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The situation in Iraq is incredibly complex -- and the products of the ‘Surge’ are far too fragile to survive a Coalition drawdown

By Jeff Emanuel
October 22, 2007

Samarra, Iraq
In January of this year, General David Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to take command of multinational forces in Iraq. After the failed strategy of General George Casey, now Chief of Staff of the Army, Petraeus and his new ideas for how best to handle the situation in Iraq were seen as a breath of fresh air -- not to mention a last option for an administration whose Party and legacy have been tied inexorably to the outcome of its abortive nation-building effort in the Middle East.

A successful commander in Iraq (with the 101st Airborne in Mosul), the holder of a Ph. D from Princeton, and the author of the Army’s new field manual on Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24), Petraeus brought with him a new approach to the fight to secure Iraq from the insurgent and terrorist population which had taken hold there. To carry out his plan, he requested – and was granted – a 30,000-soldier ‘surge’ in troop levels, the main effort of which was tasked with securing Baghdad, the extremely large capital city which is as rife with sectarian fault lines and, in many areas, as violent as can be imagined. Further, the Coalition’s combat power would be moved out of the obscenely large (and, believe it or not, relatively plush) ‘Super FOBs’ (Forward Operating Bases) established and built up under General Casey, and would once again (like in 2003-04) be based out of myriad tiny Patrol Bases and Combat Outposts, located out in the midst of each occupying unit’s area of operations and sector of responsibility.

This is a key difference between Petraeus’s strategy and that of General Casey, which involved pulling Coalition forces back to giant bases and minimizing the friendly foreign presence in sector in favor of putting forward an Iraqi security force and government which simply, and unfortunately, was not ready to take that step.

A view of Samarra from a battle position on the roof of Patrol Base Olson, one of many small outposts established within units' areas of operations under the counterinsurgency strategy of General Petraeus.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

Sustained Presence

A sustained presence within the cities and rural areas that each unit is tasked with securing, involving spending the maximum amount of time possible out amongst the people who live and work there, is a major element of counterinsurgency strategy. It not only allows the unit responsible for an area to be present and able to respond at a moment’s notice to any event or emergency, but also allows the members of that unit to become more familiar with the district (and the people, including who should and should not be there) that they are responsible for policing.

Such a policy also allows the civilians in the area to become familiar with and begin to begin to trust their military protectors. Building this bond of trust between military personnel and civilians in each area should lead at some point to cooperation, both in the form of providing information (the first step) and (later) in the form of the organization of an armed resistance working with the Coalition and against the insurgents and terrorists in the region. This is a very long, tortuous process, and it literally depends on the clichéd ‘winning of the hearts and minds’ of the people. This is done not only by providing security and quality of life improvements in an area, but also by convincing the citizenry that such a sustained presence (and the security that it is capable of providing) will be a long-term reality. Once that concept is established as accepted fact, the populace would be acting in their own best interest to turn on the insurgency in favor of taking advantage of what the Coalition has to offer them.

Staff Sergeant Matt Jemison, from Baker Company 1-15 Infantry (3/3 ID), gives water to a newly homeless Iraqi girl in the village of Wuerdiya, south of Baghdad. Militants from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army attacked the small community and burned several homes to the ground, escaping before the Iraqi National Police could marshal their personnel and arrive there, despite having a large outpost less than a mile away.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

Along with unanimously confirming Petraeus and this strategy in January, Congress agreed to wait until the middle of September to cast judgment on the effectiveness of the new course in Iraq.

Hasty Declarations of Failure

As any conscious American is well aware, within weeks of unanimously approving both the new commander and the new direction, many in Congress were out in front of microphones and television cameras, declaring that “The Surge has failed” and “The war is lost,” and announcing the appallingly-named (to say the least) “slow bleed” strategy to drain the soldiers in Iraq of the funding and supplies necessary to fight the war, while also sponsoring and appearing in television advertisements designed to drain what little public support remained for the securing and rebuilding effort there. While lip service was paid (at the beginning) to granting Petraeus the time and resources necessary to fully implement his plan, politics quickly trumped patriotism and honest dealings, and attempt after attempt was made to cut him off at the knees and to declare failure before his strategy had ever even been implemented. This lack of unity at home greatly damaged the credibility of America and of her forces in the Middle East, who were (and are) dependent on the Iraqi people's ability to trust that the Coalition will not abandon them, whatever the cost, in order to be able to make any real, long-term gains on the ground there.

It was not until June -- weeks after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had declared that the strategy had “failed” -- that the entire cast ‘Surge’ troops had arrived in Iraq and been positioned to carry out their mission, leaving only two months for fully-manned counterinsurgency operations before Petraeus’s testimony to Congress on progress in Iraq was due.

3rd Platoon, from the 1-15 Infantry's "Baker" Company, at Combat Outpost Cahill just east of Salman Pak. 1-15 is part of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, one of the five brigades which was deployed to Iraq as part of Gen. Petraeus's 30,000-troop 'surge.'
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

Winning a Counterinsurgency Takes Time

This is a war (and postwar) that is being waged against an enemy who relies on the stunningly efficient execution of public relations and propaganda/information operations as much as it does on terrorism and battlefield action.

It is being fought against people who recognize none of the same rules of war – let alone of decency and human conduct – that we do. This effort depends on the trust, bravery, and action of a terrorized population for success, and the idea that significant and lasting progress could be made in a mere two months is absurd. Unfortunately, the fast-food, attention-deficit, immediate-results culture which America has become appears to have neither the patience nor the attention span required to take into account the indescribable complexities of the situation in Iraq, let alone to fathom the million variables and moving parts which must all fall into place and begin to work in concert for Iraq to even have a chance to be what we would think of as a ‘normal’ or stable state. In the real world, the country (or the planet) is not saved by the end of a half-hour show, a two-hour movie, or a twenty-four week television season. Unfortunately, the moviegoing culture in the United States appears to have long since lost sight of this fact.

A successful counterinsurgency a long and difficult process, and five (or even ten) years is none too long a time to expect it to take for such operations to succeed – if success is even possible. This is always an open question in a counterinsurgency, especially since success is largely dependent on factors such as the attitude, trust, and courage of the indigenous population -- factors which are not under the direct control of the nation attempting to execute such operations.

However, to wage a successful counterinsurgency and then to build a stable, autonomous, self-sufficient, secure state, which can be left behind entirely by the occupying army without risking its imminent collapse, is another matter altogether, and is an undertaking whose success is, if possible, even less guaranteed – let alone feasible in the matter of mere months.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division's C Co 2-505 PIR patrol a street in central Samarra at dusk.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

The Gains so far

That having been said, the ‘Surge’ in Iraq, and the counterinsurgency strategy that the increase in forces was designed to support, has, in just that very brief span of time, resulted in gains far beyond what most people familiar with the situation there could have realistically expected or imagined. A large part of the reason for this is the fact that, in many different ways, a portion of the population of Iraq -- not large enough, but a difference-making portion all the same -- has shown bravery that we can only hope that Americans, if put into the same situation, would be capable of showing.

In the massive swath of western Iraq that makes up Anbar Province -- including its major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which many in the Coalition were all but ready to write off entirely as recently as last summer -- progress unhoped-for and unimagined seemed to come from nowhere, and blossomed into the ‘Anbar Awakening.’ This saw the numerous tribes and clans of the region putting aside their historical differences and banding together (with a Coalition force that they could not be sure would even be present to help protect and secure them within months of their action) to drive out the majority of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other terrorists from their territories.

Whether this alliance of tribes will last into the future, once there is no longer a common enemy who offers to the people there, in the words of one tribal sheik, “only death,” is another matter altogether. But, if the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq is to end in a successful exercise in stable nation-building, then that issue will have to be addressed at some point in the future.

Trouble Ahead?

In all likelihood, once the larger enemy has been destroyed or driven out to a sufficient degree that such an alliance is no longer absolutely necessary for survival, the tie that binds these tribes and sects together will dissipate, and violence and competition between these historically opposed groups will once again build to a level that will shock the casual observer back home in America into once again writing off the region as being one that is beyond both help and hope. Whether American resources (if we are even still in Iraq at that point) will be shifted back into the West from wherever they happen to have been placed at that time in order to deal with this hypothetical -- but extremely likely -- rise in violence in what is currently a relatively peaceful region of the country cannot be determined at this point. It is simply a decision that will have to be made when that eventuality occurs.

While a long-term view of Iraq, and its future issues, must be considered (with far more care than the nation’s future was thought through at the time of the initial invasion), those tasked with making tactical, strategic, and policy-level decisions on Iraq must not lose sight of the now in favor of analyzing every possible future issue. The decision-making process must not fall victim to the paralysis that can be brought on by overanalysis of future possibilities, lest America’s current effort be inadvertently and fatally undermined.

At the present, in other areas, success has been slower, and results much more recently achieved, but they have come in concert with, and have in some cases been an inarguable result of, General Petraeus’s new direction in Iraq. Increasing the Coalition troop presence, moving the forces there back out into the communities they are responsible for securing, as well as moving soldiers into areas that were abandoned by the Coalition after the initial invasion of 2003, has resulted in increased security and more insurgents killed and captured --a result that even those with no knowledge of military operations or of the situation in Iraq should have been able to predict.

Further, major offensive operations have resulted not only in scattering the various enemy elements here, but also in killing and capturing terrorists in massive numbers. This summer, for example, Operations Arrowhead Ripper and Lighting Hammer smashed the al Qaeda infrastructure in the Diyala Province city of Baqubah (the self-proclaimed seat of the Islamic State of Iraq’s “21st Century Caliphate”), and Operation Marne Huskey pressed the Coalition’s advantage against AQI and Jaish al Islam in an area south of Baghdad whose only exposure to a persistent Coalition presence since 2003 began when one of the ‘surge’ Brigades was dispatched there in May of this year.

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter picks up soldiers from Alpha Company 1-15 Infantry (from 3-3ID, one of the five 'surge' brigades) for an Air Assault mission into an al Qaeda stronghold south of Baghdad. The mission was the first of the Division-wide Operation Marne Huskey, which used Army aviation to take the fight to al Qaeda and Jaish al Islam in areas where the insurgent groups might have previously thought that they were safe from coalition action.
(Photo by Army SPC Ben Hutto; used with permission.)

Calls for a Draw-Down

Close on the heels of these small, incredibly short-term gains have come calls for the U.S.’s next move in the region to be the drawing down of the ‘surge’ troops, followed by a progressive withdrawal of even more soldiers, with the ultimate goal being an almost complete turnover of security operations to Iraqi forces within the next three years. These recommendations have come from various quarters, including, reportedly, Admiral William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the operations in the Middle East.

President Bush himself has declared that within the next few months, at least a number equivalent to that of the ‘surge’ – 30,000 U.S. troops – will likely be brought home from Iraq, regardless of the state of affairs on the ground in that country. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, apparently as out of touch as ever on Iraq, has said that he “hopes” to draw down troop levels far more quickly than the President. Even General Petraeus, likely under pressure from an administration that still appears to cling to the belief that, if enough concessions are made, the approval of the American Left will one day (somehow) be given, has said that such a move is entirely possible.

If the goal of the administration, the Department of Defense, and the country is actually to succeed in their stated goal of leaving behind an Iraq that even remotely resembles a secure state that is not a safe haven for terrorists and their operations, then agreeing to this course of action would be a mistake, as well. If they hope to achieve the further objective of establishing a successful state -- democratic or not -- in the land that Saddam once ruled, then a withdrawal would be even more counterproductive.

The actual combat troop strength currently in Iraq is, in reality, still far too low to clear, hold (or "secure"), and build – the three pillars of counterinsurgency – the entire country let alone to nation-build successfully. Field Manual 3-24 (Gen. Petraeus’s treatise on Counterinsurgency) states that 20 soldiers for every 1,000 people is an ideal number to successfully wage such an effort. Given the 27 million person population of Iraq, such a ratio would demand that a staggering (and currently impossible) 540,000 combat troops be in Iraq at any given time. The fact is that, in essence, fewer soldiers than it would take to fill up Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium have been asked to secure and patrol a nation the size of California, while also training Iraqi Security Forces and performing reconstruction projects. A very small minority of the 140,000 total troops here in Iraq are performing combat operations, as the majority of the soldiers are support troops who rarely leave their FOBs).

National Police SWAT trainees in Tal Afar, overseen by a US Special Forces instructor, confront a target in the 'shoot house,' a close quarters combat training area. Upon completion of the training course, these prospective SWAT team members will be going on day and night missions with US Special Forces. Ordinary Iraqi and National Police do not have the luxury of training first and accompanying the coalition on missions second; instead, as one Special Forces officer put it, working with IPs and NPs is like "trying to build an airplane while in flight. We have to train these guys by day while fighting alongside them by night."
(Photo by Army SGT Mike Noggle; used with permission.)

Further, for the units that are in Iraq, a continual state of being grossly undermanned is the rule rather than the exception at this point. Southeast of Baghdad, for example, in the area around Salman Pak, two companies from the 3rd ID’s 1-15 Infantry (neither of which possesses a single platoon that is even close to being fully manned) are responsible for securing a twelve-mile string of cities and villages up the Tigris River Valley to Baghdad. The rte also responsible for “interdicting accelerants” (both people and materiel) on their way to Baghdad from central Iraq and from Iran (as a major highway connecting the two sits in their area of responsibility), and for clearing and holding dozens of square kilometers of open agricultural land to the east. They must do all of this while also conducting clinics, holding governmental and tribal meetings, refurbishing schools, training police, and conducting day and night patrols.

Mere Company-sized elements, like Samarra-based Charlie Co. 2-505 (from the 82nd Airborne), have not only been tasked with clearing, controlling, and policing entire cities (in this case, the less than 200 soldiers of C Co. and a single Special Forces team are the only Coalition force present in and around the 170,000-person city of Samarra), but also with doing the same in great swaths of surrounding land. Not even a battalion-sized element could patrol such an extent of territory effectively, for it include not only towns but massive hinterlands that can (and do) serve as perfect hideaways for terrorists and their materiel.

In less populous areas, like the region of extreme northwestern Iraq near Tal Afar, where one Cavalry Squadron and one Special Forces team are the only Coalition presence in a very large area, far more terrain must be covered by far fewer troops than could ever effectively clear and hold it -- let alone possibly secure it.

Paratroopers from Red Platoon, Charlie Company 2-505 PIR (82nd Airborne) fan out to cover and secure a large desert area north of Samarra.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

These examples are much closer to the norm among American units in Iraq than most realize. While the sheer number of soldiers that are present in Iraq may sound large to the layman at home in the United States, our effective combat footprint, when matched up against a map of Iraq (comparable in surface area to the state of California) is frighteningly small.

However, despite the inhospitable human and geographic environment, the troops who have been asked to take on this massive task have performed admirably, often performing deeds worthy of heroic remembrance in pursuit of their mission, as well as in their quest to save the lives of others – both American and Iraqi – all the while being targeted by terrorists who would rather slaughter their own countrymen in the process of fighting the Coalition than actually stand and fight an army toe-to-toe. The strain of extended combat tours (the continuation of which, in the words of one Captain of Infantry, “will break the Army”) has not stopped them. Neither has the fact that the operational head of the military, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has appeared since his confirmation hearing to be woefully out of his depth in his position of leadership in the Pentagon and, has steadfastly refused to visibly buy into the mission that his forces are tasked with carrying out (and dying for) in Iraq.

In April and May of this year, and again from the beginning of August through October, I was embedded with the U.S. military in some of the most kinetic combat zones in Iraq, observing Gen. Petraeus’s strategy from the ground level in several different locations – including with the undermanned units and in the sparsely covered areas mentioned above -- and I have seen the outstanding effort being made by the coalition forces there, as well as clear evidence of the strategy’s effects on the overall situation.

The author walks back to a military Humvee with a Special Forces team leader in a remote area north of Tal Afar, in northwestern Iraq's Nineveh Province, after inspecting the site of an al Qaeda weapons cache.
(photo by Army SGT Mike Noggle)

I have personally observed public clinics, in which coalition medics and doctors provided Iraqi tribesmen and villagers with a level of care that had been unheard-of in this country even before the fall of Saddam Hussein. I have toured reconstruction sites being worked on by Iraqi contractors, and have ridden along in gun-truck escorts whose job is to protect these men as they work to rebuild their own country – while terrorists, whether to prove some unfathomable point, or simply because, to their deranged minds, it is the correct course of action, try not only to kill them, but to destroy any and all improvements they have managed to provide for their own countrymen in infrastructure and quality of life.

I have sat in on meetings – both above-board and clandestine – with sheiks and tribal leaders, who want the coalition to help them help themselves and their people to achieve better and more secure lives, despite the fact that being seen consorting with the Americans immediately puts a price on each of these leaders’ heads. In these meetings (as well as out on the street), I have heard the concern voiced – more times than I can even count – that the coalition, which currently remains the sole source of stability and security in this country, will give in to the cries from home to abandon the Iraqi people to death, and will finally do so.

Iraqi contractors work on the new National Police barracks and training center north of Samarra, as the 52m high Spiral Minaret of the Great Samarran Mosque (built in 852 AD), once the largest mosque in the world, looms in the background. The project is being led by an Iraqi contractor from Baghdad.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

I have patrolled neighborhoods with coalition and Iraqi forces, attended elite Iraqi Police training courses conducted by U.S. Special Forces, and gone on operations entirely planned and led by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Though these organizations cannot yet hold a candle to their American counterparts in proficiency or professionalism (and will not likely be able to do so at any time in the near future), they are improving, and have scored some major (if inadvertent) successes, including the recent breaking up of an al Qaeda rape and terror ring in Samarra.

I have participated in combat operations which were driven solely by intelligence provided by Iraqi citizens who knew of terrorist plots and personnel in the area and called the Americans to let them know; likewise, I, along with the soldiers whom I have covered, have had my life saved several times by tips from the Iraqi citizenry about IEDs and ambushes put into place to kill us.

Captain Rich Thompson, commander of 'Baker' Company 1-15 Infantry (from the 3-3 ID, one of the five 'surge' brigades), and his interpreter "Jim" meet with members of the al Jibouri tribe, a Sunni family in an area just north of Salman Pak (and just south of Baghdad) known as Ja'ara. The tribal representatives were interested in forming their own 'concerned citizens' force to help fight against the insurgency.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

Despite the belief of many who desperately long for progress (and for success) in Iraq that these actions and developments mean that victory is assured, and that a corner has inarguably been turned in the struggle to save that nation (in many cases) from itself, the fact is that the popular resistance to the insurgency, such as it is, is an extremely localized phenomenon (as is nearly everything in this diverse, divided, and complex region), and is shared by a much smaller percentage of the population than is needed to actually begin speaking of an Iraq that is even relatively safe, free from insurgents, and on the side of the coalition.

Another highly-publicized problem in that country is that of sectarian tension, which -- urged along by hardline groups like Muqtada al Sadr's Jaish al Mahdi (which has splintered into myriad groups, all of which are out of his control at this point) and its historic enemy, the Badr Brigade -- is still a very real problem. Large areas of Baghdad, which were formerly home to mixed Sunni and Shi'a populations, have seen both violent and voluntary moves toward ethnic homogeneity. In the city, as well as south along the fertile Tigris River Valley to the former Sunni resort city of Salman Pak, members of the Shi'a majority, exercising their newfound freedom and power, have ejected formerly elite Sunni families from their homes, pushing them out into the barren desert. Furthermore, members of the overwhelmingly Shi'a National Police (many of them members of the Jaish al Mahdi in some capacity) have, in many areas, taken it upon themselves to cleanse cities of Sunni individuals and families, acting more as roving death squads at times than as law enforcement officers, and committing what the military calls "extrajudicial killings" (our term would be "murder") in Sunni neighborhoods in the dead of night. This has been an ongoing problem for some time now, though the Iraqi government has recently begun taking greater steps to deal with the problem, including creating the equivalent of an Internal Affairs division within the Ministry of Interior to deal with corrupt and criminal police.

The Askyrian Mosque in the Sunni city of Samarra. On the right is all that remains of the famed Golden Dome of the Shi'a holy site, which was blown up in 2005 by Sunni al Qaeda, in a successful attempt to plunge Iraq into sectarian warfare.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

Further, despite reports that the U.S. is prepared to "declare victory against al Qaeda in Iraq," the job is still far from complete – and whether it will (or even can) be completed successfully is far from certain. There remains a large and persistent terrorist population in Iraq, both foreign and homegrown. In Samarra (and the surrounding desert), for example, where I spent the month of September, the ranks of AQI – the number one (and only) enemy in that city – are supplemented by fighters from such locations as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and even Bangladesh (there have also been rumors of Chechens and other central Asian insurgents in the area, as well), and, though hundreds have been killed by coalition forces, like the hydra more are always ready to take their place in the fight against America and against Iraq.

Iraqi National Police man a battle position in western Samarra. Al Qaeda in Iraq has repeatedly launched successful attacks on NP and IP checkpoints and outposts in Iraq, killing large numbers of Iraqi Security Forces and convincing many others to flee the city for good.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

It is true that, rather than simply taking this terrorist presence lying down, many Iraqis – some (few) of whom are in Samarra, and more of whom are in Baqubah, Fallujah, Ramadi, Salman Pak, Baghdad, and other areas – have shown a great deal of courage, not only by providing an ever-increasing amount of information to coalition forces regarding insurgent activity, but also by working to rebuild what the insurgents have destroyed, as well as by putting their lives on the line to drive terrorists out of their own villages, despite honestly not knowing whether they will wake up the next day to find that the coalition – their one source of protection – has succumbed to those previously mentioned calls from the home front (which are heard loud and clear over here, by civilians and terrorists alike) to leave Iraq, and has abandoned them.

Progress is being made – but much, much more of this must happen if Iraq is even to have a chance at a brighter future.

Given all of these factors, what remains in Iraq is a very long and difficult struggle, and it is very likely that the coalition’s goals – along with its definition of ‘victory’ itself – will have to be revisited, perhaps more than once. Successful and stable nation-building, after all, is a very different – and infinitely longer and more difficult – undertaking than ‘simply’ waging a counterinsurgency (a long and difficult undertaking of its own). Amidst the real but exceedingly fragile gains made by the ‘Surge’ and its accompanying strategy are no guarantees about long-term stability and effectiveness.

The shattered remains of houses and market buildings near the Golden (Askyrian) Mosque in southwestern Samarra. This area was once one of the city's most prosperous and elite neighborhoods.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

While the ‘Surge’ is inarguably having an effect militarily in many different areas of Iraq, the fact is that this country is still broken beyond the comprehension of most people who are sitting comfortably at home in America. To say that there is a great deal of instability, unrest, and upheaval here would be to make an understatement on a massive scale – and, were the U.S. to leave at any point in the near-term future, the vacuum that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of in the very recent past (which his imperialistic Iran would love to fill) would most certainly become a reality. While social, governmental, and security services are being developed and improved (albeit at what seems to the fast-food culture in the United States to be a snail’s pace), the fact of the matter is that, at this point, the coalition – led by the U.S. – is still the glue holding this humpty-dumpty ‘nation’ together -- a task made infinitely more difficult by the fact that most of those whom we call "Iraqis" actually have little or no sense of being part of a unified nation, nor do they believe that they have a vested interest in any unit outside of their own tribe, clan, sect, or city.

At present, in many parts of Iraq, any situation even remotely resembling stability and security exists – and can be maintained – only as long as coalition units make their daily and nightly trips ‘outside the wire’ and into their sectors of responsibility. Should these forces begin to depart in the near future – or even to pull back to any of the handful of obscenely large ‘Super FOBs,’ as they did under General Casey – then that fragile bit of security and stability which has been achieved will simply crumble, and will do so almost immediately.

National Police SWAT trainees in Tal Afar enter the 'shoot house,' a close quarters combat training area. Not pictured are the US Special Forces instructors who run this quality-first training program, which - unlike most regimens followed by ISF-in-training - has the luxury of working toward a standard, not fighting an impending training time limit.
(photo by Army SGT Mike Ngggle)

For the short term, from my own eyewitness experience, conditions in some areas of the vast (and far more complex than most in our country have the attention span to consider – let alone comprehend) nation that is Iraq are improving – albeit at a pace that would, to our attention deficit-laden culture at home, make a snail seem quick by comparison. Given several more months (or better, years), and the combination of a continuous and active coalition security presence and the establishment and continuation of intensive, ‘quality-first’ training of Iraqi Security Forces (Iraqi Police, National Police, and Iraqi Army), then it may be possible (though it is far from guaranteed) that this country could one day exist in a state resembling that of security and stability – if still home to a large and very prominent coalition presence. Even small troop withdrawals, if not accompanied by the standing up of Iraqi Security Forces who are ready to do so – something which they emphatically are not at this time – will create smaller, more localized vacuums in their own right, and will likely result in the quick undoing of everything that the ‘surge’ has managed to accomplish. Further, if the U.S. were to leave entirely, even a year or two from now, then, based on my time here and observations, I cannot foresee there being anything remotely resembling a positive outcome in the region.

The chaos of an imminent vacuum in the area is a far more likely outcome should the U.S. begin to taper its efforts, and one which will result both in the acquisition of a new home base from which terrorists can stage regional and global attacks, as well as in an even more overt attempt at regional hegemony by the Persian state to the immediate east, who has made very clear that Iraq would only be the first stop on its bloody march to the Mediterranean (and perhaps beyond).

A UH-1H Iroquois (or "Huey") helicopter from the fledgling Iraqi Air Force flies low over the Tigris River and prepares to land at Patrol Base Olson in Samarra. The Vietnam-era helicopters are crewed by American and Iraqi pilots, gunners, and crew chiefs, with the U.S. personnel literally teaching airmanship to their Iraqi counterparts "on the fly."
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

History is an extremely important learning tool, and paying closer attention to its lessons – particularly those regarding the limited ability of power projection and sheer force to win over foreign populations and to successfully build friendly, democratic states – might have led America’s leaders to come to a different conclusion when debating the idea of entering into the Iraq War in the first place. At the very least, the study of very recent history should have alerted those tasked with planning for the aftermath of the successful invasion to the likelihood of such a violent, anarchic vacuum forming in the sudden absence of the one thing – Saddam Hussein – that had kept this country together in the first place. However, the fact remains that the situation here in Iraq is what it is, and cannot be wished, argued, or protested away. Re-fighting 2002 through 2006, while apparently a worthwhile cause to some (most notably so-called “Progressives,” who seem more content to muck about in the unchangeable past than to live up to their chosen moniker), is neither productive nor worth the time and energy spent on it. For the sake of Iraq and its people, and for the sake of the security and reputation of the United States, the focus must be on where to go from here – be it changing certain aspects of the current strategy, or maintaining what is at the moment the most successful direction taken in this country yet – rather than on things that simply cannot be changed.

The present debate comes down simply to this: is America willing to do what it takes to actually succeed in the Middle East, or not? If electoral politics are the metric by which future (and present) courses of action in this war are determined, then this war – and the future wars that failure in Iraq will beget – has likely already been lost. While not guaranteed, victory is, at this point, still possible in Iraq. The opposite, though, is fully guaranteed unless we make the conscious decision not simply to continue going through the motions until a better option, or a more politically expedient course of action, presents itself, but to do whatever it takes to succeed.

The future will be difficult enough, without dwelling on the past. General Petraeus, in his September testimony before Congress, highlighted both the positives and the negatives from this extremely complex, struggling, and broken country, and made his own recommendations for going forward. The current course, despite the paucity of troops both in Iraq and available for deployment, appears – based on the gains made thus far in such a brief time – to be the coalition’s best hope. Adjustments will have to be made, both at home and abroad; an example of one issue which must be addressed very soon is the appalling policy of Army units serving fifteen-month tours overseas (while their sister-service counterparts in the Marines and the Air Force serve seven- and six-month tours, respectively) will have to be revisited very soon, lest the combat backbone of the U.S. military be worn down to an unacceptable level of effectiveness.

Paratroopers from 2nd Platoon, C Co 2-505 PIR (82nd Airborne) patrol the rough streets of southeastern Samarra under a blazing afternoon sun. The platoon hit an IED on the way to their planned dismount point at the beginning of their mission, but pressed on and completed the dismounted portion of their patrol, which was to closely reconnoiter a target house for a future raid.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

However, the fact remains that this struggle, which America entered into voluntarily, is now (even if it might not originally have been) a battle which holds great import for a vital region of the world, as well as for the image, reputation, and security of the United States itself.

Though "victory" – whatever it may look like in its final form, and under its final definition – is far from guaranteed, this is a battle which must be fought with maximum effort and support, to the last day, for the sake of Iraq and of the U.S. Fortunately, if there is a man in the U.S. military with capacity to successfully direct this fight, it the man currently tasked with doing so. If there is to be progress made going forward, both the President and the nation need to listen to everything that he had to say, and that he has to say from here going forward, and to accept his recommendations for what they are: the honest opinion and analysis of the man wrote the book on counterinsurgency, who has the most information of anybody on what is really going on in Iraq, and who only months ago was entrusted by the Senate – by unanimous vote – with the task of winning the fight in Iraq.

To make any less than our best, most concerted, most unified attempt at victory would be to endanger America’s own security and reputation – which, after Vietnam, Beirut, Mogadishu, and the abandonment of the Iraqis whom we told to rise up after the first Gulf War, cannot afford another high-profile blow – as well as to break faith with the diverse, threatened, and disadvantaged Iraqi people, to whom we once presented ourselves as liberators, and to whom we now serve as the one and only chance at a better life, if not at life itself.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq both in April and May, and from August through October, of this year. His reports, which are 100% funded by reader donations, can be seen at

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At 8:40 PM, Blogger Tom the Redhunter said...

Brilliant and informative.

This is a very comprehensive and honest account of what's going on in Iraq. Jeff doesn't look at the situation through rose colored glasses, but nor does he wallow in gloom and doom.

Keep up the great work.

At 2:17 AM, Blogger BrianFH said...

Edit note: "...fight, it the man currently tasked with doing so." S/b "...fight, it is the man ...", unless you're using gangsta slang. ;)

There are a number of opinions expressed which could be strongly qualified or disputed, among them the "make a snail seem speedy" one. But as an effort to make the magnitude of the job clear and to resist efforts to belittle and short-sheet it, well done.

At 1:21 AM, Blogger Mike Power said...

What I am trying to figure out, do our guys want to stay there and finish the job or do they want to come home?


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