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Ghosts of Anbar, Part IV of IV

The Ghosts of Anbar: Part IV of IV

What Defines Need Not Divide

From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Normally Better than Us Doing It Well
1-154. It is just as important to consider who performs an operation as to assess how well it is done. Where the United States is supporting a host nation, long-term success requires establishing viable HN leaders and institutions that can carry on without significant U.S. support. The longer that process takes, the more U.S. public support will wane and the more the local populace will question the legitimacy of their own forces and government. . . . T.E. Lawrence made a similar observation while leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” However, a key word in Lawrence’s advice is “tolerably.” If the host nation cannot perform tolerably, counterinsurgents supporting it may have to act. Experience, knowledge of the AO, and cultural sensitivity are essential to deciding when such action is necessary.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

After villagers tipped off the IP about an IED emplacer some days earlier, the Iraqi Army and US Marines launched several raids based on further tips. On the way to the raids, Lieutenant Hamid took a sidebar and raided the wrong house. SSG Rakene Lee asked LT Hamid why he had raided the wrong house.  It appeared to be an accident, but nobody was hurt and the people were treated well.  (Except of course that their house got raided.)

Fortunately, everyone had gone in easy and not blown doors off with explosives. Those mistakes also happen sometimes. Sometimes our own guys blow down doors to the wrong homes. Back in the early days of the war, this might have seemed like an innocent “Oh well that’s war” type mistake, but after spending all this time with Iraqis I now see that it was in part actions like that which also blew open the door in Iraq for al Qaeda to come in. 

Counterinsurgency is all about perception. Perception is how reality gets interpreted by people. It can be shaped, cajoled, hardened or distorted by innumerable influences. A paragraph in the Ethics section of the Army’s new COIN manual makes this clear:

Counterinsurgents that use excessive force to limit short-term risk alienate the local populace. They deprive themselves of the support or tolerance of the people. This situation is what insurgents want. It increases the threat they pose. Sometimes lethal responses are counterproductive. At other times, they are essential. The art of command includes knowing the difference and directing the appropriate action.

For all the raids that unfolded that night, Lee kept everyone in order so that nobody started ripping people’s houses apart during searches—although there had been very specific information about the target houses.

From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

Learn and Adapt
1-144. An effective counterinsurgent force is a learning organization. Insurgents constantly shift between military and political phases and tactics. In addition, networked insurgents constantly exchange information about their enemy’s vulnerabilities—even with insurgents in distant theaters. However, skillful counterinsurgents can adapt at least as fast as insurgents. Every unit needs to be able to make observations, draw and apply lessons, and assess results. Commanders must develop an effective system to circulate best practices throughout their command. Combatant commanders might also need to seek new laws or policies that authorize or resource necessary changes. Insurgents shift their AOs looking for weak links, so widespread competence is required throughout the counterinsurgent force.
From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-3.5”

The Marines call this large Iraqi soldier “Hesco” because he is shaped like the Hesco barriers surrounding so many bases in Iraq.
An Iraqi kitchen as it was during one of the raids.
Many people back home in America seem to think Iraqis cook on campfires every night, but in fact many Iraqis—despite the war—actually live much better than many Americans.
From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

6-10. The behavior of HN security force personnel is often a primary cause of public dissatisfaction. Corrupting influences of power must be guarded against. Cultural and ethnic differences within a population may lead to significant discrimination within the security forces and by security forces against minority groups. In more ideological struggles, discrimination may be against members of other political parties, whether in a minority cultural group or not. Security forces that abuse civilians do not win the populace’s trust and confidence; they may even be a cause of the insurgency. A comprehensive security force development program identifies and addresses biases as well as improper or corrupt practices.
From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Again, SSG Rakene Lee mentoring the Iraqi Soldiers during another raid that night. Firm but respectful. Ready to shoot but prefer not to.
Raids under the crescent moon.
Raids cascaded as more information developed. Still, there was no shooting.
Going in easy.
Hours pass . . .


. . . as Marines check identification cards . . .


. . . and Iraqi Soldiers search the homes.
Reports that all the electricity is out seem to be false.
From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals
1-157. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Iraqis are allowed to have one AK-47, but the man of this house had two guns. I’ve seen some of our guys (and Iraqis) who would have gone overboard if they found two guns, and who would have taken both and possibly arrested the guy. But SSG Lee stepped in again, asking the man why he had the second gun, which was an old shotgun. The man said it was for hunting birds—and given that this was rural farmland, SSG Lee applied common sense and left the gun.
Iraqis put decals on their refrigerators, too.
And they use deep freezers so they can buy in bulk to save money.
Many have internet access and this could eventually be the ultimate press equalizer as more and more Iraqis use blogs and other online media to communicate with other Iraqis and with people outside of Iraq.
They have hardware and software problems just like we do. They play video games and chess.
During another “mission” on another day, Iraqi Soldiers and a few Marines headed off into a village to conduct a census. Outside, Iraqi girls wanted their photos taken, but were playing shy at the same time.
Photo yes, photo no.
Girls being girls.
An Iraqi boy carrying around a long stick for no apparent reason. He was just carrying it around hitting things with it for no apparent reason, just like German boys do. Like American boys do. Like Chinese boys do.
Boys being boys.
From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

7-16. Cultural awareness has become an increasingly important competency for small-unit leaders. Perceptive junior leaders learn how cultures affect military operations. They study major world cultures and put a priority on learning the details of the new operational environment when deployed. Different solutions are required in different cultural contexts. Effective small-unit leaders adapt to new situations, realizing their words and actions may be interpreted differently in different cultures. Like all other competencies, cultural awareness requires self-awareness, self-directed learning, and adaptability.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

At one of the houses, Iraqi Soldiers said that there had been a lot of shooting on a recent night. What had all the shooting been about? Were insurgents trying to take over? No, the old man said, it was just a couple of brothers having a shootout over a small land dispute. “Okay,” the Iraqi Soldiers shrugged it off. It was just a shootout between brothers. Nothing more to ask about.

There are many similarities between Iraq and home, but at the end of the day, a Cain and Abel shootout is not even something that warrants paperwork. Tribal law. This is not Kansas. Some things are very different.

Near this village, just a few minutes’ walk from the Cain and Abel shootout, a locomotive lay off the tracks. I asked a village man what happened, and he said an “Ali Baba” (thief) tried to steal the train, but ran into another train and derailed. The police took the thief away and the villagers heard nothing more about it.
The stolen train from 2003.
Deserted tracks. Lots of infrastructure in Iraq. If security can be improved, the economy can pick up steam.
From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

3-71. Military operations or insurgent actions can adversely affect the economy. Such disruption can generate resentment against the HN government. Conversely, restoring production and distribution systems can energize the economy, create jobs and growth, and positively influence local perceptions.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Shops in Anbar reopening. Cigarettes for sale. Just recently, al Qaeda was executing people who smoked, but this shop was selling cigarettes on the street.
Anbar province: it’s not exactly Kansas, but it’s hardly the moon either.
From the COIN Field Manual that every Soldier and Marine needs to read:

A-19. Not everyone is good at counterinsurgency. Many leaders do not understand it, and some who do cannot execute it. COIN operations are difficult and anyone can learn the basics. However, people able to intuitively grasp, master, and execute COIN techniques are rare. Learn how to spot these people and put them into positions where they can make a difference. Rank may not indicate the required talent. In COIN operations, a few good Soldiers and Marines under a smart junior noncommissioned officer doing the right things can succeed, while a large force doing the wrong things will fail.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Staff Sergeant Richard Mattice, from MiTT 8, wrote a letter back to America, and told me someone had read it on a radio station. Mattice told me it would be okay to reprint the letter:

10 May 2007

Volunteers of SOS,
First, I would like to apologize for not writing to you in such a long time. The MiTT team and I are still at the patrol base but I managed to receive your last package. Thank you again for all your support, thoughts and prayers. I spent 27 days straight out here and went back once for a shower and came right back here a few hours later. My total time in Iraq is 132 days (only 219 left to go). It is because of people like you that we continue to fight everyday and operate with the Iraqi Army so they can take over and we can come home. Our team has continuously worked with the Iraqi Police and Army to conduct Civilian affairs operation such as Medical assistance, repairing schools and water treatment plants, and establishing checkpoints along the roads so insurgents cannot travel through our area. Just last month we conducted 417 foot and vehicle patrols. Many good things are happening here and I do not know if the media has brought that to light on the local networks back home.
So how are you doing? I know you are all working very hard and I know it is important to stay on top of things, but it is equally important, if not more so, to spend quality time together with family and friends and enjoy the fruits of your labor. I have been through two marriages and much heartache because of the life I chose with the Marine Corps. This profession is certainly not for everyone and in six years when I retire, I will re-invest my time and energy into living life. Maybe going out on the bass boat sitting in my back yard, catching a movie with my kids or traveling around to the few places on this earth I have not yet been.
I truly believe that anyone who has not done “this” before doesn’t appreciate what it is like to live normally. If I could wake up tomorrow and go to the grocery store, I would be thrilled! To be able to have running water and cold beer; to sit in the sand and have the ocean at your feet, watching the sunset with a loved one and enjoy the touch of her skin. These things I miss most about being in Iraq. Freedom is so costly. Enjoy the simple things in life. Using your porcelain toilet instead of a plastic bag, walking in an air-conditioned building, making decisions that are your own (because you can), enjoying the beauty of God’s creatures, instead of despising them for giving your position away.  Freedoms, that even I took for granted, make it all worth being here. Please remember that when you get in your car, when you pray, when you work and are paid, and when you wake up in your bed everyday.

Thank you for being a friend and supporting the team. Even the smallest remembrance from home (the USA) is more than welcome here.

Sincerely and with love,
SSgt Richard Mattice

And so it is.  Yet another Marine wins yet another battle in this war, and without firing a shot. 


[A final note before closing the Anbar series. I am in London today, preparing to fly back to Iraq on 8 September. My plans are to go with the British for a time, then with the American Air Force, and then back with our ground forces. The “big report” on Iraq should be released in a few days. People are likely to make much comment about it—indeed, my next “dispatch” will be about that same report. Already some in the media and in positions of political influence at home are posturing about a report which, if accurate, can only be a reflection of the complex situation on the ground in Iraq.

No one can predict the future, but all who are in a position of authority vis à vis our policy about Iraq should realize that something truly seems to have changed on the ground and momentum forward is accelerating this change. It is possible that fighting will begin to wind down in most areas of the country, as the security gains of the past few months begin to produce more and more of the collateral political, economic and social gains that have been inhibited largely by terror and fear.

And should that occur, we’ll need to decide what our next step will be. If we put our foot on the gas in helping Iraq stand again, Iraq could actually become a strong and firm partner of the United States. But it is equally possible that all the gains made to date will unravel before the eyes of the world, if we point that foot instead toward the door of a premature exit.

But regardless of US election cycles and news fatigue, the timing here will reflect the conditions on the ground. With a premature withdrawal it may only be months before the unraveling begins, but even with our continued presence, it will be years before Iraq can truly stand. It will be years before the Iraqi military is “done.”  The Iraqi Army has made tremendous progress, but the task is immense.  The commitment should not require all of the resources assembled there now for all of that time, but there is no way around the fact that years are required.  If we want Iraq to succeed, we must stick it out.  We are succeeding today in Iraq.]


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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