Guardian Article Misrepresents the Advisers' View

Today's Guardian article ("Military Chiefs Give US Six Months to Win Iraq War") misrepresents the Baghdad advisers. So much so, it makes me doubt the reliability of the single, unidentified source responsible for much of the article's reporting.

I hope SWJ colleagues will forgive this more "personal" post than usual, but as Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser I have a duty to set the record straight on this.

There is a real country called Iraq, where a real war is going on, with real progress but very real challenges. We are not going to "win the war" in six months -- nor would anyone expect to. But the Guardian seems to be describing some completely different, (possibly mythical) country, and some imaginary group of harried and depressed advisers bearing no resemblance to reality. As counterinsurgency professionals, we take an evidence-based approach and we are well aware of the extremely demanding task we face. That makes us cautious realists -- but we are far from pessimists, as the Guardian's anonymous source seems to imply.

The article is littered with inaccuracies:

  • The "advisers" are not bunkered down in the Green Zone, but in another location, and frequently out on the ground.
  • The article (incorrectly) describes me as a serving military officer -- I'm a civilian diplomat, as any source truly familiar with the team's thinking would be well aware.
  • While recognizing the severity of the challenge, the team's mood is far from pessimistic. Success will take months or years, not weeks or days, and although early signs are somewhat encouraging it's really far too early to say how things will play out. The war has been going for four years, the new strategy for less than four weeks. Give it time.
  • The State department is not failing to meet its personnel targets. On the contrary, more than 90 % of civilian positions in Iraq are filled, and we will grow to 20 Provincial Reconstruction Teams soon.
  • The coalition is far from disintegrating -- British redeployment from the South reflects improved security, not lack of will, and the same day the British announced their move the Australians announced a force increase in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The plan is not "unclear" or "constantly changing" -- we all know exactly what the plan is. The article seems to be mistaking the freedom and agility which have been granted to us, allowing us to respond dynamically to a dynamic situation, for vacillation.
  • Yes, of course, there are still car bombings. But several recent bombings have been Sunni-on-Sunni, rather than sectarian, with extremists targeting moderates to discourage them from cooperating with the government. That means sectarian violence, overall, is down, and that extremists are worried they are losing support from their base -- both good things, despite the appalling violence against innocents we have come to expect from these extremists.

    And yes, there is a risk that home-front political will might collapse just as we are getting things right on the ground. Given some commentators' overall negativity, one suspects that their efforts may be directed to precisely that end. You may not like the President, you may be unhappy about the war. But whose side are you on? The Iraqis trusted us, and this is their fight. They deserve our support.

    Buried in the article, though, are some references to real-world progress:

    • Progress has been made on oil-wealth sharing legislation -- a major development.
    • Joint operations are beginning in Baghdad, and are going well so far.
    • Iraqi community leaders are reporting somewhat improved morale and public confidence among the civilian population, though this is tempered by previously unmet expectations.
    • Numbers of political murders have fallen (precipitously) since the operation began, though these are still too high in absolute terms.
    • Iraqi forces are turning up, and performing well, though not always at 100% strength
    • In al-Anbar, tribal leaders have realized extremists have nothing to offer them -- a huge development, as influential community leaders have "flipped" from AQ's side to support the Iraqi government.
    • Regional diplomatic efforts, including with Iran and Syria, are apparently underway.
    • Unfortunately most of these developments are buried in the last paragraph of a long article.

      The Guardian is entitled to its own view of the war, and reasonable people can differ on these issues. But the Guardian's view is not ours, and the anonymous source misrepresents our views. It is really too soon to tell how things will play out, though early signs are encouraging so far, and the advisers as a group remain cautious realists, not pessimists.

      (As ever, though I have "permission to post", these are my own personal views and were not screened or vetted by anyone).

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      Comments

      Hawkwood;
      Well, over 2 months have passed since your dire and cryptic warning. Pelosi and Reid have rotted poached egg all over their zomboid faces.

      Whose head(s) are ducking, do you think?

      Good reply to the Guardian Killer, however I am not buying it. There is no doubt that tactically the Coalition has always had the combat power and the ability to locally supress the insurgency if it applied itself. The insurgents and other players accepted this reality before the current operations even started by conducting a tactical withdrawal. The fact that it has taken the coaliton leadership 4 years to get the ratios and operational level focus right (almost) raises major questions as to the ability and agility of the Strategic commanders to sustain the necessary flexible effort across all areas of policy in the near future. Iron will can get you only so far if you play dumb and only the Strategic Level can win this one.

      In a number of posts you have alluded to the duration required for the current plan to show real and lasting returns but I see no political commitment anywhere to such timelines apart from the lame-ducks in DC, London and Canberra. Their backbenchers and congressmen didn't sign up for political oblivion. Nor do I see the ability of the USA Army and Marines to sustain the manpower and readiness levels required, or for that matter the US economy's ability to withstand the inevitable blowback from huge unpredicted and unfunded (past 2008)expenditure. All this with election(s) to come.

      The execution of a well thought out counter-insurgency plan with supporting diplomatic effort is a boon to the coalition and I salute Gen Petraeus and his band of men and women all 160,000 not including the NIA. But you are standing on sand and surrounded by people who are not necessarily as wedded to the importance of a coalition victory as you. Good luck and keep your head down especially in about 2 months time.

      ...there is a risk that home-front political will might collapse just as we are getting things right on the ground.

      Yes, I guess there is that risk, but after years of a steadily deteriorating situation accompanied by unending claims of progress, success and turning points, is the public supposed to just trust that this time we really are turning a corner? I'd really need to see some strong signs before believing that.

      Mr. Kilcullen, I have to say that reading your articles and comments over the last few months has given me some little faith that the American (Australian? :) ) leadership in this war has begun to connect with the real world.

      My question to you is, given the track record of military pronouncements about progress and turning points, is there a point at which the public should stop believing what has so far proven to be false statements that success is just around the corner? Is there a point in which a collapse of political support for the war could actually be a good thing? Or do you think that it should be a given that the military (and politicians) have the freedom to continue a losing war until they themselves admit that they cannot achieve victory?

      Well, I have my own opinions on all that, but let's just say I'll check back in six months to see how things have gone. It should be interesting if nothing else.

      Regarding McCain vs. Rudy: R. is probably on the East Coast. I'm on the West. We'll have to see whoich one of us is right about that one.

      to: Brit
      re: "Collapse in support"

      The reported collapse only exists in the MSM and the Democrat talking points. A recent poll (Wash. Post I believe) showed that Americans favor victory in Iraq over pulling out by a large majority.

      The collapse is in support of GW. The left never supported him. The incompetence of the administration in managing the Iraq war, immigration and spending has decimated his support from the right.

      I think grl is right regarding '08 except that McCain is dead out of the gate. It's Rudy's to lose. He's very strong on the War on Terror. He is making it issue #1.

      Americans hate to lose. The dems can't win in '08 if they brand themselves the Party of Defeat. They will apply pressure to pull back but I doubt it will be the full court press their wacko base & Rep. Murtha is hoping for.

      Prayers and support from millions of Americans are sent daily to Gen. Petraeus and his team. Thanks Lt. Colonel for keeping us in the loop.

      R.

      But it's the collapse of support in the US that the Guardian says is key. That collapse seems pretty real.

      With all due respect, I live in the U.S. And because I am not a member of the military, I am free to comment on American politics.

      It's one thing to say the Iraq war is unpopular, which it is, quite another to talk about a "collapse in support." When the time comes for the public (and not just the politicians) to decide what to do about Iraq, I think you're going to be surprised at what decision gets made.

      Right now, the polls say that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. That's why (and the only reason why) the Demos are playing their politics the way they are. The Demos are trying to "position themselves" to win the next election.

      However, notice what what their actions consist of. They have not voted against Patraeus. They have not voted to cut off funding. All they've done is pass some non-binding resolution in the House, and even that got filibustered in the Senate. Tell me: if the Demos have such a winning hand, why can't they get 60 votes in the Senate?

      The one thing the Democratic Party WILL NOT do is take actual responsibility for policy, because they know they don't have one, or at least they don't have one that isn't defeatist and won't cause their party to go down in flames once its defeatist nature is clearly and articulately explained to the public.

      Imagine what would happen if the Demos actually tried to cut off funding and succeeded. Then, every American casualty will be their fault. Then, all the chaos that will result after the Americans leave will be their fault. The Repos would paint them as the party of defeat, the party of "cut and run," and the Demos could kiss their congressional majorities, and their power (which is the only thing they really care about), good bye.

      And the Demos know it.

      I will venture a further prediction: If McCain wins the Republican nomination, and Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, the 2008 presidential election is going to be all about Iraq, with the Demos advocating withdrwal, and the Repos advocating VICTORY.

      And you know what? If it shakes out that way, the Repos are going to win. (In fact, it's their only hope of defeating Hillary.)

      Why are they going to win? Because they know that to hold onto the presidency, they are going to need to articulate a clear strategy to win the war in Iraq, in the face of which the Democratic alternative of withdrawal is going to collapse like a house of cards.

      And after the Repos win, they are going to treat their victory as a mandate to commit the resources that are necessary, and to do what is necessary, to win the war in Iraq.

      The bottom line about American politics: Americans don't like the war in Iraq. But if the politicians articulate a clear, winning strategy in Iraq, the public will support it.

      Pardon me I addressed you as an American when you are of course Australian.

      Naturally you're entitled to set the record straight about your own opinion. But neither you nor the Guardian tells who the source was.

      The Guardian can only report what it was told. Are you saying they're misrepresenting what the leaker said?

      I can't help but notice that you don't rebut the 'six months or bust' allegation. I agree that Australia (and until the other day I'd have said Britain) will keep a battalion by your side come hell or high water. But it's the collapse of support in the US that the Guardian says is key. That collapse seems pretty real.

      You acknowledge there's no prospect of stopping the violence in six months. The Guardian said your group had concluded that unless you had some pretty dramatic improvements to show the US public in six months, the imperatives of the next election would soon bring the curtain down on the whole show. That seems to me an inescapable conclusion to sensible, informed people. Do you disagree with that?

      Brit,
      my comment related to coalition political will, not whether pulling troops out reflected a "victory" or "defeat". My point was that to describe the coalition as "disintegrating" is not how the advisers see it. The same applies to the Australian reinforcement -- yes, the numbers are small in absolute terms (though large as a proportion of Australia's population and military). But we are discussing political will, not numbers -- and putting in extra troops reflects no disintegration of political will.

      The Guardian is entitled to its own view of the war (as everyone is, of course) - and reasonable people can differ on current tactical issues such as progress in the South. But the Guardian is not entitled to pass its view off as our view. I don't think any impartial observer would dispute that.

      "The coalition is far from disintegrating - British redeployment from the South reflects improved security, not lack of will, and the same day the British announced their move the Australians announced a force increase in both Iraq and Afghanistan."

      It does your argument little credit to rehash this debunked Cheney talking point.

      The British departure from Basra will be a defeat. All claims to the contrary are window-dressing. Britain's govt also claimed Maysan province was ready to hand over when their troops abandoned the base at Amara. But the soldiers acknowledged they had actually been mortared out. Within weeks, Amara had fallen to local Sadrist forces and both of the town's police stations were razed to the ground.

      If a drawdown of British forces is a victory, why, in the same sentence, do you tout a (much smaller) increase in Australian forces? If troops leaving Iraq is a sign of progress, then these extra Australian (and American) troops must be a sign of backsliding. You can't have it both ways.

      Lt.Col Kilcullen - Interesting post, thank you. I thought that your response to the Guardian article was considered and nuanced. While I am personally not optimistic about the situation in Iraq (what Lt.Gen Petraeus and the team are doing should have been done three years ago), your response struck the right note by not promising to "over deliver". I look forward to reading further posts from you.

      goesh - re. your comment "question the right of our national interests to be made manifest". As a non-American, whenever I hear someone an American say this sort of thing, it scares the hell out of me.

      Well said! I regard such misleading articles as denigration. They are willful and planned with the sole intent to discredit the military profession in general, the US military in particular and designed to sow doubt and question the right of our national interests to be made manifest. I have always wondered why it is when directly attacked in theatres of operation, the military usually administers a sound thrashing to the aggressors, yet when attacked in this manner, there seems to be a lack of will to fight back and do some thrashing. I commend you for fighting back, speaking out and setting the record straight on this matter.

      Excellent rebuttal, Colonel.

      The Guardian is an interesting paper and at times an informative one but I expect that The Guardian's editors would be more likely to endorse Margaret Thatcher to return to the office of Prime Minister than they would be likely to give you a fair shake on Iraq.