The Lesson of Tal Afar

THE LESSON OF TAL AFAR….George Packer’s latest New Yorker article on Iraq is now online, and as usual, it’s both lengthy and worthwhile. It’s called “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” and it’s about a subject that regular readers know I touch on frequently: counterinsurgency.

Packer’s focus is on the successful counterinsurgency tactics used by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar over the past year, but ironically, it’s that very success that makes this article such discouraging reading. Tal Afar demonstrates that counterinsurgency can work in Iraq, but it also demonstrates clearly just how hard it is and how little of it we’re really committed to doing. Instead, too many soldiers are being pulled back to “enduring FOBs,” gigantic bases completely cut off from daily life in Iraq:

A field-grade officer in the 101st Airborne said, ?The algorithm of success is to get a good-enough solution.? There were, he said, three categories of assessment for every aspect of the mission: optimal, acceptable, and unacceptable. He made it clear that optimal wasn?t in the running.

….But a good-enough counterinsurgency is really none at all. There is no substitute for the investment of time, effort, and risk that was so evident in Tal Afar. The retreat to the enduring FOBs seems like an acknowledgment that counterinsurgency is just too hard.

….[Lt. General David] Petraeus is overseeing a group of active-duty and former officers in the writing of a new joint Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual….In February, I attended a two-day workshop at Fort Leavenworth, where the authors of the draft heard suggestions from an assembly of critics….The question hanging unasked over the workshop at Fort Leavenworth was whether it was already too late to change the military?s approach in Iraq. When Kalev Sepp discussed the field manual with students in his class on insurgency at the Naval Postgraduate School, a Special Forces captain said, ?If this manual isn?t written soon, you?ll have it ready just in time to give one to each soldier leaving Iraq.?

After three years, we’re still working on the field manual. In the meantime, we have too few officers who understand counterinsurgency and too few battalions to make it work: after all, even in Tal Afar the only result was probably to force the city’s insurgents to melt away to other areas. Long-term success in Iraq would require, at a minimum, (a) twice the number of troops we have now, (b) long deployments, and (c) an absolute commitment to counterinsurgency tactics from top to bottom. But even today that simply doesn’t exist.

And it’s probably too late anyway. Counterinsurgency is the right tactic if you’re fighting an insurgency, but not if you’re fighting a sectarian civil war. And more and more, that’s what we’re fighting.

But read the whole thing and make up your own mind. It’s worth a few minutes of your time.