"Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."
- T.E. Lawrence, Twenty Seven Articles, Article 15
T.E. Lawrence's quote has become quite possibly the most over-used quotation by the U.S. Army in recent memory. Nearly every military presentation regarding our recent conflicts has some form of it embedded in the text. Nearly all U.S. military officers can parrot it with rote precision. However, application of Lawrence's wisdom in the field remains spotty. One doesn't have to look far to find accounts of U.S. soldiers and advisors emulating Larry the Cable Guy's "Git r' Dun" philosophy to prevent failure in Iraqi (or Afghan) forces. Sometimes this is required, but too often our own hubris and self-perception as the all-knowing American military overcomes the wisdom of listening to the host nation.
I learned this lesson the hard way in Tal Afar, Iraq. From March-May 2006, my company engaged in a difficult struggle for control of the Hai al Sa'ad neighborhood in the northwest part of the city. We established a platoon base in mid-March to take back neighborhood from the insurgents. Over the following month, my soldiers engaged with the enemy daily in the form of IED's, suicide bombs, and mortar attacks. The perpetrators of the attacks were elusive, escaping into the urban landscape as quickly as the IED detonated. Frustration built among the troops I had sent to secure the neighborhood, as they could garner no useful information from the local citizens they were trying to protect. The insurgents seemed to move freely in the neighborhood, crossing along a winding and deep wadi connecting to an adjacent insurgent dominated neighborhood. We knew they moved back and forth to conduct attacks in Sa'ad, but my scout/sniper teams and reconnaissance assets were unable to find them. I considered erecting a barrier along the length of the wadi, but I did not have enough troops to watch any barrier emplaced. It had been beat into my head since I was a lieutenant that "any obstacle that cannot be watched is not an obstacle to the enemy." So I decided against emplacing the wire.
In early April the mayor of Tal Afar offered the assistance of 50 newly trained Iraqi Police (IP) to assist in pacifying the neighborhood. He placed them under the command of his IP motor pool chief, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ali. LTC Ali was a fit and personable individual, and spoke English well. A former officer in Saddam's army, he was the nephew of a prominent local sheik. His police were brand new, and I didn't have a clear read on LTC Ali's competence. At our first meeting, he suggested erecting a barrier along the wadi that was giving us trouble, saying it would curtail the attacks. I demurred, citing my military education. Since we didn't have forces to constantly secure it, I saw it as a waste of time and resources. LTC Ali smiled and demurred to my obvious superior wisdom.
Over the following two weeks our patrols continued to be attacked. We incurred more casualties, including the loss of one of my soldiers to an IED while on foot patrol. Frustrated, I met with LTC Ali, now a trusted confidant, and sought his advice on the seemingly intractable problem. Predictably, he advised me to emplace the barrier along the wadi. Exasperated, I agreed and resourced the concertina wire and pickets from battalion. Two days later a combined force of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and U.S. Army combat engineers erected 400 meters of triple strand concertina wire along the winding wadi through its scrub vegetation. We cautioned the local populace that tampering with the wire meant arrest or possible engagement by our forces.
Emplacing Sa'ad Wire
Following emplacement of the wire, attacks dropped to zero. Insurgent activity disappeared in Sa'ad. Combined with growing security patrols, the neighborhood became a model of success. LTC Ali's IPs expanded and provided the backbone of the expanding security. Dumbfounded, I swallowed my pride and asked LTC Ali why the barrier worked when everything in my military education said it shouldn't. "Simple," he replied, "in Saddam's era you would never tamper with a barrier. To do so meant death. Even today, Saddam's legacy carries with us and influences the people's behavior." I then realized that in counterinsurgency, the locals often know the best and most relevant solution, which may not match the book solutions or conventional wisdom. In my arrogance, I failed to take into account the powerful social and cultural forces at play in the area. The meaning of the second half and often-omitted part of Lawrence's 15th Article hit me like a baseball bat - "Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is."