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20/5/05 Peer Review: French Military Looks at US Performance in Iraq

Friday, May 20, 2005

Le Monde’s military correspondent Laurent Zecchini reports on a French study of the performance of the US military in Iraq. Not only were US forces completely unprepared for insurgent war but applied the tactics of “massive reconnoitering” borrowed from Sherman’s March to the Sea. Unlike the British, US forces don’t make the slightest attempt to respect the locals. The French analysts think that prevailing Protestant beliefs in predestination may have only increased the mayhem and bloodletting.

The French military authors a critical assessment of thirty months of US operation in Iraq.

Just because France did not participate in the invasion of Iraq it did not mean its military experts ignored methods with which the US military conducted its “stabilization operations‰ between May 2003 and December 2004. A study was carried out by the Centre de Doctrine d’Emploi des Forces (Force Deployment Doctrinal Center) headed by General Gérard Bezacier and is published in a special edition of the journal Doctrine. The study shows that the tactics employed by the US military evolved in the light of experience but that the errors committed in the first months resulted in hefty consequences.

The first mistake made by US high command was doubtlessly the failure to modify its methods between the end of the conflict and the beginning of the stabilization phase. The monitoring of terrain from large protected bases, rather like forts in the middle of “Injun‰ territory, was counter-productive. The inflexible attitude of its patrols, the systematic toying with passers-by, the conversing without removing sunglasses and the language barrier made acceptance by the population extremely artificial.

Coupled with ignorance of the cultural milieu and weakness in the intelligence system—which has not yet been able to break the counterinsurgency—stabilization operations were often disastrous. They‚d often resort to massive encirclement of neighborhoods where, with loudspeakers blaring hard rock, their soldiers would forcibly enter homes and round all the men. They scoffed at complex traditions of hospitality, at personal honor by humiliating men in front of their families and at the sanctity of holy places, which they would enter with weapons, etc., according to the journal article.

The British, however, ensured the establishment of good relations with the populace from the outset. They behaved courteously and alway kept their weapons pointed towards the ground,— which doesn‚t hinder their being used in case of aggression—and observed the catchphrase: Smile, shoot, smile. In contrast to the Americans, the British always thought that their accessibility and consequently, their apparent vulnerability, indirectly offered them a greater security thanks to a better image among the populace.

Little by little the US high command realized that the “terrorists‰ were better organized and more numerous than they believed. When dealing with the insurgent threat, say the French experts, their only possible avenue was total extermination. So they reverted to body counts. Not only did they refuse to negotiate with the “evildoers‰, but following Protestant logic, Iraqis did not become “bad guys‰, they were born that way. It was therefore only a question of deploying sufficient means to eradicate them.

The Americans quickly understood that their troop levels were insufficient. To achieve the same ratio of coverage in Iraq as in Bosnia, they would have needed 364,000 troops; for that in Kosovo, 480,000 troops. But Coalition troops numbered only approximately 160,000. Moreover, the tactics they used were often contradictory. While one division would practice the British approach, another would behave like Israelis: demolishing homes, arresting entire families, replying to mortar attacks with artillery, etc.

With an average rate of two killed in action per day, the situation of US troops in Iraq is far from resembling that in Viet Nam (20 KIA per day from 1965 to 1972) or that of the French in Algeria (9.6 KIA per day for seven years).

In its strategy of “city siege‰, the US Army would use what some officers call infernal columns, harking back to the methods employed by General William T. Sherman during the US Civil War, which are heavily-armored inter-service phalanxes supported by artillery. Furthermore, all US units are upping their numbers of elite marksmen and increasingly rely on armed drones.

The pronounced American preference for technological solutions was demonstrated in Fallujah: the Marine division which since its arrival on Iraqi soil has vaunted its blending with the populace and its velvet glove approach, transformed itself into just the opposite when it built Citizen Processing Centers in the city where the DNA of every man in town was sampled, their voice registered, their iris scanned, and their fingerprinted taken. Their databanks of this information are shared with the FBI and the CIA. The male residents are required to permanently display a special identity badge and are forbidden to drive their cars˜the preferred weapon of suicide bombers.

For the French military, another tremendous US failing was the problem of counterinsurgency intelligence. Their first obstacle is one of military culture: the specialization in weaponry within the US Army casts aside the use of the soldier as a gatherer of intelligence. The intelligence community has always shown a pronounced preference for technical intelligence gathering to the detriment of human intelligence.

Military Intelligence personnel had very little training in looking for indicators or in dealing with civilian prisoners. When they realized this deficiency, they had FBI teams brought to Iraq to advise their forces in the field.

Article appears in the April 30th edition and is available in the on-line archives [subscription required].

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