Reprinted by permission of Proceedings, (April 2004, Vol. 130/4/1,214).
The recent troop shift in Iraq—one of the largest such moves in military history—is an important milestone in the effort to rebuild that nation. Of note, nearly one-fourth of the incoming forces are U.S. Marines. Having returned from Iraq last summer to reconstitute, they now resume an equitable share of the burden for postconflict operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
The Marines’ return triggers some interesting questions. Having assumed an important mission in the geographic hotbed of Iraqi agitation, will they offer more of the carrot and less of the stick? Will they be tempted to adopt a hard line, or will they use a flexible approach tailored to meet the facts on the ground?
To be sure, the Marines confront a different situation from the one they faced last year in predominantly Shiite provinces. The new area of operations in the Sunni Triangle contains a witch’s brew of regime loyalists, foreign fighters, criminals, and any number of frustrated and discontented Sunnis. This potent mix represents a major obstacle to fostering civility and long-term peace.
Marines harbor no illusions about the challenge. Media coverage provides constant, sobering reminders of the explosive devices, suicide bombings, and sensational attacks they might face. In addition, U.S. Army units operating in the region have provided valuable intelligence and many lessons learned. Incoming Marine units no doubt will exploit this information and apply techniques rooted in traditional counterinsurgency approaches.
A common theme of counterinsurgency operations is the importance of the support of the local population—and to which side it goes. Thus, as critical as it will be for Marines to hunt down enemy combatants, it will be equally if not more critical that they demonstrate respect for Arab customs, treat Sunnis firmly but fairly, forge bonds with Iraqi security elements and key leaders, and ensure their actions do not alienate Iraqi citizens.