"The Iraqis have a lot of skin in this game."
"The truth is ultimately I think our most powerful weapon"
By AcademicElephant Posted in RedState to Iraq | Special Events — Comments (6) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
One of the great opportunities for me in this venture is the chance to meet some of the major players who are implementing policy in Baghdad. It's very different to be in the same room talking face-to-face than on the phone in a group, so I was fortunate to sit down with Rear Admiral Mark Fox yesterday. The Admiral, then Captain Fox, flew bombing missions over Baghdad on March 21, 2003, so he has direct experience with the conflict. After serving as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Military Office, he has returned to Iraq as the Communications Division Chief, working under General Bill Caldwell. So RADM Fox has participated in the major combat operations, served in Washington, and is now posted at the Baghdad Embassy--experience that gives him unique perspective on the conduct of this war over the past four years. I started out by asking him to apply some retrospective hindsight to the war and reflect on his experience in 2003 versus today:
There really is no comparison between the enemy we fought in Iraqi Freedom in the air campaign and the enemy we're fighting today...Flash forward four years later:
We don't have a conventional military threat. There is a residue of an enormous amount of explosives and ordinance that has been left over from Saddam'a era--Iraq had more conventional ordinance than the United States. It was awash in bombs and ordinance and so there is a seemingly endless supply of old weapons that can be used in these improvised explosives...and there were some non-military people we were fighting in the first round, but now the people we are dealing with are absolutely--they are only interested in terror and creating terror and mayhem. There are no rules of war, there is no sense of morality or restraint in terms of who's a viable target on their part.
And so it's completely different--there's no conventional aspect to this conflict that we're in right now...The foe that we're now fighting has evolved to the point that it's unrecognizable from a conventional point of view. Now you still have to use all the different pieces of modern warfare to be able to do this mission. You have to have surveillance--you need to have an ability to understand what's going on. But we've learned a lot from the past--I can't speak to the CPA days or the stuff like that; I've read the books from different places far away. Time has evolved but the nature of the threat we're dealing with right now is fully unconventional with a very great supply of explosives and things they can use to attack us.
I asked him if he thinks this kind of progression from a conventional to an unconventional foe will be typical of future conflicts. He responded that it might, given that "it's pretty clear that nobody has the capability to meet us in a conventional encounter." He considers the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon probably the closest comparison, with the enemy "swimming" in a civilian population and waging not just a campaign of violence, but also one of misinformation:
Now I'm in this world of communications it's incredible--the old Mark Twain saw about how a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on and that's the case here.
You can point to a number of examples where oh no, there were people who were burned when they came out of a mosque. I mean they were set on fire and they were burned. And so we don't have any people on the scene and we don't know, but it sounds like something awful has happened, and it's not the case.
Not that long ago, maybe six weeks ago, there were 18 children, they were on a soccer field on Fallujiah and there was an explosion. So we say "Oh, no," and we spin on this for 12, 18 hours and then we find out no, that's not the case. There were not 18 children killed on a soccer field.
It's created a tremendous, difficult thing. The truth is ultimately I think our most powerful weapon. And to be committed to really sticking to the truth is the most important thing we can do. That said, being painstaking and finding the truth and recording it a lot less, it's not nearly as sexy as the blood or whatever it is.
We then turned to the bombing of the Iraqi parliament last week, which has been used in the western press as a general symbol of failure--the failure of the Iraqi government and our failure to provide security for them:
When you look at the international zone, in relative terms it is a very secure place. First of all, we're in a combat zone and the enemy has a vote...Any time you're dealing with someone whose definition of success is they die in the attack on you, that is a very difficult security challenge because we stop a lot of stuff that's going on, we protect everywhere--they only have to get lucky once. So it was remarkable to me that it immediately became this polarized security plan failure.
I was dealing with the media and members of the media said, "Do you need more troops" and it's one of those questions of what those more troops would do for that suicide vest wearer that found a way to slip through security. I mean, are we going to hold hands with troops around parliament--there are some uninformed kinds of questions--don't you think these troops need to come to Baghdad, these additional troops? If this had been a case when our troops had been over run and we didn't have enough that would be one kind of discussion but to have a suicide vest wearer that slipped through the cordon...
And by the way, that is a govt of Iraq building and has govt of Iraq security. And this is not a slap at the government of Iraq, it's just a fact of life. We the coalition do not supply all of the security here. The international zone is not an extension of the US embassy. The government's business in Iraq takes place in the international zone--the vast majority of it does. There's a lot of international work that goes on here as well. It's not a hermetically sealed bubble.
This goes back to is the security plan a failure? No, one attack does not define a failure. But as soon as you get into the conversation you find yourself slightly on the defensive because people ask well, what are you going to do about it? We're going to do a lot of things. We're going to investigate and do forensics, we're going to find out where this scene might have been. You do all the things and you don't necessarily advertise everything you've learned so that the bad guys don't know that you know what's going on.
The key after all this is the Council of Representatives met the next day on Friday, their holy day, and then on a Saturday. It was a good opportunity, as tragic as it was that they lost a member of the Council, that served as a unifying catalyst that they benefited from. They now share some of the deprivations and some of the risks and dangers of the people that they represent. So without being Pollyanna because it does now mean that there are Council of Representative members who are more concerned about showing up, but they came back to work and they were very energized and unified by that.
The Admiral used this discussion as a jumping-off point to address the broader issue of bringing a democracy to this region (remember he's the man with this on his office wall), and on how this phase of the war will be won:
This whole business of representative government is new around here. It's hard enough in our country with an institution of self government for a long time, but when you think about having a representative government in this part of the world, in the cradle of civilization, you can't overestimate how important this is.
It's easy to get stuck in the "we screwed this up and we screwed that up and it's four years later." Go down the long litany of how we coulda shoulda mighta done things differently, better, whatnot. When you think that this is a representative form of government as imperfect that it is, as our government is, it is a powerful thing that there is a form of representative government here.
I was out in Fallujiah in December and went to the town council meeting. It was an interesting meeting. Number one, they spent the first fifteen minutes talking about the Baker Hamilton report. None of them really knew what it was about, but they spent a good chunk of time talking about the ramifications of that and then they talked about their bridge and infrastructure and this and that. It was not a Jefferson or Madison type of democracy--but it was very Iraqi and I walked away from that encouraged. And Fallujiah, when you think where they've been and where they've come from--and it's still a very dangerous place. As a matter of fact a member of that council was murdered recently, the chairman or the head of it was. But if you think where it was in 2004, that was really the wild west and we've made tremendous strides.
What's happening out there is that the Sunni tribes in al Anbar are now looking a this and saying that al Qaeda does not have our best interests at heart. The tribes are now coming together...there's an enormous improvement in the police force in al Anbar. There are good signs that are not sexy and don't splash in your face.
Regarding the current security situation and the worry-producing and headline-grabbing attacks of mid-March to mid-April, RADM Fox said,
If you remove the high profile, headline-grabbing events--if you could just take that out of the equation for a moment, there's a palpable reduction in the number of sectarian events--I mean the murders, the kidnappings, the execution-style killings are down. There has been a significant change in the philosophical approach to the security program and the line of demarcation is the change of command between General Casey and General Petraeus. Previously, the attitude was that we want to reduce our presence, reduce our footprint and our exposure. There was a sense that we were somehow inciting people to want to attack us, and so we commuted to the war. We would patrol the streets and then go back to these forward operating bases, so you would be in one neighborhood today and one tomorrow and there was no relationship because you were just riding through the neighborhood.
So when General Petraeus got here, he's the author of the counter-insurgency manual, he says the center of gravity in this conflict is the Iraqi people. The way you win this fight is you win the people and the way you win the people is you protect them and to protect the people you need to be in their midst and live with them. You need to build the kind of relationship between the people and the security forces. We had these previous Baghdad security initiatives which were supposed to be "Clear, hold build." Well we would clear, but we never held and we never built. We would clear and go on to the next neighborhood and the bad guys would come back in.
As I've noted before, I strongly believe that this state of affairs was produced not so much by incompetence as by the reality of our troops being the only ones doing the clearing, holding and building. Given the excellence of our armed forces, they are perfectly capable of clearing even the nastiest of neighborhoods, but it's awfully difficult for them to hold and build on their own in an environment as foreign to them as Baghdad. It seems to me that perforce they need someone local to hold and build with them--after all, our troops aren't doing this for themselves. So I asked Admiral Fox about the relationship between the current, improving state of the ISF and the early success of this security initiative:
In this case, another on of the untold, legitimate story of success is the production and creation of the current Iraqi security force. It still has issues, in terms of loyalty they have a multi ethnic and multi geographic make up, so there's a loyalty issue and a leadership issue, but if there is an entity that is a unifying entity in Iraq it is the Iraqi army. That means you can join the army and now be in something that represents and not just your province and not just your city...
And in terms of how the ISF are working with our troops:
It's a combination--we're at only 60%--it's a combination of the increased professionalism and capability of the Iraqi security force in combination with the additional reinforcing troops that we're bringing over. Now we're also building these permanent joint security stations and security outposts. So by having these things in every district, and we have a little over 50 of them with planned up to 75--we're going to build these things until we feel like it gives the people in the neighborhood the opportunity to see the same troops coming through.
We're operating with them, but the Iraqi forces are the ones who have the cultural feeling and the nuance, the "that guy isn't from around here" kind of thing. So what's happened is that this increased contact has created more confidence in the people and the security forces and the security forces and the people--it's a "both ways" kind of thing, which has increased the amount of cooperation the people now have with the security forces.
We track the national tip line, and it was steadily going up until the middle of March when it started to come down. We looked at it more closely though and the number of tips hasn't gone down--not on the national tip line but on the local tip line people get a sticky magnet for their refrigerator with the local police station so they're going directly to the local security organization, not the national. So what we see is in February to March to April the number of tips and actionable [intelligence] and especially the results--the number of weapons caches and essentially arms--what's the right word for it--stockpiles--piles of stuff that people use to shoot or blow up things--anyway, these continue to grow...So in the case of these weapons stockpiles and caches, [the tips] continue to go up and a record number of them have been found.
In the meantime, there have been these spectacular attacks, and the weapon of choice for spectacular attacks has been car bombs and suicide bombs. But even there, a week ago Wednesday, the four car bomb day, there was one that made it through not to a market area but to a bus stop that was near a market area and that's where nearly two hundred people were killed. But the other thing was that three that day that didn't make it to their targets. And that's a nuance that they were stopped short by some Iraqi police or security checkpoint and they didn't make it to populated areas. So it was spectacular that there were four car bomb attacks and there were casualties associated with them, but they didn't make it to crowded areas.
So what we're seeing is an increasing number of examples--in fact there's one that I was reading about earlier today from yesterday--of these attacks that are occurring and are being stopped by the Iraqi Security Forces. The Iraqis have a lot of skin in this game. They're losing far more security forces and civilians than we are--there's something in the range of 2.5 and 3 times the casualties that we suffer, just in security forces. So it's not like they're passively waiting on the sidelines and watching us inserted in the middle of some civil war.
We then discussed how al Qaeda is responding to this change in the Iraqi people:
What we're actually seeing now is al Qaeda has been attempting to provoke a new cycle of sectarian violence and the Iraqi people have been extremely restrained and disciplined and resilient and not going into the tit-for-tat. We're not seeing the reprisal murders, which was kind of the classic extra-judicial killings or kidnappings or death squads which was the tendency before--you'd see a cause-effect, you'd see a car bomb with high casualties and then you'd see murders and then you'd see another car bomb. So there's been a restraint on the part of the Iraqi people in an attempt to break the cycle.
Now al Qaeda also has gone after Sunnis as well...That goes back to the Anbar, where the sheiks out there are going, "They're attacking us." There are cases now where al Qaeda is...there's a case of an attack on the vice president, Hashimi, on prayer day in his house, a suicide vest attack, and so this is an example of their indiscriminantion--the al Qaeda appears to be trying to fulment chaos and sectarian violence.
So this operation that we're in how, Farad al Qahoun is the Arabic phrase for "enforce the law," and that's what we're calling it because that's what the Iraqis are calling it and we're in a joint effort here with the security forces and government of Iraq. When these additional combat brigades arrive in early June, it's going to take a certain amount of time for us to actually deploy the forces and have them become effective and get traction in the security environment. So that's why General Petraeus has been keen--we want to under promise and over-deliver on this one and not get carried away. We don't have all the forces--there have been some encouraging signs--the plan is unfolding as we speak and it will take a certain amount of time to implement the plan and then, by the later part of the summer General Petraeus can say "Okay. Now we can see if this has been a success."
We were wrapping up there as we had gone way over, but I got in one last question that needed to be asked:
Just to drag this into the sordid world of Washington [The RADM's aide quickly interjected, "Well, thank you for coming..."], I was just wondering if you have seen any Iraqi response to the budget shenanigans going on--do they think this is encouraging them to have a sense of urgency or do they feel like we can't get our act together?
Admiral Fox responded:
Well, it's kind a series of mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I've heard a conversation in which they've said, "Fine, we can pass every bit of legislation that they say they want, and so now what?" It's key that not only motions are gone through but the actual growth in capacity of governance on the part of the Iraqi government happens.
The Iraqi government is not even a year old...they've just finished their first budget cycle and they're very immature--they don't have the bureaucrats and technocrats that make the government work. They have the leadership and a lot of the organizational stuff but there's a lot of, okay, how do you make the wheels of government work. So that's really what is their focus right now, how to move forward.
To answer your question, it's a mixed bag. There's some of them who understand the western political process more than the others. So they understand the fact that ours is an arm waving, smoke by the fire kind of thing that a lot of that is theater, but some of it produces results. So they're not disheartened overall, but there is a sense I think of "Are you guys really with us on this thing?" Not necessarily in a positive sense in that "we should be really serious about this."
Remember, there a large number of Iraqis, including four members of the al Maliki cabinet who have been attacked or had attacks against them. They have skin in this game as well, and so our challenge right now is to create a security environment that allows for enough stability and opportunity to create the conditions so that the Iraqis now get traction in this governance thing.
And I'll let Admiral Fox have the last word:
They understand that we won't be here forever--the perfect phrase came out of a sheik from al Anbar who said, "We don't want you here forever, but we need you here right now." I think that probably is the most succinct way to put it--and it's the way we feel. We don't want to be here forever, but we know that we're needed now.