On War #140

Militant Tricks

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

Militant Tricks: Battlefield Ruses of the Islamic Insurgent is the title of John Poole’s latest book. Poole, a former Marine NCO and officer, is America’s best writer on small unit tactics and techniques. His first book, The Last Hundred Yards, should be in every fire team, squad and platoon leader’s pack. More recently, he has written a series of books that attempt to explain the Eastern, indirect way of war to Western audiences. Militant Tricks is the most recent work in that series.

This is really three books in one, and all of them are good. The first book is a detailed description of how our opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan fight. Here Poole’s subtitle, Battlefield Ruses of the Islamic Insurgent, sums up his offering. Unlike Western forces, which seek a head-on clash, Eastern warfare relies on tricks. Nothing is what it seems to be. Poole writes,

The military heritage of Asia Minor is quite different from that of France, Britain, and America. In Asia Minor, loose encirclements and tiny probes are more common than mass assaults. There, one can often win by running away Like the Chinese, southwest Asian insurgents practice the “False Face and Art of Delay.” First, they show the Westerner what they want him to see. Then, they wait for him to make the first, incorrect move. Finally, they secretly launch a maneuver that he would not choose under similar circumstances.

Poole lays this way of fighting out in detail in Part II of his book. Using the ancient Chinese book 36 Stratagems of Deception as his framework (I do not share Poole’s view that Chinese thought directly influenced our current opponents, but the framework is still useful), he provides exactly the sort of material our soldiers and Marines need in Iraq and Afghanistan if they are to understand their enemies. Here is a sample from one stratagem, “Feign Lack of Military Ability:”

Irrational behavior normally generates a sound or motion signature. But one can unobtrusively feign tactical ignorance. Literally this stratagem says, “Feign foolishness instead of madness.”

Most U.S. and British troops have come to see all Muslim insurgents as tactically inept. They don’t yet realize that their foe intentionally places poorly trained martyrdom volunteers in their path. With little strategic value, those volunteers are considered expendable. It is their handlers the enemy recruiters/trainers/advisors who must be stopped. Many are Iranian special operators and as tactically proficient as their U.S. counterparts. Their “throwaway” personnel have accomplished two things: (1) fooling the Coalition as to the real source and sophistication of the insurgency, (2) facilitating the handler’s escape.

In addition to this useful discussion, Militant Tricks offers two other important themes. One is Poole’s view (and mine) that we are losing both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Until Washington and America’s senior field commanders face up to this fact, no improvement is to be expected, because there will be no incentive to change.

Poole’s third theme is how we can win in both places. Here, I think he is over-optimistic. Even if we do adopt his recommendations, I think we will do so too late. But what he writes is valuable for what may still be achieved, namely avoiding outright and obvious defeat.

Poole’s diagnosis differs from the common one, because he does not see the Sunni insurgency as the core problem. Rather, he believes the main actor is Shiite Hezbollah, working hand-in-hand with Iran. If he is correct, the door might be open to the deal with the Baathist insurgents I believe America needs in order to leave Iraq.

On the tactical level, Poole agrees with virtually every other expert on counter-insurgency that the key to success (however defined) is a variant of the Vietnam war CAP program, where our troops defended the local population instead of bombing it. Poole writes,

While the Vietnam war may not have had a happy ending, it did produce some very effective ways to handle guerilla activity. One of the most farsighted – and strictly of U.S. Marine Corps design and implementation – was the Combined Action Platoon (CAP). Lone Marine squads were stationed in scores of villages to help local residents organize their own defenses. There is an urban equivalent to the CAP concept that would work in a neighborhood setting. If the Muslim militant has widely dispersed throughout Iraqi society, must not the occupying force do likewise to beat him?

Regardless of the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, America will face other wars against Islamic militants, though a correct grand strategy would work to avoid such conflicts. If people at the top will give John Poole’s work the attention it is rightly receiving from those at the battalion level and below, we would have a better chance of winning them.

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William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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