I enjoyed an extended chat with a jr. US Army officer, on furlough from Iraq, about the time that Phyllis Bennis here gave a stimulating guest comment that questioned the Obama Administration agenda in Iraq.
I too was sensing something awry when the WaPost Outlook section last Sunday had three separate neoconservatives (Feith, Pletka, & Scheunemann) praising “Obama’s Plan for Iraq,” presumably because it seemed to place more emphasis on “finishing the job” and equivocating on the withdrawal timetable.
On the other hand, I’ve often wondered how simply withdrawing US troops necessarily will “end the war,” especially with the multiple worm cans festering in northern Iraq. (That of course is not an argument in itself for staying, just a “grounded” check.) In any case, I am encouraged that the violence is down considerably, even as we debate the various explanations.
With such questions on my mind, I was eager to listen to this young officer current impressions. He’s been there less than half a year, ensconced in one of the large army bases near the Baghdad airport. I present here a few of his observations, without my own “spin.” For his sake, I am not going to mention his name or unit, save to say that his comments were “candid” and, as far as I could tell, unconcerned about command ramifications.
Biggest complaint: While he did frequently mention cold showers (which beats being electrocuted by one of the notorious KBR showers!), his primary gripe was about sheer, raw boredom. The army keeps him “busy.” As a young engineer-in-training, he puts in 13+ hour days , 6.5 days a week, but his duties seem largely dominated by bureaucratic “make work” the army notoriously can create to fill space. (For effect, he mentioned that his drudge work had included warehouse inventories at the massive Abu Ghraib complex.)
He conceded that “boredom” beats fear. But he also lamented that he had been trained for six months before deployment to deal with intense situations of adrenaline rush — and his service thus far had been anything but.
Such boredom potentially creates problems among “edgy” troops. Unlike other wars, US soldiers, at least currently, rarely take in-country leave, and they are generally kept away from the civilian population. Never mind a recent Rosetta Stone Arabic program designed just for soldiers, few have the time, and there apparently is little encouragement to learn it.
I also hadn’t previously heard about “general order #1” — no alcohol for soldiers anywhere in theatre, and it’s apparently enforced. (He wasn’t complaining in having given it up himself — he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since being activated a year ago.)
The Surge?: I was particularly interested in his thoughts to explain the “lack of excitement” — or the lessening of violence in Iraq. As this young officer went to Iraq generally “gung ho,” believing in the mission, I anticipated he’d be crowing about how “the surge worked.” To the contrary, he soberly mentioned that “the surge” rarely comes up much among junior and mid-level officer types. They apparently realize it’s a poltiically loaded PR term, one implying that increased troops alone accounted for the lessening of violence. It’s far more complex than that.
The numbers may have helped, but they were less important in themselves than a change in tactics, technology/equipment, politics, and “attitude.” I’m only summarizing here his main thoughts:
Technology: Once the decision was made, as he put it, “not to cut and run” when faced with mounting casualties, then at least initially, units had to be beefed up and better protected. He credits the widespread deployment of new MRAP’s (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) for dramatically reducing casualties from the roadside bombs (IED’s & such).
Likewise, he cited a qualitative and quantitative improvement in unmanned aircraft (drones) that monitor highway security, track possible insurgent movements, and “take-out” threats remotely as making it far more difficult to plant IED’s along major highways. (Those drones give me shudders, sounding too much like inhuman computer gaming, but I recognized his point about their “effect.”)
While he only lightly mentioned the strategy to work with various local Arab tribal leaders, of co-opting relative moderates among previous insurgents, he did marvel at how common it had become for US soldiers, at least in his experience, to cooperate with, and even defer to, Iraqi Army units.
He was aware of once common accounts that belittled the performance, unreliability, and even fickleness of Iraqi units. Yet he cited a conscious decision in 2006 to provide regular Iraqi Army units with top of the line equipment, including MRAP’s, night vision equipment, and weapons. Furthermore, the risky decision was made that “we” had to trust “them” at some point to contribute to their own security, or the game would never be won. That had to include assurances to the Iraqis that it was still their country, and that the US has no long term designs.
The strategy of “trust” has apparently paid off, though my young officer friend did admit that it has created anxiety problems for his own men (and women), over half of whom had been deployed to Iraq three years ago. They well remembered their experiences then — and they had been trained precisely to expect the worst, to not trust Iraqi units they might encounter, for fear of betrayals in a crunch, collaboration with the insurgents by night, or the suicide bombers therein.
I’ll be watching for more reports that examine how the strategy to “trust” and “respect” Iraqi military counterparts changed the dynamics of this war. Putting this differently, he seemed to be suggesting that the idea took hold that you built meaningful trust by engaging your allies as equals, like you respected and needed them; that actions spoke loudest.
My officer friend did have rather comical impressions about dealing with Iraqi contractors. While he was surprised by the high levels of technical education among them, he was also a bit flummoxed by the ingenuity and brazenness he frequently encountered by would-be contractors and their tendency to carry multiple identification cards.
Iraqi Pride: The one theme I heard most in his comments was a genuine admiration for the “pride” he was witnessing among Iraqi military units — something he had not expected to encounter. Part of this was just by behavior, of units staying together, of manning lonely posts along desert highways, of maintaining their equipment in top order despite harsh conditions — even painting them with bright unit colors.
All this raises the suggestion that something fundamental has been changing…. and favorably. If so, that would lend further weight to arguments that we can expedite, rather than drag out, the withdrawal of US forces.
Addendum: When I asked about various other matters of Iraq concern, he did not have much first-hand basis for confirming or denying them. He has been regularly briefed about potential issues to watch, including sectarian dynamics, rivalries among major factions, and Gaza spillover. Yet thus far, he didn’t seem too concerned about them. The next big challenge he saw was the increased area responsibilities his command would take on, after the pending British withdrawal was completed.
Before he left to go back to Iraq, I hazarded asking about if he thought what worked in Iraq would be helpful for Afghanistan. He surprised me again in being doubtful. First, he wondered about the capacity of the Afghan forces to take on the technical tasks of state and security building as quickly as the better educated Iraqis have done. Second, and more interesting, he noted that the current MRAP’s would not do well in Afghanistan. They’re big, bulky, and tip over easily. They’re fine for operations on Iraqi roads; they’d be less agile and subject to bogging down “off road” in mountainous terrains.