The Right Troops in the Right Places

By Seth Moulton, a Marine infantry officerin Iraq from March to September 2003 and from July 2004 toOctober 2005. He is writing a book about his service (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15/09/06):

APPROACHING the city of Karbala last year for a meeting with a local Iraqi Army commander, my convoy of four Army Humvees came across hundreds of bearded men in green camouflage uniforms lining the road. They were directing traffic and searching vehicles for bombs — good things — and they waved us through, just as Iraqi security forces should.

But we don’t issue green uniforms to Iraqi troops.

After the meeting, I sent an e-mail message to my headquarters in Baghdad, asking whether an entire Iraqi battalion, usually 700 to 1,000 soldiers, had been newly authorized for this relatively peaceful province.

Of course, it hadn’t. This was another new militia. And even though the militia had already been approved by Iraqi officials, and recruited, outfitted and deployed in daily operations, no senior American commander in Baghdad knew about it.

Still, it wasn’t hard to explain how this could happen in Karbala, a major city just two hours from Baghdad. There were hardly any Americans there.

The last American base in Karbala was closed in the summer of 2005. Ostensibly our departure was a victory — an area turned over to Iraqi control. The American troops weren’t sent home, though; they were simply shifted north to a town near Falluja, where they were needed more.

For most of 2005, I worked for the American commander in charge of training Iraqi security forces. My job was to keep tabs on Iraqi troops in several provinces south of Baghdad that were mostly Iraqi-controlled. As a young Marine lieutenant, I was honored to have the responsibility, but it was a sign of how thinly our forces are stretched. My team of two marines could have used about 50 more.

Time and again I watched as American forces drew down, and militias blossomed in the resulting power vacuum. The first provinces we are handing over to our Iraqi counterparts are in the heart of the Shiite south, an area where anti-American violence is minimal but ethnic hatred is brewing.

Sunni insurgents started attacking Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of all Iraqis, to destabilize the new Iraqi government. The Shiites’ ethnic-based response, however, carried out by their militias, is what ignited the deeply sectarian violence that now threatens outright civil war. The premature departure of American troops from the places where the militias were born only feeds their growth. A good Iraqi friend from the area told me recently that Iraqis now call this time “the militia era.”

In the long term, we must withdraw American troops, and replacing them with capable Iraqi forces is the right way to do it. But there are two serious problems with how we are putting this strategy into effect.

First, despite all rhetoric in Washington to the contrary, American commanders are being pressured to meet timelines rather than encouraged to wait until Iraqi forces are ready. “Standing up” Iraqi troops is not enough; they must be well-trained.

Second, our strategy is based on consolidating American forces in huge megabases as a means to reduce numbers and, as advocated by several members of Congress, to “move to the periphery.” This is exactly the opposite of what has been prescribed for decades to fight a counterinsurgency, or to squelch a fomenting civil war.

American military advisers, and the Green Berets they take after, are our greatest assets in Iraq because they are a model for how to fight insurgents and build indigenous forces. Our advisers teach the Iraqi troops everything from physical fitness to urban warfare tactics, and mentor their officers in leadership and mission planning.

I once visited an Iraqi base where a combination of officer corruption and insurgent activity had led to a severe water shortage. An entire battalion was ready to quit, but the Green Berets embedded with the Iraqis encouraged them to stay while they pressed for a solution — and endured the shortage alongside the Iraqi soldiers. The battalion remained intact, and we discovered new problems with the Iraqi supply system and new tactics of local insurgents.

Our advisers can also thwart militia attempts to infiltrate the Iraqi units, and are better able to judge when the Iraqis are competent to take over. Most important, while sharing intelligence and conducting joint operations, these small groups of American soldiers and marines develop the trust of their Iraqi soldiers and the local populace. Our growing megabases do anything but.

So, what should we do? The obvious prescription to stop the rising violence is more troops, but the wrong kinds of soldiers and tactics only alienate the Iraqi people, strengthening the insurgency. On top of that, the Army and Marine Corps don’t have any extra troops to send. President Bush recently sent more American forces back into Baghdad, another place where militias took over after United States troops were withdrawn too quickly. But they too have to come from somewhere, and in turn we should expect those areas to become more violent.

This makes it all the more important to use the troops we have as effectively as possible.

We need more military advisers, including both Special Forces teams and specially trained conventional units. Our precious few Special Forces troops must focus on mentoring Iraqi troops, rather than on the more exciting diversion of unilateral raids. Some of our best Special Forces units were devoted to hunting down the Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but violence has only increased in the three months since his death. Had that same manpower and money been devoted to training Iraqi troops and stemming the growth of militias, we would have another Iraqi battalion or two ready to take our places.

While consolidating bases is a short-term way to reduce troop requirements, fielding more adviser teams will eventually allow more Americans to come home. American troops embedded with the Iraqis they train usually require less support than conventional units; many rely on the Iraqis for food, shelter and basic defenses. Green Berets in 12-man teams have already replaced entire battalions of conventional forces in some Iraqi cities.

Yet despite the success of advisers, the Army and Marine Corps still have a habit of sending their least capable troops to fill these positions. Many teams have trouble getting essential supplies like weapons and ammunition, even as the Army finds the resources to man speed traps on its ever-growing bases. Only 1 in 30 Americans deployed to Iraq serves as an embedded adviser. We can’t win this war from the Burger Kings and rec centers of our largest bases, nor can we afford the thousands of non-combat troops needed to support them.

Iraq’s militia problems are likely to get worse before they get better, and only a legitimate Iraqi government can rid the country of them completely. But we must be sure we are fighting the war we say we are. Both problems with our current strategy — not waiting for Iraqi forces to be ready, and consolidating our bases at the expense of classic counterinsurgency tactics like small adviser teams — emanate from the overriding concern for bringing the troops home.

Pushing for withdrawal timelines is not helping the struggle in Iraq; encouraging the military to better fight the insurgency will. After all, winning the war would be the best reason to leave.