War Stories

What About the Grunts?

The Iraq Study Group talked to generals when it should have talked to corporals.

For all of the time they spent learning about America’s war in Iraq, the Iraq Study Group failed to study the war at its most critical level: that of the grunts. Nothing makes this clearer than the report’s appendix, which lists scores of men and women interviewed for the report, but none below the rank of lieutenant colonel. Iraq is what the Marines call a “three block war“—where U.S. troops might distribute reconstruction aid on one block, separate warring parties on the next block, and engage in a high-intensity firefight on the third. The actions of “strategic corporals” and captains matter most for small wars of this character. It is at their level where the war will be won or lost. It speaks volumes that the panel did not take the time to hear any of these grunt-level voices while in Iraq or back in the United States, or at least did not bother to list their names as authoritative sources for their report. If nothing else, the panel should have interviewed a few Iraq veterans and their families for political purposes, given the lingering questions over who serves when not all serve.

Further, Iraq is a land that confounds national strategies and solutions. Just like politics, all counterinsurgency is local. The war in Iraq is a provincial and municipal-level fight. What has worked to establish order in the Kurdish province of Sulymaniyah and the southern provinces will not work in the contested provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Baghdad, and Salah Ah Din. Likewise, each city presents unique problems that often defy national-level strategies devised in Baghdad or Washington. In a heavily Shiite area, building the local police force may be the best answer for creating order. In a heavily Sunni area, that move would likely cause open sectarian warfare. Staying in the Green Zone and getting their view of Iraq via PowerPoint slides and sterilized group discussions simply didn’t convey this reality to the ISG. They needed instead to talk with soldiers, Marines, intelligence officers, and diplomats who regularly interact with Iraqis and understand the reality of this country that exists outside the blast walls of America’s hermetically sealed bases.

The ultimate question before the panel was whether to increase America’s military commitment to Iraq or call for our withdrawal. On this, they punted, arguing strongly in favor of redoubled efforts to build the Iraqi army and police into viable forces capable of securing Iraq on their own so U.S. troops could eventually withdraw. Unfortunately, developing the Iraqi security forces is necessary, but it is not sufficient for victory, however minimally defined. Replacing American soldiers with Iraqi soldiers and cops will not end the insurgency; it will merely transform it into one fought instead by well-armed, well-organized Iraqi forces with decreasing amounts of American participation.

More practically, there are no quick fixes where the Iraqi army or police are concerned. Consider the street-level impact of the ISG’s key recommendations. Embedding advisers at the company level (for the army) and station level (for the police) will add steel to the Iraqi units, and it also ensures that such units are less likely to go rogue or participate as partisans in Iraq’s civil war. But this benefit comes at a cost—advisers live outside the wire, usually on the same compounds as their Iraqi counterparts, often at a great degree of personal risk. This past spring, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told the Pentagon that the effort to build the army and police would take 5 to 10 more years. And that was before this fall’s upward spiral in violence. It’s unclear how long the United States can sustain this level of commitment and risk, particularly if Iraq’s situation continues to deteriorate and these advisers find themselves in an untenable situation.

The panel also recommends trebling  the efforts of other government agencies in Iraq—particularly the Justice Department, USAID, and State Department—with responsibility for the political and economic aspects of America’s mission. Putting the Justice Department in charge of efforts to promote the rule of law (recommendations  No. 56, No. 60, and No. 61) make sense on paper; federal prosecutors and FBI agents have far more relevant expertise in this area than do the grab bag of military police, military lawyers, and reservists thrown at the effort today. But this has been considered for a long time, and was rejected because those other federal employees aren’t equipped to deploy to or work in a combat zone. Until State, Justice, Treasury, and the others put their best people in boots and body armor and ship them to Iraq, the military will own the field. Given President Bush’s reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace the panel’s findings, it seems unlikely these other agencies will find the will to suit up and enter the game.

The Baker-Hamilton commission also suggests a major overhaul for Iraq’s government, from a review of the constitution (recommendation 26) to housecleaning at the Ministry of the Interior (No. 50, No. 51, No. 53, and  No. 60). These are positive steps, too. But they ignore a reality which is all too familiar to those of us who worked at the ground level of this war. American solutions to Iraqi problems rarely work, and they are almost never sustainable. This is a common mistake made by U.S. officials regarding Iraq—that somehow, we can simply impose our will on the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people because we know best and we have technology and money. The British felt much the same way in the early 20th century, at least until they learned by being driven out of Mesopotamia. Yesterday, in Iraq, Sunni politicians echoed this sentiment. Iraq needs to develop its own blueprint to solve its problems.

To be fair, many of the panel’s 79 recommendations do sound practical—they’re the kinds of strategic and tactical course corrections that should have been made long ago. The reason they have not been previously adopted or implemented is also telling. Strategist and historian Eliot Cohen gets it precisely right in today’s Wall Street Journal when he writes that our looming defeat stems from “an unwillingness or inability to grab the bureaucracy by the throat and make it act.” Diplomat Robert Komer wrote much the same thing a generation ago in his classic study of Vietnam titled “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing.” Forget about its technological sophistication or vaunted all-volunteer force—today’s American military is the largest and most lethargic bureaucracy in world history. Its job in Iraq has been made tougher by the grafting of numerous civilian headquarters onto its existing Hydra-headed command—first the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, then the Coalition Provisional Authority, then a U.S. Embassy, and now a U.S. diplomatic mission and a nascent Iraqi government. The Iraq Study Group, the Pentagon, and the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad have all displayed an almost pathological inability to listen to and learn from their own people. Our enemies suffer from no such bureaucratic encumbrances; they learn, they adapt, and they evolve much faster than we do. It’s a shame we needed the Iraq Study Group to show us that.