A look at the challenges facing a Military Transition Team in Iraq
KHALIDIYA, IRAQ: In The Iraqi Army and the MTT in Khalidiya ,we looked at the successes and setbacks with the Iraqi Army in the Habbaniyah region. This post will focus on the challenges facing the Military Transition Teams in Anbar province. The four main challenges are the focus of the MTT mission, the clash between forward deployed MTTs and the rear areas, the politically correct warfighting strategy and cognitive dissonance over the detainee issue.
It should be noted that none of these problems are insurmountable, and they do not indicate a failure in the mission. These issues do make the task of fighting an insurgency far more difficult than they should be, however. The new Iraq strategy is designed to address some of these issues, however it remains to be seen if the policy is implemented at the tactical level.
Vision The 3/3-1 MTT is currently a joint Marine and U.S. Army venture, with 5 Marines and 9 soldiers assigned to the team. In speaking to the Marines and soldiers on the team, the marriage has proved to be a challenge, as the inevitable clash of cultures and vision surfaced. Sergeant First Class Andrew Himes noted this clash in visions created friction between the two teams, particularly in the beginning as the two services struggled to integrate.
Major Owen West, the MTT team leader, explained the greatest difference was the competing vision of the two branches of service. “The Army’s focus is developing staff and establishing training programs,” said Major West, “While the Marines’ focus is patrolling with the Iraqis and fighting the insurgents.”
“The fact is both [services] are correct,” said Major West. But the resources were not available to effectively conduct both missions, and the Marine vision largely won out. Despite this, the 3/3-1 MTT made significant progress in developing the Iraqi battalion’s staff and improve its living conditions.
With the transition team mission becoming a priority, the focus is shifting to conduct both the training and security missions. “Before, you had to choose between operational planning and patrolling. With the super MTTs, we are expanding to do both.”
The 3/3-1 MTT will soon become an all-Marine operation The soldiers of the 3/3-1 MTT, lead by Major Steve Sylvester, the Operations Officer, are heading to Baghdad to advise a Iraqi Police unit with the security operations in the city.
Forward vs. Fobbits One of the greatest complaints heard among the soldiers and Marines in the MTTs (in both Fallujah and Khalidiya, as well as the Police Transition Team in Fallujah) is the lack of support from the rear. While publicly their mission is considered the utmost priority, there is resentment that they are not receiving the resources needed from higher command. The MTTs and PTTs are living outside of the relative security of the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), yet they believe they receive minimal support.
Air assets are primarily devoted to the Marine battalion in the Khalidiya region. “One Marine battalion gets more air support than the 3 Iraqi battalions in the area,” said Major West. “Why is this so if the Iraqi effort is considered the primary focus?” Engineering assets are husbanded for the FOBs. SFC Himes explained how at times the MTTs have difficulty getting items such as HESCO barriers (mesh cages filled with dirt), New Jersey and Texas barriers (concrete barriers) and the engineering equipment to deploy them. While the MTT’s kitchen is well stocked, the soldiers and Marines at times have difficulty obtaining food items from the rear.
This has created an “us against them” mentality between those outside the wire of the FOBs, and the “Fobbits,” the soldiers and Marines living in the rear. This is understandable. Having spent time in both the FOBs and in forward positions, the disparities between the two are easily seen. The FOBs have phone centers, Internet cafes, Green Bean Coffee shops, and other amenities. The DFACs (dining facilities, chow halls, mess halls) are open four times a day, and have salad bars, short order lines, multiple main courses, fresh fruits, and a dizzying array of drinks of choice, including non-alcoholic beer. The ‘Fobbits’ live in air-conditioned ‘cans’, trailers with heat and air-conditioning, electricity and are often wired for satellite television.
Two experiences stick out in my mind which highlight the disparity between the FOBs and the troops serving on the front lines. As I left Iraq in December of 2006, I transited through Taqqadum Air Base (or TQ). I watched engineers and civilians install the gargantuan 20-odd foot high Texas barriers around the transient tents at the LSA (Life Support Area – the airbase where those moving to & from TQ move through). TQ rarely gets mortared, and when it does, the mortar fire is inaccurate at best. When I returned just 3 weeks later, the 20 plus transient tents at the LSA were surrounded, and more barriers were being set up to surround additional tents. This was time, energy, equipment and materials that could be put to far better use supporting the troops outside the wire, where the danger is far greater by several degrees of magnitude.
During my first embed in December of 2005, I had an odd experience which did not register immediately. After being picked up at Al Asad Air Base by Lieutenant Rob Dolan, then the Public Affairs Officer for Regimental Combat Team – 2, he took me for a tour of the airbase. After about 15 minutes of driving, we were pulled over by a Military Police patrol for speeding on the empty desert roads of the airbase. While the trigger pullers outside the wire struggled for resources, the Al Asad base commandant had the luxury of devoting Military Policemen to serve as traffic cops in Anbar province.
The PC War While this is not a new complaint, many of the MTTs are concerned the war is being fought with an over emphasis on political correctness. “We are fighting a Politically Correct war,” said Major Owens. “Specifically, Abu Ghraib has taken exponential importance ” in how we approach fighting the insurgency, and has led to an excess in caution in dealing with arrest and detainee issues. The interrogation process has been neutered due to past errors. “PC has filled us with false fear,” said Major West. “We treat detainees better than I treated my college roommates.”
“We tiptoe around cultural issues so greatly that the Iraqi Army laughs at us,” said Major West. He explained the difficulties in arresting women involved with the insurgency. In one case, it was well known a woman that was sheltering and aiding foreign fighters, and the evidence of her guilt was solid. In order to arrest her, the MTT needed permission from a general’s staff. The Iraqi troops stood in wonderment at this absurd decision making process.
Detainees and Cognitive Dissonance Major West believes the U.S. is suffering from what he refers to as “COIN [counterinsurgency] false hope” in Anbar province, and this is impacting our effectiveness in fighting the insurgency. “In Anbar, the average male is our enemy, and you won’t win his heart. But you can win his mind, and make him make rational decisions” to not attack US forces and Iraqi institutions and security forces. “We should detain large amounts of [military age] males, not re-releasing them.” The catch and release program, where known insurgents are released only to fight another day, only serves to encourage and reinforce insurgent activity.
Major West went on to explain how the Americans need to enforce strict punishment for small crimes, using the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement to deter insurgent activities. Laws must be put on the books to make activities such as running weapons, providing shelter for terrorists, and digging holes to plant bombs major crimes. “The way the Iraqis see it, Americans suffer from cognitive dissonance on the legal and detention issues.” They are aware that many of the suspects detained have an extremely high probability of guilt, yet release them based on a desire to implement a peacetime legal system during a brutal insurgency. This must change to achieve real success in Anbar province.
Updated: Blackfive posts email comments from Major West, which mirror statements he made to me about the nature of the insurgency while in the field.