VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)
I don't really enjoy criticizing what is obviously a sincere and well done opinion piece by this group of junior NCOs from the 82nd ABN. I think they did an excellent job of pointing out the extreme difficulties faced in fighting an insurgency, but that's all they did. They break no new ground and they illuminate no inherent flaws in our current policy. If anything the piece should be read the opening day of the classes on counter-insurgency COIN I assume all our officers are getting.
I don't recall anyone saying that COIN was easy, quite the opposite in fact. Every time Gen. Petraeus or LTC Kilcullen opens his mouth, he says many of the same things this piece does. COIN is probably the most difficult mission an Army could have given the huge need for successful interaction with the civilian populace. The military is not designed for use refereeing internecine squabbles some of which have the complicating factor of religion thrown in. The main thrust of this Op-Ed seems to be the idea that we are not up to the task of doing the hard tasks outlined and that remains to be seen. They overlook the fact that the signs of progress they say should be overlooked are actually the first steps in a successful COIN program and the other factors will follow as progress is made and the possibility of actual security looms.
However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.
Of course the government should fear that the Sunnis may turn against them, that is what gives them a need to make deals with them to prevent just that. We can't just spin up a fully functional liberal democracy, and we shouldn't be trying to. We can set up a central government that responds to the needs and desires of the various groups and ensures that none take undue advantage.
Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation remains in constant flux.
This paragraph kinda eats it's own tail but I will tackle the point they were trying to make. The first stage of our COIN program was a surge of forces to take control of areas where insurgents and militias had operated. We would then remain in these areas and deny them to the bad guys while simultaneously building rapport with the locals and the very groups they are so concerned about. Once we gain their trust we can use their own self-interest in security and prosperity to motivate them to compromise and reconcile with their enemies. Most Iraqis don't want conflict if an alternative that doesn't oppress them is available. So the first step was and is building a stable security situation and degrading the bad guys ability to influence daily life. The next step is to allow the political process to proceed and this is much easier when everyone is not ducking for cover every 15 minutes.
The first step has been a qualified success and when the Iraqi Parliament reconvenes they will come with a different set of priorities fresh from the mouths of their constituents. Many of these people have seen us working side by side with them over the past few months and they have reaped the reward of the return of elements of a civil society. The next element that needs to fall into place is a feeling that the central government is providing for their well being through reconstruction and provisioning of basic services. This should begin this Fall and will be the real test of our strategy. Gaining an upper hand in the security situation will mean nothing unless the Iraqis take advantage of that to pass an Oil law and take concrete steps toward reconciliation or at least an armed détente.
The writers of this piece take a fairly pessimistic view of our ability to win a COIN fight. They have every right to do so having seen parts of that policy in action, but only for the last 6 months or so. That is hardly indicative of what we will achieve if we continue a process where many of the initial signs are positive. I also feel obligated to point out the relatively junior rank of the group, none is more senior than SSG, which makes them young and not involved in our policy or it's implementation at more than a minor tactical level. It is always said that NCOs run the military and as a former NCO myself that is true, but not in the way it is often assumed. NCOs handle the day to day business of the military, the nuts and bolts. They do not get involved with much of the decision-making processes, more the implementation of decisions made by officers. The NCOs here have taken their tactical small unit observations and applied them to the entire strategic situation.
Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit.
The problem is they ignore the greater strategic implication of simply stepping back and letting them resolve their differences as they see fit. That would be a victory for Al Qaeda and Iran which they have not actually earned. The NCOs seem feel that COIN is too tough a nut for us to crack. I wish we had responded with this methodology 2 years ago and then we could see what type of progress we had made, but we didn't. So we have the war we have not the war we would like to be in, and yes COIN is the toughest of all missions. Well if it was easy, we wouldn't have sent the 82nd ABN now would we? I understand the sentiments and as they say.
We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.
I hope they can write another piece next summer about how happily wrong they were with this one.