A Marine reports on what he has seen being done these past eighteen months, and urges patience:
I enjoyed your latest post on Al Anbar. As a US Marine having just returned from a 7 month deployment to Iraq that began in mid September 2006, I feel qualified to give my two cents worth of input after having worked in the Hadithah Triad area of Western Al Anbar.
The latest tribal coalition's (Sawar Al Anbar, which Sheik Sattar heads) revolt against Al Qaeda Iraq's (AQI) tactics and methods formally began in August/September of last year when a group called Thawar Al Anbar (TAA) formed with the stated goal of removing AQI from Sunni areas in the west. The group operated (and still operates) in a covert fashion, ironically utilizing the same type of informant networks and kidnapping/interrogation methods used by AQI to work against its enemies. The group was so successful in its indigenous campaign against AQI in the last three/four months of 2006 - particularly in Ramadi and other smaller towns to the north and west of the provincial capital - that AQI attempted to negotiate with TAA in December. TAA even enjoyed a working, proxy relationship with local Iraqi Police and Army units here and there as well.
What we saw happen as a consequence of TAA's considerable success in killing and otherwise driving out AQI cells in portions of Al Anbar was the group's supporters and other admirers in the tribal smorgasbord develop a political alliance in order to participate in the political process and and provide top cover for TAA. As you probably know, the government of Iraq and Coalition Forces are formally opposed to tribal militias of any sect, including those like TAA that have forsworn any actions against US forces while focusing efforts exclusively on ridding Al Anbar of AQI. TAA provides the political cover and legitimacy for what is really the most successful counter-insurgency bid in Iraq to date, the indigenous intelligence gathering against and targeting of AQI by TAA. This development is what we have hoped would happen in the last four years.
But speaking of counter-insurgency, much of the success in Al Anbar in the last 5-6 months has to do with the US Marine Corps' back-to-basics counter-insurgency effort. In the Hadithah Triad for instance, 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines focused our efforts on limiting the insurgents' freedom of movement which has long given the insurgent his center of gravity - freedom of action. We bermed the towns of Hadithah, Haqlaniyah, Bani Dahir, and Barwanah and stopped vehicle traffic. These simple actions, which the US military is well equipped to carry out with existing assets and skill sets, crippled the insurgency in our portion of the Western Euphrates river valley, forcing many Sunni insurgents and AQI affiliated groups to the periphery of our battlespace or else to other cities. Predictably, attacks plummeted in our area of operations as the insurgent, unable to move about freely and anonymously in his vehicles of choice - the ubiquitous four door sedan and/or Kia bongo pickup truck - could no longer transport men and material. These foundational COIN precepts have also been employed in other Anbari cities with varying degrees of success; we were able to do it all and reaped the most success. That is not to toot our horn but only to point out that where our Corps is able to focus enough assets and attention, this basic counter-insurgency plan of action can be carried out with relative ease. Without the basic conditions of security and stability enshrined in an area, you can not began to hope for locals to take the reins and began running their locality, much less an entire country.
The berm was a psychological victory over the insurgents and demonstration to the local Anbaris the USMC was committed to stabilizing "their" area. As the security situation improved and atmospherics improved, locals began to cooperate more and more with Marines and the fledgling Iraqi Police force. Just as important, the local police force grew in numbers and in rapport with the people. These Iraqi Police are far from professionals in many respects, but as they have teamed with Marines to stabilize the area and bring a sense of normalcy to the area, insurgents have fled, been killed or captured or otherwise laid down their arms. More than that, with a non-permissive environment in the Hadithah Triad, AQI chiefs watching from on high will not pour resources and fighters into an area where the chances of success are few and far between.
All of this is classic counter-insurgency, basic stuff learned from the British in Malay, the French in Algeria and Indochina, and the US military in Viet Nam; it should have been done a long time before my battalion's arrival. Having had Marines conduct the essential "COIN" footwork in order to stabilize the area, local police and politicians are finally able to make headway in growing the local political system and tweaking the local economy while repairing both the social fabric and physical infrastructure that AQI had all but destroyed in many respects.
Frenchman David Galula's 1964 book on counterinsurgency has it all right there in print for all to see. Up until now, we have, in my opinion, attempted to prosecute this war without first conducting the basic COIN work essential for meaningful local and provincial political progress to be attained. Thankfully, Gen Petraus seems to understand the fundamentals of COIN. It seems that General Petraus is finally able to push the US Army out of its massive firm bases and imposing and impersonal armored vehicles and on to the streets to conduct regular and frequent foot patrols to deny the enemy freedom of movement and build rapport with Iraqis. This approach has been working - somewhat under the media's radar - for Marines and even a few Army units operating under Marine commands in Al Anbar, for the past 16-18 months; we are now seeing some real signs of progress.
The US Military's role in Iraq, from my experience, should be as enforcers of counter-insurgency basics and nothing more. Restrict locals' and insurgents' freedom of movement, isolate the insurgent from the populace, restrict the insurgents' access to material and munitions and, where we can, encourage and protect the development of local leaders in order to bring about the stability and security that enables local Iraqis, State Department types (to a lesser extent) and NGO experts to come in and operate to rebuild and repair and improve. From my experience, the military's part of that equation is being accomplished in western Al Anbar.
(Photo: Iraq's al-Anbar province tribe leaders attend a meeting with Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki (unseen) in Ramadi 13 March 2007. By Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty.)