Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Low Profile in Iraq

Just came back from vacation in an undisclosed location. I am trying to catch up on things. On my way home I was thinking how we can change the character of our involvement in Iraq. Here's my quick version of captain playing general.

Strategy for Iraq: Bottom-line Up Front

I don't like the terms "pulling out", "withdrawal", or "cut and run" when it comes to what we can do in Iraq. I like the term "lowering our profile". That's probably what we should be talking about instead of the above mentioned terms. It is evident that we are lowering our profile in Iraq, and we should.

Our troops have played an extremely crucial role in all of Iraq's decisive steps towards democracy: the invasion was conducted superbly, Saddam Hussein was deposed and captured, elections in January 05, the constitutional agreement, and then the elections of December 05. All very good things and very important to the overall goal in Iraq. On the side there's the whole WMD issue, the poor planning to respond to the insurgency while in its embryonic stages, and the fact that Zarqawi is still at large.

Our military has been the main character in this drama. To deal with an insurgency you need a strategy that includes more than military operations. The socio-political and economic aspects of the "stability operations" and counterinsurgency portion should also take center stage along with the purely military options. Military operations are one of the means to a final political goal.

One of the main roles of our military right now is to get the Iraqi troops up to speed. You can't train an army - to our standards - overnight. Training an effective Iraqi force that will be able to handle the security mission all by itself will take time and patience. Most of the remaining US light infantry troops in Iraq will be working in training the Iraqi Army and conducting combined operations with Iraqi units.

Our presence in Iraq will still be robust; it will just have a different character. The current mix of forces is not really stopping the insurgency in the country. To be sure, there is no evidence that the insurgency is growing, (and I don't think it is) but at this point the insurgency does not have to grow, they just need to stay in the field, conduct one or two high-profile terrorist operations per week and they are still "in the game". They can't lose, but they don't have to "win".

On a personal note, I think deposing Saddam Hussein and trying to create a stable and democratic government in Iraq was a good decision taken by our leadership. I "supported" the decision. For us in the military, it does not really matter if we "support" or not the decisions made by our leadership. I don't really think in those terms. We have a mission - we assume that our leaders already weighted all the options before deciding to act - and we do it to the best of our ability. The word "support" does not accurately describe what we feel when we suit up to get the job done. If anything, it is the ultimate support. We "support" the effort with our presence, our hard work, long days and nights, our sleepless nights. We, and our families, "support" the effort with our blood, sweat, and tears.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the decision to go into Iraq, one has to admit that the post-invasion effort was completely botched due to a lack of planning, vision, and historical knowledge of the area. At first, we were received relatively well by the Iraqis. I had friends who traveled the country doing the ground truth analysis for the bombing campaign during the summer of 2003 and they tell me they felt relatively secure everywhere they went. The same ground truth analysis could not have been done a year later because the security situation had deteriorated so much.

But lets assume that the Iraqis greeted our entrance in 2003 with much rejoice and warmly welcomed us into their country, knowing that we were there to bring democracy, to bring hope. Now, let's do something we as Americans don't like to do. Let's put ourselves in the shoes of another people (meaning not-Americans, Iraqis in this case). When was the last time there was a power outage in your neighborhood? If I told you had to live with six-hours a day of electricity for the next year, would you be happy? When was the last time you heard a loud explosion in your neighborhood? Have you ever heard the sound of a car-bomb explosion? Have you ever heard the screams of the wounded after such an attack? Would you be happy if I told you are going to hear at least one explosion each week for an indefinite amount of time? When was the last time you heard gunfire late at night in your neighborhood? I am talking shots fired in anger. If you did hear gunfire, did you feel safer after you heard it? Wouldn't you like to live somewhere where you did not have to hear this? Where you happy to be in a traffic jam this morning on you way to work? Was there a Humvee in front of you with their weapons pointed at you? When was the last time your house was searched by the military? By the police? Was the search a pleasant experience for you? Granted, these could be seen as mere annoyances in the big scheme of things, but they still matter. I am not even going to go into the number of Iraqi deaths after the occupation. To be sure, Saddam Hussein was running a reign of terror against his own population and it's at fault for the majority of the serious political, economic and infrastructure problems that we are facing in Iraq, but our occupation plan certainly needed to account with more fidelity this serious problems taking into account that the occupation was not going to be a "plug-and-play" operation.

Now is time to lower our profile.

If we leave, will the insurgency mutate into warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions? Will Iraq break-up into three different countries?

Will the Iraqi Army that we are currently training be competent enough to deal with the insurgency within the next two years?

At this point, we are playing catch-up when it comes to training the Iraqi security forces. After the fall of Saddam there was immediate coherent plan to bring stability back to the country, and we overlooked the real dangers of terrorism and insurgency. This failure of planning was followed by a failure in reaction as the terrorist and insurgent threat slowly but surely began to emerge in the fall of 2003.

Very little attention was paid to the fact that Iraq was a fractious country divided by Sunni, Shiites and Kurds factions hostile to each other and that the only thing keeping them in check was the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. We deposed the Saddam regime and occupied the country (an army of infidels in the eyes of many Iraqis) and the failed to provide basic needs like electricity and security to the country. Now we find ourselves in the midst of an embryonic civil war in Iraq.

What about the recent (Dec 15) election? Holding an election with such a high turnout (more than 70%) is definitely a step in the right direction. As evidenced by the high turnout, from all religious factions, the Iraqis greeted this chance to vote with a warm reception. In fact, amidst the chaos in Iraq, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. One of the best polls gauging the feelings of Iraqis was recently conducted by ABC News in partnership with Time magazine, the BBC, and Japanese and German news agencies. Here's a quick breakdown on the numbers that I found interesting:

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

Iraq is a very complicated country. The collapse of the Baathist uncovered the country's deep divisions. The US made a series of key strategic errors in dealing with this situation. These mistakes primarily stemmed from a lack of preparation on our part.

Now we have a situation in which the Sunni Arabs have lost most of the power they had under Saddam's regime and they clearly resent it and the Shiites now comprise most of the government and the military. At some point, the two factions need to sit down and iron out their differences if they want a unified Iraq. This is easier said than done as there are many sub-factions within both camps.

As far as the insurgency goes is hard to tell if is growing or dwindling in terms of numbers. They are probably neither rising nor diminishing in numbers. When it comes to troops-level for an insurgency, the numbers are always unreliable. Besides, even several thousands of insurgents can do considerable damage to the Iraqi infrastructure and reconstruction efforts and cause a low but steady number of coalition casualties to keep eroding domestic support for the war.

No matter how well things go, the US will continue to have a role in Iraq, but the character of that role will probably shift to accommodate the new reality that we are facing.

So we reduce our footprint well below the 100,000 troops level. The fact that we have so many units on the ground in Iraq - conventional Army fighting irregular forces - is partially why the popular support for the war is eroding so rapidly. Once the troops levels are down - and based on the changed character of the operations as result of the phased-down - the number of casualties should go down too, and our presence in Iraq will have a lower media profile. Remember, we still have troops in Afghanistan and nobody is advocating bringing those troops home. Additionally, we run low profile operations all over the world that the media does not cover because the media tends to go for the "easy story". Remember too that for years, during Operations Southern and Northern Watch we were sending pilots into combat missions in Iraq and the media hardly covered that, why? It was a low-signature operation, with no casualties, and as such it was not "sexy" for the media to cover. So, here are the main points of what I think we should do:

1. Keep infantry units that live, train, and operate in close coordination with Iraqi units. The reins of this conflict should be turned over more and more to the Iraqis. At this point, this is their war to win. And it is a mental war more than it is physical. Our military has done an outstanding job in Iraq, but insurgencies are not won with military might alone. The perception of our forces as occupiers needs to be diminished. True Iraqi leadership needs to surface. We'll hold their hands for a while, but ultimately they have to walk on their own and led by their own people. The more the Iraqis work out their military, political, social and economic problems on their own, the less the better. There is a current perception that if you work too closely with the "American infidels", you will be branded a puppet or worse a traitor in the eyes of other Muslims. Decreasing our presence will help curtail this perception and will lead to more cooperation among Iraqis without this stigmatized American intervention. We don't need a massive presence to achieve security at this point. We needed that in Summer 03 and we blew it. Small groups of our troops working side by side with the Iraqis can make a big difference.

2. Special Operations Forces. SOF working closely with airpower assets has been a staple of both OEF and OIF. SOF operate below the media radar. They gather and respond to actionable intelligence and can request air support for their operations. They are the component of our military that is best trained to handle irregular warfare. They constitute a human network and at such are better equipped to handle the human network of the insurgency.

3. Airpower. I am talking mainly about non-kinetic support (ISR and airlift), with a small percentage actually dedicated to kinetic (ground attack) operations. For the air component the counterinsurgency fight is mostly (sortie percentage wise) an ISR fight. Air and space assets can provide most of your intelligence support (IMINT, SIGINT, etc), except of course, HUMINT. For ground attack ops we'll have joint terminal attacks controllers working with the SOF as spotters for targets. Pretty much what we are doing right now. The Iraqis are not ready to conduct this terminal attack control mission, and I doubt that they will be ready in the near future, or that we will be willing to accept the risk of having Iraqis calling air strikes.

Those are my thoughts for now. I am sure I'll think of some more practical stuff. It's nice to play armchair general every one in a while.

Agreed. Right. Correct.
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