Thursday, November 16, 2006

Labouchere of Arabia

Fascinating read at, which profiles a British commander who has implemented some innovative--and perhaps historical--tactics for controlling a sector of southern Iraq, along the Iranian border. When Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere found his base a magnet for enemy rocket and small arms fire, he took a page out of the T.E. Lawrence playbook, going light (and mobile).

"Like Lawrence, Labouchere relies on speed and agility. He travels light in just a dozen vehicles per squadron, mostly trucks and speedy Land Rovers but including a handful of Scimitar light tanks armed with 30-millimeter cannons. At night he bivouacs in depressions or nestled between hills to shield him from prying eyes. By day he sorties to patrol the border, show the flag in remote towns and hold court with Iraqi cops, local army troops and the tribal leaders who are his eyes and ears and his allies in the fight against smugglers and foreign fighters. He and his troops shit in ditches, shave with bottled water and eat foil-packed rations. They sleep under the stars on collapsing cots. They live simply and waste little, all in an effort to stay light and to ween themselves from slow, vulnerable ground convoys."

The mission of Labouchere's 500-man Queen's Hussars battle group is to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters and supplies across the border. The Defensetech writer doesn't provide specifics on how successful Lt Col Labouchere's approach has been, but the Brits obviously cover a lot of ground, and interacting with the locals can go way toward building cooperation and keeping the bad guys out.

It is worth noting that Labouchere's area of operations--Maysan Province--is almost entirely Shiite and hostile to outsiders, so there's no real insurgency to deal with. But violence among Shia sects is a problem, and interestingly enough, Lt Col Labouchere tolerates a certain level of conflict--as long as its in line with traditional methods of conflict resolution.

Traveling light carrys obvious risks; the British squadrons rely heavily on American airpower to bail them out of tough situations, since the heaviest weapon they carry is a 30mm cannon, mounted on two light tanks. Labouchere believes that his methods might work in other areas of Iraq, including the Sunni triangle, but most American commanders sharply disagree. Labouchere offers the example of Northern Ireland (where the presence of British heavy vehicles triggered a proportional response by the IRA), but I believe it's an invalid comparison. The level of violence in Northern Ireland never approached what we've seen in the Sunni triangle. Lt Col Labouchere's light forces are ideally suited for a relatively quiet sector of southern Iraq, but I don't think they have the firepower or support infrastructure to survive on the streets of Baghdad. A well-placed IED ambush, using daisy-chained artillery rounds, could easily wipe out such a light force.

A better question might be: why haven't NATO forces in southern Afghanistan adopted this model against a resurgent Taliban? Recent reports suggest that NATO units in that region are adopting a "garrison strategy," partially ceding the countryside (and the local population) to the enemy. Michael Yon and other informed observers believe this is an invitation to disaster, and some have predicted that a NATO base in the south might be overrun this spring, if local commanders don't get more aggressive. Admittedly, travel in Afghanistan is difficult, but Labouchere's strategy of getting out of garrison and building relationships with the locals makes sense in areas where the threat is less pressing.

No comments: