A Look Behind the Curtain
Hugh Hewitt's recent interview with Gen Petraeus covers a lot of ground. His appreciation of the strategic situation; whether Iran is helping al-Qaeda; about the media war. Etc. But in several spontaneous paragraphs, Petraeus gives us a glimpse into the sharp end of the war. The kinetic battle. Here is that section.
HH: How are the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces? You spent a lot of time training them in the first part of the occupation, General Petraeus. What are their, what’s their effectiveness now?
DP: Well, frankly, it is uneven. There are some exceedingly good units. The Iraqi special operations force brigade, a commando battalion, a counterterrorist unit, some other elements, national emergency response unit, the intelligence special tactics unit, SWAT teams in just about each of the provinces, and a variety of other sort of high end units that we have helped develop, each of these is really quite impressive, and almost at the level, certainly in regional terms, of the special operations forces of our own country, again, in relative terms, speaking in regional comparisons. On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, there are still some units that have a degree of sectarian influence exercised within them, and some that are still being cleaned up after having suffered from sectarian pressures, and given into sectarian pressures during the height of the sectarian violence in 2006, and into 2007. There’s also, there’s a vast number of units, frankly, out there just doing what I would call a solid job, manning checkpoints, going on patrols, in some cases in the lead, in some cases alongside our forces, in some cases, following. But I can assure you that the Iraqi forces are out there very much fighting and dying for their country, They, in fact, their losses typically are some three or more times the losses that we suffer.
HH: General, what about the losses on the enemy? You mentioned that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters have been killed in the last couple of months, but are they suffering losses in the thousands every month? Or is it hundred, two hundred? What kind of force reduction’s going on there?
DP: Yeah, as you know, we try to avoid body counting, but inevitably, obviously, it is something we keep track of, because we’re trying to have some sense of the damage that we are doing to al Qaeda-Iraq, its affiliates, other Sunni insurgent groups, and also certainly to the Shia militia extremist elements. And the answer to that in a general sense is that they are losing many, many hundreds of their, of these different elements each month, certainly since the onset of the surge.
HH: And you mentioned foreign fighters infiltrating. Has that flow slowed or accelerated over the past five months?
DP: We do not think there has been much of a change in that. Again, it is something that is difficult to measure. Certainly, if you knew precisely how many were coming, or where they were coming, we’d obviously interdict them. And we do in fact interdict some, but not huge numbers. We do occasionally capture them in the act of preparing to, or trying to carry out a suicide attack or some other attack. In fact, we recently killed a fairly substantial element, 34 in one batch, some of which certainly were foreign fighters and had suicide vests and belts on, and we trying to re-infiltrate into Anbar Province and cause problems there. But we think the number of these foreign fighters, foreign terrorists who come through Syria, by and large, has remained roughly the same, and that is a big concern, because of those 60, 80, 90 or so who do come in per month, many of those end up being suicide bombers. And even though their numbers are relatively small in the grand scheme of affairs here, they can cause horrific casualties, indiscriminate death to Iraqi civilians, and really substantial damage, physically as well as psychologically. ...
HH: Some of the arguments about Iraq in the United States argue that it’s possible for American troops to withdraw to their bases and just strike at al Qaeda, sort of an Anbar only option, I guess. Does that make any sense to you at all, General Petraeus?
DP: Well, first of all, al Qaeda-Iraq is throughout pretty substantial parts of Iraq, and it is a significant enough network in capability that it is not going to be dealt with just by certainly, if you will, classical counterterrorist operations. Indeed, we are doing those. Our best operators in America and in the world are here in the largest number of anywhere in the world by several multiples, and conducting a very, very high operational tempo, and doing extraordinary operations. When I think back to the operations that we did, for example, going after war criminals in Bosnia, or something like that, you know, and one of those would be a big deal, and you’d dine off that for the next several months. On a nightly basis here, you know, ten or twelve serious operations are going down by those forces.
DP: And any one of those is far more significant than we conducted for decades. They are very sophisticated, very complex, very lethal sometimes, and very effective. Having said that, although they may be the most important operations, because they can take down, as they did the senior Iraqi leader in al Qaeda-Iraq, or kill the three al Turkey brothers, or what have you, it is also the weight of the operations conducted by the, if you will, the regular special forces, the Green Berets and the others that make up the special operations task force, and operate throughout the country as a very high operational tempo, and of our conventional forces. I mean, it is conventional forces who cleared Western Baquba. Certainly, augmented by, again, our special forces and our special mission unit elements, but they’re the ones that, you know, killed the 80 or 90 confirmed kill, and perhaps another 80 or so more, and captured a couple of hundred in addition to that as well. And they’re the ones who will hold that area against attempts that have already taken place by al Qaeda and their affiliates to try to get back into those neighborhoods.
HH: You know, that…in the forward to that manual that you wrote with General Amos, it said you needed a flexible, adaptive force led by agile, well-informed, culturally astute leaders. You’re just describing that kind of a force. Is it increasing in its lethality and effectiveness on an exponential basis, General? Has it become a more…
DP: It has very much so, Hugh, yes, very, very much so. In fact, people ask, you know, what are the big changes during the sixteen months that you were gone from Iraq? I left Iraq in September, ’05, returned in February, as you noted earlier. And there were two really significant changes. One was the damage done by sectarian violence. It is undeniable, it was tragic, and it has, as I mentioned earlier, ripped the very society, the fabric of Iraqi society. It’s caused very significant fault lines between sects and ethnic groups to harden, and it has created an environment that is much more challenging that before it took place. Beyond that, though, I typically will note that our leaders and our troopers get it about what it is that we’re trying to accomplish here in a way that certainly was not the case at the outset, or even perhaps a year or two into this endeavor. The typical leader here now has had at least one tour in Iraq, some have actually had two. They have, during the time they’re back in the States, they studied this. Of course, while we were back in the States, we revamped the counterinsurgency manual, as you mentioned, published that, revamped our other doctrinal manuals, overhauled the curricula of the commissioned, non-commissioned and warrant officer education systems in the Army, Marine Corps and the other services, completely changed the scenarios at our combat training centers, the one in the Mojave desert, the one in Central Louisiana, the one in Germany, and also captured lessons learned, created the ability to virtually look over the shoulder of those who are down range through expanded pipes in the military secure internet, just a host of initiatives have been pursued, changed organizations, changed equipment, and have given us capabilities, particularly in the intelligence realm, and with the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles, much larger pipes, the ability to shoot much bigger data, if you will, down them, and so forth. All of this has enabled our troopers in a way that certainly was not the case when we did the fight for Baghdad, or even, frankly, when I was here for my previous second tour. And so again, our leaders get it, our soldiers get it, they are these flexible, adaptable, thoughtful, culturally astute, and by and large, leaders and soldiers and Marines, and they are showing that on a daily basis here. That is not to say that it is anything at all easy about this, that the complexity is anything but just sheer enormous, or that this situation is anything but the most challenging that I’ve ever seen in some 33 years in uniform.
It is frequently argued that the United States Armed Forces are being destroyed in Iraq. Not literally perhaps, but in terms of unit readiness, morale, equipment maintenance and so on. All those metrics may have in fact suffered to some extent, as they are measured. But it is less easy to quantify such factors as combat experience have had not only upon line units; but on intelligence, combat support and all-arms coordination. It is harder still to estimate the effect on doctrine. In the way the Armed Forces does business with the enemy. Gen Petraeus remarks suggest that the US Armed Forces are far more lethal and much more practiced than they have ever been before.
Of course these "software" multipliers have all been recognized by the media. But all on the enemy side. We are told that the enemy is becoming more experienced, sophisticated, tough and wily. That blowback from Iraq in the form of super-Jihadis unleashed on the West is imminent. But for some strange reason the same advantages are never believed to accrue to the US Armed Forces. The subject is hardly mentioned at all, except when parenthetically referenced in interviews which will hardly see the light of day in the mainstream media. Yet common sense argues that the US Armed Forces must be up on the learning curve to some degree. Learning occurs within all organizations when efficiency means life or death. To assume otherwise would be too fantastic.
The more sophisticated critic will probably acknowledge that the US Armed Forces are improving at the kind of battle they are fighting and quickly add this was what they fear most: because the War on Terror will teach the US Armed Forces bad habits; corrode the core capability of being able to defeat a conventional attack -- like China's for example -- should the event arise. That criticism fears the US forces will eventually become like the British Army at its colonial height; adept at fighting small wars but hopeless against a real army. In that view America doesn't need a small-wars capability unless those skills can be used for peacekeeping and nation-building under the UN aegis. Because America is not an empire, but a kind of distant and benign guarantor of the international order; and benignity and order stand apart from the chaos of active warfare. Hence the attitude that "armored divisions are too good for this", a statement ironically made by the SS Das Reich officers to the French resistance when they pushed past partisans on their way to the D-Day landings -- and are better used as instruments of deterrence and diplomacy. In that view, the US Armed Forces are best used when not used at all; like a sort of fleet in being whose menace lies in existence; too precious to be risked in battle except upon The Day. Der Tag, as the Germans ironically again, used to call it.
And the critics may be right. History wends its way unpredictably. The War on Terror, or whatever people prefer to call it, may be forgotten in five years and the world locked in a new struggle between superpower camps. The skills that Gen Petraeus described to Hugh Hewitt may then be as anachronistic as fieldcraft learned by British subalterns in the shadow of the Khyber Pass. Or the critics may be wrong and the world headed for a new era of networked warfare. One in which small groups of men, enabled by technology, little respecting borders, in the pay of one or many states, cults or criminal gangsters, continue to menace the world. In which case what we are learning in Iraq will come in very handy indeed. Who knows?
At tonight's blogger round table I sensed a real confidence in the way military operations against insurgent cells are trending, but less so with respect to the political reconstitution process. The military effects can be gauged from the increasing sluggishness in the rebuilding of broken cells inside Iraq. While once an insurgent organization could replace its leaders, etc in X amount of time, it now requires longer periods. The enemy is clearly hurting. There is palpable blood on the floor, as it were. But there is less certainty about how to convert these military successes into reaching the psychological "culminating point" -- a Clauswitzian phrase which indicates a moment where the population throws in with one side or the other -- which the sense in which BG Robert Holmes, USAF, Deputy Director of Operations for CentCom seemed to use it. How close the MNF-I's effort was to reaching the "culminating point" was harder to reckon.
BG Holmes seemed most interested in being able to out-adapt the enemy, which he felt sure was going to morph and shift its point of attack, even out of the theater. It was fascinating to see how the battle was regarded in some sense, as a race of mutability. And in that contest, anything went. Diplomatic pressure, aid, the use of the "shame and honor" culture to encourage the rejection of surprise attacks -- all were fair weapons to use in this fight. In this case particularly so, because a "transnational" enemy like al-Qaeda could flit to the other side of the globe and attack in a substantially different way.
My own impression, and I should emphasize that it is a subjective feeling, is that the section of the US military I have heard has come to a practical, working understanding of what fighting a networked insurgency entails. It's an imperfect understanding, but it's not lip service, not buzz-word garnishing, and its getting better all the time. This understanding can typically enter a huge institution like the US military in only one way: from hard experience felt from the noncoms to the general officers. But this understanding is essential. "Getting it" makes all the difference.
For that reason I am somewhat skeptical of those who feel that "armored divisions are too good for this" or that it would have been better to hold a superb but unused force at a magnificent distance to hold the ring by intimidation unsullied by failure in practice. That bluff has its limits and in any event doesn't work against the Jihadi enemy.