By William Christie
Special to Defense and the National Interest
To figure out what’s really going on in Iraq, those of us without security clearances have had to examine the available literature like intelligence analysts. Ferreting out bits and pieces of information and trying to fit it into a mosaic that makes sense, filling in the gaps with informed deduction.
Why? Because after three years of war it’s become clear that those who are well-informed are not about to intentionally tell us the truth. And those whose intention is to tell us the truth are most certainly not well-informed.
Too harsh? Perhaps. But those of us who have served in the military know the process by which only the good news comes out. Just a quick sea story to illustrate my point. As my Marine infantry battalion stepped off on a graded 25 mile forced march in 1986, our regimental commander showed up and took command. Which was both inappropriate and illegal. For reasons of his own he marched us for hours without rest breaks, setting a brutal pace that put 40% of the unit, who were carrying much heavier loads than he, out of commission. Afterward we eagerly anticipated justice, since the massive number of drops meant we’d failed the event. But the colonel simply decreed that only those who had actually been hospitalized were to be considered drops. The Marines who ended up in the trucks following behind us didn’t count. He went on to become a 2-star general. And no one in that battalion, including myself, ever opened our mouths because it would have been a career-ending move. Every veteran can tell a similar story.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that a current military public affairs officer, if sent back in time to 1876, would be chiding the press for harping about The Little Big Horn when the overall campaign against the Indians was going so well.
The media has the different problem of near total cluelessness about the military and an inability to put anything into context. It’s as if, at the end of August 1944, the headlines were to read: 20,838 American Soldiers Killed in Normandy. Which might have been true, but certainly wasn’t the story.
However, occasionally something turns up that proves very illuminating, intentionally or not. The U.S. Army and Fort Knox currently provide articles from ARMOR magazine online (and if that doesn’t last after this commentary gets posted, you can blame me). In particular, from the November-December 2005 issue, "Platoons of Action: An Armor Task Force’s Response to Full-Spectrum Operations in Iraq," by John P.J. DeRosa.
The title gives you a good idea of the kind of military writing you’re going to have to deal with, but the rewards are there.
The article deals with the deployment of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, 1st Infantry Division, in Iraq during 2004. A particularly crucial time when the Iraqi insurgency was taking shape.
It is ostensibly about how this unit task-organized itself in response to its mission. Understandable, since the U.S. military, and particularly the Army, is always more comfortable talking process and metrics rather than strategy. It’s also a lot safer to write about.
The first nugget we find hidden inside is that this battalion-sized task force, comprising the equivalent of 10 platoons and 50 or so assorted vehicles including M1A1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, was assigned to cover an area of Iraq of over 1,000 square kilometers.
Now, we all know how few troops are in Iraq relative to the size of the country. After all, we occupied a much smaller geographic area of a thoroughly beaten Germany with approximately 60 U.S. divisions in 1945. But 1,000 square kilometers truly took my breath away. Any U.S. police or sheriff’s department would consider such a patrol requirement impossible under peacetime conditions, let alone during an insurgency.
Continuing on we come to the real gold—a chart of the unit’s various missions. Or Troop to Task, as the Army calls it. There are 22 tasks. And a close look reveals a staggering fact. Over 60% of them are defensive missions dedicated solely to the security of either U.S. units or U.S. assets. That is, clearing the main supply routes for U.S. convoys. Escorting U.S convoys. Providing security and quick reaction forces for U.S. forward operating bases and logistic support areas.
Even the offensive missions like combat patrols seem to have as their main emphasis keeping the roads clear of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) targeting U.S. convoys. The raids the unit conducted, of course, were to target Iraqi insurgents emplacing IEDs and ambushing U.S. convoys.
Now, in no way do I intend this to be a criticism of the unit in question or the author. Who when given their mission no doubt swallowed hard, saluted smartly, and then gave it back everything they had. The fact that 10 platoons had to somehow handle missions that ordinarily would have required 23 says it all.
But this unit’s account illustrates, quite unintentionally, the root of all our current problems with counterinsurgency in Iraq.
To this observer, admittedly safe at home in the U.S., it often appears that our military regards winning over the Iraqi population to be the primary goal of counterinsurgency.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The primary goal of counterinsurgency is to control the population.
Which is also the goal of insurgency. Those they cannot persuade to join them or remain neutral they terrorize.
But a counterinsurgent can only control a population by providing them with security. It doesn’t matter how many schools and clinics we open, how many soccer balls and candy bars we hand out to the kids, how many Iraqi reporters we pay to write articles about what nice people we really are, or all the civil affairs and psychological operations we conduct. All these things don’t matter if, after we do them, we then drive back to our bases and leave the population in the hands of an enemy who knocks on their doors at night and doesn’t take no for an answer.
Worse, if we’re just driving through the neighborhoods, then all the tasks we employ for counterterrorism and force protection (and how easily they can become one and the same) begin to backfire. If people are not secure in their homes (it’s no accident that appears in our Constitution), then all our checkpoints, roadblocks, aggressive high-speed driving to avoid IEDs and suicide bombers, helicopters overhead all night, house raids, and detention of suspects become objects of at best antipathy and at worst resentment. Not to mention our bunkered bases with levels of service and luxury the majority of the native population can only dream about.
The next article proves this point. An Associated Press piece from April of this year, available from the archives of Marine Corps Times, "Marines Run Through Ramadi to Avoid Snipers," by Todd Pitman.
This time a ground level view from an embedded reporter. Describing how the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment have to quite literally run while on foot patrol in that city in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. Because within 8 minutes of the time they step outside Government Center, the Marine-defended provincial government headquarters, they are under sniper fire. And the government center itself is under intermittent small arms and rocket fire all day long.
As a former Marine infantryman I was obviously affected by the account. And also grudgingly appreciated the simple genius of the tactics by which a few guerrillas can keep us away from the population. But I was also puzzled. Didn’t the Sunni sheiks in Ramadi begin open cooperation with the U.S. military at the end of last year? A piece of good news the Pentagon heralded as a sign of a major split between the Sunni community (read Sunni insurgents) and the foreign fighters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq.
This led me to an MSNBC listing of a Washington Post article from May 30th. "U.S. Will Reinforce Troops in West Iraq," by Ellen Knickmeyer.
It seems that the Sunni sheiks in Ramadi did in fact begun cooperating with the U.S. military against Al Qaeda in Iraq at the end of last year. And since then Al Qaeda in Iraq has assassinated 11 tribal leaders. Rather than summarize, I think these quotes say it all:
So whose security have we ensured? In the end, not even our own.
William Christie is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who left the Corps as a First Lieutenant in 1987. He is the author of 5 novels, most recently Threat Level, available in paperback from Pinnacle Books/Kensington Press. He can be contacted at .
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