BROTHERS IN ARMS

We Can't Win These Wars on Our Own

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By John A. Nagl
Sunday, March 9, 2008

It's now my job to train U.S. military advisers who are embedded in the Iraqi and Afghan security forces -- which often gets me thinking back to my time fighting in 2004 in Iraq's Anbar province, and the death of Lt. Col. Suleyman.

Suleyman was the best of my Iraqi comrades in arms in Anbar: a fierce fighter, former Republican Guard officer and, like me, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm (although he was on the other side in that one). I called him "Suleyman the Magnificent." We were like brothers -- which is to say, we fought incessantly about how to handle our common mission. Suleyman wanted more trucks and weapons; I wanted sharper intelligence, more patrols and better performance from his soldiers.

Suleyman, whose last name I never knew, commanded a battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (now the Iraqi Army) that was based just west of Fallujah, one of Anbar's major cities -- no easy job. But his problems exploded in April 2004, when the charred corpses of two Blackwater contractors were hung from a bridge within sight of his headquarters. Fallujah soon fell under the control of Sunni insurgents, who bristled when Suleyman defied their demands for weapons and money. Then the insurgents kidnapped one of his officers and told Suleyman to report to a mosque inside the rebel-held city to get his man back. Suleyman bravely did so, and was beaten to death -- a killing that was videotaped and sold throughout the streets of Anbar as a lesson to anyone who might consider supporting Iraqi and U.S. efforts to build a brighter future there.

We will not necessarily win if we have allies like Suleyman, but we cannot win without them. The hard lesson of this tragedy is clear: Foreign forces cannot win a counterinsurgency campaign on their own. In Anbar, I spent at least as much time training and equipping the country's nascent security forces as I did planning and executing raids against insurgents. This indirect approach is the key to winning the long war against al-Qaeda and changing the Middle East for the better.

Iraq has come a long way since Suleyman's death in the summer of 2004. Anbar is now one of the safest provinces in Iraq, scheduled to be handed over to Iraqi control this month. The Marines stationed there now struggle with boredom as much as with car bombs. The extraordinary success of the 2007 "surge" of troops to Iraq -- or, more precisely, sending additional forces to Iraq and using them in a classic counterinsurgency strategy that combined providing security for the population with reaching out to aggrieved parties -- will echo in the pages of military history. But it is far too early to take a victory lap, and a focus on Iraq that crowded out the other theaters in which the United States is fighting would be a strategic mistake of the first order.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq killed far too many of my soldiers in 2004, but it is not much of a threat today; this scourge has been largely defeated by other groups of Sunnis, including some former insurgents, known as the Awakening Councils or the Concerned Local Citizens, whose rise was one of the most important developments of 2007.

But last year's military successes in Iraq came at a very high price. The "surge" of five brigades and the extension of Army combat tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months has strained the Army to the breaking point. Neither the Army nor the Marine Corps has a reserve of ground troops to handle other crises. Meanwhile, the Taliban is regaining strength in Afghanistan and the lawless border regions of Pakistan, and the opium production that funds their insurgency hit record highs last year. And the foreseeable consequences of a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- instability in the region, an empowered and crowing Iran, a chaotic Iraq wracked by humanitarian catastrophes -- could easily reverse last year's gains and provide a new home for terrorism in the Middle East. The fight is far from won.

For starters, we must shore up Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently committed 3,000 more desperately needed Marines to Afghanistan, beginning next month. But it would take an increase of more than 100,000 soldiers and Marines to give NATO commanders in Afghanistan the force ratios that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has enjoyed. We don't have the troops.

The best short-term solution is rapidly expanding the Iraqi and Afghan security forces to hold towns cleared by U.S. forces. Local forces, stiffened by foreign advisers, have historically been the keys to success in counterinsurgency warfare. As such, I've been among the serving officers and veterans who've urged the U.S. Army to create a standing Adviser Corps.

But even greatly expanding and institutionalizing the role of advisers cannot win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgencies are ultimately inspired by ideas, and defeating the Iraqi insurgency will require a counter-narrative -- backed up by robust economic development, a solid and committed government in Baghdad, and providing the Iraqi people with basic services such as water, electricity and (above all) security. As such, the single most important step the United States could take toward victory is re-creating an information agency to discredit our enemies' narratives and amplify those of our allies. For starters, we should let the Muslim world know about atrocities committed by our foes, such as the vicious death of my friend Suleyman. By failing to help decent Iraqis, Afghans and others engage in the global war of ideas, we have ceded the most important battlefield of what the Pentagon calls the "Long War" to our enemies without a fight.

The longer-term fixes to our strategic problems will be far harder to make. Since the end of the Cold War, the military and the diplomatic corps have lacked resources. Some U.S. fighter jets are older than their pilots and literally fall out of the sky from metal fatigue. The Army and Marine Corps are exhausted and desperately need time and money to rebuild. That's not likely; keeping up the security the United States purchased at such a high price in Iraq last year will require committing tens of thousands of U.S. ground forces for several more years at least -- and maintaining a significant presence in Iraq for a decade or more. Achieving a similar success in Afghanistan will mean deploying tens of thousands more troops (and not just from our NATO allies) for similarly long hauls.

Petraeus deserves the accolades he's won for the military turnaround in Iraq. But those successes should not distract us from the fact that the United States is engaged in a war on many fronts for which it is not properly mobilized. Iraq and Afghanistan don't just need more advisers from the Army and the Marine Corps; they need more help from the State Department and the Justice Department, too.

Above all, we soldiers need the American people to understand that counterinsurgency is slow, painstaking work that requires serious patience. Lt. Col. Suleyman understood the risks and confronted them head-on. We should do the same, with clear eyes and no illusions. These will be long wars.

john.nagl@hotmail.com

Lt. Col. John A. Nagl is commander of the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor, at Fort Riley, Kan. He was on the writing team that produced "The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual." He will be retiring from the Army this summer to become a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. These are his personal views.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity