The Combined Action Platoon|
Seeds Of Success In Iraq
By Capt. Matthew Danner, USMC
Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and
is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation….The
moment that this war of resistance dissociates itself from the masses of the people is the precise moment that it dissociates
itself from hope of ultimate victory…
The Combined Action Platoon: Seeds Of Success In Iraq
It is past time for the United States to re-examine its strategy for supporting the new government in Iraq
and helping to eliminate the terrorist and criminal elements in that country. The current strategy is not working. We are
engaged in a war of attrition that has the potential to completely erode our national will to continue the fight. A more widespread
use of the Combined Action Platoon (CAP) program would enable us to successfully eliminate the insurgent threat and restore
stability in Iraq by neutralizing the enemy's key strength-popular support.
Currently, there is little real progress being made in Iraq. Local successes are heartening and are well publicized
to further the belief that progress is being made. However, while it must be understood that progress made against a guerilla
insurgency will be measured in feet and not miles, these small successes do nothing to dispel the specters of a steadily mounting
casualty rate, an increasingly disenchanted indigenous population, and regular flair-ups in key locations previously deemed
clear of enemy presence.
The enemy in Iraq is not at all unique. As in any conflict, our enemy employs various, rapidly changing techniques
against us that are often unlike anything we have faced before. However, the insurgents in Iraq can be compared to other guerilla
forces from America's history; the forces led by Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter in the Carolinas during our Revolution,
Aguinaldo's Filipino guerillas, the Nicaraguan Sandanistas, the Maoist Chinese, the Viet Cong, and the Afghan Mujahideen.
From these examples, it is clear that the United States, and in particular the Marine Corps, has experience
in conducting, sponsoring, or countering guerilla warfare. In fact, the Marine Corps "wrote the book," the Small Wars Manual.
A few sections on animal husbandry notwithstanding, this comprehensive document is as applicable today as it was when it was
written more than a half century ago. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be applying our hard-earned experience in the current
The principles of conducting and countering guerilla warfare have been studied and analyzed by numerous persons,
many of whom participated in this type of warfare. The principles are taught at the professional schools for our armed forces.
While military history offers many examples of poor decisions based on solid precedent, it is equally true that we ignore
past experience at our peril.
The methods for countering guerilla tactics are simple in theory. Briefly, guerilla units must be countered
by a force that has both the ability to mass and maintain control of key terrain and the simultaneous ability to field and
control highly mobile and decentralized units to support indigenous forces in denying the enemy control of those areas not
occupied by larger forces. This strategy has its parallel in the process for political reformation. There must be strong support
at the core, and also supplementary support at each level to facilitate the establishment of a new bureaucracy. Ideally, the
new government and the assisting power work in concert, with the former gradually taking responsibility for each function
of government, similar to the way military units conduct a relief in place.
The United States has the ability to accomplish these things. The question as to whether we have sufficient
forces committed to the mission is still being debated. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that we do not. Numerous
texts on counter-guerilla strategy agree that a 10:1 ratio is required to completely eliminate an insurgency. The Iraqi Intelligence
Ministry estimates that the insurgents have approximately "40,000 full-time fighters plus another 160,000 part-time helpers
and fighters." Although this is significantly larger than previous estimates, it is not unreasonable given a total population
of more than 22 million. By this estimate, Coalition Forces need at least 400,000 troops to defeat the insurgency. Iraqi Security
Forces (ISF) could make up some of this number. The quality of these forces, however, varies widely by region.
Materially, at least, the United States is capable of this mission. Again, volume could be an issue, but the
command and control, logistics, and other assets exist to effectively execute an effective counter-guerilla strategy, including
the widespread employment of CAP.
The question is not whether we could execute this strategy, but why we haven't, given that our political and
military leaders are aware of it. We have identified that the enemy's strength lies in the will of the people, but we have
not adequately addressed that strength. We have experimented with this strategy, but it has not been fully developed. Our
forces have fortified key locations, and we have employed mobile assets to cover the areas between these nodes. Politically,
we have provided tremendous support, both moral and material, to the new government in Baghdad, and in each region military
leaders have established working relationships with the local leadership.
Some reasons for this deficiency lie in the political realm, such as our inability to enlist the active support
of neighboring countries. Convincing the rest of the Middle East that a stable Iraq is actually as much or more in their interests
than ours has proven to be surprisingly difficult.
Otherwise, the answer lies in military strategy, which I will discuss in three parts: decentralization, intelligence
gathering, and consistency. Each of these areas can be addressed through greater employment of the CAP program.
Currently, forces in Iraq are too centralized to effectively support the ISF in suppressing the insurgency.
Periodic patrols, especially mounted patrols that sweep through an area without ever really interacting with the populace,
do little to discourage the enemy or instill a sense of confidence in the citizens we are ostensibly protecting. It is not
necessary to garrison each village throughout Iraq, but permanent forces that retain an offensive capability, which are able
to easily coordinate with adjacent forces, and which work closely with the ISF must be stationed throughout each province.
Supporting the ISF in this way allows them to work at enforcing the rule of law and stabilizing the new government, and limits
the areas in which new insurgency cells can take root.
Decentralized forces also increase our intelligence gathering capability, specifically human intelligence
(HUMINT). Increased contact with both ISF and the indigenous population will yield more of the information vital to disrupting
guerilla activity throughout the country.
In order for either of these goals to be met, however, CAP must be pursued with consistency. Currently, the
rapid rotation of units to and from Iraq, as well as the frequent movement of units within the country, does not allow for
consistency of support for and interaction with the ISF. Every effort should be made to ensure that units assigned to a particular
population center are kept in place for the duration of their tour, which should be one year long. Relief by incoming units
must be thorough, and it must include participation by the ISF being supported, since the purpose is to instill confidence
in the ISF, local government, and the population that we are dedicated to supporting them.
Consistency does not mean uniformity of application throughout the country. One size does not fit all. The
Combined Action Platoon, much like the guerilla force it is meant to counter, must be employed as a complement to regular
forces in the field in order to succeed. The incoming unit should take its cues from the unit being relieved, bearing in mind
the Commander's assessment of that unit's success. Demographic, geographic, economic, and political factors will vary at each
location. As will be seen from the following case study, these factors are of vital importance to CAP success.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom II, while serving with 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, I led the Battalion's Combined
Action Platoon. This unit of 16 Enlisted Marines, 1 Sailor, and myself, lived and worked with the Iraqi Police in the city
of Haditha, in Al-Anbar Province, north of Ramadi. On a daily basis we trained and worked with the Haditha Police force, as
well as other local security forces. These included the Facilities Protection Service (FPS) (guards for the water pumping
station, hospital, and other infrastructure), the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), now called Iraqi National Guard (ING)
(responsible for the MSRs), and the security forces employed by the Ministry of Oil (Task Force Shield). The total population
of Haditha is approximately 75,000. The various security forces added up to just over 700 men. Some had prior military or
police experience, but the majority did not.
This mission came on order of the Commanding General, 1st MARDIV, then-Major General Mattis, that each Battalion
organize and train a CAP for possible employment in theater. Although every Battalion organized such a unit and participated
in Division training, to my knowledge there were only a few other Battalions that employed their CAPs. Those that did, however,
achieved results similar to ours. 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, for example, achieved outstanding success in the nearby town
of Hit during the same time period.
CAP has lived, died, and been resurrected in various forms several times in the past century. It has origins
in the Banana Wars. Throughout this period, in addition to conventional forces, small groups of Marines were assigned to train
and lead the indigenous police and military forces of Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. During the Vietnam War,
this strategy was reinstated, formalized, and given its current name. In Somalia, the United States and its allies pursued
a highly decentralized strategy that paired local chiefs with small forces from each of the member nations.
In each of these cases, CAP-like units (whatever the name) had varying degrees of success, depending on several
factors. The greatest attention has been directed to the CAPs of the Vietnam era, and opinions vary widely on their success
when weighed against the risk involved. The most prominent opinion seems to be that in many places where it worked, it wasn't
needed, and where it didn't work, it never would have. This leads one to believe that success in employing CAP is completely
unpredictable, and is the result of factors not under our control, which is not an acceptable answer.
My experience during OIF II was an infantry officer's dream. I was sent to Haditha with instructions to "find
a way to interact with and support the local Iraqi police force." My orders were handwritten by the Battalion Operations Officer
and handed to me at Camp Al-Asad minutes before departing with my platoon. The written order required two things: (1) I was
to report at least daily, submitting the standard 24-48-72 intentions report to the S-3; (2) I was required to get approval
directly from the Commanding Officer prior to occupying the police station. This was to ensure that we had "approval" of the
city's mayor and police chief (i.e., we would not be actively opposed), and that my defense and contingency planning was sufficient
to mitigate the risks, specifically from Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devise (VBIED) and direct fire attack.
This is not to imply that either the Battalion or I was unprepared to execute the CAP mission. I had prepared
for the previous two months, mostly by reading everything I could find on the use of CAP in Vietnam. Even aboard Camp Schwab
(the Battalion spent six weeks there prior to deploying to Iraq), I was able to get my hands on a significant portion of the
mountain of sources on CAP. I also studied Iraqi culture and the Arabic language. Probably the single most useful source for
information on how to conduct this type of mission, however, was the Small Wars Manual.
The CAP employed by 3/4 in Iraq served multiple functions. First, it established direct liaison between the
local ISF, as well as the local citizens, and yielded much good intelligence.
Second, we provided support and training to the ISF, enhancing their ability to provide for themselves.
Third, by living and working with the ISF we demonstrated our commitment to supporting them. In addition to
material support in the form of weapons, vehicles, ammunition, uniforms, etc, Marines provided moral support for both civilian
and military leadership. This was at least as important as the material support. Men of the ISF were not short on courage
or willingness to do their duty. What they lacked was the conviction that the Coalition Forces were committed to maintaining
security and rebuilding Iraq, and would stick around when the going got tough.
Fourth, the CAP served as an economy of force measure. By building up the police and Civil Defense forces,
the CAP eliminated the need for other Marine presence in the city and enabled the Battalion to focus on other towns and vital
Fifth, the CAP turned the police station into a safe haven for ISF or Coalition Forces in the city who needed
support, and also served as a ready react, overwatch, and brushoff force for Battalion operations, such as raids, that entered
the city. ("Brushoff" was term the Commanding Officer used for the unit that followed up on raids, supplying information for
family members of detainees, collecting information for legal claims, and performing other tasks as assigned.)
Sixth, the CAP provided direct supervision on Civil Affairs projects that had been contracted in the city.
These contracts were paid incrementally according to a schedule dictated by the Civil Affairs Officer attached to 3/4. The
engineers who had been awarded these contracts would tell us when they had reached a certain goal. We could inspect, and then
inform the Civil Affairs Officer. This helped to streamline the process and enabled the Civil Affairs Officer to focus on
projects contracted in areas not permanently occupied.
Finally, embedding the CAP at the police station provided the people access to Coalition Forces at a place
much less intimidating and more approachable than the firm bases. This facilitated contact with the civilian leadership as
well as regular citizens. On many occasions, this enabled negotiations between our forces and potential enemies, defusing
situations before they had an opportunity to develop into real problems. The CAP also served to deliver the Commander's message
directly to the people, as opposed to relying on the frequently ineffective Information Operations (IO) campaign, or sporadic
contact with local civilian leaders.
These functions bear a remarkable resemblance to the instructions laid out in FMFPAC Force Order 3121.4 of
The combined action units are to be used in cleared and semi-cleared areas to provide security in
villages and hamlets and to provide training for popular forces…Secondary missions are to conduct civic action and gather
intelligence for combined action companies and other friendly forces in the area, and to provide other appropriate assistance
to Vietnam and U.S. officials in furtherance of revolutionary development activity.
Appropriate tasks for the Combined Action Company are as follows:
- Motivate, instill pride, patriotism, and aggressiveness in the PF soldier.
- Conduct combined/coordinated day and night patrols and ambushes in assembly areas.
- Conduct training in general military subjects, leadership, and language for all personnel of the CAC to increase
the proficiency of PF elements so that Marine elements may ultimately be withdrawn and PF elements will continue to perform
in an efficient manner.
- Conduct combined/coordinated operations with U.S., ARVN, and FWMAF [Free World Military Assistance Forces]
units in coordination with district chief in the CAC area of responsibility.
- Marine squad leaders in individual CACs will function as U.S. Revolutionary Development representatives in
the hamlets in which they serve.
- Establish an intelligence apparatus in and about the hamlet in which located, in conjunction with local indigenous,
ARVN, and civilian representatives. Insure [sic] that information gathered is made available promptly and on a regular basis
to the intelligence center at the District level as well as to the headquarters to which responsible.
Each of these directly relates to a function carried out by 3/4's CAP in Haditha. Even (e), with its reference
to U.S. Revolutionary Development, has its parallel with CAP efforts to support the Iraqi government in the face of significant
resistance from groups attempting to undermine it.
Our CAP was successful in Haditha. Unfortunately, our mission was disrupted during the month of April when
the Battalion was reassigned to 1st Marine Regiment at Falluja. However, we returned in May, and were able to successfully
accomplish all of the missions listed above at a cost of three Marines, one Sailor, and two Iraqi police wounded in action.
It is accurate to say that the security forces in and around Haditha were more effective and the citizens themselves were
much less hostile toward Coalition Forces upon the Battalion's departure in July 2004, than they were when we assumed control
of that region six months earlier. Upon our arrival in the area in February, the police did not patrol the city, attempt to
arrest or eliminate any but the most serious criminals (those who attacked the police directly), or even work at night (only
a handful of the bravest men remained at the station). The station itself had been attacked three times in the preceding four
months, and six police had had been killed (including the Chief's son) and a dozen wounded. In one of the attacks, the attackers
entered the station after firing only a few shots, released all prisoners, and took every weapon they could find, including
the ones that the policemen were holding. Policemen who did attempt to enforce the law were thwarted by the judges, who unfailingly
ordered the release of every prisoner within 24 hours. The police also had to defend against attacks on their families and
homes. On the first several joint patrols, I could get only one particularly brave Captain to join us. We were also accompanied
by three of his cousins, who were clearly there more to protect him than to assist us. The few remaining weapons the police
had were filthy and barely functional, there was only one police car, and wearing a police uniform in town was a sure way
to be attacked. The only communications equipment was six hand-held UHF radios, which had a range of approximately 1km in
By the time we left in July, the police regularly patrolled the city, day and night, by vehicle and by foot.
More than half of these patrols were Iraqi-pure, and none involved more than a fireteam of Marines. Each night, 3-4 policemen
would share OP duty with a Marine fireteam on a hilltop near the station. On the nights that the CAP Marines were occupied
with other duties the policemen manned the OP by themselves. A regular shift of 50-60 policemen was on duty at the station
at all times, manning the Entry Control Points (ECPs) and serving as react for the patrols in town. Through the Civil Affairs
attachment the police were provided six vehicles and bulletproof vests for each man on duty. The police received uniforms,
which they individually maintained and wore with pride to and from their homes and on duty. Weapons captured during Battalion
operations were inventoried and signed over to the station. The police cleaned and maintained these weapons after noticing
the attention that the Marines paid to theirs on a daily basis. The Battalion provided funds for a radio system, and two police
officers installed it at the station. Within three days of obtaining the funds, the police had sixty hand-held Motorolas with
a range of 40km. These radios were shared with the ICDC Company to assist in coordination of effort. The jail at the station
was typically full of criminals either awaiting trial or serving sentences for crimes ranging from vandalism and theft to
assault. The city's judges were assigned 24-hour police bodyguards, which freed them to do their work.
Attacks on the station itself, which had occurred at a rate of three or more per week, were reduced to fewer
than one a week, the majority ineffective indirect fire attacks (2-3 mortar rounds or rockets) or the occasional grenade tossed
over the back wall. There were no ground assaults on the station during our time there, and neither the police nor the Marines
took any casualties at the station or at the OP. Attacks on patrolling units, a common occurrence at the beginning of our
tour, were reduced as well. In the final month, not a single CF or ISF unit was attacked on patrol in the city, though several
IED and direct fire ambushes were spoiled due to intelligence gained from the townspeople. Also, the police were noticeably
proud of the important role they played in the community, and were embarrassed by their counterparts in other Iraqi towns
who were not as effective.
Much of this can be attributed to the CAP, and the lessons learned can be applied throughout Iraq. Despite
this success, there is still considerable reluctance to employ CAP. The Battalion who replaced us left their CAP in place
for only a few weeks before withdrawing it. In recent months, the station has been attacked repeatedly, and the police in
particular are much less effective in Haditha. In speaking with my former comrades (the Iraqis), they cite this lack of presence
and moral support as the single biggest reason for this diminished ability. While it is possible that this is an excuse to
draw attention away from their own deficiencies, I don't think that is true. The men I worked with were honest about their
lack of training and ability. While the CAP was working with them, they were never timid about performing their duties. This
was true whether we actually accompanied them on the mission or not.
Keys To Employment
We have proven again, as in past wars, that CAP works. It will not work in every environment, or with every
unit. The good news, however, is that there are some guiding principles to ensure CAP's success in future employment. These
principles are based on experience and observations, not only in Iraq but also from Vietnam-era CAP veterans. They are also
consistent with numerous written sources, including the Small Wars Manual.
Personalities of both the CAP Marines and supported unit personnel are critical factors to CAP success. While
the latter is totally beyond Marine Corps control, the Marines can be identified and selected by the commander. My leaders
were extremely supportive and left the choices to me. Our CAP was comprised of Marines from the 81mm Mortar Platoon, the unit
I led during OIF I. Much as I would like to believe that these were exceptional Marines, I must admit that, given the high
caliber of Marine in our ranks today, they were probably average. The selection process was designed to exclude certain individuals,
as opposed to building an elite unit. There were qualities that I sought out, however, and now, after the fact, I conclude
that these were good qualities to seek:
Particular individuals were selected for their leadership
ability. The Platoon was organized into four teams. For simplicity's sake, we referred to the CAP as a Section. The team leaders
were each Lance Corporals, none with more than two years' service. Each of them, however, had demonstrated ability to lead
whether placed in a formal billet or not. The Section leader, a Corporal, was my only NCO. He had been a Corporal for one
month when the CAP was organized, but was specifically selected for his maturity and decision-making ability. He became the
backbone of the unit, managing day-to-day operations while I focused on liaising with Iraqi civil and military leadership
and the citizens themselves. The Marines selected for leadership positions were top-notch, capable of appropriate, independent
action in the absence of specific orders. Fortunately, Marines like this are not difficult to find. They populate the ranks
of every Marine unit, and I think that any leader will agree that Marines typically live up to the challenges and expectations
with which they are presented.
- Ability to get along with other people and work well as a member of a team. I rate this as important as military
- Lack of manifest prejudices against Arabs, in general, or Iraqis, in particular. This mission hinges on mutual
- Some talent or experience with foreign languages. Some Americans expect everyone to speak English and will
act with disrespect toward those who do not. I deliberately selected some Marines who were immigrants to the U.S. and speak
English as a second language, presuming that they would be more tolerant with language difficulties than others might be.
This turned out to be a valid presumption.
I was leader of the CAP because I volunteered for the duty. My first hat was Executive Officer for Weapons
Company. Not only did I anticipate that service as CAP Commander would be gratifying, I thought I would be good for this job.
For 16 months, including OIF I, I led the 81mm Platoon, which helped me understand Battalion operations in a way that I never
did as a Rifle Platoon Commander, and also to operate using Commander's Intent, in absence of specific orders.
I also have a personal interest in learning about and working with the Iraqi people. My experiences in OIF
I sparked a desire to learn all I could about the history and culture of Iraq.
Finally, I volunteered for and actively pursued this assignment.
Another important factor in employing CAP is location. There are places where CAP can work, and there are
some where it definitely will not, for reasons related to geography and demographics.
Haditha was a good location to employ CAP. First, it has a physical layout are more like that of a large town
than a true city. It has 75,000 citizens, and it is organized into 8 distinct neighborhoods. The police force of nearly 400
men is appropriately sized, considering that it is augmented by other security forces. The police station is centrally located.
The town, like most in Iraq, is relatively isolated from other population centers, surrounded by open desert, and has only
four MSRs. Because of these factors, the CAP could, with the aid of the police, maintain control of the area once control
was established by the Battalion.
A second factor that made Haditha ideal is cultural. Despite its size, the people of Haditha know each other
more intimately than Americans in a similar sized town would. This is due to the Arab tradition of strong familial and tribal
ties. Most of the time, this intimacy is an advantage. It ensures that outsiders are instantly recognized, and troublemakers
well known. The hazard, however, is that we could easily have become involved in inter-tribal disputes, or, more disastrously,
have given the impression that Coalition Forces were on one side of a dispute.
Haditha, at the time, was not a focus of enemy activity. Although there was insurgent activity, it was not
a hot spot in the way that cities like Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul, and Baghdad have been. A CAP unit can prevent enemy influence
from increasing in a particular area, but it is not large enough to expel a well-established or large enemy force.
A final factor was proximity to larger forces. Two Companies were located only 10km North of the Haditha Police
Station. Also, CAS and assault support, out of Camp Al-Asad, were only 20-30 minutes away. These factors not only provided
additional security for our small outpost, but also legitimized our claim to be a powerful force capable of reacting in a
timely manner and providing genuine aid in any situation.
Of course, the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a CAP is its actions, both as a unit
and as individuals. On a daily basis, we worked very hard to build relationships and establish the bond of trust necessary
to accomplish the joint mission.
The extraordinary levels of trust and cooperation that developed were the product of continual demonstration
that their (ISF, Iraqi people) concerns were ours, and that we had no ulterior motives. Operational security considerations
notwithstanding, we were unfailingly honest with the men with whom we interacted. We had to overcome Iraqi distrust of Americans.
One factor that aided us significantly in this regard was the 1st Marine Division Ethos of "First, do no harm.
No better friend, no worse enemy." These words had been preached to every Marine since before the initial invasion. Coupled
with a propensity for judicious use of lethal fires, this attitude alone did much to distinguish us from the unit that preceded
us, and to establish the necessary levels of trust and cooperation between the CAP and the ISF. It is important to note that
all Marines in Al-Anbar Province operated under the parameters of this ethos. This is one way in which we were mutually supporting
and able to provide some measure of consistency throughout the zone.
During the Vietnam War, CAPs were under the control of the Combined Action Group rather than the unit responsible
for the region in which the CAP was employed. Individual CAPs must remain an organic asset of the Battalion from which they
are drawn. This will ensure that the CAP is integrated with the Battalion's scheme of maneuver, and it will enhance the utility
of time-sensitive intelligence.
Many of these principles are supported by our experiences in Iraq and also those of joint operation units
from the past, including combined units in the Banana Wars and many CAP units from the Vietnam War.
The risk assumed by placing small units among a population rife with insurgents can be mitigated through sensible
planning and defensive measures. Ultimately, the best way to provide security is to disrupt the enemy, which this strategy
CAP is also a program that can be instituted with little opportunity cost in training. The skill set required
is already included in training conducted by Marine infantry. While it's true that 3/4's CAP attended specialized training
conducted by 1st Division Schools, this would no longer be necessary. The additional cultural training, intelligence gathering
skills, and other specialized techniques we learned there are now incorporated into the SASO training that every Battalion
receives prior to deployment. In short, every infantry Battalion already has the personnel to form one or more CAP units.
In summary, the widespread institution of a CAP program is the solution to many of our problems, not only
in Iraq, but in future wars that will likely feature guerilla insurgency. It is the next logical step in more fully developing
our strategy to support the new Iraqi government. Currently, our firm-base strategy does not allow for consistent, meaningful
contact between our forces and ISF, which is necessary to provide support in eliminating the insurgent threat. Some Marine
Battalions have already experimented with CAPs in their respective zones. However, this strategy must become more widely adopted.
Since it is the best way to eliminate the enemy's key strength-popular support-it must become the main effort for U.S. forces.
The Marine Corps should take the lead in instituting this program, given our natural advantages. From the
first day of training, all Marines are instilled with a propensity for action within the Commander's Intent, and we are comfortable
with allowing decisions to be made on the lowest level. Additionally, we have a significant cultural heritage in just this
type of action. It is time to take full advantage of the lessons we've learned, and the special skills we have.
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