By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who is currently embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery in western Baghdad. Support for Daveed’s reporting was provided by Public Multimedia Inc.
As I write this, I’m nearing the end of my time embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery (known as 2-32), which is working with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division while in Iraq. During my time in the country, I was able to go on a number of patrols; see some of the fruits of the current military “surge”; get a look at the Iraqi Security Forces and interview American soldiers and officials about their progress; speak with a number of servicemen, military officials, and Iraqis; and visit several locations in Iraq, including the International Zone and Baghdad outside the wire. This report, which I wrote exclusively for The Long War Journal, is designed to summarize what I found.
The Strategy: Virtually all the U.S. officials with whom I spoke feel that American strategy now boils down to a single goal: strategic disengagement. That is, the U.S. wants to strengthen the Iraqi government to the point that it is self-sustaining enough that the country will not collapse into chaos as U.S. troops are brought back home. It’s unclear how long this will take. One Army staff sergeant who has worked closely with the Iraqi army and police thinks that “several years” is the best estimate. (The Iraqi forces will be discussed further below.) A U.S. official told me that in the past, the line was always that the U.S. was “six months” away from turning the country over to the Iraqis. This was detrimental to overall planning, because strategy was geared toward maximizing results over the six-month period before the handover would allegedly take place. Now the military’s plans are more long-term: they are trying to look at what will be best for Iraq several years down the line, and placing less emphasis on when the U.S. commitment expires.
U.S. strategy is not just military in nature. Rather, it is designed to eliminate some of the underlying conditions that sap the average Iraqi’s faith in the country’s civil society. For example, in the districts that 2-32 patrols — Yarmouk and Hateen — there are four lines of operation: security, governance, economy, and essential services. According to Major Brynt Parmeter, who works at the brigade level, the overall goals are to reduce sectarian fighting, increase the Iraqi Security Forces’ capabilities, and improve local government to empower it to provide the services that Iraqis need. The Iraqis lack a number of essential services. Right now the U.S. focus is on food centers, financial institutions, fuel, and medical needs-but the Iraqis are also lacking in trash collection, reliable sewers, electricity, and other services. The effect of the lack of essential services on Iraqis should not be underestimated. Gas cost 5 cents a liter under Saddam Hussein; now the official price has skyrocketed to about 70 cents a liter. But in practice it is far higher than that: according to Lieutenant Patrick Henson, there is only one government-run gas station in the Yarmouk district. When the long lines around the station are coupled with security concerns, it should come as no surprise that many Iraqis buy their gas from the black market, where prices can reach $2 a liter. In other words, Iraqis may be paying more for their gas than Americans — and the average Iraqi income is substantially lower than the average American income.
The Surge: Multiple military sources stated that my patrols with 2-32 provided a snapshot of the fruits of the surge. One of the surge’s stated goals was to stabilize Baghdad. In Yarmouk, the surge functioned just as military leadership hoped. I spoke with a large number of soldiers in 2-32 about the state of Yarmouk when they arrived, and all of them painted the same picture: the soldiers would routinely find corpses and there were a large number of IEDs and VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices). On one dangerous road that the U.S. military calls Whitesnake (other Baghdad road names form a virtual tribute to Eighties bands), there was only one checkpoint. There are now three, and the Iraqi army presence makes it harder for insurgents to plant IEDs.
Multiple sources informed me that since 2-32 moved to Yarmouk as part of the surge, a lot of residents who had previously left have moved back, and a number of stores had opened up. Also, residents have given American soldiers intelligence tips that have resulted in valuable arrests. Although light arms fire targeted the Humvee I rode in during one of the patrols that I went on, my time in Yarmouk (which included sitting in on interviews with residents about the security situation that they faced) painted a picture of a district that is about as safe as a Baghdad district can be at this point. There are two key questions moving forward. First, can this improvement be maintained, or will Yarmouk return to being perilous when the surge ends? And second, as places like Yarmouk are handed over to the Iraqi Security Forces, will the security situation deteriorate?
The Iraqi Security Forces: There are a large number of problems and shortcomings with the Iraqi army and police. Countrywide, militias’ infiltration of the Iraqi army and police (in particular by the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade) is an enormous problem, and one for which nobody I spoke with has a good solution. While there is seemingly little infiltration in the Yarmouk and Hateen districts, multiple military sources with whom I spoke said that infiltration can be as high as 90% in some districts. In part because of this, distrust of the Iraqi Security Forces is rampant. I was surprised to find during our patrols that certain mosques’ imams would come outside to talk to the Americans, but would refuse to do so for the Iraqi forces.
Then there is the problem of the Iraqi Security Forces’ competence. While I was patrolling with one of 2-32’s platoons on Thursday night, May 24, we heard the sudden crackle of gun shots a few blocks away. Heavy gunfire continued for at least 20 to 30 seconds. After a quick effort to assess whether we were being attacked, the soldiers determined that most of the gunfire was coming from the Iraqi army. “If they see something they don’t like, they usually just fire their guns straight up in the air, sometimes for a very long time,” one of the soldiers said. “We’ve tried to get them to do it differently, but they haven’t listened to our tactical advice.” (The next day, I would learn that Iraqi soldiers had indeed been involved in a gunfight, but that the massive hail of bullets we heard was misleading. The gunfight involved only one or a small handful of opponents, but the Iraqi soldiers’ tendency to unload their weapons at the hint of a threat made it sound worse than it actually was.)
But do the Iraqi soldiers have the will to improve? Several U.S. servicemen described the Iraqis as “unmotivated,” with “no sense of urgency.” According to one staff sergeant, when the Iraqis are told to go somewhere, they’ll typically stop to smoke before heading off. If ten Iraqi soldiers are needed, it will usually take at least an hour to round them up: for American troops, it would take five minutes or less to get such a group together. Moreover, checkpoints are consistently understaffed, and Iraqi soldiers are often asleep when they should be doing something more productive. “They have a daily peak from 1200 to 1300 hours,” the staff sergeant said. “Other than that, you can usually find large groups of them asleep. I’m not saying they’re lazy, but they sure do sleep a lot.”
Despite this, the U.S. soldiers I spoke with said that the Iraqi soldiers and police have improved over the past three months (since 2-32 was first deployed to Yarmouk and Hateen). They have begun employing some of the American troops’ tactics. Moreover, several U.S. soldiers spoke highly of a very competent Iraqi army colonel whose mere presence seems to make his men adopt a more professional military bearing.
The Effect of Deployments on U.S. Soldiers. Shortly after arriving at Camp Liberty, I wrote about the day-to-day difficulties that soldiers face, with the desert heat, the long hours, and the constant dangers. But most of the soldiers I spoke with said the biggest difficulty is the grueling deployments of 12 months or more. I asked virtually all of the servicemen I spoke with whether they believed this was hurting reenlistment. The vast majority, from privates all the way up to the rank of captain, believed that the long deployments were indeed causing talented people not to reenlist. There was particular concern about young officers. An Army staff sergeant commented, “A lot of young officers who could be great commanders are signing out.” Although reenlistment rates have been strong so far, the staff sergeant argued that these figures were somewhat skewed by the military’s stop-loss orders — and he further expects reenlistment rates to decline over the next few years, as servicemen hit their fourth and fifth deployments. There was no consensus on what to do about this. A senior Army official argued that we need to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible because the Iraq war is “breaking the Army.” Other servicemen said they are committed to the mission, but argued that deployments should be shortened.
Insurgent Weapons and Tactics: The insurgent weapon that most concerns U.S. troops is the EFP (the explosively formed projectile, which has been described as uniquely dangerous because “when it detonates, the concave end blows outward and melts into a bullet-shaped fragment that slices through armor and flesh”). Captain Greg Hirschey of the Army’s 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company told Wired that an EFP recently went through a Humvee, taking off both of the driver’s legs and also an arm. Lieutenant Henson told me that he saw video in which an EFP went straight through a heavily armored Humvee and left an impact on the curb on the other side of the road. Several Army sources corroborated his account. Every military source I spoke with agrees that Iran is providing insurgents with EFPs. Some indication of this can be seen by the fact that only Shia insurgent groups, and not Sunni groups, have been employing the weapons. Because Shia insurgents have been largely inactive in Yarmouk and Hateen over the past three months, 2-32 hasn’t had to contend with EFPs in its area of operation. However, they have encountered shaped charges on IEDs: that is, IEDs that are shaped to hit everyone in a Humvee upon explosion. Shaped charges typically have five points of impact, one for the driver, three for the Humvee passengers, and a fifth for the gunner. All points of impact aim for the soldiers’ heads. Military sources have expressed concern that Iran may begin giving EFPs to Sunni insurgent factions, although they didn’t think Iran would give the EFPs to factions affiliated with al Qaeda.
Tactically, insurgents are skilled at instilling fear in the Iraqi population. They’re also skilled at undertaking attacks that will gain the media’s attention. I’ve written about two instances of this during my embed: the targeting of Iraqi journalists and the increase in attacks in the International Zone. (Although the sources I initially spoke with in the IZ were unsure if there was an increase in attacks or just an increase in the mortars’ accuracy, Major Parmeter confirmed that there has been an increase in the actual number of attacks.)
Iraq’s sectarian tensions play to the insurgents’ advantage. Not only do our soldiers have to contend with a vicious and determined enemy, but they have also been aggressively inserted into a sectarian conflict to try to rein it in. An example of this occurred in Hurriya, where Major Parmeter reported that 200 Sunnis were relocated in January and February of this year. This relocation wasn’t caused by massive violence. Only three or four people were killed, but word of mouth traveled quickly. The Iraqi army then moved out a large number of Sunnis “for their protection.” Almost immediately, realtors with ties to the Mahdi Army came in and bought up the formerly Sunni land.
Conclusion: Right now our country is embroiled in a critical debate about setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, this is one of the most intellectually impoverished political debates that I have ever witnessed, with both sides often resorting to sloganeering and demagoguery rather than substantive argumentation. One thing that my time in Iraq underscored to me is that, in looking at the country, many people see what they want to see. I would often think about the stories that journalists might write if they went where I went and saw what I saw. For example, after my first night on patrol-when the civilians we saw were clearly happy to see U.S. troops and felt comfortable around them-a conservative journalist might write a piece countering the stories about Iraqis hating us and wanting us to leave. Fine-but what about polls indicating that a shockingly high percentage of Iraqis think it’s okay to kill American troops? What about neighborhoods where U.S. troops would encounter a very different reception? On the other hand, a liberal journalist could write a very funny piece about the Iraqi army’s sloth and trigger-happy approach to the world, and conclude that we need to leave immediately because the Iraqi Security Forces are hopeless and at least a withdrawal will put some fire in their belly. Fine-but what about Iraqi soldiers’ improvements? What about the likelihood that pulling out would guarantee the Iraqi army’s failure?
There is some truth to both the right-wing and left-wing narratives above. But policymakers and analysts need to do better than having some truth to their positions. The Iraq debate is so important that politicians and opinion-leaders shouldn’t simply latch onto evidence that supports their pre-existing view. My intention in this report is to provide an objective assessment of a number of critical strategic trends in Iraq-and in that way help to advance public debate beyond where it currently sits.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Daveed has published prior reports from Iraq at The Counterterrorism Blog.