Iraq War Success Stories

I have come across several pieces recently talking about very successful counter-insurgency operations in Iraq by American special operators. Together, they provide some useful lessons learned (or, as some military wags would note, “Lessons Identified”–they’ve been “learned” many times to little avail).

I started a post on this piece Monday and get sidetracked:

In Iraq, One Officer Uses Cultural Skills To Fight Insurgents (WSJ, Nov. 15, p. 1, $) [PDF here]

Last summer, two dozen U.S. Army Rangers headed for the Iraq-Syria border to figure out how foreign fighters were slipping through western Iraq’s barren deserts. As they had done in the past, the Rangers took positions around each village and Bedouin encampment. At one village, an officer named David, accompanied by a small security team, strode into the center looking for someone who would talk. Unlike the clean-shaven, camouflage-clad Rangers, David wore a thick goatee and civilian clothes. The Rangers carried long, black M-4 carbine rifles. David walked with a small 9mm pistol strapped to his leg. The Rangers spoke English. He spoke Arabic tinged with a Yemeni accent.

As he recounts the day, David met a woman with facial tattoos that marked her as her husband’s property. As they chatted, the pale-skinned, sandy-haired North Carolina native imitated her dry, throaty way of speaking. “You are Bedu, too,” she exclaimed with delight, he recalls. From her and the other Bedouins, the 37-year-old officer learned that most of the cross-border smuggling was carried out by Shamar tribesmen who peddle cigarettes, sheep and gasoline. Radical Islamists were using the same routes to move people, guns and money. Many of the paths were marked with small piles of bleached rocks that were identical to those David had seen a year earlier while serving in Yemen.

Col. H.R. McMaster, who oversees troops in northwestern Iraq, says David’s reports allowed his regiment to “focus our reconnaissance assets upon arrival” in Iraq’s vast western desert last summer and immediately begin to intercept smugglers.

David is part of a small cadre of cultural experts in the Army known as foreign-area officers. The military would only allow him to be interviewed on the grounds that his last name and rank be withheld. U.S. officials say he’ll be spending the rest of his career in the Middle East, often operating alone in potentially hostile territory. Naming him, they say, would make him more vulnerable to attack. His colleagues in Iraq say his presence has been invaluable. “We ought to have one of these guys assigned to every [regional] commander in Iraq,” says Col. John Bayer, chief of staff for Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. forces in the northern third of the country. “I’d love to say ‘assign me 100 of these guys.’ ”

That’s not happening. Instead, the military is pulling David out of Iraq later this month along with seven other officers who make up his unit. Before the end of the year, David will resume his previous post in Yemen. The decision to disband the Iraq unit is part of a continuing debate within the Pentagon about how best to fight unconventional wars that don’t lend themselves to the Army’s traditional reliance on firepower and technology. The issue: How should the Army use officers who specialize in accumulating historical, political and cultural knowledge.

Earlier this fall, the U.S. embassy and the military’s main headquarters in Baghdad concluded that the work of David and his colleagues was duplicating the efforts of other personnel. David’s team is part of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. It was sent to Iraq to advise U.S. military and State Department officials. “While it’s regrettable to lose experienced people, overall there are many more Arabic speakers working for us [in Iraq] than you might think,” says one U.S. embassy official in Mosul.

To some in the Defense Department, the foreign-area teams offer a model for how all types of future officers should be trained. A report approved by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in January, specifically ordered the military to beef up its linguistic and cultural capabilities. “Language skill and regional expertise have not been regarded as warfighting skills and are not sufficiently incorporated” into war plans, the report concluded.

Unfortunately, while the FAO program has been quite successful, it has never had much support from the Powers that Be because it does not strike many as “real” soldiering. That’s true even among many in the Special Forces community.

Major James A. Gavrilis , an Army Special Forces officer who has served two tours in Iraq and is now a political-military planner in the Iraq Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy in the same vein:

The Mayor of Ar Rutbah (Nov-Dec)

It begins with this teaser:

Amid the chaos in Iraq, one company of U.S. Special Forces achieved what others have not: a functioning democracy. How? By relying on common sense, the trust of Iraqis, and recollections from Political Science 101. Now, their commander reveals the gritty reality about nation-building in Iraq, from the ground up.

The article is anecdotal and excerpting it would not do it justice. A snippet from the conclusion is useful, though:

In the end, I spent only about $3,000. This sum included the salaries of the police, the mayor, the army colonel, and a few soldiers and public officials. We paid for the crane and the flatbed trailers to move the generators to the city for electricity, and for fuel to run the generators. And we picked up the tab for other necessities, such as painting, tea, and copies of the renunciation form. But the change did not depend on the influx of funds; the Iraqis did a lot themselves. The real progress was the efficient and decent government and the environment we established. Without a lot of money to invest, we made assessments and established priorities, and talked with the Iraqis, exchanging ideas and visions of the future.


Reflecting on it now, and on so much of what has happened in Iraq since we left, I can point to the reasons we succeeded so early on where many others have not. First, we lived modestly, and we did not occupy any private houses or regime buildings. We did not limit ourselves to certain functions or tasks, or fail to adjust to the realities on the ground such as stopping looting, providing electrical power, and other nation-building tasks. When nation-building became our mission, we performed without any hesitation. In addition, our immersion in the city fostered mutual understanding. Because we worked with and through Iraqis in all endeavors, they had a sense of ownership toward the new Ar Rutbah, and our success became their success. We behaved as if we were guests in their house. We treated them not as a defeated people, but as allies. Also, our forces ensured that political decisions were binding. Anyone that interfered with any part of government, public works, or a supply delivery was considered an enemy, just as if they had threatened security. In that environment, security and governance were intertwined at every level.

In the end, though, we left. Although the Iraqis continued the work we started, the follow-up coalition forces did not. The distance between the locals and the troops widened. The Iraqis were eventually exposed and vulnerable to regime loyalists̢۪ retribution and intimidation by foreign fighters. The local Iraqi security forces never developed to the point where they were stronger than the gangs of insurgents; they were never brought into a larger political or security framework of an Iraqi government so that they could be part of a collective security system. Left alone, the Iraqis simply couldn̢۪t hold off the foreign fighters who passed through the city, using Ar Rutbah as a way station en route to Baghdad and Ramadi.

Last May, I wrote about a July/August 2003 Atlantic piece by Robert Kaplan called, “Supremacy by Stealth, ” about the bang-up job special operators were doing around the world. Kaplan, in turn, referenced John Hershey’s 1945 classic A Bell for Adano.

The hero of Hersey’s World War II novel is Army Major Victor Joppolo, an Italian-American civil-affairs officer appointed to govern the recently liberated Sicilian town of Adano. Joppolo is full of resourcefulness. He arranges for the U.S. Navy to show local fishermen which parts of the harbor are free of mines, so that they can use their boats to feed the town. He finds a bell from an old Navy destroyer to replace the one that the Fascists took from the local church and melted down for bullets. He countermands his own general’s order outlawing the use of horse-drawn carts, which the town needs to transport food and water. He goes to the back of a line to buy bread, to show Adano’s citizens that although he is in charge, he is their servant, not their master.

Having subsequently purchased and read the book, though, I find some irony in the fact that the Joppolo is taken as a model by so many in the warrior community. His reward for countermanding the general’s stupid order? He was relieved of command.

See the Marine Small Wars Center for more readings.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.