I read a online exchange recently between Abu Muqawama and Colonel Gian Gentile that typifies the ongoing debate over the future of warfare. What I find amusing, though, is the accusation some make that the Army is "obsessed" with counterinsurgency. From my point of view, our doctrine has changed but our mindset has not, especially the mindset of Generals and Colonels raised on war with the Soviets.
The proof is in the pudding. In my experience, when units get downrange, they attempt to conduct large scale battalion-sized operations. While the doctrine is clear, hold and build, maneuver commanders never get to the hold or build parts. They continually run “clearing” operations because they are the most similar to high-intensity warfare.
During my deployment, my battalion conducted a monthly Company or Battalion-sized operation called a CONOP, sometimes referred to as a named operation. Our CONOPs boiled down to a series of company-sized air assaults to cordon and search a village. These looked very good on paper, but what did they achieve?
Ostensibly, the purpose of these missions was counter-force--trying to find the enemy and destroy him. We used helicopters to access regions we could not on daily patrols. By reaching out to these areas, where insurgents didn’t think we would go, we could theoretically surprise them.
Keeping in mind I was a PL at the time, I cannot speak to the strategic success of our CONOPs, I can only speak to how they effected my daily patrols. The air assault to and from the objective usually took about 24 to 48 hours. The preparation took 24 hours. Recovery, another 24 hours. In addition, if we were tasked with the quick reaction force mission, we could not leave our base for another 24 to 48 hours. All told, a CONOP could eat up anywhere from five to nine days; up to nine days I could not patrol my assigned area of operations.
In that time, we left the civilian populace open to insurgent information operations, intelligence collection and general influence, all so that we could fly to remote mountain tops. Whenever we resumed patrolling, the locals and police would always ask, "Where have you been?"
The CONOP does have its place when moving into previously violent areas for the first time. This happened several times in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad proper. But when conducted at the expense of daily security patrols, it compromises the mission. Even in the Iraq examples of Fallujah and Ramadi, we proved repeatedly we can clear objectives, then repeatedly proved we cannot hold or build in those areas of operations. Short term successes, but long term failures.
My daily patrols influenced every aspect of the overall mission: developing the government, collecting intelligence, supporting the local population, providing security and more. Simple daily patrols won’t garner awards, win headlines, or make sexy evaluation bullets yet they beat counterinsurgencies in the long run. Battalion and Brigade Commanders still don't understand this core tenet of counter-insurgency, and the proof is the type of operations they conduct downrange.
(After writing on this topic, Tom Ricks caught this excellent snippet that agrees with my argument.)