Army's Iraq Work Assailed by Briton
Senior Officer Points to Cultural Ignorance In an Essay Published by the U.S. Military

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- A senior British officer has written a scathing critique of the U.S. Army and its performance in Iraq, accusing it of cultural ignorance, moralistic self-righteousness, unproductive micromanagement and unwarranted optimism there.

His publisher: the U.S. Army.

In an article published this week in the Army magazine Military Review, British Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, who was deputy commander of a program to train the Iraqi military, said American officers in Iraq displayed such "cultural insensitivity" that it "arguably amounted to institutional racism" and may have spurred the growth of the insurgency. The Army has been slow to adapt its tactics, he argues, and its approach during the early stages of the occupation "exacerbated the task it now faces by alienating significant sections of the population."

The decision by the Army magazine to publish the essay -- which already has provoked an intense reaction among American officers -- is part of a broader self-examination occurring in many parts of the Army as it approaches the end of its third year of fighting in Iraq.

Military Review, which is based here along with many of the Army's educational institutions, has been part of that examination, becoming increasingly influential and pointed under the editorship of Col. William M. Darley. In the past two years, his magazine has run articles that have sharply criticized U.S. military operations in Iraq. A piece last summer by then-Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli about how to better counter the insurgency has become required reading for officers deploying to Iraq -- especially since Chiarelli was recently selected to become the No. 2 American officer there.

But none of the earlier articles has been as bluntly critical of the Army as the essay by Aylwin-Foster, whose assessment is also unusual because it comes from a senior military commander with the closest ally the U.S. government has in Iraq.

The Army is full of soldiers showing qualities such as patriotism, duty, passion and talent, writes Aylwin-Foster, whose rank is equivalent to a U.S. one-star general. "Yet," he continues, "it seemed weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations, and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on."

Those traits reflect the Army's traditional focus on conventional state-on-state wars and are seen by some experts as less appropriate for counterinsurgency, which they say requires patience, cultural understanding and a willingness to use innovative and counterintuitive approaches, such as employing only the minimal amount of force necessary. In counterinsurgency campaigns, Aylwin-Foster argues, "the quick solution is often the wrong one."

He said he found that an intense pressure to conform and overcentralized decision making slowed the Army's operations in Iraq, giving the enemy time to understand and respond to U.S. moves. And the Army's can-do spirit, he wrote, encouraged a "damaging optimism" that interfered with realistic assessments of the situation in Iraq.

"Such an ethos is unhelpful if it discourages junior commanders from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command," Aylwin-Foster says. A pervasive sense of righteousness or moral outrage, he adds, further distorted military judgments, especially in the handling of fighting in Fallujah.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who runs much of the Army's educational establishment, and also oversees Military Review, said he does not agree with many of Aylwin-Foster's assertions. But Petraeus, who commanded Aylwin-Foster in Iraq, said "he is a very good officer, and therefore his viewpoint has some importance, as we do not think it is his alone."

Reflecting that ambivalence, the article was published with two disclaimers -- one in the form of an introduction, the other as a footnote -- which make clear that the views expressed do not reflect those of the British government, the British military, the U.S. Army, its Combined Arms Center or Military Review.

"I think he's an insufferable British snob," said Col. Kevin Benson, commander of the Army's elite School of Advanced Military Studies, referring to Aylwin-Foster. Benson said he plans a rebuttal.

"I think he's overstating the case," said another military intellectual here, retired Col. Gregory Fontenot, who led U.S. forces into Bosnia in 1995. But he added, "whether he's right or wrong, what's important is that the Army understands it has a problem, which it does."

Aylwin-Foster, now on assignment in Bosnia, said he has heard favorable early reaction to the article. "The Brits approve, those that have read it," he said by e-mail yesterday.

Darley, the review's editor, is holding his ground. "We've had some very strong reaction as to why the Military Review would even consider publishing this," he said as he strolled across the grounds of Fort Leavenworth last week. He said he did so because he wants "to win the war" in Iraq.

A link to the article by Aylwin-Foster can be found at

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