Small Wars Journal

SWJ Interview with Bing West (Part 1)

Bing West, author of The Village, The March Up and No True Glory was kind of enough to be interviewed by Small Wars Journal on the occasion of the release of his latest book The Strongest Tribe.

Francis J. 'Bing' West, originally from the Dorchester section of Boston, served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. A warrior-scholar, West authored an extremely influential study while a Visiting Research Associate at the Rand Corporation (1966 - 1968) entitled: "The Strike Teams: Tactical Performance and Strategic Potential". He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA) and Princeton University (MA), where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He is currently president of the GAMA Corporation, which designs wargames and combat decision-making simulations. West is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, appears on The News Hour on PBS and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. West has been to Iraq on 15 trips since 2003, embedding with over 60 battalions.

Small Wars Journal interview with Bing West (Part 1 of 2)

1. You assessed that the Iraq war turned around for the better prior to General David Petraeus assuming command of Multi-National Force -- Iraq. Please explain this assessment.

As we look toward changes in Afghanistan, it's important that we understand why the Iraq war turned around, lest we think changing top commanders is the critical variable.

There are two broad views of history. By far the more popular is the "Great Man" view that nations are led from the top. Leaders like Caesar and Lincoln shape history. Most accounts of Iraq subscribe to the Great Man view. The books about Iraq by senior officials like Paul Bremer, George Tenet, Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez have at their core a wonderful sense of self-worth: History is all about them.

The other view of history holds that the will of the people provides the momentum for change. Leaders are important, but only when they channel, or simply have the commonsense to ride the popular movement. "Battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief," Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, "but by the spirit of the army."

Iraq reflected Tolstoy's model. Events were driven by the spirit, or dispirit, of the people and tribes. It took four years of sending the same units back to the same areas, getting to know the local leaders, to give the tribes enough reassurance that they rebelled against al Qaeda. Sheik Sattar, a tremendous leader, would never have stepped forward had it not been for his close relations with the local Americans. (A tank was parked on Sattar's front lawn.)

Anbar was the heart of the insurgency. The Sattar and the Sunni tribes in Anbar turned before General Dave Petraeus and the surge troops arrived. In February of 2006, I listened as General Jim Mattis told the troops in Ramadi that they had won; the tribes -- including the former resistance gangs - were aligning with the American battalions and al Qaeda was on the run. The next day, Mattis flew to Baghdad for Petraeus's change of command.

Iraq wasn't a "Great Man" or a general's war, although General Petraeus certainly was the right and key leader. Transcending that, though, the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are bottom-up movements. They must be defeated at the local level by deploying thousands of Americans who believe in their cause and stick at it, year after year. Washington politicians must avoid the trap of believing that the selection of the right general is a shortcut to success. That attitude enables the rest of us to avoid commitment by leaving it up to the generals, while we turn against the war when we tire of reading about it. By understanding what really occurred in Iraq, we better prepare for Afghanistan, where we are in for a long fight.

The basic premise of counterinsurgency (COIN) is that once the population feels secure, they inform on the insurgents (assuming the government force is seen as legitimate and the insurgent cause as illegitimate). That's a huge assumption, of course.

In 2003-2004 the Sunnis, especially in Diyala, Ninewah and Anbar, invited in al Qaeda fanatics, or at least were in sympathy with their promise of restoring Sunni dominance. By the end of 2004, US operations in Iraq had been rough enough to antagonize the Sunni population, without imposing the Draconian methods armies habitually employ to control a population.

By the spring of 2006, the coalition was losing on the two major fronts that accounted for most of the fighting. In Anbar to the west, Al Qaeda controlled the population; in Baghdad to the east, Shiite death squads were driving out the Sunnis, while al Qaeda's suicide bombings continued.

Yet the conditions had already been set for a turnaround without precedent in combating an insurgency. In less than three years, two giant institutions steeped in 200 years of traditions - the Army and Marines - adopted new doctrine and turned around a losing war. This was equivalent to General Electric and Ford starting afresh in new business lines and turning a profit in three years.

The western front in Iraq turned first from the bottom up, due to partnerships between local leaders and US battalions. Half a year later, the eastern front turned, due to strategic change at the top that enabled partnerships at the bottom.

Back in 2004, the Sunni tribes in the west had welcomed al Qaeda with its call to jihad - though a small minority, AQI quickly dominated these tribes by ruthlessness. Anbar, according to conventional wisdom, would be the last province to be pacified, if ever.

The conventional wisdom didn't factor in that the Marines were sending the same battalions (Mullen, Jurney, etc.) back to the same cities on seven-month tours. Over the years, the American and Iraqis grew to know one another, while Marine tactics improved. They persisted in small patrols as the population went through a cycle of opposing them (2004), resenting them (2005) and seeking their protection (2006) after experiencing al Qaeda's reign of terror.

The key to the turnaround on the western front was bottom-up partnership between local leaders and US battalion commanders. The locals knew who were AQI; the Americans brought the hammer. The public face of the turnaround was Sheik Sattar, leader of the Sunni Awakening. His partner was Colonel Sean McFarland. In Talafar, the partnership was between Colonel McMaster and Sheik Najim; in Haditha, between Tracy and Police Chief Farouk; in Qaim, between Alford and Sheik Kirdi; in Ramadi, between Lieutenant Colonel Mullen and Police Chief Faisal. By the fall of 2006, such local partnerships were springing up across the west.

In one sense, General George Casey has gotten a bad rap when cast as the father of the FOB (Forward Operating Base). In late 2005, he spent a day in al Qaim with Lieutenant Colonel Dale Alford, one of the best battalion commanders in Iraq in five years. Alford had spread his battalion into 16 outposts, each with about 100 jundis or shurtas. Casey praised the concept. Alford urged him to order battalions across Iraq to do the same. Casey in effect said, I can suggest to corps to talk to divisions, but I don't tell battalion commanders what to do.

Yes, we can argue forever about different leadership techniques, and yes, the brilliance of Petraeus lay in one sentence: don't commute to work. But still, how does one explain that the units in Anbar, way out west in an economy of force posture, could persist in small patrols without FOBitis and those near Baghdad did not persist?

There were intervening levels of command -- brigade, division, corps -- that influenced tactical choices. There may have been a systemic reason. Certainly the road systems and distances played a role, as did the homogeneous composition (Sunni) of Anbar. In any event, the west swung first, many months before the east.

The turnaround on the eastern front followed in 2007. The same bottom-up partnerships eventually emerged, shaped by three decisions at the top. First, President Bush sent 30,000 more troops, mainly to control Baghdad. Second, General Ray Odierno chose to deploy most of them in belts around the capitol in order to crush al Qaeda countrywide. Third, inside Baghdad, Petraeus moved his soldiers off the large bases and into neighborhoods, especially along the fault lines where the Sunnis were being driven out or where al Qaeda was in control.

Petraeus was impressed that thousands of Sunnis were joining tribal units in Anbar, with many accepted into the police or the army. He authorized battalion commanders across Iraq to recruit similar irregular forces. By 2008, US battalions were paying 90,000 Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, who had volunteered for neighborhood watch groups. Al Qaeda fled and Shiite death squad attacks greatly diminished. These bottom-up partnerships placed Americans in daily contact with local leaders who complained about poor services. In turn, the Americans pressured the government to respond to local needs.

In sum, on both the western and eastern fronts, bottom-up partnerships caused the war to turn around. The antecedent was a change in attitude of the Sunni population that had experienced al Qaeda's whip hand.

2. You just returned from your latest trip to Iraq, what is your take on the current situation and assessment for the future?

The major fighting involving Americans is over. The war has wound down, with five US fatalities in July. The two principal reasons were the Sunni alignment with American forces and the collapse of the Jesh al Mahdi.

Re the Sunnis, for instance, Sheik Ali Hatim of the al Jabouri tribe around Ramadi told me that 477 allies or members of al Qaeda in Iraq in his large tribal area had "confessed" since September of 2006. He was silent about what happened to them. Ali Hatim and other sheiks credit the Americans with aiding the people and pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to reach an accord. The Iraqi Islamic Party that took the lion's share of the tiny Sunni vote in 2005 is discredited. Hatim and others call the IIP thieves. The sheiks in Anbar told Senator Barack Obama during his recent visit that to withdraw the Americans would be to invite warfare.

Petraeus has authorized payment of $300 per month for each member of the Sons of Iraq, 90% Sunni. Maliki and his ministries for the past year have thrown up roadblocks against bringing even 20% of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) into the regular security forces. It costs the US about $300 million a year to support the SOI movement that has crushed al Qaeda. (AQI is down to two redoubts -- Diyala and Ninewah, esp. Mosul, where Shiite and Kurdish sectarianism are preventing services and cooperation with the Sunni population). In both cases, the trends point to another year or 18 months of gradual US-led pressure to root out AQI and persuade the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to reach a modus vivendi.

In essence, the Sunni resistance and its two dozen-odd splinter groups have stood down, with many joining the SOI. In turn their pressure upon the AQI is enabling our special forces to gather more intelligence.

The worrisome aspect is the martial overconfidence of Maliki and his sectarian inner clique. Treating SOI with neglect is bad enough; but any decree from the government to disband them would precipitate a serious dispute with the coalition.

The second threat to stability -- the Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) - has also been hammered by body blows. Wild rumors surrounded Maliki's precipitous decision to rush to Basra in March and initiate an offensive against the JAM. Unfortunately, the British who had pulled back to the airbase ten miles outside town had been in discussions with JAM leaders. This led to widespread suspicion that the British wouldn't stand up to the JAM. When Maliki's hasty attack floundered, Petraeus sent in the special forces, air, intelligence assets and advisers at every level. (Maliki was operating from one location with two cell phones and several Iraqi generals were across the city with eight cell phones, scarcely a model for C3.)

JAM attempted a strategic counterattack from Sadr City launching points with rocket attacks upon the Iraqi portion of the Green Zone. US Ambasador Ryan Crocker rallied a spectrum of Iraqi politicians to stand behind Maliki. SWJ readers know exactly what happened when UAV video imagery during the day and thermals at night hovered overhead near fixed lines. Several sources told me more than 700 JAM fighters were killed in Sadr City along the southern T-wall barrier alone. The result in both Basra and Baghdad was that by the end of April the JAM senior leaders had fled. An estimated 500 are now in Iranian camps for terror training.

Some argue that the rank and file of JAM can always make a comeback, when ordered by the Atari-loving Sadr who is holed up in Iran. But the mafia-type stranglehold the JAM imposed via taxes and extortion has been broken. As the senior JAM leaders attempt to re-infiltrate, they face changed conditions, not least being who will inform on them.

The third threat to stability is, of course, Iran, that is presently re-assessing its options. The Sadr/JAM card hasn't played well. ISCI, with Badr Corps militia members in positions inside the security forces especially in the south, is a separate card. But it isn't clear to what extent ISCI wants to be Iran's cat's paw.

In sum, the military dimension in Iraq has had a string of successes and is not now the main effort. The perseverance of our troops over the past five years, despite strategic mistakes, has paid off, and the military leadership current (Petraeus) and expected (Odierno) has a sound strategy. The major unknown variable is Maliki, who often appears resentful and dismissive of the pesky Americans. What concerns our senior officers is his erratic impulsiveness, combined with secretiveness, distrust and overconfidence based upon ignorance of the fundamentals underlying the fragility of the current stability. His terms for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) set timelines that in private he says are only goals needed to get the SOFA through the Assembly. Of course, to remain prime minister he needs allies among the Shiite parties. He is focused on amassing power prior to the national election at the end of 2009, that must be preceded by the provincial elections both entrenched Shiite and Sunni politicians are putting off because many of them will not be re-elected. When the SOFA is finally signed, it will reduce US leverage in Iraq and will lead to the withdrawal of other coalition members that won't put up with negotiating with Maliki-appointed personages who don't care whether they stay or leave.

As for the argument about pulling out all 15 combat brigades by the beginning of 2010, that domestic political issue should be finessed by substituting names but not ruling out combat missions. For instance, the 3rd Brigade of the 101st currently has three maneuver battalions spread among five Iraqi brigades (supplemented by 20,000 Sons of Iraq) across 1300 square kilometers holding 150,000 Shiites and 450,00 Sunnis. Colonel Dominic Carracilo's plan is to gradually pull out two battalions, leaving a composite battalion he calls a Transition Task Force. Projected on a countrywide scale, this trims down the US force from 15to 5 brigades over the next few years -- and changes the name, allowing a face-saving exit for politicians who have argued for a withdrawal of all combat units.

3. You were quite critical of President Bush and several senior administration officials in The Strongest Tribe. Why?

They did not address glaring inconsistencies. The clear difference between the Pentagon and the White House strategies persisted until the end of 2006. There was no reason for this, except mental laziness and poor National Security Council work in laying out contradictory plans.

There was the lock-step agreement among the top generals. General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired in September of 2005, having for two years consistently supported General John Abizaid's (Commander, US Central Command) view that American soldiers were an antibody in an Arab culture. Abizaid insisted the counterinsurgency mission belonged to the Iraqis. "It's certainly our goal," he said, "that in 2006 the Iraqis are out in front in counterinsurgency operations." Rumsfeld was in agreement, announcing a drawdown of US forces, with "a smaller footprint to avoid antagonism and dependence", while responsibility for security shifted to the Iraqis. The Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the head of the Central Command and the top generals in Iraq were all telling President Bush the same thing.

Both Abizaid and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used the analogy of riding a bicycle. Sooner or later, you had to take off the training wheels, remove the hand from the seat and let the new rider fall a few times. In other words, as American forces pulled out, the Iraqis would fall on their faces a few times, or never learn how to ride the bike. Risk happens.

The White House strategy, articulated by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor / Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was to achieve victory before withdrawal. Kissinger, a close adviser to Mr. Bush, opposed Casey's plan to withdraw 30,000 troops after the December 2005 elections, arguing that would whet the insatiable Congressional appetite for more withdrawals. "Victory over the insurgency," Kissinger wrote in an influential op-ed in the Washington Post, "is the only meaningful exit strategy."

Like the generals, the White House knew the Iraqis, if forced to do more, ran the risk of falling apart. Pursuing victory without substantial risk required that American soldiers clear and then hold the Sunni cities. That meant committing American forces in larger numbers for an indefinite amount of time. Secretary Rice endorsed this clear & hold strategy unequivocally, saying that "our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions."

Rumsfeld reacted with consternation, both because the Secretary of State was enunciating military strategy and also laying out a long-term commitment that he opposed. From the start of his tenure in 2001, Rumsfeld had stated clearly that his goal was a light, agile force, with speed and agility replacing weight and mass, relying on high technology to find the enemy's central nerve system and destroy it with a devastating combination of weapons. What was then to be done with a country whose government and armed forces had been shattered was left unaddressed. Rumsfeld wanted a military to win battles and get out. He insisted repeatedly that nation-building was not a military mission.

Casey was equally outspoken in opposing Rice's approach, insisting that an American occupation would fail due to the antibody theory. "The perception of occupation in Iraq," he told the Congress, "is a major driving force behind the insurgency."

Abizaid was the intellectual guru of the antibody theory. "Reducing the size and visibility of the coalition forces in Iraq," he said, "is a part of our counterinsurgency strategy." That contradicted the essential counterinsurgency doctrine of protecting or separating the population from the insurgents who live among them. You can't be pulling the force back to FOBs - Rumsfeld's strategy - if that same force is to hold the Sunni cities while building durable Iraqi institutions - Rice's strategy.

The president and his secretary of state were proceeding from a different frame of reference than the military commander on the ground. Within the military, risk management was bungled. To use business terms, Casey was the Chief Executive Officer. Myers and Abizaid were overseeing the effort, as members of the Board of Trustees. On a corporate board, they would be charged with monitoring risk to insure the CEO did not run too large a gamble. The CEOs of Citibank and Merrill Lynch lost tens of billions of dollars when they ran excessive risks because their boards had not provided proper oversight.

Similarly, the roles of Myers (and later General Peter Pace) and Abizaid were to provide expert oversight and flag for the president the chasm between his views and those of Casey. They failed to flag high risk. Rice and the Pentagon - civilians and military alike - were in basic disagreement. The difference between the two objectives - transition to Iraqi lead with high risk or reduce risk by undertaking counterinsurgency operations with Americans in the lead - was obvious. Rice had a theory; Abizaid and Casey had the forces. They were headed in different directions.

The president, whom Senator John McCain described as "not intellectually curious" and Senator Carl Levin referred to as "intellectually lazy", did not resolve the contradiction. He talked of a victory that eschewed risk, while the military pursued a transition that increased risk.

The senior level simply did not do its job. Any number of sergeants, colonels and generals could have explained the problem.

4. You dismissed the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine manual with faint praise. Why?

Incomplete, rather than faint praise. When the military took on governance as well as security tasks, it confused itself. We tried to do too much and to shove too many theories into one document. The purpose of the new COIN manual was to provide a framework so that senior officers could understand the type of war they were fighting. Published at the end of 2006, Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 was the most academically influential FM never read in military history. While the prime readership was intended to be battalion commanders, it was difficult to find more than a few who had read the entire document. At 150,000 words, the FM was as long as two books. This was the normal palimpsest expected from two enormous staffs (Army and Marine) charged with researching a century of warfare and deriving axioms about the interactions among politics, security, government services, economic development, ideologies and insurgencies.

Part sociology and part catechism, the FM stressed honorable behavior, based on the premise that a population - if provided security, respect, government services and economic opportunity - will cease to support an insurgency.

Applied to Iraq, however, some points in the FM were vexatious. First, the FM criticized "the natural tendency to create forces in a US image. That is a mistake." It was an unsuccessful practice to "build and train host-nation security forces in the US military's image." But Generals Casey and Petraeus had designated the Iraqi Army, shaped in the mirror image of the American army, as the linchpin in defeating the insurgency. While the FM said indigenous forces "should move, equip and organize like insurgents", the Iraqi army tended to stay on the defense inside bases and checkpoints. The FM said the proper focus should be upon police forces. But in Iraq, due to bureaucratic hurdles, the police were ignored until mid-2006. Left to their own devices, the police became the tool of the Shiite militias that almost wrecked Iraq and Casey.

Second, the FM defined COIN as "a competition to mobilize popular support", requiring the government to provide a "single narrative to organize the people's experience" and serve as the rallying cry to defeat the insurgents. In Iraq, the insurgents incessantly chanted "allahu akbar", or God Is Great, thus tying Islam to their cause. On the government side, two narratives were in conflict. The Sunni narrative stressed bitterness about disenfranchisement, while the Shiites stressed consolidating their dominance so that Sunni Baathism could never arise again. The Americans stressed a narrative of reconciliation that the government ignored.

Reconciliation was the only narrative that could avoid a Thirty Year War, and yet the fractious government installed by Americans could not reach a compromise. The government was not cooperating with the basic tenet of the FM.

Regardless of inconsistencies between the theory of COIN and the realities of Iraq, the manual's basic message - don't be a prick - was of enormous importance in modifying the behavior and attitudes of young men who had volunteered to be grunts and had been trained to shoot and kill. Indeed, so justly proud were the infantry of their prowess that they often referred to others as POGs, or Persons Other than Grunts. An infantryman can be tough, too tough. The FM didn't tell the commanders how to adjust the attitudes of their warriors. It did tell them they had to be the designers who defined what they expected their troops to do.

Petraeus pulled together a first-rate team that combined intellect with command experience - Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, Colonel Peter Mansoor, Dr. David Killcullen, Colonel Conrad Crane. The FM supporters argued that criticism missed an essential point. "Name me another general," Mansoor, one of the chief writers, said, "who could co-opt both Harvard and Ralph Peters." He was making the key point that liberals and conservatives - Peters was a hard-nosed conservative commentator - had commended the COIN manual. Its authors, invited onto talk shows, gained adherents by elucidating about an enlightened military that won hearts and minds rather than shooting insurgents. The manual appealed to bloggers, academics and military intellectuals. Everyone had a theory, and there wasn't any blood or shit when you turned the pages. Stress was laid upon winning popular support, not killing terrorists.

With counterinsurgency presented as behavioral science, the manual gained supporters in unlikely quarters. Liberals could find little to criticize in a document that scarcely mentioned police, let alone military tactics - although whether they would support the war was another matter. A Harvard professor praised it in the New York Times Book Review - certainly a first for a military manual. Most football commentators had played the game; most counterinsurgency commentators had never faced an insurgent or advised a unit under fire. Counterinsurgency became an intellectual pop fad, attracting military and civilian authors that had never tasted the grit from a grenade, or walked down a road at night braced for the inevitable hit, or heard metal gates clang as neighbors sounded a warning to the insurgents.

The problem was that the grit of police work and snap firefights and running informants (and keeping them alive) and dealing with arrest procedures, etc. were not described in practical terms. It wasn't a standard field manual a platoon commander could study it for techniques to organize a local council, develop intelligence, arrest insurgents or patrol the streets. While the manual didn't tell him how to do his job, it did explain that he was a guest in a country where people deserved to be treated with the same respect as at home. If he acted as a bully, he was recruiting for the insurgents.

The "rest of government" produced nothing equivalent to the counterinsurgency manual. The State Department never adopted the military's capacity for brutal self-assessment. The sectarian ministries and the fractious National Assembly were the major problems. Petraeus knew up and down the Iraqi chain of command which officers had to be relieved, and American colonels and generals applied the pressure. Our Foreign Service officers lacked this killer instinct. They were trained to be diplomats who worked out solutions through compromise. They weren't accustomed to evaluating the officials in foreign ministries, let alone judging when and why they should be fired.

The counterinsurgency manual was valuable as a proselytizing document. It was a good beginning, not an end.

Part 2 tomorrow...


Charles Bird

Thu, 08/14/2008 - 12:21am

I don't see why history has to be either-or, that either there's the "great man" or there's the "will of the people" that shape events. Men in leadership have significant influence and leverage over operations, and sometimes it doesn't matter how much effort it takes to overcome poor leadership or poor decisions by our leaders. I'm reminded of West's <i>Road to Haditha</i> piece a couple of years back, where the Marines were the doing the job in Haditha, but then got dicked around by the high command, getting reassigned twice to Fallujah and letting Haditha wither.

The turn-around in Anbar is an example of where the people (or Marines) effected change, but perhaps that success is because their superior officers let them do their jobs.

In the case of Iraq, we always had the right men, at least to me, but we needed the right strategy to make things right. Col. MacFarland employed the right strategy in Ramadi, for example, and Petraeus took that strategy and applied it across the entire area of operations (interesting comments about the COIN FM, BTW).

Anyway, keep up the good work, if you're reading this. I hadn't heard seen your writings around for awhile, so I'm glad you're back.