Inside the MTTs in Anbar

A look at the challenges facing a Military Transition Team in Iraq

Soldiers and Marines from the 3/3-1 MTT prepare for a raid. Click image to view.

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.

The kitchen at the 3/3-1 MTT. Click image to view.

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.

Major Owen West (left) and Bill Roggio. Click image to view.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Allen K says:

    I only hope Gen. Petraeus is getting the same kind of feedback so he can address these issues. Now, if the powers that be can only get the IA MOD to fix the problems with pay and logistics.

  • Michael says:

    Gosh, it always seems the case amid chaos: the flux between luxury and need.
    Still, I am so heartened by your reporting on the hearts and souls of the folks on the ground.
    They have not given up hope and neither will I.

  • RJ says:

    Perfumed princes always maintain “proper” headquarters…in the rear. These leaders were given the go ahead during the Clinton period, via Bosnia, etc. You don’t fight a war with one hand tied behind your back, period! Only the dead spirits of those who tried this stupid tactic remind one of such a futility. I don’t think Americans will wait for a change, note how many democrats running for president are in the game…gives great cover for those who want to run away…every day the press can cover these canidates who will most certainly throw invective after invective on our President. While President Bush may in fact deserve such negative energies…our country and especially those who are at the tip of the spear…we don’t, we need a victory…maybe it is time for another Sherman! Or…let’s go and just let these people kill each other till totally exhausted. Only problem is that for “entertainment” they may offer a nice diversion–blast away a US city, or offer up some Smallpox on a plane travelling cross country. Bottom line: This is a mess!

  • DJ Elliott says:

    War is always messy.
    And there are always REMFs.
    What I would like to see is the REMF fobbits moved stateside.
    – Why is the admin/pers section in Iraq? Embassy assigned military personnel have been supported from DC for decades. Now with the conectivity we have there is no reason for the paperpushers to be in-country.
    – That would free up the security elements guarding them for field work…

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I agree with DJ. I also caution those who read this and declare “all is lost.” The situation is nowhere near that. We’re just not operating as efficiently as we can be.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    The commanders have very good reason to spend and inordinate amount of time and resources on preventing screw ups. They live in absolute terror of bad press. I’m talking night sweating terror that all your efforts will go up in smoke with one stupid moment that’s big enough to be noticed by the press. The nature of media is that one moment of stupidity gets encapsulated the “THE STORY”

  • Neo-andertal says:

    Substitute this sentence,
    The nature of media is that one moment of stupidity can get encapsulated as “THE STORY”

  • serurier says:

    Bill I hear a new action in Iraq , 5 Blackwater members be killed in there , any more news about that?

  • Frank_A says:

    Bill, I have a question about this paragraph:
    Detainees and Cognitive Dissonance Major West believes the U.S. is suffering from what he refers to as “COIN [counterinsurgency] false hope”

  • Bill says:

    Thanks for the info about my old base, TQ and its neighboring village Habbaniyah. I’m glad to hear they don’t get shelled much anymore. that’s a real positive change from 2004.

  • Luke Willen says:

    There was a report on British TV )It might have been on both the BBC and ITV)ragarding a joint US/Iraqi patrol.
    An incident was filmed in which the Iraqis arrested three men)presumably insurgents because it seems they were carrying three mortar rounds.
    The Iraqi army was filmed beating up the insurgents by a journalist travelling with the US section of the patrol who could be heard laughing in the background.
    Great emphasis was placed on the fact that the US troops were laughng at the sight of the Iraqi troops kicking and punching one or more of the insurgents and the US sergeant who later ordered the journalists to stop filming.
    This is presumably the kind of bad press Neo-andertal refers to in his January 24 post.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    “This is presumably the kind of bad press Neo-andertal refers to in his January 24 post.”

  • moon6 says:

    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.

    I’m missing something here. I thought someone caught digging a hole to plant an IED was killed immediately, or at worst made a prisoner for the duration. Is that not happening?

  • Niccolo says:

    Sorry to disabuse you, moon6, but our troops observing a digger at a distance are not permitted to take hostile action unless he is armed and engaging. And they’re not allowed to approach and deal with the IED (too dangerous) unless with a designated Bomb Demolition Team (however long it takes to get one). Such is the way it goes over there with the New American War Doctrine.
    In a rational world (Eisenhower’s world, or Patton’s) the unit marksman would sling up, take his favorite position, and drop the digger. Then a fast driveby with a flamethrower
    would assure that any combustion fuses and/or wired-fuse insulation was destroyed, and leave a big scorched patch to identify the site.
    Unfortunately, all that rational stuff is now prohibited.

  • Michael says:

    Good information as usual.
    If we who are reading this write to Congress and the Media it does make a difference. It may not change their opinions, but without any feedback, they’ll never know.
    Let them know how you feel regarding the military being politically tied down by Congress and by Media. Do it in a concise, to the point manner with appropriate questions and points, but with good manners and good reason.
    I didn’t read this is an “all is lost” scenario. I read in your post Bill that all points can be addressed, some with little effort, others may take longer.
    I’m almost of the opinion, If I were Iraq… I’d ban Media completely except for possible embeds with the military. All they do is hinder the effort against terrorism. In fact, the Western Media are suckers. The terrorist play up to their cameras, the Western Media ends up using stringers that are unreliable and biased for the terrorist.
    The Media has become like ambulanc chasers. They don’t truly report all that is going on regarding the progress. They set their cameras up on a hotel balcony and “wait” for a bomb sound and then look for smoke. They end up making the scene look as if all of Iraq is in a mess. But it is not. Much of Iraq is moving forward.
    ~Original Michael
    Post above is not mine…

  • Michael says:

    Bill’s updated links on left show interesting picture in Iran…
    “Mr Rafsanjani’s comments added to widespread anger over Mr Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, which have been widely denounced for stoking inflation and failing to halt unemployment.”
    “Supposedly like-minded MPs in the fundamentalist-dominated parliament have launched a petition summoning the president to answer questions. It has gathered 63 signatures and needs nine more to be effective. Meanwhile, proceedings are underway to impeach four of his ministers accused of incompetence. Insiders say there is enough anger at Mr Ahmadinejad for a majority of MPs to want to impeach him and remove him from office.”
    We must keep the pressure on the Puppet Masters who pay for and incite the violence in Iraq and Lebanon.
    Link from the left again at PJM…
    If the following is true,
    “Maliki’s most important warning was when he said that no one and no place would be immune to raids. Mosques (Sunni or Shia), homes or political offices will all be subject to searches and raids if they are used to launch attacks or hide militants.”
    Then we should see dramatic changes. I’ve been asking for these specific issues now regarding the Mosque for months. Our Congress needs to give our troops time to help the Iraqi forces enforce these new laws.
    A new law was passed by the Iraqi Parliament. I do not know if all of these details were in it. If so, it is a large political victory for American forces and innocent Iraqis. It also indicates that Maliki and the PArliament might be finally addressing the sectarian violence in the most important areas – the religious leaders and Imams.
    ~Original Michael

  • Rosemary says:

    Thank you, Bill, for the informative article. I had a sense this was going on (PC war), but I had no proof. This really sucks. The only way we are going to win this war is if we take the gloves off. I’ve heard it said that we have more lawyers over there than soldiers! Good grief.

  • Just_an_average_joe says:

    The situation with the FOB’s sounds ALOT like the stories in Hackworth’s “About Face” both Korea and Vietnam. Too much luxury. Check out how the French Foreign Legion forward deploys.

  • Roggio: Trainers & FOBbits

    I’ve written about the mentality behind many of the Forward Operating Bases in Iraq before, and the poor prioritization that shortchanges the front lines in favour of REMFs. See “FOBbits and Failures in Iraq,” and…


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