Thursday, October 26, 2006


Soldier Voices (Part One)

I have spent considerable time lately mulling over diverse viewpoints of both supporters and opponents of our efforts in Iraq, and their implications for what I acknowledge as the Global War on Terror (GWOT), whatever terms are used to describe it. I am especially troubled by several, increasingly discordant strains of feedback coming from soldiers.

No, not the feedback packaged by General Officers enticed by fulfilling media, publishing, or partisan expectations, but feedback from boots really on the ground, lower ranking enlisted soldiers and officers.

Before I review some of these discordant voices, a disclaimer of sorts, to ground my opinion.

I believe we’re trying to do the right thing in an increasingly dangerous world. I further believe our President to be an honorable and religious man, true to his faith and to the American people, guided by his own discernment and spiritual practice, and supported in his decisions by military leaders who believe in their missions and possess the knowledge, skills, and leadership qualities to implement decisions as effectively as humanly possible. Mistakes have and will be made. However, I conclude that “sins of omission,” in a state of extreme threats to national security, have long been worse in practice than whatever our sins of commission, now that we act.

My regular readers know I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) III, mobilized and deployed to Iraq for most of 2005 with the New York Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division (ID). I was a Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) First Sergeant (1SG) for the 642 Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion (BN). I have served as an Electronic Warfare (EW) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Analyst (military occupational specialty or MOS 98C) and an All Source Analyst (MOS 96B).

I didn’t work the Intel mission in Iraq, as a 1SG, but I received regular updates on the situation in the local area (we were in Tikrit), as well as periodic reviews of situations elsewhere in Iraq.

My deployment experiences are mine, I deployed along with 200 others, and each of our experiences were different. We were all more or less “Fobbits,” so called from the Army nomenclature for Forward Operating Bases or FOBs. A dozen or so – a special group fp soldiers as I’ve written -- were attached to Scout units at remote locations. Many never left the FOB, except for a pass or R&R home, or when we left for good. A good number went on convoys regularly, with trips lasting anywhere from one to several hours. I went on about a dozen, more when I was filling in for our BN Command Sergeant Major (CSM).

My perceptions of Iraq, my time there and the military situation, is only one particular slice of experience out of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have deployed to Iraq. I have greatly augmented my own personal knowledge by talking to many other Vets, soldiers in my unit and others, reading widely among the MILBLOGS, and other media and reporting.

All by way of preface for a reflection on differing viewpoints.

Here’s one viewpoint that gave me pause, reported by James Taranto, in today’s Best of the Web at Opinion Journal (via Instapundit). Taranto passed along a letter from a Sergeant (SGT) involved in Human Intelligence (HUMINT) collection within the 4th ID, with apparently extensive contacts among other HUMINT analysts within the 4th ID area of operations, repeated here in its entirety:

There's been a lot of discussion back home about the course of the war, the righteousness of our involvement, the clarity of our execution, and what to do about the predicament in which we currently find ourselves. I just wanted to send you my firsthand account of what's happening here.

First, a little bit about me: I'm stationed slightly northwest of Baghdad in a mixed Sunni/Shia area. I'm a sergeant in the U.S. Army on a human intelligence collection team. I interact with Iraqis on a daily basis and I help put together the intel picture for our area of operations. I have contacts with friends, who are also in my job, in every area of operations in the Fourth Infantry Division footprint, and through our crosstalk I'd say I have a pretty damn good idea of what's going on in and around Baghdad on a micro and intermediary level.

I wrote heavily in favor of this war before I enlisted myself, and I still maintain that going into Iraq was not only the necessary thing to do, but the right thing to do as well.

There have been distinct failures of policy in Iraq. The vast majority of them fall under the category "failure to adapt." Basically U.S. policies have been several steps behind the changing conditions ever since we came into the country. I believe this is (in part) due to our plainly obvious desire to extricate ourselves from Iraq. I know President Bush is preaching "stay the course," but we came over here with a goal of handing over our battlespace to the Iraqis by the end of our tour here.

This breakneck pace with which we're trying to push the responsibility for governing and securing Iraq is irresponsible and suicidal. It's like throwing a brick on a house of cards and hoping it holds up. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)--a joint term referring to Iraqi army and Iraqi police--are so rife with corruption, insurgent sympathies and Shia militia members that they have zero effectiveness. Two Iraqi police brigades in Baghdad have been disbanded recently, and the general sentiment in our field is "Why stop there?" I can't tell you how many roadside bombs have been detonated against American forces within sight of ISF checkpoints. Faith in the Iraqi army is only slightly more justified than faith in the police--but even there, the problems of tribal loyalties, desertion, insufficient training, low morale and a failure to properly indoctrinate their soldiers results in a substandard, ineffective military. A lot of the problems are directly related to Arab culture, which traditionally doesn't see nepotism and graft as serious sins. Changing that is going to require a lot more than "benchmarks."

In Shia areas, the militias hold the real control of the city. They have infiltrated, co-opted or intimidated into submission the local police. They are expanding their territories, restricting freedom of movement for Sunnis, forcing mass migrations, spiking ethnic tensions, not to mention the murderous checkpoints, all while U.S. forces do . . . nothing.

For the first six months I was in country, sectarian violence was classified as an "Iraqi on Iraqi" crime. Division didn't want to hear about it. And, in a sense I can understand why. Because division realized that which the Iraqi people have come to realize: The American forces cannot protect them. We are too few in number and our mission is "stability and support." The problem is that there's nothing to give stability and support to. We hollowed out the Baathist regime, and we hastily set up this provisional government, thrusting political responsibility on a host of unknowns, each with his own political agenda, most funded by Iran, and we're seeing the results.

In Germany after World War II, we controlled our sector with approximately 500,000 troops, directly administering the area for 10 years while we rebuilt the country and rebuilt the social and political infrastructure needed to run it. In Iraq, we've got one-third that number of troops dealing with three times the population on a much faster timetable, and we're attempting to unify three distinct ethnic groups with no national interest and at least three outside influences (Saudi Arabian Wahhabists, Iranian mullahs and Syrian Baathists) each eagerly funding various groups in an attempt to see us fail. And we are.

If we continue on as is in Iraq, we will leave here (sooner or later) with a fractured state, a Rwanda-waiting-to-happen. "Stay the course" and refusing to admit that we're screwing things up is already killing a lot of people needlessly. Following through with such inane nonstrategy is going to be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of Sunnis.

We need to backtrack. We need to publicly admit we're backtracking. This is the opening battle of the ideological struggle of the 21st century. We cannot afford to lose it because of political inconveniences. Reassert direct administration, put 400,000 to 500,000 American troops on the ground, disband most of the current Iraqi police and retrain and reindoctrinate the Iraqi army until it becomes a military that's fighting for a nation, not simply some sect or faction. Reassure the Iraqi people that we're going to provide them security and then follow through. Disarm the nation: Sunnis, Shias, militia groups, everyone. Issue national ID cards to everyone and control the movement of the population.

If these three things are done, you can actually start the Iraqi economy again. Once people have a sense of security, they'll be able to leave their houses to go to work. Tell your American commanders that it's OK to pass up bad news--because part of the problem is that these issues are not reaching above the battalion or brigade level due to the can-do, make-it-happen culture indoctrinated into our U.S. officers. While the attitude is admirable, it also creates barriers to recognizing and dealing with on-the-ground realities.

James, there's a lot more to this than I've written here. The short of it is, the situation is salvageable, but not with "stay the course" and certainly not with cut and run. However, the commitment required to save it is something I doubt the American public is willing to swallow. I just don't see the current administration with the political capital remaining in order to properly motivate and convince the American public (or the West in general) of the necessity of these actions.

At the same time, failure in Iraq would be worse than a dozen Somalias, and would render us as impotent and emasculated as we were in the days after Vietnam. There is a global cultural-ideological struggle being waged, and abdication from Iraq is tantamount to concession.

This SGT sounds a lot like many of the young SGTs who worked the Intel mission for us. Their experiences are real, “ground truth,” and their perspective is important. It’s a slice, and an important one.

I wouldn’t even try to argue the good SGTs point about adapting late, or being a few steps behind our enemies in Iraq. Based on past experience, if we adapt at all while we’re in country and engaged, that’s a step ahead of where we usually are in any series of engagements, when we fight the last war with the tactics of the one before that. The Army is a big, cumbersome bureaucracy. If you were to ask me, I’d say that the kind of changes we need are far more in line with the dramatic changes attempted by Rumsfeld, rather than the old school thinking that drives many of the armchair Generals. Amazing that their answers are always more troops, more money, more certainty, and greater caution. And I think our good SGT is influenced by that kind of thinking.

Others have commented better than I can about the necessity of breaking Iraqi dependence upon US forces. More US troops offer more targets, especially if US forces were to take back on security duties already turned over or in the process of transition to Iraqi Security Forces. In many ways, viewing Iraqi security as inadequate, and requiring the resumption of US responsibilities defeats the purpose and maintains a dependency. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi police continue to learn “on the job,” they improve and strengthen.

As T. E. Lawrence is often quoted:

"Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them." (Full text of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars can be found online.)

I think there are fundamental differences between the challenge of reconstructing a savagely war torn and battered Germany and the debris of Nazism and the challenge of creating a democracy in the aftermath of the brutal Baathist regime. Germans had a history of democracy that could be reawakened. There were war criminals to prosecute and Nazi institutions to dissolve and rearchitect, but the people themselves were largely exhausted by their defeat and the destruction of the Nazi war machine.

Iraq has no such history, not with democracy nor with widespread societal destruction. Possibly ambivalent to their liberators, the Iraqi people would nevertheless more likely to resent and misinterpret a larger and more widespread US presence in Iraq. That was the logic as we implemented our plans. Some argue in hindsight that a greater presence would have prevented violence or defeated entirely the insurgency, but this is hindsight analysis impossible to verify. There are good reasons to predict that neither the Iraqi nor American publics would tolerate a greatly enhanced US presence at this later date.

As to 4th ID officers feeling pressured by superiors, or applying pressure to their subordinates, I can’t assess, other than to suggest that officers need to look to their own consciences. I don’t doubt such impulses exist, but I wonder how widespread, Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR) are PIR, defined by Commanders. In our AO, I saw every confirmation that violence and hostilities or any kind, Iraqi on Coalition or Iraqi on Iraqi, got reported. These predominated in our Significant Acts (SIGACTS) reporting.

I’ve had conversations with many of our Intel SGTs who felt as this soldier does, and they can be troubling. I’ve written in the past about patterns of analysis, and how analysts sometimes lose perspective in broader patterns, trends and implications, given their almost exclusive focus on the pinprick data points of violence. If anything, the Intel picture focused on such data points, and could not offer any real insight or information about what wasn’t happening where it wasn’t happening – the “white space” between data points.

I also remind myself is what I remind myself: as an Intel soldier, I’ve been immersed in thinking Red. It took me a long time to learn even the rudiments of thinking Blue.

For the uninitiated, what I’m explaining is that Intel soldiers are taught extensively about threats: their doctrine, operations, and tactics, as well as warnings and indicators that reveal patterns that can explain enemy situation. That’s referred to as thinking Red, like the enemy. Not Red as in Communist, but the color of enemy symbology when depicted on overlays or maps.

I served as an Analyst for three years in Germany during the Cold War, and reported on hundreds of events and activities involving our former Cold War opponents, and never got a very good handle on US military doctrine or operations. That would have meant learning how to think Blue – the color of US and friendly forces. If I had been a Commissioned Officer, I might have learned more, as I did much later in my career as I filled staff positions and as a 1SG.

More voices and commentary to follow in Part Two.

Links: Gulf Coast Pundit, SeaSpook

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