The Use and Misuse of Influence in Counterinsurgency

By: MAJ Daniel Pace, US Army


In 2007, the US military was heavily invested in the war in Iraq. Following the initial success against the regular Iraqi army, the American war effort became mired in counterinsurgency operations against the numerous criminal and insurgent groups that rose to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's fall. Faced with the decision to pull out altogether or to double down on US involvement, the George W. Bush administration opted for the latter course and sent an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq, in what was called "the surge." These troops were tasked with establishing security and providing breathing space for the budding government of Iraq to establish control over the country. In March 2007, my platoon—1st platoon, Charlie Company, of the 1st Squadron, 4th US Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division—deployed as part of this effort. Over the course of 15 months, we were able to establish effective security, services, and economic prosperity in our piece of Baghdad, Mahalla 838.1

Though our efforts were successful, in hindsight, many of our solutions were ad hoc and achieved only immediate security rather than contributing to long-term stability. In particular, while we succeeded in building influence with the Iraqi people in our area, the influence we built was between the population of Iraq and the US military—represented by my platoon—rather than between the population of Iraq and the government of Iraq. With a more thorough understanding of influence, particularly how it is generated and maintained, the US military could have been more successful in achieving long-term stability in Iraq. This article summarizes my platoon's activities in Iraq and analyzes those activities through the lens of an academic understanding of the concept and application of influence to describe how we built influence with the population of Mahalla 838, what the effects of the influence campaign were, and how counterinsurgency campaigns might improve on our performance in the future.

Mahalla 838

Mahalla 838 was a heavily Sunni neighborhood in the center of Baghdad. At the time of the US invasion in March 2003, the population was well educated and included many high-ranking technical officials from the Saddam Hussein regime, including the deposed president's cardiologist, the head of the Iraqi Dental Association, and numerous retired senior military officials. The mahalla functioned through a combination of Gemeinschaft (the local community)—led by a number of traditionally influential people with strong tribal ties and strengthened by the homogeneity of the Sunni population, which provided a degree of social consensus—and Gesellschaft (the larger society), which consisted of the generally rational system of laws constructed and enforced by the Ba'ath party government.2 Basic necessities in the community were provided by a dual system: partly official and partly unofficial. While the distribution of many important goods was managed by a system of government-issued ration cards, locally owned shops provided the majority of the population's other necessities. Utilities were provided by the government through a well-developed, government-controlled infrastructure.

Rebuilding the Mahalla

The US invasion upset this balance between the official and the ad hoc providers, and unraveled the existing system. Within a few weeks, the Ba'ath party's mechanisms for control of the population vanished. Based on conversations we had with local residents, the basic community-level structure continued to function for a while, but as various insurgent and criminal organizations gained power in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, the community began to break down. Families with the means to leave—often the wealthiest and most influential—did so, and former government employees in a wide variety of fields, from electrical engineers to army generals to dentists, were either banned from further government service by the US de-Ba'athification mandate or fired by the new Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government. US forces patrolled the neighborhood on occasion but lacked sufficient presence and local involvement to gain any influence over the population. Perhaps because the population was largely Sunni, the reorganized Iraqi government mostly ignored the mahalla's needs, except to station a national police unit (entirely Shi'a) at the north end. This police unit spent little time patrolling the area but would fire indiscriminately into the neighborhood whenever they were attacked by the ever-increasing number of hostile Sunni insurgents. Thus, the police had only limited, coercive influence over the population.3

This was the situation in the mahalla when my platoon arrived in March 2007. Because of a lengthy pre-deployment education program based on the US Army's then-newly published counterinsurgency field manual, the platoon had a basic understanding of population-centric warfare.4 To secure the mahalla, the platoon first had to connect with the people and separate them from the insurgents. This required an influence campaign.5 The strategy we used evolved over a few months, but by June it was clear that, if we were to complete our mission, the campaign would have to combine the restoration of essential services, the establishment of security, and intimate knowledge of the population.

But how could this be accomplished? Despite pressure from senior US military leadership to better integrate Sunnis into civil structures, the Iraqi government largely continued to ignore the population of Mahalla 838. Electrical power, which was distributed by the government, was rarely provided to the neighborhood, and government distributions of propane—an essential commodity in Iraq—were suspiciously absent. The mahalla's people had by and large turned to the black market to fill these shortages, which drew them closer to the anti-US and anti-government elements of society. On the one hand, the traditional and rational authority structures were failing and had already lost the ability to influence the population. On the other hand, by exploiting scarcity and the neighborhood's welfare, insurgent and criminal elements were gaining influence over the people.6 My platoon saw this lack of government support as an opportunity to establish a degree of influence over the population, but in hindsight, we failed to replace or augment the legitimate rational and traditional authority structures. Instead, we destroyed the existing black market organizations and replaced them with a scarcity- and welfare-driven influence organization of our own.7

During the summer of 2007, Mahalla 838 was dangerous to both US and Iraqi government forces because a number of Sunni insurgents operated freely there. One of the techniques employed against us was the house-borne improvised explosive device (HBIED). While effective at killing coalition forces, the technique alienated many of the people in the mahalla, since they were killed by the attacks more often than we were. As our influence campaign progressed, these attacks became less frequent, and stopped altogether by the winter of 2007/2008.
838 Black Market Electrical Generator When the government stopped providing electricity to the mahalla after the invasion, Iraqis began setting up their own generators and selling power to the population. The generators were poorly maintained, inefficient, and dangerous, but provided a great deal of influence to the owner. This generator caught fire and burned down during our tour.
US-Purchased, Locally Owned Generator in 838 Recognizing the influence gained by providing essential services, we provided these generators to friendly local entrepreneurs through the microgrant program. This provided the population with electricity and provided us with a friendly, influential, local business owner with a vested interest in keeping the mahalla safe and prosperous.
CERP-Funded Playground This playground was another Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) project. Dr. Mo mentioned that the children of the mahalla had not been able to play anywhere safely for several years and recommended building a few playgrounds. They were very popular. We hired friendly local contractors to do the work.
US-Hired Sunni Security Personnel in 838 As part of the Sons of Iraq initiative, we hired local young men to provide security in Mahalla 838. While our intent was to eventually integrate them into the local Iraqi National Police unit, we were never successful in doing so, since there was resistance to integration from both the local personnel and the government.
Mahalla 838 The general atmosphere of the mahalla

With money from a specially designated fund, we procured and distributed propane and electrical generators. While we made no conscious decision to apply Malcolm Gladwell's model of social influence, our funds were naturally channeled through the most effective "connector" in the mahalla, a locally influential man named Dr. Mo.8 As a connector, Dr. Mo had a knack for understanding who could do what and for connecting us with willing and capable local businessmen, as well as reliable sources of information about local criminals. Over the course of six months and with Dr. Mo's assistance, the platoon induced compliance with our program through a combination of deliberate coercion and enticement.9 We gained a large degree of influence over key figures in the mahalla, arrested or killed enough local criminals to virtually eliminate attacks, and employed a large percentage of the population in a series of local improvement and security projects.10 At the time, we regarded this strategy as a success, but in retrospect, there was a trade-off for the gains we made that ultimately undermined stability in our area and insofar as the same strategy was followed elsewhere, in the Sunni areas of Iraq as a whole.

A Post-Surge Vacuum

Due to the difficulty of overcoming sectarian tension between the Sunni population and the Shi'a government, we never integrated the independently functioning community we had developed into the legal Iraqi governmental system. The Shi'a police were nominally involved in security, but in reality, the bulk of the police work was conducted by either the platoon or the Sunni security forces we trained and paid. This undermined one legal method of government population control. Additionally, by creating local Sunni sources of scarce, traditionally government-supplied products, we removed the government's second means of gaining influence over the population: the provision of welfare.11 Removing these links to the government ensured that when US forces departed, we left an influence gap.

Faced with the reality of an often hostile Shi'a government and left suddenly without US forces to serve as a source of influence and stability, the population of Mahalla 838 likely felt abandoned and isolated. It is not difficult to imagine, especially given the presence of an internally loyal Sunni security force, that a large number of residents would have been willing to abandon the Iraqi government for an organization with more cultural overlap, such as the Islamic State (ISIS). It is possible that some of the residents of Mahalla 838 are fighting with ISIS today.

In retrospect, it is clear that the members of my platoon should have used our ability to create influence differently. Given the initial hostility between the population and the new government, it was necessary for us to secure influence over the population ourselves, but in the last six months of the deployment, with security and prosperity largely restored, we should have made a concerted effort to strengthen the mahalla's ties to the government. Restoring the link between the Sunni leaders of the mahalla—both the traditional sources of authority and the new managers of scarcity that we created—and the legal Iraqi government would have worked toward long-term stability rather than against it.12 By tying the economic structures we developed to corresponding structures at the regional level, we could have enabled the local elements of the Iraqi government to use welfare as a source of influence, and by tying our security structure directly to the national police, we could have enabled the Iraqi government to begin the long process of encouraging first compliance and then conversion to its point of view in our small piece of Iraq.13 Had our unit been more successful at this process, and had the hundreds of other US units conducting the same mission across Iraq achieved a similar kind of success, it is possible we could have helped prevent the current Iraqi civil war.

A Lesson to Be Learned

In future counterinsurgency campaigns, the US military must learn from these mistakes. When working through a partner-nation government, US military leaders must remember that while gaining influence over the population is important, the source of the influence is equally important. Influence built between US forces and the population is not the same as influence built between the population and the government, and long-term stability in a fragile country requires the latter, not the former. In the future, US policymakers and commanders must ensure that the partner-nation government is seen as the primary provider of security, economic opportunity, and welfare, especially in areas where the population does not initially support the government or its policies.14Conducting these influence campaigns will be difficult, but numerous scholars have studied this problem and written useful works about their findings and recommendations.15 During the conduct of the campaign, metrics must be developed to track government influence over the population, and commanders must be willing to accept the immediate tactical risk inherent in the relatively long process of allowing the partner-nation government to develop influence, rather than the commanders' developing unilateral influence themselves. While maintaining unilateral influence makes operations easier for US forces in the short term, it ultimately undermines US interests in the region. Without influence, the partner-nation government will be unable to effectively control its population, an outcome that discourages regional stability and will ultimately result in future conflicts.

About the Author(s):

MAJ Daniel Pace serves in the US Army Special Forces.

  1. A mahalla is the Iraqi word for a subsection of the city, equivalent to a district. The mahalla is used by the Iraqi government as a unit of population division, and the number is included on all official census, identification, and ration card documents.go back up
  2. Francis Fukuyama, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (New York: Free Press, 1999); Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: Free Press, 1947), 325–58. go back up
  3. The facts presented in this paragraph come from my personal experience in Mahalla 838. Over the course of 15 months, I interviewed hundreds of citizens of the area, including the members of the police unit itself, during census data collection and other counterinsurgency operations. This paragraph represents an aggregate of the information gathered during those interviews.go back up
  4. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Washington, D.C.: HQ, Dept. of the Army, December 2006): go back up
  5. An influence campaign is a series of planned actions to affect the behavior of a target population with the intent of causing that population to support the influencer's political objectives. See Kim Cragin and Scott Gerwehr, Dissuading Terror: Strategic Influence and the Struggle against Terrorism, MG-184-RC (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2005), 14: go back up
  6. Anthony R. Pratkanis, "Social Influence Analysis: An Index of Tactics," in The Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress, ed. Anthony R. Pratkanis (New York: Psychology Press, 2007), 56. go back up
  7. Alexus G. Grynkewich, "Welfare as Warfare: How Violent Nonstate Groups Use Social Services to Attack the State," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31, no. 4 (2008): 350–70. go back up
  8. In his model, Gladwell refers to personality archetypes as connectors, mavens, and salesmen, which work together to spread ideas throughout a population. The connectors, through their internal networks and innate likability, tie people together; the mavens investigate and share information on the topics that interest them; and the salesmen identify individuals' needs and persuasively recommend helpful ideas. According to Gladwell, this system spreads ideas quickly and effectively. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2000), 33–88. go back up
  9. Dr. Mo (a pseudonym) became very wealthy during our tour. From information I saw in 2011, he still seemed to be doing quite well. go back up
  10. Compliance, in this case, is the objective of an influence campaign, which aims to alter a population's behavior without regard to its beliefs. See Cragin and Gerwehr, Dissuading Terror, 15–16. go back up
  11. Grynkewich, "Welfare as Warfare"; Pratkanis, "Social Influence Analysis," 56.go back up
  12. Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 325–58.go back up
  13. Conversion is the influence objective that seeks to produce the desired behavior in a population by changing its underlying beliefs. See Cragin and Gerwehr, Dissuading Terror, 19.go back up
  14. Grynkewich, "Welfare as Warfare." The fact that the United States needs to carefully evaluate whether the government of a post-conflict partner-nation will be willing to or capable of governing in a manner that supports US interests is another matter entirely. While the answer is essential to the outcome of a US influence campaign, this issue is outside the scope of this paper.go back up
  15. A few of the most practical recommendations are Grynkewich's "Welfare as Warfare" for the use of welfare to win popular support; Pratkanis's index of tactics on influence in "Social Influence Analysis"; and Gladwell's The Tipping Point on connectors, mavens, and salesmen.go back up
Average (0 Votes)
The average rating is 0.0 stars out of 5.
No comments yet. Be the first.