Friday, March 17, 2006


The Same Old New Strategy

David Ignatius notes some positive results in Iraq in his Washington Post Op-Ed today, but he seriously misreads these results as the part of a new approach to the War. It’s the same approach that has been in place for at least the past 2 years, and while the results aren't immediate (and shouldn’t have been expected to be), they have proven very successful.

Here’s how Ignatius sets up his damning of the US military with faint praise:

Three years on, the U.S. military is finally becoming adept at fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Sadly, these are precisely the skills that should have been mastered before America launched its invasion in March 2003. It may prove one of the costliest lessons in the history of modern warfare.

Several soldiers in my unit were part of one of the teams training the Iraqi military, and worked with a General Aziz, perhaps the same as referenced in Ignatius’s piece. I’ve written on my visit with the Iraqi Army here, and of other interactions here.

I don’t doubt that there has been a learning process, that Iraqi Army units have required a lot of extensive training, particularly to reorient them to new methods and organizational procedures. And no doubt some American trainers and combat units working first alongside Iraqi Army units, and then in more supporting roles, have learned much.

But any (serious) student of counterinsurgency operations knows that the best tools to counter insurgencies sometimes take quite an investment in time and energy to bear the most valuable return.

Ignatius even contradicts his own point:

As the Iraqis step up, the Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role. This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.

As they step up. The way they should have at the beginning. Right.

Ignatius has no clue about the general state of the Iraqi military, police and other security forces at the start of the war. I seriously doubt he has any sense of military training and preparedness in the abstract, either.

Here’s what I wrote based on our experiences with the 4th Iraqi Army in Tikrit:

Culturally, Iraqis (as with Soviet citizens in that day and place) are incredibly docile, not at all used to deciding or doing much of anything aggressive or assertive. Those not imprisoned (or dead) or forced into slave labor were essentially on a public dole. No one here has much experience with work of any kind, other than the kind of work done by personal servants, landscapers, or laborers. But even then, nepotism and cronyism and very strong tribe politics means only the lowest have to do anything, the rest sit around and watch. (It's quite unusual, if 3 or 4 or 5 Iraqis are together in a work party, to ever see more than one or maybe two actually working. The rest watch, rest, or chat. This proportion holds in larger numbers, and is visible in village, rural, and army settings. (It may be different in more metropolitan Iraq, in the few such environments that exist, like Baghdad.)

It's not really that they're lazy; well, yes actually it is that they are lazy, very lazy. But that's what they've grown accustomed to. That's what's expected. In the Army, one of the biggest changes (and challenges) comes from actually getting everybody to work together at the same time. They have had no history of an effective Non-commissioned Officer (NCO) Corps, which in the American military are the primary leaders and trainers of Soldiers, with Officers being the planners and directors of larger aggregations of the smaller units (largely led by NCOs with some junior officers "in charge.") That's my role by the way. As a First Sergeant, I am the Senior NCO for 160 Soldiers in the Headquarters Company. I push troops, get them trained, make sure they keep standards, and make sure the Company Commander's (my Captain) intents and orders are carried out correctly.

And that's precisely the level of command and management they are missing, throughout the country. Officers are educated, enlisted are pretty much laborers. There's no professional military class. Throughout Baathist rule, intelligentsia and the educated were killed or chased off or put into service abetting a brutal, backward system. Punishment was often random and unpredictable, with whole families wiped out if one member ran into conflict with a Hussein or tribal associate. As in the USSR, incompetence in Civil Service and Nationalized Industry meant the people who ran things, who might have learned some advanced skills, were just there to have the perks, sat in the chair but did not need to do anything, and certainly not do anything well. Two generations of that was enough.

So I would argue that a conclusion like, “this is the way it should have happened from the beginning,” is facile and worse, ill-informed.

Ignatius cited three examples of how we are “finally” getting it right. The first:

A brutal stress test came on Feb. 22, when Sunni insurgents destroyed a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra. For a moment, Iraq seemed to be slipping toward civil war, but the Iraqi army performed surprisingly well. In many areas Iraqi forces -- backed up by overwhelming U.S. firepower -- helped restore order. "

“Seemed to be slipping toward civil war.” But apparently not. Ignatius should notify the Associated Press and the New York Times, “Never mind” Emily Latela-like.

Example number two, from previously violent and dangerous Taji:

I visited two bases where you can see the new U.S. strategy begin to take hold. The first was at Taji, straddling the Tigris River north of Baghdad, where the American 4th Infantry Division is gradually handing off responsibility to Iraqi units. After the Samarra bombing, enraged Shiites killed two Sunni clerics, and there was a danger that the reprisal killings could escalate.

Tensions eased after an Iraqi brigade commander, a Shiite, rolled his armored vehicles into the Sunni stronghold of Tarmiya and told local imams that his men would protect their mosques against Shiite attacks -- and that in return, they must control Sunni militants. "He laid down the law," remembers Col. Jim Pasquarette, who commands U.S. forces in the area. The crisis gradually eased there, with U.S. forces mostly remaining in the background.

And example number three, from the infamous Abu Ghraib (the town not the jail):

The town of Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, faced a similar test after Samarra. The area is almost entirely Sunni; the Iraqi army unit that has responsibility there is largely Shiite. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the Iraqi brigade commander, a feisty Shiite from southern Iraq named Gen. Aziz, is making it work. After the Samarra explosion, Aziz told me, he convened a meeting with local tribal and religious leaders.

"I am responsible for your safety," he admonished them. "The law should protect us all. There are no militias in this area." He told the local leaders they could protect their homes and mosques, but if he found anyone carrying weapons on the streets, he would kill him. The message seemed to work. A fiery local Sunni imam told his worshipers last Friday they should try to live with their neighbors.

Does Ignatius really believe that these examples would have been possible on the eve of or in the immediate aftermath of our successful but lightning quick removal of the Baathist “Government?” (I have a hard time referring to it as anything other than a brutal, country wide criminal gang.)

As I’ve written previously, the Iraqi Army was sorely abused, left to rot, training and readiness “undernourished” by any militarily sound definition. If one wants to make the argument that the US should have been better prepared for the mess of a military we would ultimately have to rebuild, rather than redeploy. Have at it.

To argue that we could have pushed them into a leading role early on? Please. Not unless we wanted failure. Because that’s what they would have done, and that’s what we would have earned. I’d say our military learned a heck of a lot since Vietnam. It’s unfortunate that, in many ways, we face the same adversaries.

(Via Real Clear Politics)

Links: Blackfive, Cao's Blog, Outside the Beltway, RightWingNation

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