The author in Iraq
An Iraq vet say it’s hard to “stay the course” when nobody knows what that means
By Kory Turnbow
Captain, Bravo Company, 116 Engineers Battalion, Idaho National Guard
I’ve been asked by numerous friends and acquaintances since my return home in December of last year what I think of the War on Terror, or the War in Iraq. I get the impression that they are typically looking for a sound-bite reply, like I can somehow sum up the situation as a “win” or “lose” like the talking heads on the Fox News Channel.
I believe Afghanistan will go down in history as a successful U.S. military campaign and Iraq will likely go down as a modern-day Vietnam. People think I’m crazy when I say this. After all, as one friend pointed out, “What’s the difference between them? Aren’t they both Islamic countries?”
To start with, yes, they are both Islamic countries. However, in Afghanistan — a tribal society to be sure — they more or less have one national identity. Iraq remains divided among three fault lines — Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurdi (who don’t see themselves as Arabs at all). It is among these fault lines that we see the Iraqi civil war erupting today in the form of gangs of executioners roaming the streets looking for members of the other religious sects to kill en masse. And there has yet to be a national leader from Iraq with the strength, vision, and perhaps most importantly, charisma, to arise and unify his country.
It didn’t have to be this way — and as I recall witnessing and participating in the unfolding events, the U.S. missed several opportunities to get Iraq right. One was during questioning of Gen. Eric Shinseki in the pre-2003 invasion planning process. When asked [by Congress] about how many troops would be needed to invade Iraq, his best military-educated answer was “several hundred thousand,” to which Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz replied “wildly off the mark.” But history has since shown that Gen. Shinseki was not way off the mark; he was right on, much to the chagrin of those who wanted to fight this war on the cheap. With more troops on the ground, there would have been more troops for security of munitions depots during the invasion — which has come home to roost in the form of looted depots that have led to large numbers of IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] today — and to prevent the power vacuum which led to hardliners from all sides gaining power in just about all communities within Iraq.
Another misstep was L. Paul Bremer’s decision as leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi Army and Police forces and rebuild them from scratch. This led to putting a bunch of Iraqis trained (albeit poorly) in the use of weapons and explosives out of work. I’m not sure what Mr. Bremer hoped to accomplish by this, because in my experience working with the Iraqi Army [IA] and Police [IP] at their lowest level, I never met a single person with undying loyalty to Saddam Hussein. Besides, because they were the most qualified, they were the ones who got hired back in recruiting drives months later to take their old billets with the IA and IP. The problem with all this was not just the inconvenience, but the huge quantities of dollars spent in firing and then rehiring these people. And what many of these people did in the meantime was build and plant IEDs. Several of them found that they made more money in the IED business than they did in the IA/IP business, and never looked back.
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As a soldier, what gives me the most cause for concern in Iraq was the fact that I never knew who my enemy was. Even the people sniping at us from a distance, launching mortars and rockets, or putting bombs on the side of the road didn’t usually have an axe to grind with us, nor were they fighting as Jihadists for some perceived noble cause. In fact, most of the people doing these things were just ordinary citizens looking for a few extra dinar to pad their paychecks. As I found out the hard way after being struck by an IED shortly after my arrival in-country, Islamic hardliners from countries like Iran and Jordan would infiltrate Iraq and have the Imams announce after the Friday sermon that they were willing to pay $100-$300 for every IED accompanied by a photo or video of the explosion going off on a U.S. or Iraqi Security Forces convoy. Since the average Iraqi family took home about $150 a month, it didn’t take very much to convince the average person to plant an IED or two each month for a little extra pocket money.
Adding to this concern is the relative frustration incurred by trying to stop the bombers. It wasn’t like you had a window of opportunity to catch a guy in the middle of the night with a full bomb, initiation device, and shovel emplacing the thing on the side of the road. We would have caught them with our unmanned aerial vehicles had it been that easy. The civilian tactic was to get a group of three or four together to emplace the bomb, and then split the profits. The typical operation might look like this:
The first guy goes out with a shovel while tending his herd of sheep along the side of the road. He digs the hole for the IED at the appointed place. If he is ever stopped by a U.S. patrol, all we have on him is a shovel, which he carries ostensibly for the purpose of burying his waste (which is what the hole on the side of the road was for, he says, if he is ever asked about it). Since we can only detain a person for 24 to 72 hours without the civilian equivalent of probable cause — and don’t even think about prosecuting him, it just won’t happen — there is no point in detaining him.
The second guy goes out that night with the same flock of sheep, only he is carrying an old artillery shell (or perhaps three) in the back of a donkey cart. If he is stopped by a patrol, he immediately gets excited to tell the Americans about his wonderful find, and could they please take these shells from him? He found them by the side of the road, and wants to make his community safer by giving them to the Americans. Again, no probable cause for detention, as only the U.S. patrol on the ground knows the score. No one, U.S. or Iraqi, will prosecute this guy because there is an illusion that he is some kind of hero, just trying to clean up his community. And since that is what we want, this guy will go away free. If he makes it to the hole (which he will), he just tosses the shells into the hole and continues about his business.
The third guy will go out with initiators/blasting caps the way the second guy took out the shells. He keeps the same plausible deniability as the second guy, except for the hook-up time when he is on top of the IED. If you are going to catch someone, this is going to be your best opportunity, because he has to spend the most time on target (plus you get the IED for evidence). In practice, he won’t get caught, because we just don’t have enough troop density to watch the sheer amount of roadway that exists in Iraq.
The last guy will come by that night and hide in the bushes with the initiator (a cell phone, garage door opener, or anything else that transmits an electrical impulse) and a video camera. When the patrol passes that he wants to hit, he detonates the shells and has his video. Ironically enough, the bombers typically don’t care if they hurt anyone in the convoy; they just want the video to look good for the Imam when they go to collect their money.
My other big cause for concern at my level was never, and I repeat never, receiving a coherent mission or intent statement for Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to all the doctrine that I had been taught beginning in ROTC and continuing throughout my military career, a soldier needs two things to be able to do his job effectively. The first is a mission statement. This should be a short statement consisting of who, what, when, where, and perhaps most importantly, why we are doing what we are doing. The second thing is the commander’s intent. Essentially, this boils down to what the commander would like to see happen, and tells us his intended result. This helps clear the fog of war; lower-level commanders and soldiers can make decisions that will help further the commander’s intent, even if the mission becomes unworkable.
Every mission and intent statement I ever saw on this deployment was a huge Power Point slide dissertation written by someone with too much time on his hands. Not one meant anything to me as a commander, and I always tried to create a clear, concise mission statement for my troops during the various operations I sent them on. I don’t fault my commanders, nor the Division Commanders, or even the Theater Commanders. I believe that this problem went all the way to the top, with perhaps our Commander in Chief making it the clearest: “Stay the Course.” In hindsight, perhaps that’s what those Power Point slides were supposed to mean after all — nothing.
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During my stay in Iraq, I began to hate the words “Stay the Course.” After months (or perhaps a year) of searching for what we were really doing in Iraq, I finally heard what I was looking for from Brigadier Gen. Alan Gayhart, the 116th Brigade Combat Team Commander. It was late July 2005, as I recall, and he was addressing his Brigade Officer Corps as part of an officer development program: “So long as the Iraqi Civil War doesn’t start here, on our watch, we will have been successful in our job.” My months of searching were at an end. It was at that point that I began to question why we were even running missions at the pace we were running them to begin with. After all, the patrols had become nothing more than moving targets. They rarely captured any insurgents, and when they did, they were released back on the streets again within days, with $5 cash in their pockets for every day they spent detained — provided by the U.S. for the inconvenience of being detained.
If the real reason we were there was to prevent civil war in Northern Iraq, as well as beef up the Iraqi Security Forces, we could have done that with patrols that provided security for our bases instead of patrolling the entire country. No one side in a potential civil war was going to be the one to start a rumble with a huge U.S. armored force stationed on the FOB [forward operating base].
Our patrols and cordons and searches rarely yielded anything substantial in the fight against the so-called insurgency, and served to create a great expense for the U.S. in the form of lost lives and equipment. Perhaps the biggest impact of all the additional patrols was to alienate the populace and provide a target for those who would plant IEDs for profit. And not too many routine patrols ever captured a bad guy. To that end, I’m not sure our efforts bore fruit.
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Based on my experience in Iraq, the present strategy of withdrawing our troops as the Iraqi Army and Police are able to stand up is not going to be effective. This is because the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Interior (MoI) are horribly corrupt and not adept at managing their resources. It is quite often that an employee or minister will embezzle funds (provided by the U.S.) that would otherwise be used for paying employees or buying equipment for the security forces. Another favorite trick is to divert money to the minister’s own city, instead of spending it in other areas that might require the funds more, due to an insurgent buildup in that area. But the corruption doesn’t stop there; it goes down to the provincial and local levels in much the same manner. Perhaps the worst is at the local level, where the local Sheik will attempt to (and be generally successful at) installing commanders into his local IA barracks or IP station who suit his political affiliation at that time. This leaves the Iraqi troops on the ground with no other resource than their U.S. advisors to keep them functional and apolitical.
This was a constant frustration with me, because I sent up countless requisitions for property, only to be told that the items “were in route,” or “everyone is in the same boat you are.” I had stations that were authorized by the CPA to have 16 police cars that only had three or four. When the Iraqi Police went on patrol, they looked like Keystone Cops, shoved sometimes five, six or seven into a vehicle. I don’t even have to describe to you what happens when one of these packed vehicles gets hit with an IED. I was also required to stand up for IA commanders and IP chiefs who wouldn’t join a political party when that political party attempted to replace him with a loyal party member by using their contacts at the MoD or MoI.
Operationally, the brave Iraqis I had the privilege of working with were very strong when we were with them as advisors. They were strong when we weren’t with them as well, but they didn’t perform as many missions when we weren’t there. I think it just got easier for them to stay in their barracks or stations when we weren’t there, rather than take a chance at getting hit by IEDs or gunfire. The monthly salary we paid them was competitive, but not always worth the risk.
The corruption at the highest levels, as well as a lack of determination at the lowest levels, combines, in my opinion, to create a not very positive outlook for the security situation in Iraq. I believe that as much as the State Department is trying to do to salvage the Iraqi government, perhaps they should have disbanded the MoD and MoI instead of firing the entire Iraqi Security Forces [ISF]. Perhaps they still should. I was in Iraq for a year, and I didn’t see anything improve as far as resourcing the ISF. I did see on the news that the deputy Interior minister had fled to Jordan after misappropriating several million dollars of ministry funds. My gut tells me that when we finally decide to leave Iraq, that the ISF will deteriorate rapidly and will cease to be a functional entity.
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My friends also ask me about what I think about bringing democracy to the Middle East. My reply before I left in the summer of 2004 was that this mission was going to bring about a permanent change in the Middle East, and that history would look back on it in a light similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall in ‘89. Today, I’m not so optimistic. I had occasion over the course of my deployment to witness the first round of free elections and the ratification of the Iraqi Constitution. Both of these should have been historic events.
In America, the fundamental concept of democracy is one vote for every citizen. In Iraq (and potentially in the greater Middle East), the concept is that one Imam, Sheik or Mukthar (village headsman) controls the vote of every person in his sphere of influence. This leads to some of the nastiest politics of all, because it doesn’t just require greasing a few skids to get something done — there has to be a slice of pie for every little leader who can influence a body of people to vote in a certain direction. And since the average Iraqi can’t read, getting your message down to the people without going through this leadership is almost impossible (although it could be done via TV, since there was a satellite dish on top of every house and mud hut in our sector by the time I left). In short, getting anything done is an incredibly expensive proposition.
The best illustration of this is the village of Rashad during the Iraqi Constitution ratification. Of the 9,500 votes cast, 9,470 were against the new constitution. Turns out that just days before the vote, the local Sheik and Imam proclaimed that the Constitution didn’t provide enough protection for the Sunni Arabs, and that it should be voted against. The numbers say it all regarding what kind of sway these local honchos have over the public. Of the 30 who voted for the Constitution in that community, my hunch is that a number of those were from people who didn’t know how to read or otherwise misinterpreted the directions because they were in the back of the mosque on that Friday and couldn’t understand the Imam.
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My friends have been asking lately how I am, and what I’m going to do now. I can tell you that this war came at a large personal cost for many of us. Out of my company, we had one KIA, numerous WIA (with four serious enough to have to be evac’ed to the rear) — and probably half of the married soldiers that went with us filed for divorce soon after their return. While I thank God for what safety we enjoyed while we were in the Gulf, my marriage was among those destroyed during my absence. I originally left the active component Army in 2002 to go to law school, and got called back up again in 2004 for this deployment. I’m presently two-thirds of the way through law school, and will graduate in May 2007. This wasn’t the easiest track through law school, but it appears that I’ve persevered through the worst of it. I used to have a strong moral compass that pointed my way through life and highlighted the way I needed to go. These days, the morals are still there, but the direction doesn’t seem to be as strong. In short, I don’t know where I will be in two years, nor do I have a long-range plan. I have come to better understand the words “one day at a time.”