Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
November 4, 2004

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Tensions Rise Across Ranks In Iraq As Troops Are Told To Gut It Out

With limited manpower available to counter the Iraqi insurgency, senior military leaders in Iraq have ordered junior officers in some of the most violent sectors to exercise patience amid a steady stream of troop casualties, in the interest of achieving long-term goals, according to U.S. officials in Iraq or recently returned from the region.

"We're just in a period of time where it is what it is, it's probably not going to get much better, and we probably have to stay the course," one Army officer said in an interview last week.

Perhaps understandably, friction is rising across the ranks, with younger officers complaining the generals are allowing deployed forces to hang out on a limb with insufficient support. Meanwhile, senior military leaders insist their subordinates exercise discipline and have faith in a positive outcome, say officers of various ranks and services.

"There has to be a willingness on the part of all hands to meet the brutal facts," namely that insurgents in Iraq will continue to be violent and test the will of American troops, one senior military officer told Inside the Pentagon last week. As of Wednesday (Nov. 3), the Iraq war has claimed 1,120 U.S. troops.

The leader reiterated the view, expressed in an earlier interview, that "we can [and] will win this thing. Can you imagine the analysis of the first two years of the Civil War or World War II?"

Like most uniformed personnel interviewed for this story, the senior official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the military and political sensitivity involved.

But for some on the pointy end of the spear, the "long, hard slog" of absorbing and countering insurgent attacks in Iraq — borrowing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's term for a decades-long war on terrorism — can be a test of patience and fortitude.

Pentagon officials recently said they would boost troop strength by more than 6,000 soldiers in Iraq through the anticipated January elections. Rumsfeld has continued to resist outside calls for a longer-term increase in the approximately 138,000 U.S. forces there.

Some junior and mid-ranking officers say it appears U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid and his top deputies in Iraq have not conveyed to Rumsfeld their desire for more troops for the long haul, and have on repeated occasions disapproved unit commander plans to counterattack the insurgents.

"The generals are doing everything they can to cede the initiative to the insurgents. In most respects, we are here only for show and that really pisses me off," one officer in Iraq tells ITP. "No one in charge wants to win, just survive and put in their six to 12 months and go home."

Army captains and majors "now have infinitely more combat experience than the people who command them," says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who led combat troops in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during the 1991 war in Iraq. Junior officers "are willing to improvise to be successful [in] stability operations, as well as in combat. But they are left little maneuver room."

Macgregor — the author of two books on military reform, "Breaking the Phalanx" and "Transformation Under Fire" — says he regularly hears from junior officers in Iraq on what is and is not working.  [DNI Editor's note: Col Macgregor's briefing on Breaking the Phalanx is available at] 

An Army decision in 1998 to strip a company out of each battalion is producing perilous results in Iraq, the retired colonel has concluded. Funds spent on high-dollar procurement items like the now-canceled Crusader artillery system and Comanche helicopter were drawn from force structure, leaving three-company battalions to perform the same tasks as their larger predecessors once did, he says.

Not counting administrative support staff, the change has left only about 350 troops per battalion to run routine combat patrols and perform counterinsurgency operations. That is not enough to do the job, particularly in light of the strains of a typical 12-month tour in Iraq, says Macgregor. He also notes many troops have complained they lack sufficient body armor and vehicle protection against roadside bombs.

"For the soldier mounting operations in light-skinned vehicles, they wonder why they are doing it this way, indeed," he told ITP in an Oct. 26 interview.

The reserve unit that recently refused to undertake an oil transport mission its troops regarded as too dangerous called attention to what some observers believe are twin problems — one, inadequate troop protection and, another, an erosion of command discipline.

"I think the reserve unit 'mutiny' is an isolated case," one officer in Iraq said last month. But the incident should signal to Americans back home that "we are in combat," said the officer, noting more than a dozen rocket attacks on base the day before. "We are using artillery every day out here. Does that sound like peace operations?"

U.S. officers across the ranks in Iraq have observed that current tactics in the counterinsurgency effort may not be enough to fulfill the overarching strategy, which is to establish stability, train new Iraqi military and police recruits, and eventually hand over security functions to them (ITP, Sept. 30, p1).

More evidence of a mismatch between strategy and tactics may be surfacing. "Unit commanders are actually making deals over here with local leaders not to patrol in their cities if they promise not to attack Americans," says one officer. "On the surface, this seems like a great economy [of] force strategy — you don't attack me and I won't attack you — but it ain't. What happens is the town becomes a safe haven for insurgents to plan and carry out attacks in other places."

"If we caught onto something like that, we would hunt them down," counters one senior officer. "We're not being naοve about it." With limited resources and a watchful eye, the practice is a sound one, says this source.

"We make deals all the time with local leaders and local police to split patrolling," the senior leader continued. "If the local security guys can get control [of] the area and keep things quiet, then we pull our guys out of there and put them against the worse areas."

Others say coordination across various service or unit areas of responsibility has not been uniformly successful, particularly after years of interservice bickering and even feuding within services.

"Our own internal, stay-in-your-lane turf fighting precludes us from working well together," one Marine officer tells ITP. "The more you layer command structures on top of operational forces, what you get is [less] command and [more] chaos."

The problem is too many generals and not enough creativity in undermining support for the insurgents — not only militarily, but politically and culturally, says this source.

One senior officer, interviewed this week, agrees.

"I think there probably are too many generals and senior officers in Iraq and with purview over Iraq. [There are] too many organizations and too many levels of command," the officer said. "How can you be decisive with so many deciders?"

"I think we've got to get to the point where we streamline the forces, streamline the command and control and the headquarters, and increase the forces on the ground," the Marine officer said.

With not enough U.S. or allied forces in Iraq to patrol everywhere, some smaller insurgent sanctuaries may remain, many officers agree. "It's a huge country," a senior officer noted. "There are small towns where they see a patrol only every two weeks."

Even when insurgent targets are identified, commanders sometimes are reluctant to attack. The calculus may involve a trade-off between the benefits of eliminating armed resistance and the costs of potentially alienating the Iraqi public or, worse yet, causing unintended Iraqi civilian casualties, some officers say.

Making matters worse for Iraqi and worldwide perception of the U.S. occupation, "the enemy in Iraq looks very much like the population," one officer said.

"At the lance corporal level, we say if to kill a fleeing terrorist you have to shoot across a crowded market and endanger women and children, don't take the shot," said a senior officer. "If a crowd of rock-throwing boys is feeling particularly nasty, we use another street for a resupply convoy. But if the enemy was out there, we would hunt them down regardless where the path took us, including into a mosque."

The picture of the battlespace is not always crystal clear, however. "If I don't know where the strategic targets are, it's just difficult," said one Army officer in describing an ongoing quandary.

In any war, troops and equipment must be prioritized and allocated first to the most pressing targets, several officials noted. "There are only so many targets you can attack in a day. There are finite resources," said one Army officer. "So you have to look at where you'll get the most effect for your effort."

This officer and others acknowledge the job could be done better, though many disagree on specifics.

Even given the caution being exercised by senior commanders, the level of violence seen in limited attacks has "driven a wedge between us and them," said one Marine officer, pointing to some evidence of alliances between formerly adversarial Sunni and Shia fighters.

"We came there to liberate and converted ourselves into oppressive occupiers," Macgregor said. "We fulfilled every ugly stereotype that Saddam Hussein presented to the world."

That interpretation of Iraqi opinion is not universally held among officers. Many Iraqis, says one U.S. officer, are of two minds: "My heart tells me that I want you to leave now, my head says we need the Americans in our country for a while yet."

Given the complexities, a sense of caution among senior commanders may be understandable. But it also can be intensely frustrating for U.S. troops, particularly in light of the growing casualties.

"I'm prevented routinely from killing and capturing the enemy simply because [U.S.] commanders will not provide me a quick-reaction force or assist my unit in assaulting the objective," said one soldier in Iraq. "They do this because they fear it will incite the population and things may get worse. Worse? I can't see how it could get much worse."

Some officers describe a U.S. military in Baghdad that, because of the constant threat of car bombs and improvised explosive devices, has virtually retreated to heavily fortified bases.

Forward operating locations in the so-called Sunni Triangle "have basically turned into static positions," according to one recently returned officer. Army Gen. George Casey's Multinational Forces Iraq contains multiple layers of command, which many officers and observers believe is too top-heavy to effectively counter an increasingly clever and sophisticated adversary.

"As a result, we probably have more and more boundaries, zones and areas of operations" among U.S. troops, one officer said. "That creates seams [insurgents] can exploit."

U.S. forces routinely cross geographic boundaries between units in an attempt to conceal where the units may be most vulnerable, a senior officer noted.

"These seams are very, very bad for you," this officer said. "So you have to work actively against them."

Hot pursuit over these borders between unit areas is routine, this source said.

But another uniformed official said crossing zones usually is not a well coordinated effort, nor is useful information effectively shared across units on the battlefield.

"The real mutiny story is the fact that our senior-level general officers and politicians have forgot what it takes to win and, out of fear, refuse to provide their political masters counsel in what is actually going on," said one officer on the ground. "We are losing because we have no strategy and no patience for insurgent warfare."

"That has all rolled down to the bottom level, where the captains and majors are frustrated for good reason," Macgregor said.

Part of the problem may be a new generation of young officers inculcated to believe that high-technology weapons could surmount virtually any adversary around the globe, some sources suggest. But those weapons may not be the keys to success in the largely psychological war of counterinsurgency, where both sides compete for public support.

Having "clearly demonstrated we have conventional military superiority … how does the United States deal with a resistance that does not approach warfare from a high-tech conventional perspective?" asks one officer. The answer may be within the military's own grasp, this source suggested: "The most high-tech weapons in the U.S. military reside in the 'brain housing group' of soldiers and Marines."

Along with smarts, a little bit of faith in a successful outcome may be required, especially as the Iraqis move toward January elections, some senior officers say.

Officers can learn from hard-fought battles throughout history that they must take a more measured view of the situation in Iraq, said one senior officer. A sense of purpose and commitment toward the end objective must "come from inside themselves," rather than be handed down from superiors, this source said.

"History is replete with examples of troops going through the ebb and flow of emotion," another senior officer told ITP. "And so I don't think you can chase the morale continuously. That's what you'd be doing if you try to play to the fears and frustrations of the troops on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. That being said, you have to be honest with them."

Some officers believe the troops are being asked, at times, to substitute courage and faith for a more solid battle plan.

"The faith-based system we went to war on is crumbling now," said one such officer, recently returned from Iraq. "You keep giving them this false hope, you keep giving them this pseudo faith. They get disillusioned. We're going to end up with a Vietnam on steroids."

At the same time, military leaders must make clear to the troops that putting "lead on target" is not always a preferred path toward surmounting this adversary, some officers point out.

U.S. commanders need to rethink the definition of "targets" and "weapons" against a shadowy enemy, which operates covertly in dispersed cells, according to an unclassified draft briefing on Iraqi terrorism [2.2MB PPT] by Marine Corps Col. G.I. Wilson and retired Army Lt. Col. Greg Wilcox, obtained by ITP.

"Success is too often measured only or thought of in terms of kinetics," they write. In this kind of war, perception and influence may be more powerful tools than are explosive weapons, according to the briefing. "Money is ammunition. Food is ammunition. Medicine is ammunition," reads the briefing, which the two officers have begun circulating through the military. "Education is ammunition. Fuel is ammunition. Employment is ammunition. Recognition is ammunition."

U.S. Central Command's deputy commander, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, sounded a similar theme in a recent interview (ITP, Oct. 14, p1). Commanders in the field recognize "what we recognize," Smith told ITP last month. "This is not going to be won by the military. . . . We have not been able to get this reconstruction thing going the way it needs to."

The American bid to build small security and reconstruction victories in Iraq is "a little like putting Jello on the wall," with a constantly changing — but always amorphous — shape, said one officer. "The results of that might not be immediately evident. Do you have the patience to win? Right now we're looking for immediate results and I don't think that's either the strategic or right approach."

"This war will end in thousands of little accommodations, negotiations, jobs programs, firefights, incarcerations, funerals, etc., and not in one big, final battle," says one senior officer. "It's just the nature of insurgency."

Yet a clear demonstration of success may be just what U.S. troops, the Iraqi public and even the insurgents may have to see to turn the corner psychologically in favor of the American-led coalition, some say.

"I think there's a strong need for a major military accomplishment, not as a panacea or culminating victory but to demonstrate military success to both sides," one senior military officer said. Even if U.S. troops take more casualties in such an offensive, showing Americans are willing to pay the price to do the job "sends a very different signal, and it's a very important signal," this officer said.

There is palpable tension between the desire among many officers to take a sober assessment of the Iraq situation and the competing conviction that victory becomes out of reach if the troops lose confidence.

"Negative thought always sounds more authoritative," said one senior source, noting that is what makes headlines. "Whereas faith," the officer said, "is what you need to win."

"We have to balance the desire to stay the course in the broadest strategic sense against the need to articulate the conditions under which we can withdraw our forces," said Macgregor, emphasizing a need to reassure the Iraqi public that U.S. forces will leave when a specifically laid out set of objectives is attained. "We need to change course [and need] a fresh set of eyes," he said.

As U.S. forces gird for the coming Iraqi elections — potentially with some towns prevented from participating amid the volatile security situation — "the next acid test in terms of progress [in Iraq] is the elections themselves," said one Army officer.

The American presidential election, too, may offer "an opportunity to shift the focus a little bit, shift the priorities a little bit, and listen a bit more to what the commanders are saying," the officer added.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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