Excerpts from the interview with Army Col. Peter Mansoor, director of the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Center
Fort Leavenworth Q. How and what are you doing, exactly?
A. The Counterinsurgency Center has six core functions.
The best way to think about it is - have you ever seen those BASF commercials? "We don't make the sunglasses, we make them darker. We don't make the bridge, we make it stronger." That's what we are in terms of the relation to counterinsurgency. We don't write counterinsurgency doctrine - there are other organizations in the Army and Marine Corps that do that - but we try to improve that doctrine. So when the final draft of the field manual came out ... we gave it a very thorough critique, we gave them 50 pages of comments, so they could improve the final version.
We don't necessarily do research, though we can and we have on various aspects of what's happening in Iraq. But we hope to ask better questions, and to inform the research that's by the Center for Army Lessons Learned and the Combat Studies Institute and other folks around the military.
We give advice to training centers, to schools and centers around the Army and Marine Corps, to places like Fort Riley, where the 1st Infantry Division is training adviser teams to go to Iraq, and to go pick up the Afghanistan mission at some point, as well. We help them, in terms of shaping the training, shaping the education of the force so that everything is doctrinally based, vested with important concepts - and more importantly, make sure there's no major seams or gaps in the way we go about shaping the operations.
We do education. We can provide quality control for the curriculum here at the Command and General Staff College, at the School for Advanced Military Studies, at the pre-command course School for Command Preparation, at Quantico and the Marine Corps schools. And we can provide some limited direct-education seminars as requested.
No one has yet looked at this as a system to make sure that A) there's no major redundancies but B) there's not something that's falling through the cracks. So for instance you're getting detainee operations taught to you three times because we don't want another Abu Ghraib to happen, but we've let something else slip because we just haven't realized no one else is covering it. So we've looked at it now as a system, we've linked in real well to all those organizations, and we're helping to shape the way we train for counterinsurgencies - from the moment a unit is activated all the way until it reaches theater.
Our final core function is outreach. We do a lot of outreach to think tanks, academia, the media, interagency organizations. The State Department, for instance, is holding a national counterinsurgency conference next week in Washington, D.C., which hopefully will be the beginnings of some interagency doctrine and training and education regarding counterinsurgency - how the government can better organize to counter insurgencies in the future. ....
Q. The U.S. military - the Army in particular - has fought a lot of insurgency wars in the past ... going back to the Indian wars, but also in the last century, the Philippines, Vietnam, those sorts of things. But I get the impression ... that preserving the knowledge that goes with fighting those kind of wars has not always been a high priority.
A. It actually goes well beyond the Indian wars. We're a nation that was formed by an insurgency. We're fighting counterinsurgencies throughout the 19th century. So we have a deep and long history of counterinsurgency warfare and other small wars....
But you're right. We haven't always learned from those experiences and carried the lessons forward. The Marines did it fairly well, actually, in the inter-war period between World War I and World War II, based on the wars they fought in Central America and the Caribbean - somewhat euphemistically called the "Banana Wars." They created a field manual ... called the "Small Wars Manual," which is still active Marine Corps doctrine today, and that was published in 1940.
The Army, between World War II and today, was much more focused on high-end conventional combat. Quite frankly, that is the culture of our force. Being able to fight high-end conventional combat is important - it's one of the few things that could threaten the existence of our nation. Being able to fight a major adversary or a conventional adversary is something that we need to retain that skill.
But we we've found, as adversaries have seen our capability to fight very well in a conventional sense, they've adapted. They've chosen to challenge us in another way. Until we prove that we can counter those methods - methods of the insurgents, irregular warfare and terrorism - we will continue to be challenged in that fashion.
Therefore, getting counterinsurgency right is now every bit as important to the Army as fighting conventional combat. ...
Q. Kind of one of those figuring out how to walk and chew gum at the same time kind of things.
A. We used to say that if you could fight a big war, you could ramp down and fight a small war. And what we're finding out is that that's not necessarily the case.
The skills that are required to fight a big war in some cases translate to a smaller conflict. In some cases you need a whole new, different set of skills. Counterinsurgencies require civil military operations, information operations, public affairs, different types of intelligence -focusing on human intelligence, and the ability to work with interagency partners. It really is a skill set that has to be trained and educated in its own right, not just as a subset of high-end combat.
Q. You spent the early part -the part they call OIF I - commanding an armored brigade?
A. I'm a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1982, I have a master's and Ph.D. in military history from Ohio State. I taught military history at West Point for a couple of years. I've commanded a tank company, armored cavalry squadron and armored brigade. At the point you're referring to, I commanded in Iraq the 1st Brigade 1st Armored Division, July of 2003 to July of 2004. We were in Baghdad and Karballa.
Q. The reason I ask that question is - it goes back to what you were just saying about big-war skills not necessarily translating to small-war skills. I could be very wrong about this - my military knowledge is not yours - but it seems counterintuitive that armor and tanks, in particular, have a big role to play in counterinsurgency type wars.
A. Actually, that's one of the surprising things we've found is, they have a huge role to play, especially in urban combat. Most of the engagements that occurred occurred at a range less than 100 meters. Talking some of these weapons that the enemy uses, such as rocket-propelled grenades, explosive projectiles, artillery shells fashioned into roadside bombs - you need that armor protection in a lot of cases. It certainly isn't the only type of weapons system we like to employ; you do need a lot of uparmored Humvees and you want to get out on foot, among the people, in a dismounted fashion as well. But what we've found is that the need for a combined-arms team that integrates armor, aviation and the foot soldier is every bit as important in counterinsurgency as in high-end combat.
We actually had a situation in the spring of 2004 where we were fighting the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia force, in Karballa and Najaf. That was fairly high-end urban combat. ... There can be some knock-down drag-out combat even in the middle of a counterinsurgency campaign. You have to be ready to fight if called upon to do so.
Q. Last Friday (9-13) the Washington Post had an article ... it was basically special forces Army and regular Army fighting kind of side-by-side (in Iraq) and not getting along very well. ... We've been in this war for three-and-a-half years now, and I'm curious what it says about the state of the Army's thinking about counterinsurgency that even within itself it seems there's still disputes about the best way to go about fighting.
A. It takes a long time to shift the culture of an Army. It's a huge organization, with the National Guard, Reserves, active forces, you're talking over a million people. People cycle through the school here at the Command and General Staff College, every year - but if you think, for a generation of officers, how long does it take before you reach critical mass, you're looking at a decade, perhaps, before enough people have cycled through the institution to get it, in terms of education on counterinsurgency. Until then, we're slowly turning what is a slowly turning battleship, if you will. It's hard to change an institution's culture, and we're doing what we can to make sure the rudder gets turned a little more sharply.
That article talked about integration of special forces and regular Army forces in a province, which kind of goes to one of the imperatives of counterinsurgency warfare, one of the principles: unity of command. But it's difficult to bring all these disparate elements and get them working together sometimes. The special forces operate under a different chain of command, often. The important thing is for the ... regular Army and the special forces units to have good coordination mechanisms in place. If they're both operating from the same playbook - in other words, the same doctrine - then they'll have a better chance of working things out in the field.
Right now, as you've noted, the counterinsurgency doctrine hasn't been changed in a while. We had an interim field manual come out in 2004, but this next month we'll have the final version ... come out, and that should help put the Army, the Marine Corps and the special operating forces on the same sheet of music when it comes to the doctrinal basis of what we're doing.
Q. I've heard Gen. (David) Petraeus (commander at Fort Leavenworth) speak on another occasion that one of the ways to fight a counterinsurgency is not with the gun ... this idea that there's a "soft power" component to what the military has to do, that soldiers become diplomats.
A. That's absolutely correct. One of the great shortfalls we're addressing is the need for more cultural awareness, language capability, not just in the special forces, but in conventional, regular forces as well.
The scale of the effort in Iraq is so immense that you can't rely just on special operating forces to carry the burden. ... Being more culturally aware, the ability to speak the language, are two facets that are just extremely important. Which is why we're taking that on in Training and Doctrine Command, implementing a lot of initiatives to improve cultural awareness and language capabilities in the force.
But there's a lot more weapons in counterinsurgency than bullets, and some of the best weapons don't shoot. Money is an extremely important weapon : jobs, which usually goes hand-in-hand with money : different pieces of expertise like medical and dental care : the ability to reform a judicial system - all of these things are really, really important. The ability to interact with the media and get your message out, in terms of information operations, the ability to counteract the enemy's message - these are all things that are more important than bullets.
Mao, Chairman Mao, who wrote a book on guerilla war and knew something about it, said revolutionary war is 80 percent political and only 20 percent military. He was right.
Q. How close are the Army and Marine Corps to getting that balance?
A. I think both the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Combined Arms Center are on the same sheet of music in terms of the need for more balance - the need to train more culture, more language; the need to integrate the rest of the government into counterinsurgency operations. So I think the Army and Marines are further ahead than the government as a whole.
Now I think the next step is we need a playbook, if you will, some sort of standard doctrine for the entire government, so that when we go into Iraq or Afghanistan or the next place, that we have all the different pieces of the government team in place in order to be operating at a very high level very quickly.
Q. Given the nature of insurgency, that it's not two armies meeting on a battlefield ... given that so much of it is trying to win over the support of people on the ground, how do you know if you're winning or losing, or if you've won or lost?
A. You know, the people will let you know. The center of gravity in a counterinsurgency is the population.
Back in 2003, when we first went into Iraq, there was a common sense that the people were a condition of the battlefield. But in fact, they're the prize. They're not an obstacle between you and the enemy. If you secure the population, you're going to be able to eventually target the enemy, or he's going to fade away, or he's going to quit. Because he lives among the people.
So if the population is secure, you're going to know by the amount of intel that they're going to give you; by the degree of satisfaction, which you can determine through polling; by the number of people that work, that are willing to go out and walk the streets. There's a palpable sense that things are going your way.
I've seen it, I've seen it in the differences between different areas of Baghdad; I've seen it in Karballa, before and after we destroyed the Mahdi army there. You know when you're winning. But it's not you that can determine that, based on any kind of body counts or determination of what stage the enemy's in.
Q. You can't see the hill and take the hill.
A. If we knew where all the guerillas were, obviously we'd go kill them all. But you know based on what the population is doing and how much cooperation you're getting from them. And that's really the measure of effectiveness; it's all about the people.
Q. What's your sense, based on the intel and all these other things, where is the center of gravity right now?
A. The center of gravity is still the Iraqi people. You can tell the areas where people feel secure - the Kurdish region in the north, pieces of southern Iraq - the economy's improving, people are going back to work, going about their daily business. There's not a lot of roadside bombs going off, no suicide bombers. Life is getting better.
In those areas like Al-Anbar and pieces of Baghdad that are still contested, there's quite a lot violence. Until we can secure the population, the war is going to continue.
Q. I've heard it said, based on the British experience - and they've fought a few of these wars - that it takes generally about a decade to successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency.
A. If you've looked at the history of insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, they tend to take a long time. Decade is about average. It could take much less, it could take much more.
The Philippines, the Philippine insurrection, was a war we won in about three years. But you look at Colombia, that's an insurrection that's been going on for over 40 years. Mao and his Communist guerillas took three decades or more to consummate their revolution in China. These insurgencies, they go on a long time. As long as the political conditions that created these insurgencies exist, and the root causes are not dealt with, then they will not end. ...
This is the only thing that's going to eventually solve the issue in Iraq or Afghanistan for good, will be the political accommodation that brings all groups together. That sometimes takes a very long time. Sometimes it may never happen in our lifetimes.