Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iraqi attitudes about America

The Kurdish people of Iraq suffered under Saddam Hussein. And we fought and died alongside Americans to liberate our country. There is no ambiguity about the depth of gratitude that Kurds feel for America's sacrifices in Iraq. Americans who have been killed or wounded in Iraq are heroes to me and to all of Iraq's Kurds. We will never forget what you have done for us.

- NECHIRVAN BARZANI, Prime Minister of Kurdistan, in the Wall Street Journal

Reading this quote in the WSJ almost brought tears to my eyes. Cynics would say that the cynical and crafty Barzani was trying to manipulate American public opinion (as he manipulated mine). Politicians (and Barzani, whom I have never met or even seen, is a politician) will say a lot of things, true or untrue, for a lot of reasons. Whether Barzani personally believed these words or not, I am glad and grateful that he said them.

Unlike most Americans, who have never met an Iraqi, much less a grateful one, I had a number of Iraqis shake my hand, look me in the eye and thank me for helping to get rid of Saddam. I had a much better impression of Iraqis when I left Iraq, after ten months of closely observing their behavior, than when I arrived. I have been around the world and have visited dozens of countries, so I had some basis upon which I could make comparisons.

Yet, evaluating the Iraqis wasn't very hard. They were industrious. They had a work ethic and wanted to do well at their job. I could see that as I traveled through the cities and watched thousands of Iraqis diligently performing thousands of different, sometimes humble, tasks. They were religious, and publicly made great sacrifices for their faith. I passed many Iraqis walking through the desert on a pilgrimage to a holy site. The really interesting part was that other Iraqis in cities along their path were obligated by their faith to provide food and water to the pilgrims. Finally, they were family oriented. On holidays, the Iraqi family would parade in the park, the father holding the young daughter while the wife led the son by the hand.

There are many people in my country, great Americans, with great compassion for anyone and everyone, who would toss this Iraqi family over the side in their great haste to see the American military withdrawn from Iraq, immediately and regardless of the consequences. Or so it appears to me based on statements of certain popular American politicians. I call it the "Take my ball and go home policy." Or so it appears to me.

I respectfully disagree.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why I voted for John McCain

For the first time in my life, a week before a Presidential primary, I was undecided on the candidate for which I was going to cast my vote. That is, I was undecided for which Republican Presidential candidate I was going to vote since I have never voted for any Democratic candidates in the ten Presidential elections in which I have participated.

My long stated overriding criteria upon which I was going to select a candidate was his ability to beat whoever the Democratic party nominated. With this singular factor holding sway over my decision I was hampered by the inability of any candidate in either party to demonstrate that they were going to get the nomination.

There are a number of reasons that I am opposed to Senators Obama and Clinton. The primary reason for my opposition is their stated policies on the war in Iraq. If I had to choose between the two (and I don't) I would choose Clinton because I don't believe she will hold herself to her own campaign rhetoric if she took office and was REALLY responsible for the consequences of her actions. The sense that I get from listening to Obama (other than fear for myself, my family and my country) is that he actually believes what he says about Iraq and that he would be irresponsible enough to actually implement an immediate withdrawal of U.S troops, regardless of the consequences.

I am still unable to trust the Democratic party or their candidates with the security of the country and I believe that national security is the number one issue facing our country right now. The economy is going to get better - it always does. Evil, fanatical men are even now plotting the wholesale slaughter of our citizens right here in the homeland and this threat will remain for the rest of my lifetime, at least.

John McCain can defeat either Clinton or Obama in November. I reached this conclusion listening to John McCain's speech on CNN the night he won the South Carolina primary. And I carried that insight in my pocket as I entered the polling booth to vote for McCain in the Florida primary.

The biggest obstacle John McCain faces in reaching the White House comes not from the Democrats but from obstinate conservatives within his own party. Mitt Rommney had the good sense to see that prolonging his campaign was doing nothing but hurting his own party and the very issues for which he had been fighting. Every day that Mr. Huckabee continues in his hopeless endeavor casts doubt on his judgment and his real intentions.

And I still believe that far away in a cave Osama bin Laden is monitoring plots that he has already set in motion, plots that in his characteristic spectacular manner will try to influence the man or woman that we choose for the next President.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Sunni's start to wise up

A number of things about Iraq have continued to mystify and perplex me. The first and obvious point is why Don Rumsfeld thought that he didn't need an occupation plan. The second point is why the Sunnis in Iraq continued to Iraq against their own self interest. As the media continues to cover Iraq like so many car crashes on the 6 o'clock news, more reliable sources of information indicate that the Sunnis in Iraq are finally starting to wise up.

The main gripe of the Sunnis has always been that they, even though a minority, have always been in charge and should always be in charge. The Sunni dominated Ottoman empire placed Sunnis in the bureaucracy of the three provinces that make up what is now modern day Iraq: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. When the Ottoman empire was carved up by Winston Churchill and others, the British decided that the long suffering majority Shia were troublesome and inexperienced at self government. To maintain stability, the British decided to install the very same Ottoman bureaucrats, backed up by British military might.

The 1920 Shia revolt in the lower and middle Euphrates basin against this injustice was suppressed by the British, who took advantage of their superiority in air power. History was repeated in 1991 when the same Shia in the same region were suppressed by Saddam, primarily using his superiority in air power.

The overthrow of Saddam and the installation of a Shia dominated representative government sent shock waves that reverberated inside Iraq and among the other countries in the region. The neighboring Sunni dominated states of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Turkey were shocked by the sudden ascension of the Shia to power in such a large and resource rich country like Iraq. Iraq is the only Arab country with oil and water resources. Properly guided, Iraq could easily feed the Middle East and become a large exporter of agricultural foodstuffs.

Until very recently, no oil was known to be in the Sunni dominated areas of Iraq. With known oil reserves firmly in control of the Shia and Kurds, the only hope for accessing this wealth was through a Sunni participation in a unified and representative Iraq. Since 2003 the Iraqi Sunni dominated insurgency has been operating contrary to this obvious self interest. This was clear to me even when I was in Iraq back in 2003-04.

Fouad Ajami, a Professor at Johns Hopkins, author, and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, recently provided some interesting insight into the Sunni thinking the last few years.
He quoted one Iraqi Sunni who had complained that they Sunnis had been waiting all these years for their Sunni brethren in the neighboring countries to come and save them from the Shia infidels. As if Syria and Saudi Arabia were going to invade Iraq, oust the American occupiers and reinstall the Baath party.

They were seriously deluded, but finally (Thank God! or Praise Allah, if you insist) they have started to come to grips with reality. See www.billroggio.com for the details, but the Sunni tribes in Anbar province (home of such scenic cities as Fallujah and Ramadi) have begun to band together to fight Al Qaeda. The tribes have banded together into paramilitary formations (recognized and condoned by the Baghdad government) that are engaging in pitched battles with Al Qaeda terrorist cells.

Most if not all of the Al Qaeda fighters are foreigners who have come to Iraq from all over the Arab world to kill Americans. Wherever Al Qaeda elements have taken control of cities in Anbar province they immediately established a form of Taliban fascist dictatorship. Last year, when the Sunni tribes rebelled against this form of rule internecine fighting broke out between Al Qaeda and the Sunni tribes. Initially, Al Qaeda had the upper hand, with tactics such as terrorists attacks on Sunni tribal leaders that didn't tow the line.

Finally, last Fall, the tribal leaders banded together into a military and POLITICAL organization to resist Al Qaeda and seek help from the Baghdad government and the U.S. military. The tribes were able to supply a lot of actionable intelligence to the U.S. military and this has resulted in numerous raids, disruptions of Al Qaeda terror networks of the capture or death of a number of senior Al Qaeda Iraq leaders. Recently, tribes in other Sunni dominated provinces, like Diyala, have witnessed the success of the tribes in Anbar and have created similar organizations.

Now, everything is not hugs and kisses between the Sunnis and the U.S. military. They won't ever forgive us for removing them from power and installing the Shia. At least now they are acting in their own self interest. They have recognized that Al Qaeda is the greater enemy to them. They have in essence switched sides. This is big.

Unfortunately, even if General Petraeus and the Baghdad government turn Iraq back into the Garden of Eden this summer, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi won't be happy with the results.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

"The war is lost," says Harry Reid

The most polite thing that I can say about Harry is that he is grossly misinformed. Ignorance can be cured but stupidity cannot, so I will leave it to the reader to place General Reid in the proper category. I have promised myself that I wouldn't spend the rest of my life being angry at people yet Harry and Nancy continue to test me.

When I returned home from Iraq I found solace and comfort in the Memoirs of U.S. Grant. In my military career different Chiefs of Staff of the Army have published recommended reading lists for officers and I noted that Grant's memoirs were always prominently featured. The country is divided now over the war in Iraq but the divisions in the Civil War were much deeper. Not only had the southern states seceded from the Union but many people in the north, horrified at the slaughter on the battle fields, were deeply opposed to President Lincoln's war policies.

In 1863, as Grant struggled to take Vicksburg he had many northern newspapers brought to him so that he could gauge public opinion. These newspapers were full of advice and criticism about his generalship and conduct of the Vicksburg campaign. His resignation and/or relief were frequent topics of editorials. The tenor of these criticisms weighed on his military decisions as he maneuvered Sherman on a variety of different routes in an effort to get him into position to assail the city. Grant was well aware that the fate of his President and the war was hanging on the success of his Vicksburg campaign.

Field Marshall Reid has declared the so-called "surge" a failure, even though all the troops called for by this strategy are not yet in place. I have serious doubts about Harry's military judgment, whether the issue relates to tactical, operational or strategic military questions. General Petreus is coming to Washington this week to testify to the House on the progress of the war. General Petreus is a good man and well qualified to report on the status of the Iraq campaign. Like General Grant, Petreus is well aware that the fate of a President and the war are riding on his success. Whatever Harry thinks that he is doing, he is not making the good generals job any easier, or the jobs of the many American service men and women in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

My interview with General Mattis

In May 2003 General James Mattis was the commander of the famous First Marine Division in Iraq. As a one star general Gen Mattis had already made a name for himself in the Afghanistan war. Those exploits had led him to command of the First Division, and he had led the Division, often literally, from Kuwait to Baghdad at the beginning of the war.

Gen Mattis had a deserved reputation as a tough, hard nosed Marine. A bachelor, many said that he was married to the Corps. All of us over there held this man in awe and none of us wanted to do anything to get on his bad side. Without intending to, I managed to get him riled up.

With Baghdad taken, Mattis' Division was redeployed to the area south of Baghdad. A Marine infantry battalion was placed in seven of the nine provinces (the British were in the other two). In the unique way the Marines have of conducting military operations, the lieutenant colonels who commanded these battalions were made essentially military governors with very wide latitude in how they managed they civilian populace in their provinces.

The Division gave relatively little guidance to the battalions on dealing with the millions of Iraqi civilians in their area. The one issue made clear to everyone was that General Mattis was very interested in getting the schools repaired and ready to open in the fall. The First Marine Expeditionary Force, or MEF, was the Division's next higher headquarters yet they didn't have a lot of guidance on dealing with the civilian populace either.

This was a frustrating state of affairs for me and the other members of my Army Reserve unit because we had been sent to Iraq and assigned to the MEF to assist them in dealing with civilian issues. We thought that as long as we made the trip we might as well do something.

This was not a universal opinion. Others in our unit thought that if we made ourselves useful and actually did a good job then we might be left behind when the Marines were withdrawn and sent home. We and the Marines expected this withdrawal to happen any moment.

"After all," a Marine staff officer told us, "we don't do occupations. The Army does."

Any efforts that we wanted to take in getting information about the civil populace was foiled by the First Marine Division policies restricting anyone operating in their area. General Mattis didn't want anyone from higher headquarters traveling to see any unit in his Division without his permission. In fact, he didn't really want any of us talking to anyone in his Division. The Division was sending reports to the MEF and, by God, that was all we really needed to know about what was going on.

I wasn't happy with this state of affairs. I was stuck at Camp Babylon with the MEF headquarters, unable to travel to any of the seven provinces in our area and unable to even talk to anyone in those provinces to get a sense of what was happening. Each of the Marine battalions had about a dozen Army civil affairs soldiers assigned to assist them. I had organized the training of these soldiers when they first arrived in Kuwait and now that they were deployed out to the provinces I wanted to get out there and see how they were doing. I had a great suspicion, later confirmed, that the written reports we were receiving were not complete.

After many long arguments I was able to convince our Operations officer, Dale Foster, to submit a request to the MEF staff for permission for me to take a team to the Marine battalion headquarters in each of the provinces. Colonel Foster was doubtful that the request would be approved.

It was.

In the middle of May 2003 I assembled four Hummers and 10 soldiers and proceeded on what I was to later call a Grand Tour of south central Iraq. The morning of my departure I placed a copy of the MEF orders authorizing my trip, signed by the MEF Commander, General Conway, in my pocket. Since General Conway had three stars and General Mattis had only two, I hoped that these orders would be sufficient. Still, I half expected some Marine guard to challenge me as I departed the compound, demanding to see my papers. Little did I know.

My first two destinations were Al Kut and An Nasiriyah, in the area of Task Force Tarawa. While I was in An Nasiriyah, attending a luncheon in a tent with a bunch of local sheiks, I received word that I was to call Colonel Foster immediately on the satellite phone. The next day I was due to travel to As Samawah, in the First Division sector.

When I finally got Colonel Foster on the phone his message was curt and stunning, "General Mattis has ordered that you are not to proceed to any battalion locations in his divisional area until you have reported to his division headquarters in Ad Diwaniyah and explained the purpose of your trip."

I digested this message in silence. "Did anybody tell him that I had General Conway's permission to do this?" I asked. General Conway, as the MEF commander, was General Mattis' boss.

"I don't think General Mattis cares," Foster replied. "He wants to talk to you right away."

Holy shit, I thought. If General Mattis wants to talk to me right away he can't be happy about something, and whatever he is unhappy about must concern me. I felt in my pocket for my permission slip from General Conway. In my military career I had rarely been summoned to a general's presence, and definitely had never been summoned when I was the principal object of the discussion

My convoy of 4 vehicles arrived in Ad Diwaniyah in the middle of the afternoon. The heat of the day was bad but we didn't yet realize how really bad it was going to get. The Marine Division headquarters was located in a miserable hellhole of a former Iraqi army base outside of town. I reported to the Chief of Staff.

The General had me cool my heels for an hour and then I was ordered to report to his office. I entered and gave him my best Army Colonel salute. He told me to have a seat. He made a phone call and a few minutes later his four principal division staff officers entered the room and stood behind him. I sat in a chair facing these five men, quietly anxious.

I had been in a wide and varied number of interviews in my life but this was without a doubt the most uncomfortable interview I had ever conducted. The general was a small man, with a sharp nose, and a calm, nonthreatening demeanor. He probably knew, as I did, that threats were unnecessary as I was already thoroughly intimidated. During the entire interview he never raised his force, but spoke calmly and directly.

I had spent the day going over answers to every conceivable question that I thought that he would ask. Nevertheless, his first question caught me by surprise.

"Colonel, why don't you tell me how what you are doing is benefiting me?"

I couldn't think of a good answer to his question because my trip was intended to gather information for me to do my job, and help my unit do their job to support General Conway. Helping General Mattis never entered any of the equations in my calculus, although I surely understand how that would be on the top of the General's list.

Since I didn't have a good answer for him I launched into a nervous narrative of how I had trained all the civil affairs soldiers in his sector, and how I needed feedback on how they were doing, and how Army civil affairs doctrine said this and that and blah, blah, blah, and he wasn't liking anything that I was saying.

He asked me the same question again. This time I remembered my permission slip from General Conway and I actually pointed to the pocket of my Desert Camouflage Uniform where those precious orders resided. I fell back on the true and unvarnished statement that I was operating under orders from General Conway.

The man had a face of stone and nothing that I was saying was changing one granite line on his craggy face. He did not appear impressed by General Conway's orders, or U.S. Army civil affairs doctrine or any of the other points that I had to say. Finally I figured out that I needed to shut up and listen.

"Sir," I finally said in frustration, holding up both my hands, "I'm ready to do whatever you want me to do."

Once I was thoroughly pinned to the wall, he commenced to give me the "Every Marine Commander Owns His Battlespace" lecture, which I had heard many times before. Then he gave me his "My Commanders Don't Have Time To Answer Silly Questions From Higher Headquarters" lecture, which I had also heard before.

He told me the story of a team from Baghdad that had shown up in his area without notifying either the Division or the local battalion commander. They had gotten in trouble with the Iraqis, and then had screamed for help. How could he go to some one's help if he didn't know that he was there? he asked me.

Obviously, it was a rhetorical question. Throughout this entire time I was the most earnest and studious of listeners. His staff never said a word. Finally, he let me go with a word of warning that I wasn't to do any of those things those other idiots had done to make him mad. I promised that I wouldn't.

I left the interview almost laughing with relief. War is certainly hell. Fortunately for me (and the General) I never had to speak to General Mattis again for the rest of the war.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The best news from Iraq in a year

I believe that we are witnessing another turning point in the war in Iraq. A brief review of significant events since 2003 will serve to prove my point.

The exact nature and timing of so-called "turning points" in the Iraq war are subject to the collective judgment of the historians. In my view, the first big turning point occurred while I was in Iraq in November 2003. Ambassador Bremer negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council they laid out a series of steps that would lead to an elected, representative government.

As we read the agreement when it was released we all immediately realized the significance of the planned turnover of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government. There were many who believed that June 2004 was too early for the transfer because the Iraqis weren't ready. While there were some significant issues with Iraqi capabilities for self-government, the Coalition wasn't exactly doing a superlative job in managing the country. In hindsight, and based on my experience in dealing with many of the economic, military and political problems that existed at the time, I believe that the handover decision was correct and might even have been better if executed earlier.

From November 2003 until December 2005 the agreement unfolded generally as written although events were not reported this way in the media. News reports focused instead on car bombs, U.S. casualties and the U.S. political reaction to these events. The enemy actions during this period (as they continue to be now) were focused on degrading the American political will to fight. These enemy actions were not military successes but had the intended political effect.

The second significant turning point occurred in February 2006 with the bombing of the important Shia mosque in Samarra. For over 30 months the Baathist holdouts and the Sunni Al Qaeda cells in Iraq had struck hard at the majority Shia population in an effort to generate a Shia response and create sectarian fighting between the Sunni and the Shia. The February attack pushed the Shia over the edge and elicited the ruthless and bloody attacks on the Sunni that the attackers desired.

The rise in sectarian violence and the concurrent dramatic increase in Iraqi civilian casualties had the desired impact on the U. S. populace during the period leading to the important American Congressional elections. This wave of negative news overshadowed the assumption of power by an Iraqi government elected with a broad mandate and operating under a new constitution. New Prime Minister Maliki, appointed in April 2006, did not really have his government in place and operating until the summer. Consequently, the ability of this new government to influence events has only been felt in the last few months.

The impact of this new government on the Iraqi populace, police and armed forces cannot be underestimated. For too many years the Iraqi security forces have been asked to risk their lives for either the ever popular Coalition Provisional Authority or the Coalition selected Iraqi Interim government. The training and equipment provided by the U.S. government to the security forces, while necessary, are not as important as the will to fight and this new government has been instrumental in providing this will.

The mislabeled and misrepresented "surge" strategy recently adopted by the U.S. government has had an immediate positive impact on the ground in Iraq. This new strategy is not merely an increase in the total number of U.S. forces in the country but a change in the location and manner of their employment. Two of the brightest and most capable generals in the U.S. Army, Petraeus and Odierno, have been installed to execute this new strategy.

I believe that the confluence of these two factors, the new strategy and an elected Iraqi government, will change the outcome on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki, by withdrawing his protection of Sadr and the Mahdi Army, has caused a dramatic reduction in the level of sectarian violence. The introduction of U.S. and Iraqi forces into Iraqi neighborhoods in the capital has offered the long suffering inhabitants of that city a level of security that they have not seen in quite some time.

The big question in my mind right now is: how will the enemy adapt to these new circumstances?

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