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RUBs: Dinner with General Dubik

[Note: Dispatches this month will be in the RUBs condition: Raw Unedited and Barely Spellchecked before publishing. These dispatches are being written on the fly because I am on the ground, always on the move, gathering raw material and finishing Moment of Truth in Iraq.]

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

[Baghdad] One of the most important measures of progress in Iraq is the development of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In order for our troops to draw down without squandering the tremendous recent gains, Iraqis must be able to govern and protect their own country. There are conflicting reports concerning the ISF’s capability and reliability. Understanding that this is a complex issue which depends to a great extent on projections, predictions and interpretations rather than hard facts, I will describe the situation as I see it.

I requested a meeting with Lieutenant General James Dubik, the commander assigned by General Petraeus to lead the formation of the Iraqi Security Forces.

Lieutenant General Dubik scheduled dinner for us at his office in the Embassy on the evening of 4 February, so I took a helicopter from FOB Falcon to the International Zone. That evening, at his office in the American Embassy, I had many questions. The first question was about the Stryker vehicle. This might seem off-topic, but I wondered whether Dubik’s involvement in the development of that vehicle had any bearing on his new assignment.

Years ago, LTG Dubik was chosen to form the first Stryker brigades from scratch. The Stryker has been a subject of controversy. I’ve spent about eight months on combat operations in Strykers, and perhaps a year in other modes of transportation such as Humvees, Bradleys, and boots. Over the course of that time, I became a firm believer in Strykers because what a lot of Stryker critics don’t seem to understand—presumably because they have spent little time in combat with numerous units—is that it’s not all about the vehicle. Yes, the Stryker itself is fantastic. (History might be less kind to the new MRAP.) But the biggest factor in its effectiveness is not in the vehicle, but in the way that soldiers who use it have learned to fight. The critiques I read all focused on the Stryker vehicle and totally missed the fact that Stryker brigades fight Kung Fu-style, while Humvee fighting is more like street brawling. Stryker brigades fight faster and with greater agility. Soldiers have more information. As a consequence, decision-making is distributed and responsibility pushed farther down the chain of command during fighting.

I recall being with a Stryker battalion (1-24th Infantry Regiment) in Mosul during 2005, thinking they fought like a giant Special Forces unit. Each soldier is taught to fight three commands higher, so that a platoon leader, for instance, learns to think like a battalion commander. This topic is worth many pages, but readers interested in learning more about the Stryker in action might wish to read my dispatches “Jungle Law” and “Superman.” Bottom line: Strykers are not just machines. Just as new ideas had to be formed when rifles surpassed swords, to get the most out of the new machines, combat philosophy had to evolve. As a result, the Stryker brigades are fantastically more lethal and more effective than their predecessors.

LTG Dubik was the man in charge of developing and implementing this new philosophy to go along with the new vehicles. It worked. So I asked LTG Dubik if that success might be part of the reason he had been tapped for the command of overseeing the ISF. He said I’d have to ask General Petraeus.

A commander would need every trick in his bag for this task. A big dash of fortune would help, too. But it makes sense to me that someone who has been extremely successful (in my estimation) with a large and revolutionary project like the Stryker brigades would be tapped on the shoulder for an even more difficult task like continuing the build-up of Iraqi Security Forces.

Iraqi Security Forces formation falls under MNSTC-I (soldiers call it “men-sticky”), which stands for Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. LTG Dubik took command of MNSTC-I on 10 June 2007, which many folks might recognize as the leading crest of “the surge.” When Dubik took command, Iraqi and Coalition forces were launching major offensives against al Qaeda, the outcome for which was very much in question.

However, back then, many people were saying and writing that the surge was failing or had already failed, some making the assertion before the surge had actually begun.

Who were these people?

I wonder what kind of parents they’d be. Maybe when they see their son grab a baseball bat and his glove and start heading out the door, dad says, “You’ll never win, son. I’m sorry to say it, but you are just too short and no good at baseball. The other team is better and you are not very smart. Even if you win, I won’tcare. Not that I hope a baseball cracks you in the head but if you go to the game, I won’t take you fishing. Have fun!”

The ISF are comprised of the Army, Air Force, Navy, ISOF (Iraqi Special Operations Forces), Police, National Police, Department of Border Enforcement and Points of Entry. Iraqi and Coalition leaders have determined that the total force should number 600,000 to 650,000 personnel.

Speaking of surges, between June and December 2007, according to MNSTC-I, the ISF increased by:

  • • 36,300 Iraqi Army soldiers. (Personal observation: The IA improves month by month. The Iraqi Army already is a capable maneuver force, proving lethal against al Qaeda.)
    • 2,000 new support troops.
    • 300 new Air Force personnel. The op tempo increased by about 1,000%
    • 300 missions per week.
    • 1,500 new Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). (Our Special Forces have told me ISOF is very good by regional standards.)
    • 30,400 new Iraqi Police. (This includes members joining from the “Sons of Iraq.”)
    • 7,400 new National Police. (I get a bad feeling about the National Police. I see them frequently and was at a meeting with American soldiers from 1-4CAV, National Police, and CLCs just yesterday on Monday, 12 February. On a local level, in South Baghdad, I do see improvement with National Police. However, many police in this Shia-dominated force are believed to be corrupt and/or sectarian. Dubik insists the NP are improving, and more Sunnis are being hired, although this contrasts with media reporting and my own observations. I believe LTG Dubik, but I work for the reader and must see this with my own eyes before I can report this as fact.)
    • 1,300 new Department of Border Enforcement and Port of Entry personnel

Finding recruits is no problem, though many are illiterate. As a nation, Iraq takes education seriously and many Iraqis are highly educated. Yet illiteracy seems as common to this regional landscape as sand. I ran across the following sentence in the 12-18th January 2008 edition of The Economist:

‘An oft-quoted statistic from the [United Nations] reports is that the amount of literature translated into Spanish in a single year exceeds the entire corpus of what has been translated into Arabic in 1,000 years.’

Although there have been some grumblings from journalists that illiterate ISF have been hired, there is a literacy standard for the Iraqi police. I have seen literacy tests administered in Anbar, for instance. Our own Army once recruited (and drafted) illiterate soldiers, many of whom learned to read and write while in the service. Sometimes an artist must sculpt with the clay at hand, and that’s what’s happening now. Of course it bears noting that illiteracy is not a permanent disability and is neither costly nor time-consuming to correct. Meanwhile, an increasingly capable ISF is being formed from the available men and women in Iraq.

There is much more to developing a comprehensive security force than just filling 600,000 pairs of boots with feet, and a rushed or truncated process won’t help anyone, least of all the Iraqi people who will depend on their forces for protection.

LTG Dubik seems happy with the rate of the Maneuver Force’s (combat forces) development, which should be completed by the close of 2009.

Other aspects, such as Intelligence and Combat Service Support, are crucial, as is Aviation/Air Defense, Mobility/Countermobility and Survivability. Finally, there are Fires (such as artillery) that will be developed once the other forces are in place, and presumably once we are seriously drawing down. For now, the ISF can rely on our Fires.

Critical to every branch of the ISF is Command and Control, which Dubik says is “doing well.”

He is satisfied with Command and Control progress, but acknowledged that many challenges remain. For instance, the ISF have only one third of the mechanics they need, although Dubik said the Iraqis are implementing their own plan to rectify this. And, the Iraqis have mostly taken over provisioning food for their security forces, and should be self-sufficient on that aspect sometime in 2008. LTG Dubik pointed out that the Iraqis are spending about twice as much money on the ISF as we are, and that the money is coming from the national government.

I’m making no representations that I have independently researched all this. It’s been more than three years since I first started watching ISF up close, and there is no mistaking that there are more ISF, and their quality is improving. They fight well and courageously, taking far more casualties than we do. Iraqi soldiers and police are increasingly adopting the habits of the Americans they work with. So I will say with certainty that the Iraqi Army is getting better, and fast, because I have seen it firsthand across Iraq: I saw (and wrote about) this progress in Mosul, Anbar and Baqubah.

The Iraqi Army is being outfitted with M-16s, which I believe is a good thing, but they are about to find out what our combat veterans already know: the 5.56mm bullet is puny and has little stopping power compared to their old AKs, but the M-16 is also much more accurate. Nevertheless, it’s probably a wise idea from a perception standpoint to outfit IA with M-16s. The AK has become a worldwide symbol of despotism and senseless violence.

This excerpt is from a USA Today article highlighting a very powerful Iraqi woman, Dr. Bassima, who is key to the development of the ISF. The critical comments in this article, Woman Controls Iraq’s Security Forces, are consistent with what numerous American commanders have told me, and what I have seen on the ground.

“BAGHDAD — The fate of Iraq’s security forces, and their ability to bring peace to the country, may rest in the hands of a 38-year-old female Iraqi rocket scientist.

Bassima al-Jaidri spent most of her career struggling within Iraq’s male-dominated society and is now one of the country’s most powerful officials, in charge of a committee that determines, among other things, who can join the police and army.

She has also been a target of unusually harsh criticism by some senior U.S. military officials. They accuse al-Jaidri, a Shiite, of abusing her power to keep Sunnis out of the security forces, making her a major obstacle to reconciliation between the two religious sects.”

In fairness, LTG Dubik told me that he spoke with Dr. Bassima earlier the same day we had dinner (4 Feb), and said that Dr. Bassima does not deserve all the criticism she is getting. In fact, Dubik said that of the last 2,000 National Police hired, half were Sunni, and in the next round of hiring, an even higher percentage will be Sunni. It could be that improvements recently made in the process have not yet materialized on the street. But it is a subject of such increasing urgency among many Iraqis and Americans, particularly as both consider what happens when their current deployments end, that I wrote a dispatch about it just last week.

Regarding Dr. Bassima and the inconsistencies about whether she is excluding Sunni recruits from hiring: my nose on the ground says the Sunni are being excluded to the point that Sunni confidence in the Government of Iraq has eroded. Just yesterday, I saw packets for 16 women who wished to join the “Sons of Iraq” (see the dispatch linked above) in protecting their streets. The Sons of Iraq will take them in; this much is a fact. But will the Shia dominated GOI of Iraq hire police women who are Sunni?

The ISF will be tested in the days ahead. On this one point, Dr Bassima is absolutely unimpeachable: ultimately, Iraq’s success (or failure) will depend on Iraqis.

Despite this latest controversy, optimism across Iraq is on the upswing. Key to justifying that is how well MNSTIC-I does its job. If the outcome is anything like the Stryker, there will be crow for doubters.


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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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