War Stories

The Thin Green Line

What the latest violence reveals about the failed U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Iraqi mourners

Sectarian violence exploded in Iraq this weekend, with Shiite and Sunni militants openly battling for control of Balad and Duluiyah, two cities north of Baghdad. The violence began with the kidnapping and beheading of 17 Shiite laborers; so far, nearly 100 Iraqis have perished in the fighting. U.S. forces initially held back, giving the Iraqi police and army the chance to pacify the cities. Once they recognized that this approach had failed, U.S. combat troops moved into Balad on Tuesday, conducting joint patrols in an effort to take back the streets. For now, the unrest seems to have simmered down.

Despite having 140,000 troops in Iraq, our military is still forced to play a game of whack-a-mole with the insurgency and militias, because it cannot dominate the country enough to secure every city and hamlet. The U.S. military constitutes a thin green line capable of containing the insurgency when deployed, but it cannot be everywhere. The inability of Iraqi police and army units to retake Balad on their own demonstrates the continuing problem with the U.S. exit strategy of “standing up” Iraqi security forces so we can “stand down.” Without a radical change of strategy, the mission in Iraq will fail.

The towns of Balad and Duluiyah sit in the lush, fertile Tigris River valley, a region of Iraq crisscrossed by irrigation canals, farms, palm groves, and highways and dotted with hundreds of rural towns and villages. Ethnically, the region is mixed; Sunni villages often coexist next to Shiite villages, and sometimes members of each sect live within the same block. The United States chose Balad as the site of its largest airbase in Iraq because of its central location and the existing long runways that Saddam Hussein’s air force had used for years. Now dubbed “Life Support Area Anaconda,” it is one of the largest American bases in the world and is home to more than 20,000 military personnel, contractors, and civilians. It boasts two base stores the size of small Wal-Marts, several massive dining facilities, two swimming pools, a bus service, and a quality of life better than anywhere else in Iraq. Although it functions primarily as a logistics and transportation hub, Anaconda is also home to several combat units, as is nearby Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, which sits just on the outskirts of Balad.

Although the United States has nearly 30,000 troops near Balad, it does not have any troops in the city on a full-time basis. During the last two years, the U.S. presence in Iraq has consolidated in massive superfortresses like Anaconda and shut down dozens of smaller bases and outposts across the country. This operational withdrawal was meant to make the U.S. presence more efficient and to reduce the risk of having small units deployed on small bases where they might be vulnerable to insurgent attack; it also forced the Iraqis to become more self-sufficient in securing their own cities. Unfortunately, this has come at a price. When a massive flare-up happens in places like Balad, Tikrit, or Kirkuk, all cities without a permanent U.S. presence, our military must respond from afar, its effectiveness and responsiveness limited by distance.

Of course, this presumes that U.S. forces are able to respond at a moment’s notice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The American battalion responsible for Balad is stretched over hundreds of square miles and is responsible for partnering with Iraqi forces, engaging local government officials, overseeing reconstruction projects, securing its bases, and providing security throughout the area. Covering all these missions presents a difficult tactical problem, one that forces commanders to spread their troops thinly. A medium-sized city like Balad, with 100,000 residents, might be patrolled only by a company—100 to 150 men—at any given time.

This violent weekend proves that America needs to radically change its course in Iraq, while some form of victory still lies within our grasp. First, the U.S. military must reverse its trend of consolidation and redeploy its forces into Iraq’s cities. Efficiency and force protection cannot define our military footprint in Iraq; if those are our goals, we may as well bring our troops home today. Instead, we must assume risk by pushing U.S. forces out into small patrol bases in the middle of Iraq’s cities where they are able to work closely with Iraqi leaders and own the streets. Counterinsurgency requires engagement. The most effective U.S. efforts thus far in Iraq have been those that followed this maxim, like the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, which established numerous bases within the city and attacked the insurgency from within with a mix of political, economic, and military action.

Second, the United States needs to reinforce the most successful part of its strategy so far—embedding advisers ($) with Iraqi units. Our embedded advisers achieve more bang for the buck than any other troops in Iraq; one good 12-man adviser team, living and working with an Iraqi unit, can bolster an entire Iraqi battalion. Without these advisers, Iraqi army and police units remain ineffective—or worse, they go rogue. However, these advisers are drawn primarily from the reserves and the staff ranks, not from America’s military elite, so they represent the B Team of today’s military talent. The military needs to invest its best people in the job. If necessary, it should shatter existing units to cull the best officers and sergeants—those selected for command positions—for this critical duty. And the United States cannot afford to lavish advisers on the Iraqi army alone, as it has largely done since 2003. It must extend the embedding program to the police and the Iraqi government, down to the province and city level, to bring critical services like security, electricity, and governance to the Iraqi people.

At the same time, we must recognize the limitations of our strategy to raise the Iraqi forces—it is a blueprint for withdrawal, not for victory. At best, it will enable us to substitute Iraqi soldiers and cops for American men and women. But simply replacing American soldiers with Iraqi soldiers and cops will not end the insurgency; it will merely transform it into a civil war where the state-equipped army and police battle with Sunni and Shiite militias, with Iraqi civilians frequently caught in the crossfire.

To combat the insurgency, America must adopt a more holistic approach than simply building up the country’s security forces. We have the seeds of this in Iraq today—the State Department’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I worked closely with the PRT in Diyala to advise the Iraqi courts, jails, and police, and I saw their tremendous potential. However, having been hamstrung by bureaucratic infighting between the State and Defense departments, these teams now lack the authority, personnel, and resources to run the reconstruction effort effectively. America should reach back to one of its positive lessons from Vietnam, the “Civil Operations and Rural Development Support” program. There, the United States created a unified organization to manage all military and civilian pacification programs, recognizing that only a unified effort could bring the right mix of political, economic, and military solutions to bear on problems.

Although we copied some parts of the CORDS model in Afghanistan and Iraq when we created the PRTs, we did not go nearly far enough. It has become cliché to say that the insurgency requires a political solution; in practical terms, that means subordinating military force to political considerations and authority. Today’s PRT chiefs need to have command authority over everything in their provinces, much as ambassadors have traditionally exercised command over all military activity in their countries. We must also empower the PRTs to actually do something besides diplomacy—that means money. Like battlefield commanders, PRT chiefs need deep pockets of petty cash (what the military calls the Commander’s Emergency Response Program fund) to start small reconstruction projects and local initiatives that will have an immediate and tangible impact.

The Iraq Study Group led by James Baker will reportedly propose many significant adjustments to our diplomatic strategy and our relationship with the nascent Iraqi government. Failing that, the panel will recommend a strategic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. I believe that there is still time to secure Iraq and stave off what some believe is an inevitable civil war. Bolstering Iraq’s security forces and our own reconstruction efforts may not be enough, but these practical fixes represent our best hope for pulling Iraq back from the precipice. We must act quickly, though, before more cities explode like Balad and Duluiyah.