Sunday, March 25, 2007

Speaking out on the war

March 19 was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq and I was able to use this occasion to speak out on the war in the local paper and and on our local ABC affiliate. Needless to say, I was not in favor of any retreat.

A local group called " Tallahasseans Who Believe It's Time To Come Home" organized a protest against the war on March 19. They inscribed 3,475 paper bags with the first name and age of a coalition person killed in the war in Iraq. Inside each bag they placed a candle and then placed these luminaries around a lake in a local park. As the sun set the lights made an impressive display.

All of the usual suspects were there wearing Peace Symbol T shirts and "It's Time to Come Home" bumper stickers on their backs and chests. Someone brought a truck with a large peace symbol made of lights erected in the cargo space. They even constructed a peace symbol on the ground using some of the luminous bags.

All of the usual media suspects were also there, both print and television. I walked by a man with a television camera interviewing a woman and I heard him ask her, "Do you have any personal connection with anyone in the Iraq war?"

"No, I don't," she replied, and her answer affected me greatly.

I had a lot of personal connections to the war and I thought that if they were going to interview her then they ought to interview me. I sought out the man with the camera and asked him, "Have you heard any opposing viewpoints since you arrived here?"

The man shook his head. "All of the people that I have talked to here are in favor of a withdrawal."

"Well I'm opposed to an immediate withdrawal and I'm an Iraqi war veteran."

When he heard this his eyes light up and he turned on his camera, "Would you be willing to do an interview?"

"I most certainly would."

Although I disagreed with almost all of the people around me I didn't disparage them. They were exercising their constitutional right of free speech and I told the reporter that I had gone to Iraq partly to defend their right to do what they were doing that night. The big point that I made was that few people were thinking about the poor Iraqis. In many ways we were responsible for the current situation in Iraq.

I understood the feelings of the people there by the lake. War is bad, peace is good. I agree with them on that. I saw the face of evil when I was in Iraq. I felt the breath of their hate. I feel responsible for the fate of the Iraqis. I am not so ready to abandon them. As I told the television reporter, there by the lake and the luminous bags of loss, withdrawing our forces from Iraq now would be immoral.

Plus, in my naivete, I told a lot of Iraqis that we wouldn't abandon them. Let no one take the moral high ground on me. It's not just Peace-Yes, War-No. I feel a moral obligation to defend those poor souls that I left behind. And I will continue to do so.

I returned home, wondering if the words and thoughts that I had long held and rarely expressed in public would even make the late night news. To my surprise, my comments led the eleven o'clock newscast that night. On one television station, in one small town in Florida, I was able to modify the message that the media conveyed to the public on the fourth anniversary of the war.

That made me feel good. I plan on doing it again.

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.

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?