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Thread: Things Looking Up in Iraq

  1. #1
    Small Wars Journal SWJED's Avatar
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    Default Things Looking Up in Iraq

    This Time, Things Are Looking Up by Dr. John Nagl, 14 September edition of The Washington Post

    When I retired from the Army in June, my comrades in arms laughed at my summer vacation plans: another August in Iraq.

    But I had unfinished business...

    Everyone I talked to, Iraqis and Americans alike, stressed that the security gains are fragile and reversible; there were two car bombs and a suicide vest attack in Mosul three days after our visit. But the improvements in Baghdad and Basra are striking, with increasingly competent Iraqi security forces on every street corner -- although they will continue to need our advice and assistance for some years to come.

    I am no cheerleader for the war in Iraq. We've made horrible mistakes that cost the lives of too many of my friends, American and Iraqi. It took us too long to learn from our errors and adopt an effective counterinsurgency strategy, and even now the war is far from won...

    So they are -- as long as we continue to back them with air support, intelligence and US combat units, whose numbers are steadily diminishing. Iraq will need American advisers for years to come. For starters, it takes five years to produce a competent fighter pilot or tank company commander. Moreover, Iraq faces significant external security threats, as well as the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. But US forces will increasingly be able to turn combat over to the Iraqis, allowing the United States to scale back its involvement significantly...
    Much more at The Washington Post.

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    When will folks like John Nagl stop using hurtful and inaccurate statements like this one that follows in which he characterizes combat forces in Iraq prior to the Surge (and implicitly 2006)?

    “Things worsened as U.S. commanders withdrew our forces from the cities to large, comfortable bases from which they commuted to war.”

    While I acknowledge that the Casey plan had American units concentrating on larger fobs the implication of the above sentence (and its obvious domestic political connotation in this presidential campaign season) is that prior to the Surge American forces had pretty much quit the country while the Iraq civil war raged around us, content to be hunkered down on comfortable fobs eating ice cream. This is an unfair characterization of American forces prior to the Surge. As I have stated many times before, even though the Casey plan was to concentrate on larger fobs, for combat forces our primary purpose was protection of the Iraqi people. General Casey himself gave those instructions to my Brigade commander Colonel Mike Beech in Spring of 2006. I did not “commute” to the fight off of comfortable bases. I fought and conducted best practices in counterinsurgency and my men, and many others bled in our effort. The battalion commander, LTC Dale Kuehl, from 1st Cav who took over Ameriyah from me in December 2006 has himself acknowledged that the imams and local sunnis that I had introduced him to were critical in developing his later contacts with the sons of iraq. So if I was hunkered down on fobs, if I was commuting to the fight, if I was concentrating on comfort instead of coin operations, how did these contacts occur, through magic? And what I was doing many, many other combat battalion were doing the same thing throughout Iraq. The methods that the combat battalion in Dora that Nagl mentions as part of the Surge were actually started by Colonel Beech and his troopers in 2006.

    What changed were not new tactics, methods and strategy as part of the Surge but other more important conditions that wrapped around the Surge. Was the American leadership correct to capitalize on these changed conditions? Absolutely. But we will never advance our knowledge of where we were and where we are headed if we continue to raise the bloody shirt of the Surge-triumph-myth, especially when done at the expense of brave units that came before.

    And Nagl needs to get his facts straight in this oped on the specific issue of Route Irish. He implies that prior to the Surge it used to be the “most dangerous road in the world.” Not true, exactly, since it was extremely dangerous in 2003 and 2004 but in 2005 a Cavalry Squadron under the command of LTC Mike Harris as part of the 3ID cleared and pacified it so that when I took it over from Mike in January 2006 it no longer was deserving of that sobriquet. But to suggest that it was until rescued by the Surge is factually incorrect and representative of the ongoing Surge-triumph saga.

    So facts are important, clear thinking is important, not super-charged language that clouds instead of clarifies, and most importantly hurts.

  3. #3
    Council Member jkm_101_fso's Avatar
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    Default Respectfully Disagree

    Quote Originally Posted by Gian P Gentile View Post
    When will folks like John Nagl stop using hurtful and inaccurate statements like this one that follows in which he characterizes combat forces in Iraq prior to the Surge (and implicitly 2006)?

    “Things worsened as U.S. commanders withdrew our forces from the cities to large, comfortable bases from which they commuted to war.”
    Sir,

    I believe you are taking this quote out of context. Scrutiny made toward the overall strategy prior to the Surge IS NOT insulting or chastising the effort and sacrifices made by Soldiers and Marines before 2007.

    Regardless of your perception of Nagl’s comments, This was an indisputably accurate statement made by Nagl. I know that there are (were) exceptions to this strategy, but in general, this is (was) true. I know that there were indeed units, like yours, who didn't live primarily on FOBs and didn't commute to work prior to The Surge. However, I believe (from what I know) you were an exception.

    I can only comment on what I experienced. I’m just a Captain. I'm very far from being an expert; unlike you, Sir. But LTC Nagl's statement quoted above, from what I saw during my tours in Iraq, is correct. It's a broad statement, I concede that; but it's mostly true, thus, it's accurate:

    *I watched in early 2004 as a Stryker BDE replaced 2nd BCT, 101st in Mosul. The incoming unit collapsed our company and platoon CPs and OPs and moved their units back to an FOB, planning to drive to their AOs to patrol. Those of us who just spent the past nine months in the city (and neighborhoods) explained that this was a terrible strategy and chaos would ensue rapidly. What occurred in Mosul and the surrounding area in 2004-2005 is a testament to this prediction. I understand that a very large force was replaced with a considerably smaller one, however the Stryker BDE strategy was certainly a reason the city descended into chaos. Again, no fault of the Soldiers of the Stryker BDE. I’m sure they performed magnificently.

    *In 2005-2006 my BDE took over a considerably large AO in eastern Iraq, with one major and two smaller population centers. I watched as the decision was made to have the BDE's main effort live on a giant FOB and drive to their company AOs. I watched as the other battalions were placed en masse on FOBs and drove to their AOs...sometimes many, many miles. With the exception of some other elements and two Transition Teams, the entire BDE lived on a Major FOB and one smaller one, all commuting to war. The routes in and around the major city were littered with IEDs and arguably completely controlled by the enemy in some places. One of the smaller cities completely descended into pandemonium. Major MSRs were “black”; forbidden to travel on by CF because the enemy owned them. WHY? Because our infantrymen were on the FOB eating ice cream and not in those areas doing their job. Is that our infantrymen’s fault? No, it is not. They are great infantrymen! They were not employed correctly. IT IS the fault of whoever thought that strategy was appropriate and effective. It clearly was not.

    I realize that there were exceptions to this rule. Your unit was one of them, as you state. I'm sure your Soldiers did a remarkable job and certainly were successful in pacifying your area and defeating the enemy, contributing to the overall success of our operations in Iraq. I believe the way you should approach this is not to chastise LTC Nagl for making "inaccurate, hurtful statements", but to acknowledge that your unit was conducting COIN properly and are glad that tactics similar to yours have been adopted by Coalition units across Iraq.

    the implication of the above sentence (and its obvious domestic political connotation in this presidential campaign season) is that prior to the Surge American forces had pretty much quit the country while the Iraq civil war raged around us, content to be hunkered down on comfortable fobs eating ice cream. This is an unfair characterization of American forces prior to the Surge.
    As stated, I certainly don't believe that is what LTC Nagl intended. His own unit was obviously Pre-Surge! I absolutely don't believe he would ever insinuate that American Soldiers "quit the country" while violence in Iraq increased.

    As I have stated many times before, even though the Casey plan was to concentrate on larger fobs, for combat forces our primary purpose was protection of the Iraqi people
    True, but it's different and you know that. Unfortunately, it's harder to do when not living amongst the population. I'd argue that units operating from FOBs were more "react" than "prevent and deter". Thus, if in reaction mode, the people we were tasked to protect were in fact, not protected. They are most protected when we are there, permanently with them to prevent and deter attacks.

    I did not “commute” to the fight off of comfortable bases. I fought and conducted best practices in counterinsurgency and my men, and many others bled in our effort.
    Neither did I, on the first tour. I cannot say the same for my second. Your unit did indeed conduct adequate COIN ops, making Nagl's statement all the more accurate.

    So if I was hunkered down on fobs, if I was commuting to the fight, if I was concentrating on comfort instead of coin operations, how did these contacts occur, through magic?
    As I stated before, no one accused your unit of doing the wrong thing or performing poorly. If your unit was conducting appropriate COIN operations, then Nagl's comments weren't directed at you or your Soldiers.

    And what I was doing many, many other combat battalion were doing the same thing throughout Iraq.
    I don't know about "many, many". "Some" would probably be more accurate. Amongst your BDE, it may have been different. I applaud your unit, if that is the case.

    What changed were not new tactics, methods and strategy as part of the Surge but other more important conditions that wrapped around the Surge.
    You are right and wrong. The Sunni awakening, Shia ceasefire, tour length increase and overall increase in troop strength, among many other components, were all collective ingredients for success. GEN Petraeus' strategy of getting MOST of the combat units off the FOBs and into the neighborhoods (PERMANENTLY) was THE critical tactical change...a strategy I had seen somewhere before...(Mosul '03) I think that is just undeniable. That doesn't mean other units weren't practicing these tactics prior to 2007. (3rd ACR in Tal Afar) It just means that it wasn't employed en masse across Iraq, particularly in the cities and neighborhoods where it made the biggest difference.

    But we will never advance our knowledge of where we were and where we are headed if we continue to raise the bloody shirt of the Surge-triumph-myth, especially when done at the expense of brave units that came before.
    Again, I don't believe this was Nagl's intent, nor anyone who is critical of the Pre-Surge strategy.

    ongoing Surge-triumph saga
    The impact of GEN Petraeus' appointment and the success of the Surge and are indisputable. Expect the triumph saga to continue.

    I was not a part of the Surge. I left country just before it began. I have no problem acknowledging the complete and total success we've enjoyed, though. I also will admit that the effort of my unit during my second tour, in retrospect, wasn't that successful. It is not an insult to my comrades, but a truth that it took me a while to arrive at. I don't believe it is an insult to our effort or sacrifice to say that. Sometimes, the truth hurts, I guess.

    Sir, I have read a great deal of what you have published, and all also posted here. I have a great deal of respect for you and your work. I can only hope this reply results in good conversation and debate here at SWC.

    Respectfully,

    Jake
    Sir, what the hell are we doing?

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    Ditto everything jkm_fso_101 wrote above in response to (LTC/COL?) Gentile.

    Suppose I live in the barracks and my room is sparkling clean, but the other 49 rooms are filthy. Then the CSM comes through and declares "this building is a f-ing abortion!" I don't correct the CSM by pointing to my clean room. If 49 out of 50 rooms are trashed, then the building is trashed.

    Moving on from the barracks to the battlefield, I think that my company finally "got it" in late 2005 and started doing what is now regarded as COIN preferred practices (probably not best practices, in our case) and doing it effectively. But the fact remains that our Brigade as a whole was screwing the pooch and selling the pups. My impression is that MNC-I, generally speaking, was doing the same. To say that MNC-I, or even just my BDE, was engaging in this canine breeding does not implicate my company. Likewise, I don't understand why COL Gentile thinks that it implicates his Squadron.

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    One more to back 101. While an advisor in 2004, we lived with my old unit, 1st ID in Kirkush. The stated policy was to have all patrols back on the FOB NLT 2100 because "it was too dangerous to patrol at night". At 2100 the Gurhka guards literally locked the front gate up. As a result, every morning brought with it a new round of IED discoveries and ambushes. I experienced the same mentality in Taji, LSA Anaconda and Camp Warhorse by Baqaba during my advisor travels with the 6th IA Battalion.

    Fast forward to 2007. Again back working with advisors, I saw first hand units still commuting from Taji into Bagdad to patrol, then return by night fall. On the other hand, units in Ramadi were starting their push back into the cities and the reestablishment of COPs. The MNF-I staff at that time seemed tired, worn down and on cruise control...at least in some of the BUAs I sat through and in conversations with some of the planners.

    In March when GEN Petraeus took over, there was new life and energy injected into MNF-I. I saw the COPs being set up in Sadr City by the 82d. They were dangerous, bullet magnets and the exact thing we needed to be doing. No more commuting to work...which the soldiers hated anyway. Everyone seemed to realize the commuting to work was not only ineffective, but more dangerous.

    John Nagl's article is not too far off point in my opinion. One has to consider who Nagl works for now (Center for a New American Strategy), their political views/objectives and what some of his outspoken ideas where while he was still active duty. That being said, I think he brings out some great points about how things were when he was there and how they are now.

    We are all victims to seeing the world based on where we are/were. I have no doubt the above writer's unit was doing great things and conducting COIN operations long before the Surge ever started....most units were in Iraq and Afghanistan were and continue to do so. Regardless, in my simple mind, there is little doubt that in early 2007 something changed. Call it a new dynamic leadership shift, the surge, more Sunni awakening members, the strengthing of the Iraqi Army, an improvement in MiTT training/support from units in the field....the list goes on. I thought his article was worth the read and reminds us of where we have been and how far we have still to go.
    "But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet withstanding, go out to meet it."

    -Thucydides

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    Council Member reed11b's Avatar
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    ....my CO was slightly smarter then I gave him credit for. My infantry company only patroled at night on MSR Tampa in the Summer of '03. Very few IED's in our 6 months there. Did limited "hearts and Minds" missions during the day. The insurgency had not really developed fully at that time either, and we still ran around in soft-skins.
    Reed

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