May 11, 2008

The Limits of COIN in Sadr City

Dr. iRack wanted to take a moment to reflect on COIN in Sadr City. As fighting broke out in Sadr City after the Maliki government's Basra offensive, and rockets began to rain down on the Green Zone, the U.S. military had to make a choice: Should it finally go in and attempt to employ an all-out COIN effort in the slum of 2 million? The answer was: kind of.

The U.S. military has taken several steps (a good description is provided in this LA Times piece by Tina Susman):

1. Isolate (portions) of the population from militants and create safe zones. It has walled off about a third of Sadr City to limit the area from which JAM can fire off rockets/mortars. It is in the process of completing a 12-foot wall, has set up combat outposts in the area to provide 24/7 security, and is making plans with the Iraqi government to flood the zone with services to win over the population.

2. Discriminately target militants and disrupt their networks. The coalition has aggressively targeted rocket/mortar teams (Dr. iRack's sources say that this has been largely effective -- rockets continue to be fired, especially during dust storms, but the aim is going down as the top-notch teams have been eliminated). It has also continued to engage in targeted raids against high-value JAM/"special group" targets. American rules of engagement require positive identification of military targets before using deadly force, and the coalition has relied on low-yield precision-guided munitions to limit risks to surrounding civilians (yet, reports suggest, significant numbers of civilians have still been caught up in the fray.)

But, U.S. and Iraqi forces have not plunged deeply into Sadr City proper (and now, with the ceasefire, probably will not do so), and any COIN strategy there faces severe limitations. Why?

1. Force protection concerns. JAM has tens of thousands of fighters and, let's be clear, the organization as a whole has been engaged in this fight, not just the "special groups." JAM has also put in place a dense network of defensive positions (EFPs, sniper positions, etc.) that might take a heavy toll on U.S. and Iraqi forces attempting a frontal assault to clear the area.

2. Collateral damage concerns. The U.S. has already been fiercely criticized for the number of civilians caught up in the crossfire during clashes with JAM over the past month, especially civilians killed during helicopter and fixed-wing airstrikes on JAM fighters. Sadr City is the most densely populated area of Iraq, JAM has no problems using the civilian population as cover, and JAM is the people in many places. It would be impossible to intervene en masse without producing very high levels of civilian casualties.

3. Sadr continues to have more legitimacy than the central government or the coalition. Part of this is due to family reputation, part is due to Sadr's nationalism, and part is due to the extensive efforts by the Sadrists to provide essential services to the impoverished residents of Sadr City. It is also a byproduct of the dysfunctionality of the Maliki government and the inability of the government of Iraq to surge humanitarian aid into Sadr City during the recent fighting. In other words, in the competition to provide governance and legitimacy, the Sadrists have a significant advantage and will likely continue to do so.

4. There probably won't be a Shia Awakening in Sadr City. Despite the reported rumblings that rank-and-file Shia are increasingly turned-off by JAM criminality, Sadr City's population has not turned against them in any way analogous to the Sunni Awakening against AQI. This limits one of the key COIN strategies (exploiting common enemies and building local auxiliary security forces against these enemies) MNF-I has exploited elsewhere.

Thus, there probably won't be a clear-hold-build path to success in Sadr City. Instead, the answer has to continue to be co-optation and very discriminate targeting. The key--and this is recognized in the joint campaign plan--is to peel off reconcilable elements of Sadr's movement and continue to push them in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion into the political process.