Revealed: a new counter-insurgency strategy to carve up the city into sealed areas. The tactic failed in Vietnam. So what chance does it have in Iraq?
Published: 11 April 2007
Faced with an ever-more ruthless insurgency in Baghdad - despite President George Bush's "surge" in troops - US forces in the city are now planning a massive and highly controversial counter-insurgency operation that will seal off vast areas of the city, enclosing whole neighbourhoods with barricades and allowing only Iraqis with newly issued ID cards to enter.
The campaign of "gated communities" - whose genesis was in the Vietnam War - will involve up to 30 of the city's 89 official districts and will be the most ambitious counter-insurgency programme yet mounted by the US in Iraq.
The system has been used - and has spectacularly failed - in the past, and its inauguration in Iraq is as much a sign of American desperation at the country's continued descent into civil conflict as it is of US determination to "win" the war against an Iraqi insurgency that has cost the lives of more than 3,200 American troops. The system of "gating" areas under foreign occupation failed during the French war against FLN insurgents in Algeria and again during the American war in Vietnam. Israel has employed similar practices during its occupation of Palestinian territory - again, with little success.
But the campaign has far wider military ambitions than the pacification of Baghdad. It now appears that the US military intends to place as many as five mechanised brigades - comprising about 40,000 men - south and east of Baghdad, at least three of them positioned between the capital and the Iranian border. This would present Iran with a powerful - and potentially aggressive - American military force close to its border in the event of a US or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities later this year.
The latest "security" plan, of which The Independent has learnt the details, was concocted by General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Baghdad, during a six-month command and staff course at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Those attending the course - American army generals serving in Iraq and top officers from the US Marine Corps, along with, according to some reports, at least four senior Israeli officers - participated in a series of debates to determine how best to "turn round" the disastrous war in Iraq.
The initial emphasis of the new American plan will be placed on securing Baghdad market places and predominantly Shia Muslim areas. Arrests of men of military age will be substantial. The ID card project is based upon a system adopted in the city of Tal Afar by General Petraeus's men - and specifically by Colonel H R McMaster, of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment - in early 2005, when an eight-foot "berm" was built around the town to prevent the movement of gunmen and weapons. General Petraeus regarded the campaign as a success although Tal Afar, close to the Syrian border, has since fallen back into insurgent control.
So far, the Baghdad campaign has involved only the creation of a few US positions within several civilian areas of the city but the new project will involve joint American and Iraqi "support bases" in nine of the 30 districts to be "gated" off. From these bases - in fortified buildings - US-Iraqi forces will supposedly clear militias from civilian streets which will then be walled off and the occupants issued with ID cards. Only the occupants will be allowed into these "gated communities" and there will be continuous patrolling by US-Iraqi forces. There are likely to be pass systems, "visitor" registration and restrictions on movement outside the "gated communities". Civilians may find themselves inside a "controlled population" prison.
In theory, US forces can then concentrate on providing physical reconstruction in what the military like to call a "secure environment". But insurgents are not foreigners, despite the presence of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. They come from the same population centres that will be "gated" and will, if undiscovered, hold ID cards themselves; they will be "enclosed" with everyone else.
A former US officer in Vietnam who has a deep knowledge of General Petraeus's plans is sceptical of the possible results. "The first loyalty of any Sunni who is in the Iraqi army is to the insurgency," he said. "Any Shia's first loyalty is to the head of his political party and its militia. Any Kurd in the Iraqi army, his first loyalty is to either Barzani or Talabani. There is no independent Iraqi army. These people really have no choice. They are trying to save their families from starvation and reprisal. At one time they may have believed in a unified Iraq. At one time they may have been secular. But the violence and brutality that started with the American invasion has burnt those liberal ideas out of people ... Every American who is embedded in an Iraqi unit is in constant mortal danger."
The senior generals who constructed the new "security" plan for Baghdad were largely responsible for the seminal - but officially "restricted" - field manual on counter-insurgency produced by the Department of the Army in December of last year, code-numbered FM 3-24.
While not specifically advocating the "gated communities" campaign, one of its principles is the unification of civilian and military activities, citing "civil operations and revolutionary development support teams" in South Vietnam, assistance to Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq in 1991 and the "provincial reconstruction teams" in Afghanistan - a project widely condemned for linking military co-operation and humanitarian aid.
FM 3-24 is harsh in its analysis of what counter-insurgency forces must do to eliminate violence in Iraq. "With good intelligence," it says, "counter-insurgents are like surgeons cutting out cancerous tissue while keeping other vital organs intact." But another former senior US officer has produced his own pessimistic conclusions about the "gated" neighbourhood project.
"Once the additional troops are in place the insurrectionists will cut the lines of communication from Kuwait to the greatest extent they are able," he told The Independent. "They will do the same inside Baghdad, forcing more use of helicopters. The helicopters will be vulnerable coming into the patrol bases, and the enemy will destroy as many as they can. The second part of their plan will be to attempt to destroy one of the patrol bases. They will begin that process by utilising their people inside the 'gated communities' to help them enter. They will choose bases where the Iraqi troops either will not fight or will actually support them.
"The American reaction will be to use massive firepower, which will destroy the neighbourhood that is being 'protected'."
The ex-officer's fears for American helicopter crews were re-emphasised yesterday when a military Apache was shot down over central Baghdad.
The American's son is an officer currently serving in Baghdad. "The only chance the American military has to withdraw with any kind of tactical authority in the future is to take substantial casualties as a token of their respect for the situation created by the invasion," he said.
"The effort to create some order out of the chaos and the willingness to take casualties to do so will leave some residual respect for the Americans as they leave."
FM 3-24: America's new masterplan for Iraq
FM 3-24 comprises 220 pages of counter-insurgency planning, combat training techniques and historical analysis. The document was drawn up by Lt-Gen David Petraeus, the US commander in Baghdad, and Lt-Gen James Amos of the US Marine Corps, and was the nucleus for the new US campaign against the Iraqi insurgency. These are some of its recommendations and conclusions:
* In the eyes of some, a government that cannot protect its people forfeits the right to rule. In [parts] of Iraq and Afghanistan... militias established themselves as extragovernmental arbiters of the populace's physical security - in some cases, after first undermining that security...
* In the al-Qa'ida narrative... Osama bin Laden depicts himself as a man purified in the mountains of Afghanistan who is inspiring followers and punishing infidels. In the collective imagination of Bin Laden and his followers, they are agents of Islamic history who will reverse the decline of the umma (Muslim community) and bring about its triumph over Western imperialism.
* As the Host Nation government increases its legitimacy, the populace begins to assist it more actively. Eventually, the people marginalise insurgents to the point that [their] claim to legitimacy is destroyed. However, victory is gained not when this is achieved, but when the victory is permanently maintained by and with the people's active support...
* Any human rights abuses committed by US forces quickly become known throughout the local populace. Illegitimate actions undermine counterinsurgency efforts... Abuse of detained persons is immoral, illegal and unprofessional.
* If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace and contact maintained.
* FM 3-24 quotes Lawrence of Arabia as saying: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."
* FM 3-24 points to Napoleon's failure to control occupied Spain as the result of not providing a "stable environment" for the population. His struggle, the document says, lasted nearly six years and required four times the force of 80,000 Napoleon originally designated.
* Do not try to crack the hardest nut first. Do not go straight for the main insurgent stronghold. Instead, start from secure areas and work gradually outwards... Go with, not against, the grain of the local populace.
* Be cautious about allowing soldiers and marines to fraternise with local children. Homesick troops want to drop their guard with kids. But insurgents are watching. They notice any friendships between troops and children. They may either harm the children as punishment or use them as agents.