Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

News Note: General Petraeus and Launching a Counterinsurgency Strategy in Iraq

Posted by K.E. White on March 2, 2007

Lt. General PetraeusLt. General David H. Petraeus is the Bush administration’s great hope in Iraq.

But faced with limited manpower and a six month deadline, can he deliver?

But before answering this question, Petraeus’ strategic outlook must be fleshed out.

John A Tirpak investigates—and critiques—Petraeus’ conception of airpower in counter-insurgency missions in yesterday’s Air Force Magazine.

While no expert, I find it surprising that Tirpak gives no mention to Israel’s botched military operations in Lebanon last summer. Relying on the air force, Israel not only lost their campaign against Hezbollah, but saw her reputation sink to new depths with the bombing of Beirut.

Still his article provides interesting, if slanted, insight on Petraeus’ operating style.

From the article:

The strange comments about the applications of modern airpower are contained in the dead-last, five-page annex to a brand-new 335-page Army-Marine Corps combined arms doctrine on counterinsurgency (or “COIN”), co-signed by Petraeus and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James F. Amos. Field Manual 3-24 was published in December.

Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. whose dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” took on the rewrite of the counterinsurgency doctrine because the Army hadn’t updated it in more than 20 years.

As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the 2003 major combat phase of the Iraq war, he frequently told reporters that the Army was ill-prepared to fight insurgencies and failed to learn from the history of such conflicts. He left Iraq in 2005 to take up command of the US Army Combined Arms Center. In January, he was confirmed by the Senate, 81-0, for his new job in Iraq.

The views in FM 3-24 reflect a limited knowledge of airpower’s true role in the current operation and suspicion that airpower can all too easily prove counterproductive. This is all the more distressing in light of the view that Petraeus will set direction for the ongoing fight in Iraq.

The new doctrine argues that airpower is best put under control of a tactical ground commander or, at the highest level, the multinational force commander, but not an airman.

In short, counterinsurgencies don’t go too well at first. Western militaries “falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones” and fight COIN with a similar mind-set.

Militaries that are successful in beating an insurgency are those that “overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war” in doing so, Petraeus and Amos wrote.

The doctrine portrays the decision to call in air strikes as one requiring heavy deliberation, as commanders must “weigh collateral damage against the unintended consequences of taking no action.” And when summoned, air attack must be based on “timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse” to achieve the desired effects without blowing up anything unintentionally.

“Inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations,” the two ground generals wrote.

However, they acknowledged that being too cautious with airpower isn’t good, either, noting that “avoiding all risk may embolden insurgents while providing them sanctuary.”

Airpower offers advantages in collecting ISR and signals intelligence for spotting and tracking insurgents and pinpointing their positions. Helicopters—the main air asset employed by the Army—“have been especially useful in providing overwatch, fire support, alternate communications, and medevac support,” the doctrine explains.

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