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Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

Labouchere of Arabia

"He's gone totally native," one British officer at Basra Air Station said of the maverick commander of the Queen's Royal Hussars battlegroup. He's the subject of my first feature for Defense Technology International, where I am the new military editor.

Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere commands 500 soldiers in three squadrons scattered across the dry expanse of Maysan province on the Iranian border. His mission: to intercept illegal weapons and foreign fighters slipping across the old minefields and hulk-dotted former battlefields left over from the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 3 million people died here from 1980 to 1988 in what was just the bloodiest chapter of a long bloody history. Maysan is entirely Shi'ite, deeply tribal and hostile to all foreigners -- defined as anyone not from Maysan. That means Sunni insurgents and terrorists don't last long here. On the other hand, British forces aren't terribly welcome either. It didn't help that, until August, British forces in the province operated from a former Ba'ath prison called Abu Naji. The base became a magnet for mortar and rocket fire. After one particularly intense barrage in May, Labouchere decided it was time to rethink his tactics. He found his inspiration in history.

labouch.jpgNearly a century ago, British Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence -- a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia -- raced across North Africa the Middle East on horseback, uniting warring tribes in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence combined tactical brilliance with a deep respect and sophisticated understanding of Arabs and Islam. Labouchere does the same. Where elsewhere in Iraq, coalition commanders fret over every violent act perpetrated by one Iraqi on another, often intervening in a way that just escalates tensions, Labouchere accepts a certain amount of bloodshed in his province ... as long as it's in line with traditional ways of resolving conflicts. Observing one recent firefight between tribal fighters and Iraqi cops, Labouchere chose not to step in. By Iraqi standards, he says, it was simply a "conversation".

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.

Most resupply is by air. Every couple days a Merlin helicopter arrives with water, food and fresh troops and carries away soldiers in need of rest. For bigger spares and lubes, a Hercules will airdrop a dozen pallets ... or the battlegroup will clear a desert airstrip for a quick landing. For diesel fuel -- the heaviest and most vexing of Labouchere's logistical needs -- he tries to buy tanker services from a trusted local contractor.

Staying light means doing without many of the high-tech whizbangs other coalition commanders take for granted. Periodically, Labouchere's superiors send him some fancy new gizmo on a Merlin. More often than not, he sends it right back. A couple weeks ago they sent him a Raven drone and its operators. In a rare act of indulgence, Labouchere let them demonstrate the tiny drone. But when it crashed into his Merlin, putting a dent in the prized $30-million chopper, Labouchere sent the operators packing. Who needs a drone when you spend most the day racing across the desert, scanning the horizon with your own two eyes? Labouchere eschews networked comms and navigation in favor of old-fashioned radios and paper maps, prefers alert troops to radio jammers for avoiding roadside bombs and refuses weapons heavier than a 7.62-millimetere machine gun, If he gets in a pickle, his battlegroup is stacked with forward air controllers and the U.S. Air Force is just 15 minutes away. A low-level flyby has always sufficed to defuse a bad situation.

Queen's Royal.jpgAccustomed as I am to heavy, bristling, techy American methods in Iraq, I was shocked and little bit unnerved by Labouchere's "keep it simple" philosophy. But when I saw it working ... when I saw the way locals had warmed to his presence ... when I saw how much ground he covered and how quickly ... I declared his methods "revolutionary". "This is actually quite an old way of doing things," Labouchere countered. I saw his point: overlooking for a moment the vital presence of the sophisticated Merlins, there's no new technology in the battlegroup. We're talking diesel engines, machine guns, radios, maps and canvas cots. What's novel, in the context of this war, is Labouchere's confidence in tradition and basic principles. But he's right. Delicate communications networks can't replace a friendly local populace. Billion-dollar support contracts to firms such as Halliburton don't boost Iraqi confidence in their government and armed forces -- and they certainly don't kill foreign fighters sneaking across the border. Heavy tanks and massive fixed bases just draw fire and sprout huge convoys that also draw fire ... and that require escort, which only leads to more forces operating from fixed bases requiring still more convoys, and so on. An American base housing a thousand troops might generate a dozen small patrols per day. Labouchere does twice as much work with half the force -- and he does it more cheaply and with a proportionally smaller footprint that's far less irritating to Iraqis.

But could a force like Labouchere's survive in an urban jungle like Baghdad, where coalition forces have turned to heavier and heavier vehicles for protection against rockets and roadside bombs? "Why couldn't it?" Labouchere asks. He points to another historical lesson, this one from Northern Ireland, where British heavy vehicles just pissed off the natives and provoked a proportional response. If we went light in Baghdad, Labouchere's argument goes, it might help defuse some of the tension. And it would certainly be cheaper.

It's a bold proposal, but one with firm grounding in history ... and one getting an early test run on Maysan's sandy wastes.

Imagine a Stryker brigade adopting Labouchere's model. Imagine what we could accomplish combining American resources with Labouchere's no-nonsense methods. Now imagine that American commanders had half his guts and smarts.

--David Axe

UPDATE 11:16 EST: David Axe here. Folks have responded pretty violently to this post, especially to that last sentence. Let me clarify. There are plenty of brave and smart U.S. commanders, especially at the battalion level and below. But it's telling that none have adopted Labouchere's model. Here's why I think that is: Labouchere's methods are risky. His constant worry is that he'll get caught in a firefight against a superior force and get massacred. But that's a risk he's willing to accept in order to operate the way he does, in order to win. Most coalition forces in Iraq are, by Labouchere's estimation, hampered by an obsession with static force protection, a fortress mentality. While it's great to take care of your troops, if taking care of your troops means you handicap your own ability to operate -- thus prolonging the war and, as a result, incurring further casualties on your force -- then something's got to give.

UPDATE 11:25 EST: David again. Not to get carried away with the updates, but I gotta respond to one criticism. Folks are saying that the recent takeover of a city in Maysan by a Shi'ite militia proves that Labouchere has failed in his mission. I have addressed that very point here at Defense Tech and in a piece over at World Politics Watch. My basic point: several of the militias in southern Iraq represent law and order, and police do not. So a militia takeover is actually a good thing. I believe Labouchere would concur.


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Posted by: ry306631 at December 25, 2007 06:18 PM

There is a significant difference between light and heavy is the mindset that each is designed to counter. Light is normally used against unconventional or guerrilla warfare. Heavy against conventional forces. The initial effort was against one of the most conventional forces in the Middle East. The resulting mess is against an unconventional force. We did not plan, although there were plenty of indications this would happen, for such an eventuality. We are stuck with conventional forces in an unconventional environment, save this Brit and maybe a few others. SOF is an answer, however, there is also a brutality that goes with unconventional warfare that American generally abhors. So, do you want to win or do you want to just engage? Win is a change in strategy, engage will continue to put us in harm's way and make the world mad.

Posted by: Rob Dodson at November 18, 2006 08:23 PM

The real question is: What's the mission?

Light is good for one mission. Heavy is good for another. High-tech is good for one mission. Basic is good for another.

So the problem with Iraq -- at least from the military point of view, leaving aside the delusional thinking that put us there in the first place -- is that we've never, never, never matched the force to the mission.

The force that invaded was in fact even too heavy to defeat the undermanned, demoralized, poorly led regular and RG troops that the Iraqis had.

However, the force that invaded was too light, and the wrong mix, to secure the country to prevent the chaos that ensued, and to act against the many different insurgency groups that we now face.

Trying to say that there is some magic number of troops that will put things right is as much a fantasy as the lies that preceeded -- and have filled the media ever since -- the invasion.

Let the word go out, from this day forth, that THERE IS NO ONE SINGLE ANSWER TO ALL PROBLEMS!!!!!

Is that too hard to understand?

Posted by: David Noziglia at November 16, 2006 03:42 PM

"His mission: to intercept illegal weapons and foreign fighters"

Would you patrol a border in a British challenger main battle tank? The Royal Hussars is a tank regiment and they have challenger 2 tanks. Question is how effective would they be in this role? He's got air support in 15 minutes and I bet he can fall back on well defended fortress positions within 48 hours with that kind of mobility.

"Observing one recent firefight between tribal fighters and Iraqi cops, Labouchere chose not to step in. By Iraqi standards, he says, it was simply a "conversation"."

Perhaps on the ground they have abandoned the idea of establishing a liberal democracy. In not supporting the police force he is acting against the overall alliance objective.

But maybe that's called for, like in Afghanistan perhaps we should fall back from the idea of establishing democracy in the short or medium term and focus on keeping terrorists from establishing bases. Its the al quaeda level of organisation achieved over the 90s that allowed them to launch the 9/11 attacks and if we can simply keep any non state actor from organising to such sophistication we are on the offensive in the war on terror. In that sense his approach is a realistic one at this point in time.

Posted by: jvd at November 16, 2006 02:10 PM

This is total fantasy. Labouchere is pratting about in the desert, with the chaps practising their off-road driving skills and having a jolly good time.

Meanwhile, with Al Amarah now deserted, the militias have moved in, torched the police stations, put the local cops to flight and terrorised the local government.

And that is good peacekeeping?

Posted by: Richard North at November 16, 2006 01:51 AM

I am surprised David Stirling's name has not entered into this conversation, as is this not the very tactics he prefected?

Posted by: Logan Loftin at November 14, 2006 08:48 AM

Didn't Rumsfeld get fired because he went too light into Iraq ?. Now that he is gone, the criticism is we are too heavy. Make up your mind, I am confused

Posted by: Peter at November 14, 2006 06:06 AM

Brings to mind Lt Col. Alan King whose book "Twice Armed" I just finished reading. A US commander that also realized it was crucial to build relationships with the locals and had significant success doing so. Unfortunately he just got rotated back to the US and a new bunch put in his place. If there are answers for the problems in Iraq they'll come form those that have been there such as King and Labouchere. Hope the brass is wise enough to ask them.

Posted by: Mitch S at November 13, 2006 05:00 PM

Recently I posted about how the US has too many troops doing non-combat work in Iraq. This is the type of force that I envision us really needing, not based on it seems like it would work, but based on my personal experience in a true MOUT environment.

I spent a tour in an unnamed Iraqi city as an infantryman (not SF, ranger or SEAL: just plain infantry) and we conducted our operations as a hybrid between this Brit tactic and the static base American idea. Our daily patrols were conducted in unarmored stripped command HMMWVs with post mounted 240's and 6-8 troops per truck. We would patrol along, stop and check in with the locals, talk with shopkeepers, police, locals, farmers whoever happened to be there. We also gave some space to mosques on Friday and worked with the Imams to find foreign fighters.

Our other tactic was extensive use of 3-5 man teams walking out to set up OP's wherever we could find a good spot. This was my primary mission, it was against policy, it was very risky, we had very limited support.... and it worked. I could go into a house in the afternoon, sit on a roof be served a great dinner, enjoy some tea and walk out with a couple names of insurgents. We very rarely saw any truly illicit activity mostly because no one knew where the Americans actually were. More than a few times I walked out of a place and the owner didn't know I was there. It was the fact that we did not use trucks for insertion, had and used stealth and the element of surprise that we quickly became an island of silence in a province that was torn by violence.

Just to counter some future post about small town, or little villages, this city grew to over 50,000 during our tour. When we transferred to the next unit they said there was no need for this type of operation. Within weeks they were in the news, with very unfortunate results.

Posted by: egroeg at November 13, 2006 04:15 PM

Unfortunately flair, brilliance, guts and smarts can't simply be sunmmoned up on demand. A dozen Lawrences would be nice, but give me a dozen Napoleons and I could win a lot of wars too...

But two words of warning:

First, look what happened to Lawrence in the end. (Betrayed, along with the people he was trying to help by his political superiors.)

Secondly, Labouchere is by your own admission pursuing a high-risk policy. One slip which resulted in a dozen British soldiers getting killed would be quite likely to be the trigger for a phased withdrawl of UK forces from Iraq.

Posted by: David Hambling at November 13, 2006 03:32 PM

damn straight. Great article, about decent commander; and even better tactics/strategy.

as I've written before, my son is career army officer, who will parrot "protect my troops!" as his number one priority. force protection is what they teach, and most troops buy into it (because they want it?)......whatever.

the comparison with Ireland is dead on. alas, most "troops" that you will hear from, are to young to know much about it. same with Nam.

this war is different from all others, in that, at it's basic level, it is NOT about differing political systems or governments.....but about the Great Satan against Muhammud....our Western, Christian, affluence, "corruption", decedence, and ARROGANCE vs their religious righteousness....whether that is valid or not.

There can be no "win". Nor peaceful co-existance apparently. containment is the only viable solution.

(sigh) we WILL eventually withdraw....leaving them to fight it out themselves, while we take the hit for "losing" this war, same bull we get about Nam. And Bagdad? that will become the midEast Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City)

the sacrifices being given now by our personnel there on the ground, are virtually empty.

what a Veterans Day note, huh?

Posted by: campbell at November 13, 2006 01:56 PM

"...Labouchere chose not to step in."

Those are the kind of statements that get people demoted...

Posted by: Harry Toor at November 13, 2006 11:07 AM

I agree with Max on this. You said yourself, Sunni insurgents don't last long out there. Could it be that one of the reasons that things are peaceful out there in BFE is that it's one big homogeneous group that hates outsiders?

So this guy has a low population-density area, where there are very few religious differences in the population, and now he's a genius because there's little strife? Oh, except that people shoot at cops, and the guy doesn't get involved because "that's just those dirty sand-n***ers doing what they do" (of course, he's a Brit, so he'll make it sound all nice and fancy).

Posted by: Brian at November 13, 2006 10:53 AM

If your facts are right (and I have no reason to think otherwise), you're still coming to the wrong conclusions here by confusing two things that Labouchere is doing simultaneously:

1. He's focusing on going light.

2. He's focusing on not pissing off Iraqis and gaining their respect.

Those goals overlap a bit, but they're still distinct. It's just goofy to think that by going light in Bagdad, U.S. troops wouldn't get hit by insurgents. Anybody with a brain could see that there's no causal link there.

Also, Labouchere is in the desert and it doesn't sound like he's conducting MOUT. I'm not a military man, but I would assume that this makes going light a much, much more feasible option. I would also assume that it's easier to win the respect of locals simply because societal structures in small towns and villages are simpler to understand and predict than the politics of Bagdad.

So, yeah, Bagdad sounds pretty bad, but don't thik that one success story out in the sticks will provide a battle plan for totally different circumstances.

Posted by: Max at November 13, 2006 09:55 AM

T.E. Lawrence was stationed in Cairo for a time, but in his celebrated exploits he was not running about "North Africa," but in what is now Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Syria. All are in Asia.

Posted by: Edward Furey at November 13, 2006 09:23 AM

Ah, now you are an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. Good to know. You can drop in for a day or two and immediately tell what works, what doesn't, and what's revolutionary.

And, surprise, everything you learn confirms that the Americans are a bunch of over-muscled, over-teched, gung-ho cowboys. Wow, I could never have predicted that.

DefenseTech's reflexive anti-Americanism is getting so predictable. This is about the 15th article in a row that has some slur against the US and its military.

Why is this anti-military, anti-American blog part of Is DailyKos part of the site as well now?

You guys suck.

Posted by: mike at November 13, 2006 08:46 AM

It sounds like the long range desert patrols from WW2. Why is it that always forget the lessons learned?

Posted by: Erik at November 13, 2006 07:17 AM

"Imagine a Stryker brigade adopting Labouchere's model. Imagine what we could accomplish combining American resources with Labouchere's no-nonsense methods. Now imagine that American commanders had half his guts and smarts."

Wow, I see an American Commander getting canned because he didn't use all the armor and resources available.

An expose in DefenseTech about how an idiot wasted troops lives, by employing risky tactics.

A Congressperson calling for an investigation of incompetence in the office of the Defense Secretary.

Oh wait-things like this are already happening!!!

I think Defense Technology International has no idea the trouble they are getting into.

Posted by: Sam at November 13, 2006 06:50 AM

That was a great bit up till that last sentence... that was a rather gratuitous shot at the US military. Anyways aside from that this article makes an excellent point. However you do have hold somewhere. Our big bases however should be like they are in the US though- in remote areas where they are not as obtrusive and you can have excellent fields of fire and a good idea if something is out of place. That Merlin needs to operate from somewhere after all. Plus- you need mech to operate in some environments. Re: heavy urban combat like Fallujah or when we were trying to take down Sadr's punks. But you could keep those in remote locations only to be used as the heavy stick in extremis. I would also like to see the rebirth of the CAP platoon, and I think it is in some aspects in Iraq in the training programs over there. An excellent example of its effectiveness and utility can be found in Bing Wests "The Village" which is similar in idea with light mech and heavy on foot forces.

Food for thought: An oft criticized person here- Rumsfeld was a big proponent of the light on mech and heavy on foot forces, albeit with a higher tech emphasis, like the Striker brigade you mention. The Marines also already have a force mostly like this with LAVs and light infantry.

Posted by: TZ at November 13, 2006 03:00 AM

If I remember correctly, the Pentagon originally wanted to go light, fast, and nimble, but of course as high tech as Star Wars. Was it the Rumsfeld Doctrine versus Powell Doctrine? Now we have 20 ton armored vehicles and large bases with complicated supply chains. Soldiers carry 30 pounds of armor, 30 pounds of weapons, ammo, and other supplies, and 30 pounds of "gadgets".

SOF's are light and they accomplish plenty, maybe more. I believe tactics with a small footprint and intelligent soldiers with proportional force are needed to "win" a popular insurgency.

Posted by: BT at November 13, 2006 02:23 AM


Posted by: War.Economist at November 13, 2006 02:04 AM

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