At Last, A U.S. Counterinsurgency Strategy
by Pam Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Qayyarah, Iraq (UPI) Sep 07, 2005
When Lt. Col. Bradley Becker stepped forward, it was to offer a valedictory message to a room full of Sunni and Kurdish shieks and imams gathered at Forward Operating Base Key West for a regional security meeting.
It was, in some strange way, very much like a graduation.
Becker's 2nd Battalion of the 8th Field Artillery Regiment has been in Quayyarah in northwestern Iraq for 11 months and they are preparing to hand over to a new unit from Alaska.
"I was new to this area and I thought I had come to rebuild the infrastructure and rebuild your villages," he said from the podium, an interpreter at his side. "I found myself in a fight with a very determined enemy."
In November, just a month after arriving in Iraq, Becker, along with battalion commanders across the northwest, found his troops defending against an insurgent attack that was stunning for its organization and breadth.
In two days, insurgents conducted nearly simultaneous attacks on 44 Iraqi police and army posts. Almost all of them folded, many of them with a single shot being fired.
The Iraqi police went from about 7,000 members down to 300 in two days.
The Iraqi army disintegration across the region was nearly as dramatic.
"I only had seven platoons. I thought, I can't cover this," Becker recalls.
He had a little unexpected help.
One former Ba'ath party official, a man known as Shiek Rahd, climbed to the top of his local police station and with some neighbors manned guns and drove off attackers.
Rahd is now a highly respected Iraqi army battalion commander, and an early target of insurgents. They blew his car up; he lived. A rocket-propelled grenade meant for him tore his driver's leg off; he lived.
"He's the second baddest man in Iraq," smiles Becker. "I have to remind him I'm still here."
Becker is teasing the mustachioed Sunni Shiek, but his jest holds a nugget of truth. While American battalion commanders will argue this is a war fought by platoons and sergeants, it is in fact one that hinges on battalion commanders.
They are close enough to the fight to make the adjustments in diplomacy and force -- carrots and sticks -- that convince recalcitrant communities to cooperate with the U.S. military, but are senior enough that they can clearly view the grand strategy at work.
"It's a battalion level fight fought at a platoon level," said Becker.
These commanders think big thoughts about the nature of war and insurgencies.
Because of the distributed nature of this fight -- lots of small battles, raids that pick up one or two people at a time -- they are more powerful than their mid-level career ranks would suggest. Brigade and division commanders are more apt to be working to support them than the other way around, as is traditionally the case in large wars.
Victory in this war rests on their shoulders.
It's not something they were especially trained for.
"I tell my captains all the training before we first deploy is for the first 30 days so you can survive long enough to learn the real lessons," said Lt. Col. Mike Gibler, commander of the 3rd battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st brigade 25th Infantry Division. "I'm not sure we knew how this would play out."
"My biggest frustration is I wish I had done better on 10-11 Nov., to understand what they were truly going after," Gibler said of the insurgent offensive.
"If I had been in theater a couple of months we would have seen the situation (developing)," he told a reporter in his Mosul office, "But there was so much (enemy) contact we couldn't focus on it until the night of the 11th, and we looked at each other and said, 'Damn They are going for the police.'"
Across Iraq, a counter-insurgency strategy has emerged in almost organic fashion at the battalion level. Its authors say that -- after two and half years of fighting -- it finally seems to be yielding results.
"Anyone who comes to a counter-insurgency thinking it's about killing terrorists is missing the boat," said Becker.
"It's really about winning the people. You can kill all the terrorists but then you've pissed people off and created 100 more," he explained.
In theory, the strategy is simple.
There must first be a perception of security created.
U.S. forces have to demonstrate they are capable of independent, effective action against the insurgents, who are often locals. They might be holding the community hostage with threats, intimidation and assassination campaigns, or they might have the tacit approval of local people.
In either case, U.S. forces have to flex their muscle. "We've had a huge dialogue about perceived security and real security," said Gibler.
"You create events or events occur where you get after (enemy) personnel. With that, the security situation has changed, and he can no longer do X, Y, or Z," said Gibler. "We show that to the local populace and its either validated or not."
Concurrent with those kinds of operations, commanders have to meet with shieks and imams to establish themselves as leaders.
Having the right personality is critical here -- it requires patience, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to accept risk. That includes removing body armor during meetings, entering with only a pistol -- coming with both peace and confidence.
"How do I tell people I've got great security if I'm cowering behind all this stuff?" Becker asked.
Connecting with local leadership is the only way a counter-insurgency campaign can work -- even if the leaders are part of the insurgency.
There are none of the qualms expressed by officials from the safety of Washington about "not talking to terrorists."
Local leaders can be co-opted away from the insurgents, or at least more closely watched, if U.S. forces have a relationship with them.
Time and again, U.S. officers say after a show of real force -- the kind of effectiveness that makes the shieks and imams and villagers think they might be safe if they throw their hat in with the Americans -- tips start to dribble in.
"Then they say 'the real guy you should be going after is X' and we follow another target," Gibler said. "The cycle is never ending. When you kill a bad guy he is going to be backfilled. But as you target these guys eventually they can't rebuild, and then you have real, no kidding security."
That security must be reinforced with reconstruction projects that show a real material benefit to siding with the outsiders, and the methodical incorporation of professional Iraqi government forces to transform that loyalty from the Americans to the new Iraqi government.
In Quayyarah, three Iraqi army battalions -- including the one headed by Shiek Rahd -- are ready now to take over security, said Becker. They are already planning and conducting their own operations and are regarded by U.S. officials in Baghdad as the leading edge of what is hoped will be a 250,000-man army.
The strategy is not rocket science; the principles are fundamental to any military theory of counter-insurgency. But figuring out exactly what targets to go after and finding the centers of gravity in each tribe requires finesse and intelligence and flexibility. This is not something that can be taught in a classroom.
It also requires sufficient time to evolve. Commanders must take the lay of the land first, and trusted relationships between shieks and Americans, when lives are on the line on both sides, do not evolve overnight.
"You've got to sit down and meet with them every day. You can't just drive around and wave and expect to make progress," said Becker, "One lunch in a shiek's house can do more to improve security than three raids."
In northwestern Iraq, foreign fighters, outside terrorist organizations and financing, the prevalence of thugs, the sorry state of the country's infrastructure and the collapse of security forces in 2004 slowed down this process immeasurably.
So did the safe harbor for insurgents that Fallujah offered until last November.
The region was also hobbled by a lack of U.S. troops. After the 101st Airborne Division pulled out in 2004 it was replaced with a new Stryker Brigade Combat Team, about one-third the division's size. This meant whole areas did not get a steady presence of U.S. forces.
Towns that were once friendly to American soldiers were left on their own. And insurgents remembered who their friends were and who collaborated with the United States against them.
The thinly spread brigade is one reason why U.S. forces had no inkling a major assault was coming last November. Both Gibler and Becker believe they would know about it far in advance now from their network of trusted sources -- including men who are acting as double-agents inside terrorist cells even now.
Gibler said his battalion has seen the effects of erratic U.S. troop presence on Iraq. Many villages and neighborhoods will now only cooperate once they are convinced the Americans have come to stay, to provide protection until the insurgents are completely defeated.
"They say, 'I'll help you're here and you're gonna stay, if you're not gonna force me to play my hand and put my life in danger," Gibler said.
About 4,000 soldiers with the 3rd Armored Combat Regiment are now in the troublesome northwestern corner of the province, a place the 1st Brigade originally could only afford to put 600 troops in.
Becker's meeting with the shieks last week is the tenth he's had in his 11 months here. He called the first meeting for those in securing stability for Quayyarah in November 2004, a couple of weeks after the Iraqi security forces disintegrated.
Seven shieks showed up.
Today, the meeting on the base has attracted more than 200.
"We haven't had a rocket attack in more than eight months," he said.
As of this week, his battalion has not had a single soldier killed-in-action, although there have been several close calls. Some of that record he attributes to luck, but most to the patient application of a counter-insurgent strategy that emphasizes personal relationships and mutual benefits.
"There were hundreds of terrorists on my black list when I got here and I only have three left (not captured or killed)," Becker says proudly. "Of the 400 I caught, 93 percent went out to Abu Ghraib (the prison that holds the most serious offenders). That very high accuracy comes from working with shieks."
After a traditional Iraqi lunch -- legs of lamb and whole chickens with rice -- the shieks and mayors alternately made last-minute requests and complaints to Becker and took pictures with him.
"I will keep a beautiful picture of you in my head," says one shiek.
"All of us are really sad you are going home. We know you have a family waiting for you, but we are all sad because we are losing a great friend," says another, a deeply religious Sunni man with the unkempt beard that marks him so. "I invite you to my house for dinner."
"I will be honored to go," says Becker.