I developed this framework about two years ago, while writing the October 2004 version of Countering Global Insurgency, mainly the appendix on Iraq. I have since presented it in various forums, including during the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2004-5, the Eisenhower Series in early 2006, during a series of lectures at the Naval War College and at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, and during the Irregular Warfare conference in Summer 2006. I also briefed it to the Pentagon's "Plan B" team in November 2006.
So if you were in any of those discussions, read no further since you've heard it all before.
This is a model, not a strategy. That is, it is a systematic oversimplification, designed to clarify an extremely complex, rapidly-changing reality. It does not tell us what to do in Iraq, but is a basis for evaluating options. It is wrong -- all models are -- but applied tentatively, with skepticism, and with constant and rigorous "ground truth" from first-hand observation in theater, I have sometimes found it useful. Here is the model, expressed graphically.
The "Four Problems" concept
In essence, the model suggests that Iraq comprises four strategic problems:
- an underlying nation-building problem, resulting from the fact that Iraq is a weak and fragile state, and
- three overlapping security problems that sit "above" that underlying problem, and make it harder to get at it. The three problems are:
- Terrorism -- that is, the presence of terrorist entities including (but not limited to) AQI who seek to exploit the situation in Iraq to further extremist or trans-national aims
- Insurgency -- the (primarily Sunni) rebellion against the new post-Saddam order in Iraq, including rebellion against both the coalition presence and the new Iraqi government, and
- Communal Conflict -- including sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi'a elements, and ethnic conflict between Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups.
These three security problems overlap: incidents may involve elements of more than one dimension -- for example, some terrorism is "pure" AQI activity, while other terrorist acts are insurgent-motivated, and yet others incorporate a sectarian dimension. Most incidents in fact include elements of two dynamics, or all three. You might think of the three problems as a Venn diagram of overlapping circles, each constantly changing in size, with any incident able to be plotted somewhere within the interaction of the three dynamics -- terrorism, insurgency and communal conflict.
They prevent us getting at the underlying problems (crime, weak infrastructure, economic and social alienation, weak governance, an so on) that we need to address in order to deal with the nation-building requirement. The inability to get at this underlying problem perpetuates and exacerbates the security problems.
The three security problems are also mutually reinforcing -- each makes the others worse. Terrorism provokes communal conflict, which in turn makes the insurgency more intractable, which in turn gives rise to terrorism, and so on.
The solution sets to each problem also tend to be countervailing -- the solution to one tends to make the others worse. For example, defeating the insurgency requires building indigenous security forces. But in a society with weak national institutions, divided along sectarian lines, this can tend to make the communal conflict worse. Resolving the communal conflict requires outreach out to all community groups including those (such as some Sunni groups in Anbar) who support the terrorists. But this can create safe havens for terrorists. Countering terrorist cells implies disrupting these safe havens, but that can make the insurgency worse -- and so on, in an endless Iraq do-loop.
Another conundrum is that our presence in Iraq is both essential for a solution, and a source of irritation which tends to exacerbate the situation.
The Regional Dynamic
This whole "four-problem set" sits within a region that straddles a Sunni Arab world (Arabia and the Sunni parts of the Levant) and a Persian Shi'a world (primarily Iran, but also Iranian proxies and allies) with a long history of internal and intra-regional conflict and tension. As General Zinni remarked recently, in toppling Saddam we have created the first Shi'a Arab state in modern history, with profound implications for the long-standing regional dynamic, and the global relationship between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, that we are only just starting to appreciate.
This implies two things. First, conflict within Iraq that threatens to spill into the broader region or drag Sunni states into increased confrontation with Iran, is by definition more strategically ominous than forms of conflict that remain within Iraq. By this measure, the model was already predicting in 2004 that communal conflict would turn out to have broader strategic significance than the insurgency itself (though this tends to change over time).
Second, it is critical that we conduct the campaign in Iraq within a broader regional campaign (diplomatic, economic and informational), rather than conducting it as if Iraq was an island somewhere in the Indian Ocean rather than a central puzzle-piece in a complex regional chessboard. We have to approach the region as a region. This seems like a statement of the obvious, but not everyone seems to have seen the issues this way so far.
Iraq, then, is not a "pure" Insurgency problem
In this sense, Secretary Rumsfeld was perfectly correct when he denied that Iraq was an insurgency and rejected the comparison with Vietnam. This is quite true -- Iraq is not just an insurgency, it is an insurgency plus a terrorist campaign plus a sectarian civil war, sitting on top of a fragile state within a divided region.
And Vietnam is indeed not an apt comparison. The insurgency part of the problem resembles Vietnam to some extent, but insurgency is only one small part of a much bigger problem in Iraq. If we were to draw historical analogies, we might say that the problem in Iraq is like trying to defeat the Viet Cong (insurgency) while simultaneously rebuilding Germany (nation-building), keeping peace in the Balkans (communal conflict) and defeating the IRA (terrorism). And, oh by the way, these all have to be done at the same time, in the same place, and changes in one part of the problem significantly affect the others.
Thus, Iraq is a fiendishly difficult, complex and constantly-changing problem. Look no further for the reason why we have found it so difficult -- put simply, because it is. It's an incredibly complex, tough problem, which requires constant adaptation and agility of response.
(Without getting all theoretical on you, this is what we might call a "wicked" problem, according to the very specific meaning that planners and systems theorists give to that term, in describing a class of problems that has no single solution, no "stopping rule" that tells you when the problem is solved, and where the very act of attempting to solve the problem changes the nature of the problem to be solved. Incidentally, there is a solid and very useful body of research into how to deal with this type of problem, which I have found very helpful in thinking about approaches to Iraq, as have others).
From a practitioner's standpoint, this means that improvements in counterinsurgency technique and capability, while important in addressing the insurgency part of the problem, are not enough to deal with the broader strategic problem in Iraq. Instead, we need solutions that deal with all four problems simultaneously in an integrated fashion, and try to control and impose order on an overall complex environment.
The term I and some of my Australian colleagues developed to describe this form of operation, during work in 2003, was "Control Operations" -- operations that are neither enemy-centric (as in traditional counterterrorism) nor population-centric (as in traditional counterinsurgency) but rather environment-centric, seeking to control and reduce the chaos and violence within a highly complex, multi-sided overall environment. (More about this idea, which I and others have been working on for several years now, in subsequent posts).
So much for theory. In practice, for commanders on the ground, does this help? Not much, I would suggest. The basic techniques of peace operations, counterinsurgency (if executed properly), information operations, counterterrorism, and institution-building are all well-known and at the tactical level our people are well skilled in applying most of them.
Hence the requirement for things like the "Twenty-Eight Articles" -- they don't tell you anything new, nor help address the overall strategic problem (which is well above tactical commanders' pay-grade, thank God), but they help deal with the tactical issues that are already well-understood, and provide memory joggers for guys in the field who have to deal with one discrete part of a larger problem.
Where the model makes a difference is at the strategic level, in prioritizing actions between the various problems, deciding whether and where to expend resources, and -- most important -- developing metrics and "reading the environment" to understand how it changes over time. In a sense, this a prototypical "operational design" for the Iraq theater.
In terms of evaluating options, it allows you to develop checklists or metrics to understand how a plan might function. Does it help us get at the underlying problem? Does it exacerbate the other security problems? Does it address more than one security problem simultaneously? Does it help prevent spill-over of conflict to the regional level? Does it cement state authority? -- and so on. The questions are different each time, but the model helps frame them and work out which factors matter most in a given situation.
Hardly rocket science, of course, just an effort to simplify complex reality and identify macro-trends, which then allow you to work out which bits of detail matter, so that you can drill back down into the detail to think about issues.
I have found this useful as a way of thinking about Iraq and evaluating strategic options. In considering strategic initiatives like those just announced, you need some kind of framework, and this is mine.
If it works for you, use it. If you think of refinements, suggest them (a very senior USN officer whose views I greatly respect did just that in a recent meeting). If it doesn't help you, discard it and think up your own. Either way, you need some kind of model for thinking about Iraq, lest the sheer complexity of events and the difficulty of knowing just exactly what is actually happening overwhelm you.
For what it's worth.....