Foreign Policy Essay

Can the COINdinistas Save Iraq from Trump?

By Zach Abels
Sunday, June 4, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: When the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, it found itself woefully unprepared for the insurgency that followed. It took years—and many lives lost—for the U.S. military to relearn how to fight insurgents, but the results were stunning. By the end of the decade, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other violent groups were on the run, and it looked like Iraq was on the path to stability. Zach Abels at the National Interest, however, warns that much of this valuable knowledge is being lost. In particular, the Trump administration's scorn for the civilian side of counterinsurgency is likely to prove disastrous, preventing the United States from marshaling its resources effectively to fight the Islamic State and other groups. A longer version of this piece was first published by the National Interest. It can be found here.


“We have to start winning wars again,” President Donald J. Trump exhorted on February 27. Days later, aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, he pledged to “give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing. You know what that is? Win. Win! We’re gonna start winning again.” The irony is tragic and comedic, in equal measure. In mid-March, Trump released a 2018 budget blueprint that would deprive the military of the exact tools he promised them. He seeks to cripple the civilian agencies—the State Department, USAID, and the United States Institute of Peace—that consolidate combat success into political victory.

The president’s budget betrays alarming national-security parochialism: Military power divorced from diplomacy cannot win conventional wars. In “small wars,” killing is even less decisive.

America’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq laid bare the limits of the military instrument. Vicious, resilient insurgencies waged by the Taliban, Iran-backed Shia militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq and, later, the Islamic State have imprinted haunting images on the American psyche.

Military power divorced from diplomacy cannot win conventional wars. In “small wars,” killing is even less decisive.

Trump rode those very waves of fear and angst into the White House. The public’s hunger for closure pales in comparison with its thirst for blood. Over and over again, Trump bewitched voters with promises of consigning the Islamic State to the fires of hell. “You gotta knock the hell out of them,” he said at an Iowa campaign rally in January 2016. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” But evicting insurgents from their strongholds will not suffice. At this rate, an embarrassing jihadist comeback looms inevitable. The president can’t afford for the next jihadi group to take root on his watch. Remember when candidate Trump accused Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State? The attack ads would write themselves.

If Trump were to succeed in budgetarily castrating the civilian agents of U.S. foreign policy, he would harm national security. In Iraq, where the administration has escalated the fight against the Islamic State, he would render the triumphs of servicemen and women fleeting. Killing bad guys is not enough. Without a concerted strategy of security, diplomacy and development, sectarian violence will once again engulf Iraq. Déjà vu of the worst kind—the kind that sucks U.S. soldiers and dollars right back in.

No White House official is more keenly attuned to this dystopian fate than National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. “H.R. knows firsthand the value of diplomacy in bringing conflict to a conclusion favorable to the United States, at the minimum possible cost in lives and dollars,” retired Lt. Col. John Nagl told me. “H.R. knows that in his bones.” A warrior-scholar of the highest repute, Nagl is unencumbered by chain of command. “It must gnaw at his innards,” he said of his friend, “that the administration he is serving is attempting to do this kind of damage to institutions that are so important to the security of our great nation.” He was uninterested in mincing words: “These ideas are asinine.”

The Triangle of Death

The Iraq War was McMaster’s crucible. Along with David H. Petraeus, James N. Mattis—now Trump’s defense secretary—and a cast of erudite field officers and civilian intellectuals, McMaster helped reengineer the American way of war. These battle-hardened rabble-rousers were dubbed “COINdinistas,” a tribute to the figurative insurgency they launched in order to teach the U.S. government how to fight literal insurgencies.

Scholarship and a penchant for innovation fueled the COINdinistas. In the early years of the war, Maj. Gens. Petraeus and Mattis dabbled in counterinsurgency, in Nineveh and Anbar provinces respectively. In the northwestern city of Tal Afar, Col. McMaster supplanted chaos with stability. His was the first systematic counterinsurgency operation of the Iraq War—conducted, as Fred Kaplan observes in The Insurgents, “with total independence from headquarters”—at a time when the mere utterance of the “i-word” invited opprobrium.

In January 2007, George W. Bush succumbed to the COINdinistas’ years of intellectual salesmanship. America wasn’t going to kill its way out of this morass. The president gave Petraeus charge of all U.S. forces in Iraq and green-lit the surge.

The surge drew military and nonmilitary personnel into a state of mutual dependence, made protecting Iraqi civilians a central mandate, and confronted the conflict’s socio-economic accelerants.

The rise of counterinsurgency and injection of thirty thousand additional U.S. forces into Iraq have, in some quarters, been gratuitously mythologized. But attempts to abandon this history altogether are misguided. The surge drew military and nonmilitary personnel into a state of mutual dependence, made protecting Iraqi civilians a central mandate, and confronted the conflict’s socio-economic accelerants. Killing jihadists was subordinated to a new directive: making sure their ilk couldn’t return.

The surge gave warring factions a narrow window for political accommodation. Stop shooting, start talking. But security provision alone couldn’t bring Iraq’s insurgents to the table. In The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution, Ganesh Sitaraman sees justice and reconciliation as “weapons of war, instruments of lawfare that can be designed to reduce or even eliminate the insurgency.” At the height of the surge, an Army combat brigade and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a congressionally-funded peacebuilding outfit on Trump’s chopping block, put that theory to the test. Together, they weaponized reconciliation in the “Triangle of Death.”

Mahmudiya District, Baghdad’s ethnically mixed southern doorstep, deserved its bleak moniker. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s forebear, ran riot. Assassinations, public beheadings, improvised explosive devices, and armed banditry punctuated virulent sectarian warfare. “Not one man in a hundred will stand up to a real killer,” Mattis once remarked to the author Bing West. “It’s ruthlessness that cows people.”

Col. Michael M. Kershaw was told a year ahead of time that his brigade would deploy to Mahmudiya. Early on in his preparation, he realized that “this was fundamentally a problem of counterinsurgency.” Compared to McMaster, Petraeus, and Mattis, however—all of whose counterinsurgency exploits have been vividly documented by West, Tom Ricks, Fred Kaplan, George Packer and, most recently, Dexter Filkins—Kershaw flew under the radar. In The Endgame, Michael R. Gordon and retired Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor recognize Kershaw as one of “the war’s best tactical commanders.” This assessment was shared by his peers, but not by his superior, who “all but killed his chances of being promoted to general.” It is the military’s loss. Kershaw’s pioneering work formed the same tapestry that brought glory to the headline-grabbing COINdinistas.

Kershaw, who happens to have shared a revolutionary-warfare class with McMaster at West Point in the early 1980s, commanded the Second Brigade of the Tenth Mountain Division. He arrived in Mahmudiya in August 2006. From the outset, he told me, he was determined to “harness something that would outlast our tour of duty.” The Triangle of Death’s new counterinsurgents manned neighborhood outposts, with an eye toward restoring community security. Special operators killed and captured al-Qaeda fighters. Kershaw’s deputy, Lt. Col. John Laganelli, told me he worked to bring agricultural and economic-development capabilities into the region, “to create some form of normalcy for the people.” Meanwhile, the “Awakening” had moved from Anbar Province and was sweeping across Mahmudiya. Local Sunnis began betraying al-Qaeda, electing to fight alongside the U.S. military in exchange for pay and promises of safety.

In Kershaw’s telling, plenty of tribal leaders wanted to talk, but the Army was struggling to translate the ink dots of “awakened” locals into a big-picture compromise. And Kershaw was a leading authority on south Baghdad. “I was the Mahmudiya expert,” he said matter-of-factly. “But man, I went to public school in east Texas. I could only scrape the surface. The language barrier. The culture barrier.” Someone in Kershaw’s orbit coined the term “sheikhapalooza” to denote the unproductive theatrics that characterized the military’s sit-downs with tribal leaders.

By the summer of 2007, the Second Brigade had mauled al-Qaeda and the sector’s other insurgent groups. A promising, yet tenuous, calm took hold. Fearing regression, Kershaw’s staff connected him with USIP. When he met with the institute’s team in the Green Zone, “a light bulb went off,” he told me. “Their set of capabilities was something we could not get elsewhere. They had Iraqis who could actually run the negotiations between the sheikhs. They could seat Iraqis with Iraqis.”

USIP’s objective, in its view, was to preempt revenge. Orchestrate a reconciliation process capable of suturing the ethno-sectarian wounds the jihadists had inflicted. Kershaw saw the institute in a utilitarian light: Just as he turned to Special Operations units to kill and capture irreconcilables, he turned to USIP to reconcile the rest. “Those were desperate times,” he told me. There were almost 2,200 IED incidents during the Second Brigade’s 15-month tour. Fifty-four soldiers were killed in action. He was eager to maximize the returns on their costly investment.

Just as he turned to Special Operations units to kill and capture irreconcilables, he turned to USIP to reconcile the rest.

USIP tapped into its reservoir of Iraqi intermediaries. They worked closely with the Second Brigade to map out Mahmudiya’s intricate fault lines and volatile power centers. The resulting delegation turned its attention to the community’s exiled Sunni leaders, who had been forced to take refuge in Amman, Jordan. Both Rusty Barber, an architect of the USIP initiative, and Col. Kershaw described the links between these exiles and Mahmudiya’s insurgents in cryptic terms. At the very least, Barber told me, they “were capable of operating as spoilers to any agreement they were left out of.” They “definitely had blood on their hands,” Kershaw said.

Among the delegates USIP recruited for the diplomatic mission was Ali al-Mufraji, Kershaw’s counterpart in the Iraqi army. In Amman, the most formidable source of agitation among the exiles was the widespread detention of Sunnis haphazardly branded as terrorist accomplices. Mufraji brandished his laptop, popped open a spreadsheet, and revealed the status of tribesmen in custody. His candor helped convince the exiles to endorse a Hail Mary dialogue.

The three-day conference, at Baghdad’s Al-Rashid Hotel, began on October 16. USIP crafted the format and agenda. The institute’s Iraqi facilitators instructed participants in mediation techniques without besmirching their traditions. By the third day, pugnacious debate gave way to a concrete framework for the reconstruction of the district. Thirty-one Shia and Sunni tribal leaders acceded in view of Iraqi and foreign press. The pact’s symbolic value wasn’t lost on Kershaw: “It legitimized the ‘Awakening.’” Stop shooting, start talking was officially socially acceptable. Al-Qaeda had lost its local base of support.

Violence declined precipitously. The Third Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, which replaced Kershaw’s, lost a single soldier during its deployment. The Army trimmed its presence from a brigade of 3,500 to a battalion of 650. The entire USIP project cost U.S. taxpayers around $1.5 million, roughly the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile—fifty-nine of which Trump fired at a Syrian air base in April.

Confusing Activity with Progress

The Iraq War is as politically toxic as ever. In today’s vituperative discourse, it functions as a reliable dog whistle that incites rabid denunciations of hegemonic overreach and paternalistic democracy promotion. But Iraq is more than a political football. The decision to invade, among the worst foreign-policy blunders in U.S. history, and the prosecution of the war are two different things. Conflating counterinsurgency with the neoconservative worldview—just because they have Iraq in common—is reductive.

The Iraq War crystallized for McMaster, Mattis, and their fellow COINdinistas that defeating insurgents hinges on a symbiosis between soldier and civilian, between killing and rebuilding. In February, 121 retired three- and four-star officers reaffirmed that precise belief in a letter to Congress. They averred their “strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.” Historically, that’s a bipartisan sentiment verging on gospel.

The Iraq War crystallized for McMaster, Mattis, and their fellow COINdinistas that defeating insurgents hinges on a symbiosis between soldier and civilian, between killing and rebuilding.

On May 23, the White House released its first full budget proposal. “A New Foundation for American Greatness” calls for a 29.1 percent cut to the State Department and foreign aid. It also moves to eliminate USIP, on the grounds that “it serves a niche mission that duplicates other Federal programs.” The sheer symbolism of Trump’s draconian accounting, regardless of its plausibility on Capitol Hill, speaks volumes. Its shockwaves will reverberate and linger.

“A short-term approach to long-term problems generated multiple short-term plans that often confused activity with progress,” McMaster once wrote of America’s post-9/11 wars. Similarly, Donald Trump has confused tantalizing explosions with sound foreign policy. “We’re doing very well in Iraq,” the president recently extolled. “Our soldiers are fighting, and fighting like never before.” In March, U.S.-led airstrikes killed more civilians than in any other month since the anti-Islamic State campaign began in 2014. There is no indication that the administration is prepared for the day after Mosul falls.

Meanwhile, a “whole-of-government” plan for defeating the Islamic State, which Mattis devised on Trump’s orders, is collecting dust somewhere in the White House. Last month, Fred Kaplan reported that the defense secretary submitted his report on February 27. “Since it landed on his desk, Trump has not responded to it, modified it, or approved it as policy,” Kaplan learned. The neglected plan addresses “the need for political stability after ISIS is defeated.” More disconcerting, Steve Bannon may be conspiring to turn Trump against McMaster, in what one White House source described to Kate Brannen as “Game of Thrones for morons.” All of this reporting came in the span of three frantic days. On the second day, Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey. The administration’s resident COINdinistas, it turns out, could face a fate worse than gaslighting.

The third day marked the apex of what John Oliver has aptly derided as “Stupid Watergate.” On May 10, Trump hosted Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Sergey I. Kislyak, Moscow’s ambassador in Washington. In Russian-snapped photos, the president appeared too chummy for someone who, the day prior, had sacked his FBI director in a poorly veiled attempt to squelch the investigation into his campaign’s illicit ties with the Kremlin. Trump further impoverished that veil, telling his guests that he relieved Comey because he was “a real nut job,” according to the New York Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia,” he continued. “That’s taken off.”

In that same meeting, the president also found time to divulge code-word-classified intelligence on the Islamic State, potentially compromising an ally’s spy network. The Israelis were unamused.

Beyond the obvious fallout, this kerfuffle has distracted Trump’s otherwise scandal-repellant national security advisor from the essential task at hand: plugging holes in the administration’s ramshackle foreign-policy machine. McMaster’s “wholly appropriate” defense of the president’s conduct has sparked a fair share of criticism.

As Stupid Watergate steals oxygen from whatever moderating influence McMaster has been exerting, Trump’s counterproductive national-security policies persist. The president’s “bomb the shit out of ’em” approach belies echoes of Sisyphus: Trump may condemn the United States to a lifetime of boulder pushing. Higher and higher the military rolls the insurgent boulder up the hill. Just when the summit is in sight, the boulder falls to the bottom, crushing all in its path. And so on, for eternity.

The Iraq War seared such exercises in futility into the memories of the COINdinistas. McMaster knows more intimately than any other White House official the dangers of purging counterinsurgency’s underlying principles for fear of conjuring images of failed nation building. And good policy need not be bad politics: Col. Kershaw’s collaboration with USIP is but one example of a cost-effective diplomatic effort complementing military sacrifice. If Trump were to scrap his budget, he’d have at his disposal civilian combat multipliers uniquely equipped to render Iraq inhospitable to the insurgents who have cast such an indelible shadow over the American homeland. The real puzzle is whether the administration’s few steady hands can guide Trump toward common sense without incurring his brazen wrath.