But carrying out these steps is not easy. In Baghdad, the police are disloyal; in Fallujah, they are struggling to stay alive; and in Haditha, they are starved for resources. So how can the war be won?
Once last summer and once in the fall, General Casey sat down with me and laid out his strategy. He was well aware of the litany of problems. “Look,” he said, “we’re only 75 percent of the way to standing up the Iraqi units as a counterinsurgency force. Then they need a year of seasoning before being on their own.” That pointed toward operational readiness at the end of 2007.
Last year was supposed to have been when the American military turned its attention to the Iraqi police. Casey’s plan was derailed by the eruption of the Shia death squads. He had to rush American forces into Baghdad to prevent its collapse, leaving fewer American units in Anbar, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.
Casey, who has been in command for two and a half years, guards his counsel, reflects carefully before issuing orders, and projects composure. He prowls the battlefields to assess for himself what’s going on. I first saw him in 2004, inside the shell-pocked city of Ramadi. He was sitting in a corner, listening to a squad leader. He meets often with battalion commanders to discuss the campaign plan.
“I get it from all sides,” Casey joked recently. “Washington, the prime minister, the Sunnis, the Shiites. Hell, people even complained to me when the pope said something about Muslims. I never expected the pope to add to my problems!”
There are striking parallels between Casey and General Creighton Abrams, the four-star Army general who was sent to Vietnam in 1967 to rescue a failing effort there. Abrams changed the strategy from search-and-destroy to counterinsurgency. Casey too switched from offensive operations to counterinsurgency. I hope it will not be written of Casey what history wrote of Abrams: that he deserved a better war. But time isn’t on Casey’s side. U.S. politics won’t allow another year to see how the Iraqi forces develop.
So how, I asked Casey, could you do more with less? Casey urged me to visit Al Qaim, a city of 100,000 on the Syrian border, 200 miles northwest of Baghdad. “Look at what [Lieutenant] Colonel [Julian] Alford accomplished [there],” Casey told me. “He was one of my best battalion commanders. He showed how to turn a city around.”
For two years, the Americans had fought al-Qaeda inside Al Qaim, a transit point for foreign fighters who followed the Euphrates Valley to Ramadi and Fallujah. By the summer of 2005, members of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Sunni force, Al Qaeda in Iraq, had taken control of Al Qaim, while the locals stood on the sidelines. In the late fall, Alford’s battalion swept into the city from the west, battled the insurgents block by block, and drove most of them from the town.
Alford then broke his battalion down into smaller units to live alongside Iraqi soldiers, operating from austere combat outposts. He struck a bargain with the Abu Mahal, a local tribe that was feuding with al-Qaeda, and the tribespeople agreed to form a police force.
When I visited in October, the streets were teeming with shoppers. It was the only city in Anbar province where I could walk through a bustling market and listen to merchants complain about commerce, not security. The local bank, with $100,000 in dinars, had no armed guards. The Abu Mahal tribe was expanding its influence, providing recruits for the police in Rawah, the town to the east. The American civil-affairs colonel told me he had five times more projects in Al Qaim than in any other city in Anbar.
“My microfinance [small loan] projects took off in Qaim,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Roberto said. “We use Qaim as an example to other city councils. They even have soccer matches in Qaim.”
When I accompanied a foot patrol downtown, I noticed that none of the police wore masks to hide their identities. We walked together down a side street, where several policemen proudly pointed out their houses. On one street corner, the balcony of a house had been demolished and the walls gouged by bullets. I asked the police whether they had done that. “No,” they laughed. “Irahibeen [terrorists] were hiding there, so we brought marines.”
The Corps had provided a Marine squad for every police patrol. When police and other tribal members pointed out al-Qaeda hideouts, the marines attacked. The insurgents, stripped of anonymity, were driven from the city. The combination of aggressive Marine grunts with Iraqi forces who possessed local knowledge had worked. If there is a way forward in Iraq, Al Qaim and cities like it are the model. Farther to the north, in Tal Afar, Army Colonel H. R. McMaster successfully employed a similar technique.
One of the keys to success in both Al Qaim and Tal Afar was the effective partnership between the U.S. military and the local police. Both Alford and McMaster had actively cultivated this partnership by breaking down their forces into smaller units so that American leaders worked with Iraqi army platoons and police stations. And both commanders were convinced that lasting progress depended on Iraqi soldiers and police walking the streets, believing that they would win the ten-second firefights against insurgents.
Alford wrote an article in the Marine Corps Gazette, proposing to break down an infantry battalion into an “Iraq American Advisor Group.” The basic idea was to have combat-seasoned American military leaders present in sufficient numbers amid the local police and Iraqi army forces to ensure they would always prevail in clashes with insurgents. Officers and NCOs “would live, eat, and work with their Iraqi counterparts, donning Iraqi uniforms,” and advise them on all aspects of combat. Alford also recommends matching a Quick Reaction Force with each Iraq American Advisor Group. Alford’s idea, which I advocated to the members of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group I consulted with last fall, was one of the recommendations of the report issued in December.
In order to rapidly increase the number of advisers we’ve got deployed in the field, we’ll need to take platoons out of our infantry battalions and team them up with Iraqi soldiers and police. Such combined platoons are the first part of a workable solution—a way for us to increase stability while reducing troop levels—and they might become the beginnings of an exit strategy for the long term. The precedent for this is the Combined Action Platoon program in Vietnam, in which a Marine division deployed more than 100 squads (thirteen marines in each) to live in remote hamlets with militias made up of farmers. The average CAP patrolled nine square kilometers holding 5,000 villagers. Many CAPs had no fixed bases, and they kept moving around the hamlets at night so the Viet Cong could not find them.
The CAP program was successful, as far as it went. In February of 1968, several thousand North Vietnamese tried to sneak through the hamlets to assault the northern city of Da Nang. They never made it, as they were ambushed time and again by the tiny CAP units stretched across the paddy lands. Not one CAP village was ever retaken by the Viet Cong. The program’s advocates argued that it was a force multiplier, because each marine gained four Vietnamese riflemen who knew the area and spoke the language. (In Ramadi, a battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Jurney, used the same argument, telling me that “true partnering with the jundi [Iraqi soldiers] increases effectiveness fourfold.”)
Former Senator Chuck Robb, a member of the Iraq Study Group, visited Camp Fallujah while I was in Iraq. When we returned to the States, we compared notes and discussed the applicability of the CAPs program to Iraq. Robb had served as a Marine company commander in Vietnam and, like me, had been impressed with the performance of the CAPs. We did the rough math and concluded that the current number of American advisers—3,500—was completely inadequate to advise the more than 500 Iraqi companies and police units.
In the Study Group meetings, Robb proposed that the number of advisers be increased to 20,000. James Baker and the rest of the group agreed. (The report actually calls for 10,000 to 20,000 advisers.) Such a large increase in advisers would be offset by a drawdown of some of the 140,000 Americans currently serving in combat battalions and base-support units. It won’t be hard to reduce the present force dramatically. Our 40,000 front-line troops are supported by 100,000 support personnel living in Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. FOBs devour manpower and they sprout staffs. Many on these staffs—the grunts call them “fobbits”— spend their entire tours inside the base gates.
The Iraq Study Group’s report is just one piece of evidence that a strong consensus finally seems to be emerging in support of a more muscular advisory effort. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who commanded a company in Anbar, recently published an article in the Armed Forces Journal calling for an advisory program based on CAPs. In the Fallujah area, Colonel Nicholson has already doubled the number of advisers. And Lieutenant General James N. Mattis has long been an ardent proponent of embedding advisory units with each Iraqi battalion. As far back as the spring of 2004, when he was commanding the Marine division in Anbar province, Mattis intended to combine Marine platoons with Iraqi forces, but the eruption of the extended battle for Fallujah precluded that.