militia were produced by an incentive by the Americans to integrate the former in the fight for local security in such areas like DIYALA Province and the Southern « Belts »). It is thus a turning point compared to the initial focus on State Building by a « top-down » process which operated through the creation of national armed forces including all the components of Iraq’s society. Another factor is that the Americans acquired a more intuitive knowledge of the local societies (what seems much easier in Iraq than in Afghanistan), helped in that by some embedded anthropologists and ethnologists.


(Picture from TF MARNE)

However, this process finds several limits which are related to anthropological considerations:

  • one can postulate that the Americans appears to locals’ eyes as mitigating the influence of the central government. However, the American strategy, which accepted the risk posed by this « bottom-up iraqisation » (an obstacle to the constitution of a legitimate and strong central government), consists to precisely promote this government. Hence the difficulty and the misperceptions which they meet sometimes in communities where years of insecurity produced insulation and self-reliance.
  • the rebuilding of security by this « bottom-up » process could be a necessity, but in a complex ethnic and sociopolitical situation , it can be particularly risky for the future. Indeed, and one can see it in MOSUL (as it was the case in TAL AFAR) by the difficulties of recruiting militia, the counterinsurgents- and much more if he is a foreigner- has to make difficult choices which can dismiss groups and individuals and promote other . This strategy can result in futures competitions. One can certainly reassure oneself in thinking that these competitions would exist nevertheless, but it is necessary to recognize that brutal changes that occurred in the Iraqi society for 50 years (and more still since 2003) have increased their probability and virulence.

This strategy of « bottom-up iraqisation » is thus a risky choice to make. It is not new: Army in Philippines, Marines during Banana Wars, the Special Forces in El Salvador already tried it. This last example informs us on the following process : after having formed paramilitary groups starting from the local populace, the Special Forces had then integrated gradually these « popular force » within the national army forces. In the case of the militias in Iraq, the procedures are becoming more and more complex:

  • some elements will integrate the Army and the Police force on physical ability
  • others will receive a vocational education aiming at diminishing unemployment level of the young men and to facilitate the reintegration of former insurgents.
  • the heart of the militia (I point out that their manpower goes to 88.000 members) seems to have to remain under American control more longer. Indeed, although not receiving weapons on behalf of the latter (in spite of the continual requests by CLC/SoI members), militias are paid by the US taxpayer…. There is no doubt that this ultimate refinement is a problematic one. Can one thus conducting a counterinsurgency (or prevent a civil war) by such “an economy of Force”? Which insurance can one have that these militia do not prepare a future civil war ? Anthropology can provide an answer: it will depend on the capacity of Americans to use these alliances at their own advantage, i.e. by determining the social configurations and the « center of gravity » of each group.

bonus: the complexity of tribes in Diyala (click to enlarge)

  • Major DIYALA Tribes

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) in COIN

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Intelligence is a crucial issue in COIN because it provides the way to hit insurgency with precision raids and to sever its links with local populace.

What is largely ignored in the Iraq’s COIN Campaign of the last year is the use of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). Provided by embedded teams of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), data have proved valuable both in the « clear » phase of the campaign and the actual « build » phase since the recent shift of MultiNational Division North and MultiNational Division Center to reconstruction and assistance missions.

The latter area of operations has seen NGA’s teams working with Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) collecting data to map rural and urban areas where TF MARNE’s Units operated. Indeed, most of theses villages and small communities have not seen sustained Coalition presence for years.

More accurately, GEOINT’s role in COIN can be depicted as a powerful analysis and collaborative tool to identify trends in insurgent activity, both by mapping significant acts (SIGACTS) and by locating weapons caches or IED factories. By the medium of geographical map and graphics, GEOINT has been of great use to assess progress and to locate the various waypoints needed to achieve lines of operations/lines of efforts. On the tactical level, geospatial imagery analysis allowed MND-C units to target insurgents that were trying to hide with an accurate precision.

Furthermore, on the stabilization side of insurgency, GEOINT can be useful in depicting and monitoring the current state of soils for agricultural purpose and the status of various network (especially irrigation) as well.

GEOINT can be considered as the technological counterpart of political anthropology because it helps counter-insurgents to link physical terrain and human terrain.

SITREP updates

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I’d like to recommend two briefings by senior MNF-I officers

  1. A DoD Bloggers Roundtable with colonel BACON about foreign fighters networks in Iraq through intelligence gained by debriefing 48 foreign fighters.
  2. An interview of LTG DOHY, Iraqi Army Training and Doctrine, and Brigadier Johnny TORRENS-SPENCE, deputy commander, MultiNational Security Transition Command-Iraq who provide an assessment regarding the Training of IA.

Nouveaux Blogs

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Je porte à l’attention de mes lecteurs deux nouveaux blogs (en anglais malheureusement):

  • le blog du Insurgency Research Group lié au King’s War College de Londres. Il est passionnant (et tout jeune!). Je signale par exemple un article produit par le groupe et le Dr David BETZ sur la face « virtuelle » de l’insurrection et de la contre-insurrection. Il argumente notamment sur la nécessité de mieux penser la confrontation des idées avec le Jihad global afin d’éviter que ne se réalise le « choc des civilisations ». Parmi les éléments essentiels, je retiens l’idée de la « narration stratégique » comme lien nécessaire entre la « narration eschatologique » (que voulons-nous pour le monde et les sociétés humaines?) et les « narrations individuelles ».
  • le blog Ghosts of Alexander parle surtout de l’Afghanistan. Son auteur est particulièrement renseigné sur le sujet, particulièrement pour les éléments anthropologiques. Qui plus est, étant dans la phase « recherche » de son Doctorat, il ne peut que plaire à votre serviteur, qui sait combien tout ceci demande du temps et de l’énergie, d’autant que nous avons à lutter contre les narrations des médias mais aussi à défaire les liens tissés dans les narrations dominantes, y compris parfois dans notre propre famille de pensée.

J’encourage donc mes lecteurs (surtout si ils lisent l’anglais) à se documenter dans ces deux excellents blogs de niveau académique. Je crois sincèrement à cette idée que la connaissance des faits et la constitution de narrations alternatives ne sont pas simplement des enjeux politiques mais, au-delà, anthropologiques et psychologiques. Je redis encore une fois que ce parti-pris « critique » (sur le plan de l’épistémologie) ne conduit pas nécessairement au relativisme et au refus de toute Vérité. Simplement, il éclaire d’un jour nouveau la manière dont nous nous racontons le monde.

Did US Military Get COIN?

COIN, guerre en Irak, histoire militaire, in english too 2 commentaires »

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.

Méditation: lecture de la campagne de 2007 (for english reader too)

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Je voudrais une dernière fois proposer une lecture de la campagne de 2007 en Irak via l’approche par les effets stratégiques, les effets majeurs et l’idée de manoeuvre. I will provide an english translation infra.

Effet stratégique recherché:

Stabiliser l’Irak et poursuivre la normalisation de la vie politique, économique et sociale en conservant un Etat unitaire.

Effet majeur au niveau du théâtre:

Abaisser le le niveau de violence/ »protéger la population »

Idée de manœuvre:

A cet effet:

-détruire/neutraliser les groupes extrémistes en ciblant leurs chefs, en rompant leurs réseaux et en leur déniant tout espace de manoeuvre

-retourner/coopter les groupes plus modérés par la dissuasion et la négociation (« Réveil » Anbar, programmes CLC/SoI, cessez-le-feu des milices Sadristes JAM)

-extirper les racines de la violence par des actions d’assistance et de reconstruction (State Building)

Plan de campagne (niveau MNC-I):

Combiner les approches en lignes d’opérations/lignes d’effort sur la sécurité, la gouvernance, l’économie, les Services Essentiels, les informations sur les opérations et la Réforme du Secteur de la Sécurité par l’intégration civilo-militaire.

Inscription chronologique et géographique:

  1. Sécuriser BAGDAD: Plan de Sécurité de Bagdad (décembre 2006-Avril 2007), bataille des Ceintures (juin-juillet 2007)
  2. S’emparer du Triangle Sunnite: Opération Phantom Thunder (15 juin-13 août)
  3. Cibler les extrémistes (AQI et « groupes spéciaux » pro-iraniens, membres des JAM): opération Phantom Strike (13 août-8 janvier)
  4. Sécuriser les métropoles principales et les zones peuplées: opération Phantom Phoenix (8 janvier-?)

Bien entendu, il faut découper ses opérations en sous-opérations dans chaque Division Multinationale.

Au niveau tactique:

Utiliser conjointement les modes de coercition et de maîtrise de la violence dans le but d’un contrôle continu du milieu.

The 2007 Campaign: a theoretical grid

Strategic effect:

To Stabilize Iraq in order to normalize political, economical and social life while building an unitary state

Major Effect:

To drop the level of violence/To secure the population


-destroy/neutralize extremists groups (AQI, « Special Groups ») by targeting their leaders, disrupting their network and denying them freedom of action

co-opt/dissuade moderate insurgents by engaging and negotiating with tribal leaders and empowering them

remove the roots of violence by assistance and reconstruction actions

Operational Art (MNC-I):

To combine logical lines of operations/lines of effort for Security/Governance/Economy/Essential Services/Information Operation/Security Sector Reform (SSR) through integration of military and non-military agencies


  1. To Secure BAGDAD: Baghdad Security Plan (from December 2006 to April 2007), Battle of the « Belts » (June-July 2007)
  2. To take control of the Sunni Triangle: operation Phantom Thunder (June 15-August 13)
  3. Target extremist groups, their cell and leaders: operation Phantom Strike (August-January)
  4. To secure the main cities and populated areas: operation Phantom Phoenix (since January)

Tactical Level and Procedures:

To use both coercion and Mastering of Violence in order to monitor occupied areas on the long term