The “Oil Spot” Theory of Counterinsurgency

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An up-armored Humvee hit by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Marine Staff Sgt. Gordon Van Schoik of Battalion 2/7 found the two insurgents digging under the hardtop of Route Boston at 8 in the morning. The discovery wasn’t luck. Weeks earlier, a little farther down the highway, an improvised explosive device had blown up under a Humvee, killing Pfc. Romano Romero, 19, of Long Beach, Calif. He was the 160th American to die in that violence-racked city and the first fatality suffered by 2/7.

A wide strip of blacktop running straight southwest from Fallujah, Route Boston is flanked by thick groves of palm trees that provide cover for terrorists armed with explosives. Boston was often closed to traffic, demonstrating that the insurgents, defeated in pitched battle, could successfully revert to classic guerrilla tactics. One option to reduce the threat of IEDs was to remove the vegetation. But clearing acres of trees would deprive thousands of farmers of shaded pastureland for their livestock.

Instead of cutting down the trees, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joseph L’Etoile, set out to track down the people who had set the mine. This was L’Etoile’s third “pump,” or deployment, to Iraq. Half of his 1,000-man battalion had at least one prior pump. Drawing on that experience, L’Etoile sent out 96-hour patrols through the countryside along the highway. Every day, dozens of Marines scoured the palm groves, checking farms and back roads, thinking like guerrillas about hide sites and escape routes. At night, the Marines moved to their own hide sites, sent out night patrols, got up in the morning and moved on, usually startling farmers accustomed to seeing Americans only on the roads.

On the second day of his patrol, Staff Sgt. Van Schoik was leading 26 Marines through a farmyard a few hundred yards from where Pfc. Romero had been killed. Van Schoik noticed that the cars on Route Boston were slowing down and then driving away at high speed. Approaching the highway slowly, the Marines noticed a spot where the swamp reeds were bent over. In the mud near a culvert, they found a cache of a dozen artillery shells—about 800 pounds of high explosives, enough to rend the stoutest armored vehicle.

When they saw the insurgents, the drivers had hastily fled. Van Schoik sent a squad across the highway to cut inland and set up a blocking position. He took the rest of his force, spread out, and then noisily surged forward, searching through the undergrowth. Van Schoik never saw the two insurgents—the digger with a shovel and his guard with an AK-47—break cover on the other side of the road and race toward their safe house, a farm in a palm grove several hundred meters away. When the Marine blocking force stepped into view in front of them, the insurgents tried to escape across an open field and were shot down.

“They don’t expect us to be walking, day after day,” Van Schoik said. “They thought once they got away from the highway and over a few irrigation ditches, they were safe.”

The battalion’s sergeant major, Michael Barrett, drove up and congratulated the Marines. Barrett had accompanied Pfc. Romero’s body back to Long Beach, where he was laid to rest in a ceremony attended by his extended family from Mexico. Barrett made a mental note to send an e-mail to Romero’s parents.

Last November, Fallujah was the scene of the fiercest battle in the 31-month war in Iraq. That battle, which stretched over several weeks, ended with more than a thousand dead insurgents, including hundreds of foreign jihadists, and thousands of buildings destroyed. Since then, over 150,000 residents have returned, every street is lined with piles of bricks as houses are rebuilt, the markets are bustling, and the streets are patrolled by Iraqi police and soldiers, supported by two American battalions.

Most of the insurgents who survived the November battle have fled. Scattered cells of terrorists remain, hiding among the population and fighting by placing IEDs inside the city every other day or so. About half these explosive devices are spotted before they are electronically detonated by a cell phone or garage-door opener.

Firefights, for which Marines train assiduously and engage in with a fierce zest, have become rare in the Fallujah area. Coping with IEDs is now the main tactical challenge for the American forces in Iraq. Nothing is more frustrating to a combat unit than confronting IEDs without being able to strike back. Eliminating the IED team that had probably killed Pfc. Romero provided motivation for more patrolling. Each day, the battalion averaged 17 foot patrols, plus 12 mounted patrols and “cordon and knocks” of two city blocks. Arrests from these combined efforts averaged one a day. With L’Etoile keeping his Marines fully employed, morale was high. The battalion’s re-enlistment goals for 2005 had already been exceeded.

Later that day, L’Etoile visited the vehicle-control points limiting access to Fallujah. The greatest current danger in Fallujah is the suicide murderer driving a vehicle packed with explosives. Ten months ago, Fallujah exported suicide bombers on a weekly basis. Now, the terrorists try to sneak suicide bombers into the city. Every vehicle is searched before entering. Inside the city are more checkpoints, roving patrols, and cement and dirt barriers.

L’Etoile next visited a registration center where military-aged males lined up to be issued the ID cards required in the city. Through these separate pieces—patrols, check points, identification cards—L’Etoile was putting into effect the essentials of counterinsurgency in an urban setting: First, establish a zone cleared by heavy force (this occurred in November), then cordon off the zone, patrol constantly, do not permit civilians to possess weapons, identify the residents, and arrest the remaining insurgents.

Malaya in the 1950s is often cited as an example of a foreign power combining with a weak indigenous government to crush an insurgency. In Malaya, the British forcibly resettled Chinese Malaysians, insisting they live inside villages where they could be accounted for. In Fallujah, the counterinsurgency tactic is the opposite: preventing outsiders from freely entering the city, rather than preventing the city residents from leaving.

The Mao Zedong doctrine of guerrilla warfare of the 1950s envisioned guerrillas moving by foot from the mountains and rice paddies to encircle the government troops in the cities. In Iraq, the terrorists live in the cities and adjoining population centers and rely on cars to gather for an attack and to escape. This is the first major insurgency where civilian cars are the main means of transportation for the insurgents. Monitoring and restricting vehicle movement has emerged as a key task for the government forces.

What is sometimes called the “oil spot” theory of counterinsurgency has been applied to Fallujah: Clear and hold one spot, then expand to another. In Malaya, there were 20 soldiers and policemen per 1,000 civilians. In Fallujah, portions of two American and three Iraqi battalions occupy the city, providing a security ratio in line with the Malayan experience.

Fallujah was the bastion and the symbol of the Sunni-based insurgency and the sanctuary of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and like-minded terrorists. In November, they were crushed in the fiercest house-to-house fighting since the Vietnam War battle for Hue City in 1968. In November, Marine squads engaged in more fights inside houses than have all the SWAT police teams in the United States in the past decade. Since November, the two U.S. battalions in Fallujah have shifted from high-intensity fighting, for which the American force was trained and equipped, to the tedious, messy conditions that confront an army occupying a restive, hostile population. IEDs account for about 70 percent of American casualties. The insurgents have learned to avoid direct firefights. This is frustrating for soldiers and Marines trained to close in on and destroy the enemy.

Most American combat units are deployed to truculent Sunni cities, where they encounter IEDs, glares, or blank stares. In the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, where the population was oppressed by Saddam, they are not needed militarily. So, American soldiers receive neither the gratitude of those liberated by the overthrow of Saddam nor the satisfaction of mission accomplishment that comes from engaging and defeating an enemy force in conventional warfare.

American battalions like L’Etoile’s have demonstrated the experience, adaptability, and determination to drive the insurgency down to the level currently seen in Fallujah, while maintaining morale. This is a testament to the leadership from corporal to colonel and to the singular spirit of the American infantryman.

For American forces to withdraw, however, confidence must be instilled in the new, mainly Shiite, army. That is an altogether different task. There are not enough American battalions to apply the oil-spot method throughout the Sunni Triangle. Given a concentration of effort, there are quantitatively sufficient Iraqi forces to expand the oil-spot approach to the 20-odd Sunni cities, plus Baghdad, that comprise the heart of the insurgency. The issue is the quality of Iraqi security forces, not the quantity. The Iraqi army was disbanded in May of 2003. American forces are providing on-the-job training to a new army. The sooner that is done, the sooner American units come home.