Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said several factors contributed to the reduction in bloodshed in Iraq: the now-completed surge of U.S. forces, Sunni fighters aligning themselves with Iraqi and coalition forces to help purge al-Qaida and maintain security, and a cease-fire pledge by prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controlled several militias.
"But in my view," he said, "what really turned it around was the counterinsurgency tactics our troops embraced and perfected."
Put simply, counterinsurgency is a form of warfare in which a civilian population is in the center of a tug-of-war between an insurgency and the forces attempting to stop it. The Army and Marine Corps in late 2006 published a counterinsurgency strategy written by a host of contributors, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who implemented its tenets while serving for 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Since President Bush announced the surge of 33,000 troops into Iraq in January 2007, violence there has fallen 80 percent, a milestone that Mullen today credited to counterinsurgency as he addressed the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference.
"The Army has become the world's best counterinsurgency force, and we did it in an extraordinarily short period of time," he told the audience. "It's truly amazing, and you don't have to look any further than Baghdad to find proof of that."
The chairman described a trip he took as the positive trends began emerging in Iraq. During his visit, Mullen was able to walk through the Sadr City neighborhood of the Iraqi capital, which as recently as last year was an epicenter of fighting. He also visited an outpost in Mosul – formerly one of the country's most contentious cities.
"These were places where just weeks before, we could not have walked," he said. "Look where we are now. I give a lot of credit to our leadership and to our troops. But it was their commitment to counterinsurgency warfare that really made the difference."
Mullen said the key now is to compound the expertise and experience U.S. forces have gained by continuing to refine and apply these tactics when applicable. He echoed comments made last week by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he highlighted the enduring importance of counterinsurgency.
"Even the biggest of wars will require so-called 'small wars' capabilities," Gates said at the National Defense University here. "In Iraq, we've seen how an army that was basically a smaller version of the Cold War force can over time become an effective instrument of counterinsurgency."
But as he has emphasized previously, Mullen underscored the importance of maintaining balance in the military forces, including keeping its conventional warfare capabilities up-to-date.
"I do worry about us losing our focus too much in the counterinsurgency world," he said. "We need balance in the way we think, in the way we train and in the way we resource ourselves.
"Though the specter of major conflict may have declined – and it certainly has – but it has not yet disappeared," he said, "and it will not in the immediate future."