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82nd ABN NCOs in the NY Times

COIN: On "The War as We Saw It"

This Sunday, the New York Times published a piece called "The War as We Saw It" by Specialist Buddhika Jayamaha, Sergeants Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, and Staff Sergeants Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy.  These gentlemen are assigned to the 82nd Airborne, which needs no introduction here.

I wish to begin by conveying our respectful appreciation of their service, and our hopes that their Staff Sergeant Murphy will recover quickly and fully from his injury.  It will surprise no one that I am going to argue against some of the conclusions they offer, but I do not wish disagreement to be read as disrespect.  Their service honors our nation, as does the fact that they feel they can provide a frank assessment of their observations to the public.

The piece they have published offers a despairing look at the situation in Baghdad, where elements of the 82nd have been operating for fifteen months.  I do not intend to challenge their understanding of the facts on the ground, as they are based on direct observation.  I assume the truth of every fact they report.  What I wish to challenge is their conclusions about how events will, they seem to say "must," develop. 

Let us begin by comparing their language with the language of another such report, written last year by another highly qualified military observer:  the chief of intelligence for the United States Marine Corps.

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

The officials described Col. Pete Devlin's classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.

One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, "We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that's where wars are won and lost."

I have no reason to believe that the Colonel was not an expert both on the situation he was analyzing, and also in the business of analysis.  He was flatly wrong, not because of a failure to understand or observe the situation before him, but because he did not see how the forces in play would work against each other.  Almost at the moment he published his findings, the darkness began to flee before the dawn.

Please continue to the extended entry.

The gentlemen begin with the problem of militia infiltration of the Shi'ite elements of the Iraqi police and some army units:

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

That isn't the whole picture, though:  if the Iraqi Army and Police units were loyal to "Shi'ite militias" only, why would they attack the Americans who were training and supplying them?  If the ISF units were puppets of the militias, it would not be necessary to use them against the Americans:  the Americans would be natural allies who were training, equipping, and propping up the militia's military wing.  The way forward would be to help America "win the peace," build the ISF, and then withdraw -- leaving the militia-puppetmasters in control.

What the anecdote suggests is suggested also by the recent killings in Najaf, aimed at factions loyal to al-Sistani.  These killings, in turn, have been part of a series of murders of Shi'ite religious and political leaders that broke out almost directly after the 2003 invasion, including the murders of Abdul Majid al-Khoei (allegedly by Sadr factions) and Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim.  It is not that there is a "Shi'ite faction," but that there are several of them in competition for control.  The infiltration by militias of some ISF units is matched by the infiltration by competing militias of ISF units, with differing loyalties and thoughts on the way forward. 

A COIN strategy of disaggregation relies on fragmenting opposition movements, to make each of them easier to defeat in detail.  Here, the fragmentation is already accomplished.  There is not a Shi'ite front to -- in the words of the article -- "realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal."  The Shi'ites are more concerned about each other than about us, or even the Sunnis.  The article suggests that the Shi'ites are trying to 'consolidate their hold over Iraq,' but what they really seem to be doing is competing for the right to consolidate the Shi'ite majority.

That, then, is the first point:  this particular enemy is divided against itself. 

The "lethal armor-piercing explosive" sounds like the gentlemen from the 82nd were describing an EFP in language civilians would understand.  I spoke with General Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, in a recent Blogger's Roundtable.  (Full disclosure:  I don't think the general realizes he has the honor, since I conduct professional relations under my real name, but as I am working a short term contract to 3ID, he is my current employer.  The contract has nothing to do with OSD's Blogger Roundtables, in which I participate simply as an interested citizen.) 

GRIM:  I want to ask you about Operation Copperhead Road, which is targeting EFP cell operations, as you obviously know. In the past, there's been some concern that EFP technology was coming out of Iran. Without going into anything that's on the classified side, can you give us a sense of whether your operation, first, is being successful, and secondly if it's turning up evidence of Iranian involvement?

GEN. LYNCH: Yeah, I can -- I don't know about Copperhead Road but I have had 42 attacks in my battlespace that are EFP attacks. I'm coming across munitions in my battlespace and weapons caches that are clearly marked as Iranian munitions. I've got a large forward operating base east of Baghdad; I've got an entire brigade combat team there -- headquarters and subordinate unit. We had 50 rockets lined up against that forward operating base. A great young soldier operating one of our unmanned aerial vehicles saw these rockets. We vectored ground forces out there, and ground forces disconnected all the firing mechanisms and rockets, but every one of those rockets came out of Iran. So we do indeed have marked Iranian influence in our area -- EFPs, munitions and also training -- you know, marked ideas of extremists from our area going into Iran, conducting training and coming back.

The EFPs, the murders of Shi'ite holy men who are not aligned with Iran, these are not the mark of an ungovernable local situation.  They are the mark of intentional troublemaking -- proxy warfighting -- by Iran against the United States.  The planting of EFPs against American targets becomes, then, not an expression of native anti-American hatred -- a show of disgust for an occupier -- but part of a war fought by Iran to control the Iraqi state by winning control of the Shi'ites.

I don't bring this up to start a separate argument about what it should mean that Iran is waging this particular war.  We have reason to believe that every nation in the area, including our ally Turkey, is involved in meddling with Iraq's internal politics to a greater or lesser degree.  It is a matter of great national interest to them, so of course they would be. 

Rather than engage the political question of what to do about Iran, I want to point to the military reality that their involvement creates.  What we are seeing here is not a national liberation movement by Shi'ites against Americans come to be viewed as occupiers.  What we are seeing is a divided Shi'ite Iraq, engaged in deadly infighting; with Iran backing some of the groups in a bid to control Iraq, and meanwhile also using them to wage proxy attacks against the United States.  A national liberation movement directed against us would be a cause for despair indeed; less so the situation as it is.  We can debate separately how we deal with Iran, but when we have dealt with them, a large part of this issue will resolve itself.

So, the first point was that we have a divided Shi'ite faction.  The second is that Iran is backing some of the groups, the ones causing us these particular problems.  That implies a COIN solution from the principle of disaggregation:  the others are natural allies of ours, because we have a common enemy in Iran.  Rather than having the Shi'ites turning against us, and having to fight the majority of the populace (or withdraw), we have a much simpler problem:  we need to balance the situation on the ground in the favor of the faction that will find us to be allies, and help them win the control of the Shi'ite faction that Iran seeks for its proxies.

Let us move on with the original article.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

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.

I have a strong conceptual disagreement here.  I agree that creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency -- or an insurgency, if you are fighting it as a proxy war, as Iran is doing.  I agree that armed Sunnis have become effective surrogates.  What I disagree with is the degree to which they need to be loyal "to the center" -- I do not think it needs to be either their primary loyalty, or even very important to them.

To explain what I mean, I need to collect another piece from the article.  This is something that I agree with strongly.  For that matter, it is something they appear to think is strongly important:  they say it twice at different points in their short article.  I will combine them here.

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.... Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers.

That is absolutely correct.  A political solution cannot preceed the military solution.  Political solutions only arise when the losing party no longer feels that it can benefit more by continuing the struggle.  In other words, you have to win the war first.

Politics in Iraq, at this point, have to be viewed not as part of a "peace process," which is a foolish dream.  They have to be viewed as a part of the war effort.  They should not be designed to offer concessions in return for negotiations; they should offer concessions only in return for alliance, and should punish those who remain outlaws, who wage war against the central government.  It is necessary that reconciliation be able and willing to forgive and offer amnesty to those who are willing to come in from the cold; if the COIN is being fought successfully, there will always be more such persons arriving.  As long as you remain opposed, however, you must be fought hard and offered no political relief.  There must be consequences:  this is a basic part of my understanding of COIN strategy.

The Sunnis in Anbar, and increasingly in Baghdad, are effective surrogates.  They did not get here by learning to love America.  They got here by being put in a position where they had to choose between alliance with us and alliance with AQI -- and then watching those cities who allied with AQI fall one by one to the United States Marines.  They got here by watching a chain of fortresses cut them off from their allies in Syria.  They got here, in other words, by watching bad choices be punished, while those who allied with America found themselves supported and defended by America, their interests protected even against our other allies.  Reconciliation is for them.  As they are now persuaded to fight alongside our forces, we will see they are treated fairly and properly.  That is the way we turned Anbar around.

The same can be done with the Shi'ite factions.  We must understand the proper role of reconciliation:  it is the role of forgiveness for old enemies who are now ready to be allies.  It is not a way to win allies with bribes.  It is an offer made to those who will now fight with you, in pursuit of a political order they agree in advance to defend.  In return, reconciliation.

That does not mean that their primarly loyalty is "to the center."  They may, in fact, despise the center.  Their primary loyalty will not be to the center at all, but to the tribe or local government with which they identify.  The center will have to defend and support its interests, in return for the defense and support of its own by the locals in Iraq's many tribes and localities.  This is what Gen. Bergner was talking about in his description of how local political movements were now starting to be important in Iraqi politics:

[O]n one level, [Iraq] has been a centrally governed country, without question, but in this country the tribe, the family have always been the most powerful bond that the Iraqi people have felt. And so you have kind of a duality of centrally directed but, if you ask the people who they trust and who they want to work with, it's at the family, tribal and community level. So both of those exist and both of them are very real parts of the nature of Iraqi society.

The general had just finished describing an array of progress around Iraq by local governments and movements, who had declared loyalty to the common peace, and were now seeking support from the central government.  More than anything else, I find that array of grassroots movements to be encouraging, a mark of a COIN strategy that is making progress toward a final goal.  It shows that the people of Iraq feel as the gentlemen of the 82nd say they should:  they want security above all, and are ready to start standing up for it.  But they are not doing so in a way that sees America as the enemy; they are doing so in a way that accepts responsibility for creating it themselves, locally.

In this, their enemy is obviously not the United States of America, which has done more than any other to help bring about that security.  The enemy is those elements, whether AQI or Iran, that seeks to create instability and destruction in order to pursue its political ends within Iraq.  Far from the grassroots movement the authors of the NYT piece say they fear, a movement by Iraqis to recover their dignity by standing up to America, I see a grassroots movement by Iraqis to recover their dignity by standing up for Iraq.

A federal system is the right choice for Iraq, one that bases its legitimacy primarily on the support of the tribes.  The tribes' leadership is accepted as authentic by their members, because it is a natural blood loyalty.  Tribes must be brought into fellowship with the government by fighting the war to its end, that point at which they are ready to pledge themselves to the defense of Iraq's common peace.  At that point, a generous reconciliation backed by American guarantees should be offered to prevent future splits. 

Iran must be dealt with, one way or the other.  The political process should be understood as following rather than leading the warfighting process.  It is critical to make clear to the people of Iraq that the enemies of an independent Iraqi government cannot hope to establish peace, but can only prolong the war -- even should they force out America, it would only deepen and worsen the conflict that troubles them.  As AQI was shown to be incapable of establishing independent strongholds in Anbar, that could resist the central government or the Coalition, so too Iran must be shown to be incapable.  That may require changes in the ROE, as the gentlemen of the 82nd suggest; it may require occasional changes in global and regional strategy, as dealing with the issue of Iran is of increasing importance.

Yet in this way, the longing for security among the Iraqis of Baghdad will have a clear and obvious outlet.  Like in Anbar, they will find that the American-backed central government is the only outlet that offers a real solution to the problem of war.  In this way, we can win the people of Baghdad as we won the people in Anbar. 

I have a sense that our military leadership understands all of this.  I hope that our political leadership will come to do so.  My respects again to the gentlemen of the 82nd; and my prayers for their comrade.

UPDATE:  I am reminded by email that I did not discuss their concerns about the economics.  These are serious matters.  Let me reply by inserting part of an email I exchanged with a fellow blogger on the topic, in a backchannel discussion in which he was taking a similar position to theirs:

You're right that there are a number of measures that are trending in the wrong direction, and have been... You mention power generation, which is symptomatic of several of them.  I spoke to one of the top leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq, BGen. Walsh, whom I asked about the issue of power generation.  He reported that the original problem had been one of a degraded power grid inherited from Saddam; but that we have replaced huge sections of it with new turbines brought in from the United States.  The current problem, as you know, is twofold:  insurgent attacks have targeted power generation, and local places are dropping off the grid in order to keep their generated power at home, rather than allowing it to flow to Baghdad.

That's two separate problems, obviously, one military and one political.  Of the military problem, there's this to say about it:  attacks on civilian power generation are a war crime by the insurgent forces, as civilian infrastructure is not normally a legitimate target.  The insurgents fight primarily by killing civilians, of course, and so they have almost managed to empty the category of "war crimes" as applied to themselves; almost everything they do is a worse war crime than this. 
It is mirrored in a number of similar problems:  the water treatment plants have been bombed, compounding the drinking water problems.  Spirit of America, the charity, collected donations to buy sewing machines and set up stations in Iraq where women could come and work on those machines for free.  The idea was to build small pools of capital in Iraqi society, to help speed the rebuilding, and to empower the women, who had little access to capital otherwise; but those sewing stations became a target as well, and were destroyed.
Given that we want to improve the state of Iraqi society for humanitarian reasons, and also to increase the stability that will improve our chances of achieving strategic goals, it doesn't matter "whose fault" the sorry conditions are in a certain practical sense.  We have to find a way to improve those conditions despite the worst the insurgent or terrorist can do.
On the other hand, I think their brutality ought to be motivating to a certain degree.  We ought not to want to say, "America and her allies can be defeated if you are prepared to be cruel enough to the weak."  I would add to your list of things we wish to accomplish a second humanitarian goal, one that applies not only to Iraq but to many places in the world:  we, the Coalition countries, need to make a stand for civilization.  We need to reassert that the things we have defined as war crimes will not be allowed to prevail as strategies, nor to return to prominence. 
This is one reason I am glad to see the UN willing to try again, and the State Department redoubling its efforts as well.  I think we have a common stake in this.  Unfortunately, the issue was clouded badly at the start of the war, so that we splintered in a debate over how best to uphold the Geneva Conventions -- whether with the International Criminal Court, say, or through national methods such as the US prefers -- and what precisely the Conventions require with regard to terrorist organizations and insurgents.  That division has been very harmful to all of us, and it has clouded the fact that we are debating different interpretations of common principles, while fighting a foe that prefers to fight by blowing up children playing hopscotch (as, alas, we saw this weekend).
All of that was to establish what I see as the fourth, and possibly most important goal.  This is not quite the neoconservative goal of altering the region with democracy, as it is not transformational but defensive.  I think we have an interest in defending the ideals of our civilizations, in terms of how wars may be fought, against those who believe they can prevail through brutality.  We have a common interest in not seeing brutality prosper:  for, as any economist knows, what prospers will also multiply.