It was about 3am in the woods somewhere in the North Carolina woods. Two weary and parched Special Forces candidates stumbled out of the trees into a clearing lit by firelight. Their goal after hiking over a dozen miles was to link up with a “guerilla” group who would provide them with water. The “G” chief would be happy to oblige...all they had to do was help him hang an unfortunate victim who sat cross-legged and bound at the base of a tree with a rope around his neck. Before they got their water the burly “G” chief insisted the two young candidates could help him make short work of the gruesome task. After all the man had been judged to be a criminal and needed to be executed pronto. One of the young Special Forces candidates, unused to role playing scenarios and exhausted by thirst and fatigue just shook his head and started laughing at the bizarre scene. Wrong decision. He was tossed out that night. The correct answer is that there is no correct answer other than not violating our basic military code of conduct. But the real lesson is how far do you go in helping others achieve their goals before you compromise your own?
Special Forces training is unique but it is rooted in past experience and common sense. The Army looks for men who can think on their feet, deal with shades of grey but always maintain a focus on the mission. The mission in counterinsurgency is to build an opposing force using natural or paid locals and then if successful, integrate those groups into a peaceful, political framework. Often the experience can be like learning to fly a plane while its crashing other times it’s a giddy feeling of Kiplingesque king-making like the same “A” teams who were flown in to topple the Taliban in the winter of 2001. Back then the idea was to get as many teams on the field as possible and then back the winner. Once the Taliban was vanquished we could invent a hero, slap an aborted lamb fetus hat on his head, a Western suit covered by an Uzbek overcoat and voila, instant multi-ethnic leader.
Iraq delivered or provided none of that clarity or leadership. Partly because it was handed to “Big Army” to win a war that some say we should have finished over a decade earlier. Round Two in Iraq seemed the harder we worked the messier the game became. The more we pushed the players to form a team, the more they fought amongst themselves. Our new tactic of blaming the Iraqis for failure after we bombed, overthrew, disassembled and then rebuilt is not entirely convincing considering we still have 150,000 troops in the middle of what appears to be a world class domestic squabble. So perhaps if we changed direction by exploiting divisions instead of ignoring them, things might follow their natural course. But now all over Iraq from Kurdistan to al Anbar to Baghdad, Special Force teams are back to basics.
Finally Iraq By The Book
After pretending to ignore the ISG list of fixes, it was reassuring to see the Bush administration quietly begin to turn their Titanic-like Iraq strategy around opting instead for new thinking, new leadership and even beginning talks with Iraq’s neighbors. They even pulled their brightest desk-bound star off of the bench and sent him into the game as the star quarterback. After the media-heavy success in Mosul, Petraeus was sent to Kansas for a time out where he worked on the new counterinsurgency manual among other things. Its not surprising that downtime contributed to Petraeus' sagacious view of the current confusion that is Iraq.
There is no argument that General Petraeus is the man to watch. He not only has the full support of this administration but he is allowed to be unconventional. Something counterinsurgency demands. Petraeus stormed on to the field (press in tow) and begin to go head to head with a kaleidoscope of problems, grudges, disagreements, screw-ups, finger pointing and inaction. At first it was hard to determine if the opposing team was our own divisive government, the insurgency or the bureaucratic Iraqi government monster we had created in a few short years
The General was being told to "fix it" by an administration that had previously charted their course more on faith and bluster rather than logic and results. A predominately Shia government sat immobile, cloistered in the Green Zone while letting the US do most of the dirty work of eliminating Sunni extremists. Meanwhile the same government looks the other way while Shia extremists carry out ethnic cleansing. Was there, is there, could there be a “solution” in which every action has a reaction and every in-action has a reaction? The first administration-mandated play was the “Surge”. A naive assumption doing more with more and putting troops on the ground would stop the killing. It simply shifted the killing from the freshly occupied areas into the hinterlands. But one thing was clear...after years of back and forth, the ball was in play again.
But for how long? The “surge” didn’t quite work out the way it was planned, delayed deployments by Iraqi elements, spotty ground presence all against a ticking rotation clock made surge results seem positive if you were driven to the right spot at the right time but almost inconsequential if not. The early attempts to show shopping trips and good news stories are quickly countered by spectacular car bombs and a droning death toll of Iraqis and Americans. Parsing doesn’t work when it comes to Bush’s original mandate for victory, selected metrics aren’t convincing when the media ignores “Nothing Happened In Fallujah Today" and runs with the bomb of the day story.
The preliminary sense of ”victory” may be the calm before the storm. The insurgents also read the New York Times and watch CNN. They know that Bush is losing support and is quickly running out of time. They are banking on the classic American cut and run scenario like Vietnam or Afghanistan where once our national interest or initial goal is met, we are gone. An argument can be made for a Beirut-style bloodbath once US troops begin their withdrawal. So what do to to smoke out insurgents, keep them off balance and stop the Iraq disaster from congealing into bloody mass of warring factions and torpid leadership?
So it appears that under time pressures, Petraeus has chosen the Hail Mary or Gordian Knot solution: Cut through the complicated political and sectarian web we have spun ourselves into and start fresh...and at ground level. Or in other words: Do the best you can with what you have within the time that you have.
The Enemy of My Enemy
His solution? Stick as many guns into as many hands as fast as possible appears to be the new ground strategy. Current US and Iraqi ground presence is not sustainable. So why not invite the spectators from the bleachers to play on your team as well? These new players are known as “Emergency Response Units” aka “Salvation Councils" aka "Legitimate Resistance Forces" aka local militias, mercenaries, armed gangs, tribal fighters or whatever. The solution harks back to the most basic counterinsurgency strategy: Divide and conquer or “If everyone is fighting each other they won’t have time to fight us.”
The CIA and the military are now busy calving off more and more local fighting groups to create a bewildering mix of Shia, Sunni, tribal, regional and even neighborhood armies. As long as they aren’t “the bad guys” (not really a label used in counterinsurgency since technically they are all bad and good guys) then that leaves smaller and smaller groups of insurgents left to fight. Even if they were or are bad guys, keeping them inside the tent is still a better prospect than wondering what they are doing outside the tent. Armies consisting of illiterates, criminals, drop-outs and former insurgents are being armed and trained and paid between $100 and $300 per mission to join the fray.
ERU’s are created by large financial payments to sheikhs who must provide manpower for the free guns and training or through local power brokering to once terrified citizens is another and simple survivor-like “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic provides the rest. Sometimes ad hoc armies are created by kicking open the back of a truck and handing out ammunition, food and medical supplies.
These tribal, ethnic or local militias are in effect glorified death squads. Groups who use their newly-found violent powers with little restraint to push out what they believe are hostile elements. Just one look at what we have wrought in Iraq brings back memories of Liberia or Albania. Ragged bands of oddly dressed civilians carrying brand new heavy machine guns, RPG’s and AK’s...with nary a clue on how to use them other than they can now use them on full auto with impunity or concern for ammo costs. You might notice that these homespun Iraqi militias are using identical weapons to those we gave the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan... and they are the same weapons we worked so hard to hand them back over when the fight was over. As one Iraqi politician Sami al-Askari commented in the CSN ""What the Americans are doing is very risky and unwise. They are planting the seeds for future wars," ,
The re-building of the Iraqi police and the Army was a great idea at the time but the concept of the Iraqi’s standing up so that we could stand down went out the window months ago. Currently there are 346,000 Iraqi soldiers and police trained and in play, US troops can deliver around 150,000 men with about 10 to 15% being actually trigger pullers. The ERU’s supposedly number 25,000 which if the above tooth-to-tail ratio is considered is a pretty healthy number of armed men thrown into the fight. If the full head count of the ERU’s actually show up to fight, that’s an armed-on-the-street force equal to the US and half of the available Iraqi forces in raw manpower, if not skills. The good news is that we track these hometown Rambos with biometrics and insist that they will be integrated into the police or army but right now there is a free-for-all that is sending the most hardened insurgents scampering for cover.
Barrier to Entry Lowered
The other bright spot is the impact that arming every Abdul, Omar and Harry will have when and if neighboring countries need to begin stabilization efforts. Having a menu of fractious easy-to-buy groups with pliant warlords makes Saudi, Syrian, Jordanian, Iranian and even tribal involvement easier and cheaper. The free-market/swarm concept of hundreds of regional militias may be exactly the grass roots stability solution we are looking for...or our worst nightmare. The new entreprenurialization of warfare on the streets of Iraq also puts extraordinary pressure on the sclerotic and ponderous Iraqi government to shore up their crumbling power bases. The U.S has effectively spent years centralizing power by disarming and is now rapidly decentralizing that power by arming locals.
This new energy coupled with the diplomatic overtures being made by a once stone-faced administration means that the ball is being moved in the right direction and the Hail Mary move may be the one the administration was praying for and the Iraqis fear the most. Finally Special Forces teams are now shifting from being Big Army's 3am door knockers to doing what they do best.
Oh and the guy with the rope around his neck? The SF team was able to convince the “G” chief that it would be in his interest not to hang him... if we wanted the continuing support of Uncle Sam. After all money does talk.
For now let's keep cheering while the ball is still in play.