Small Wars Journal

Q&A with Owen West: Advisors in Iraq

Fri, 04/27/2012 - 8:03am

Owen West:  Hi Peter.  Before we get to this, looking at your background, let me ask you a question. Why doesn’t the Corps have an AC-130 per company-sized unit? In Iraq, we advisors and our Iraqi charges were supposedly the focus of effort, but the only time we got gunship support was when we brought a SEAL along!

PJM: Actually, the Marine Corps has fielded a kit to arm the KC-130J called the Harvest HAWK.  I was lucky enough to be the detachment officer-in-charge in Afghanistan when we got the first kit.  The system places a sensor and laser designator on the wing, along with four Hellfire missiles.  Inside, there are 10 Griffin missiles (a modified Javelin).  With this punch and over 9 hours of on-station time, this was quite a popular option for troops in Helmand Province.

Moving to our discussion of your book, "The Snake Eaters," which is available May 1, let me first dispel some preconceptions readers may have.  This is not 300 pages about Owen West.  You do not show up until the last 50 pages of the book.  Also, I noted in small print at the back of the book that your net proceeds are being donated to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and to the families of fallen advisors and fallen Iraqi “Snake Eaters” (the title refers to the nickname for Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1). 

The Snake Eaters is not a memoir. Originally titled The Advisors, the pronoun “I” didn’t appear in the initial draft. Teams of advisors are like jockeys switching atop a thoroughbred in mid- race. My role in mentoring the Snake Eaters was small. But I was the team leader when the town turned, and the editor at my initial publishing house was adamant about personalizing the story. We parted ways, but he was correct that the “unnamed advisor” was clunky and distracting. So the final pages include first-person perspective on our little awakening. 100% of the proceeds are donated. That’s how I convinced my wife to allow me to shave some hours each night and on the weekends. Only two hundred demerit days to go. Know any country music festivals I can send her to as additional repayment?  Ironically, tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which honors Marines—especially the fallen—by educating their children. The tradition was started here in New York in 1962 when an outraged Marine saw a newspaper story of a struggling Medal of Honor winner juxtaposed with a fundraiser for cats in the Style section. He organized a small fundraiser that is today the Leatherneck Ball.

The sense I get from the book is that this is a story that you felt was unknown and needed very much to be told.  Advising and security force assistance has been largely accepted as an important mission by 2012, but in 2005 -2006, this critical part of the war was fought by under-trained, under-equipped citizen soldiers, with little help from the big American units next door.  Can you tell us the feelings that drove you to write over 600 pages of text and how they changed as you worked through this project?  And why did you choose to focus on your predecessors so heavily?  Does the answer lie in your first impression of 3/3-1 as a well-trained, professional force in which you could see that, “The ghosts of advisors past walked with them”?

When I returned to the States in the Spring of 2007, I was convinced that an advisor model should be employed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This obviously wasn’t a proprietary idea. Krepinevich had written about it in 2006 and then testified in April of ’07, I think it was, my dad and I outlined an advisor model in May, Nagl made the biggest contribution to the debate in June with a template for an advisor corps, and then that summer I gradually established commlinks with dozens of advisors with diverse experiential bases who were similarly convinced that advising worked. I’d been brought up believing that to have a full opinion you needed to live it, and that if you wanted to fully contribute you had to write it down.

Unfortunately Twitter came along too late to change my view of what writing looked like. To be clear: I’m not a professional writer. I grind. My first draft was over 600 pages. It hurt to cut out some men who contributed so much, but no Snake Eater team saw as much combat as our predecessors, led by Mike Troster, a DEA agent. His team of Army reservists plopped in Marineland included a plumber, a postal worker, a guitarist, and a cop, and they are the focus of this book. More than anything I wanted to contribute to the national debate by memorializing their service and illuminating this mysterious job. President Obama has several times differentiated between advising and combat. That wasn’t the case in Iraq, and I know it’s not the case in Afghanistan. An advisor’s first job is to fight.

You state that advising is a non-traditional skill that takes years to master, yet advisor teams were given only 42 days of training, and very poor training at that, as you describe.  You argue from the outset that the clear lesson of our recent wars that “America must train indigenous security forces to fight their own insurrections.”  If in “these murky twenty-first-century wars, all roads out lead through the combat advisor.”  Military leaders have stated that they will continue to use general-purpose forces for security cooperation of all sorts.  Are you advocating a fundamental reorganization and retraining of large parts of the force? 

For most soldiers, yes I do think advising takes a long time to master because it’s so interpersonal and because there is so little guidance. But some men are born advisors. I served with a Marine colonel named Bob “Ogre” McCarthy whose personality clearly set him apart. It’s tough for sullen men to learn how to become gregarious, or for the introspective to learn how to tune into to alien wavelengths. Others are revered by their protégés by the end of the first week.

The advisors who were plopped into the small Iraqi outpost that housed the Snake Eaters likened advising to “Survivor-on-steroids.” Success depends on a murky formula that is obviously personality dependent—some men are born advisors—but weightings vary greatly. For example, Troster’s deputy, Walt Roberson, an active duty West Point major out of ranger training, was a self-described a#@%^le who socialized with his Iraqi charges only in times of desperation. Yet he was revered by the Iraqis for his stalwart performance on the battlefield.

 The Snake Eaters is a narrative history of one unit. Stepping back, I do think they are representative of hundreds of advisor teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I’d prefer the readers draw their own conclusions for structural change. I will say though that advisors need clearer goals. At the top is imbuing a belief in battlefield dominance. Once your foreign unit develops this core ethos, pride in performance follows and expectations are set. Advisors don’t have legal authority (I think they should) but they can have lasting influence. Aggression was the legacy of the myriad advisors who coached the Snake Eaters before I arrived. This role as predator ultimately prompted the victory in Khalidiya and the stalwart performance of the battalion to this day.

Your answer reinforces your citation in the book of David Kilcullen, who advised that one needed to choose talent over rank in a counterinsurgency fight, but the U.S. military ignored that advice.  We can see the fortuitous effects of having the right person in a job as you tell the story of Team Outcast, but we can also see how progress can fall apart when different personalities fill key billets.  There has been a good deal of discussion at the Small Wars Journal lately about innovation in the ranks and identifying, retaining, and empowering talent.  During that discussion, LT Ben Kohlmann used Goldman Sachs (where West is a managing director) and Harvard Business School (West is a graduate of Stanford Business School) in a much-maligned plea for the military to look to the business world for best practices.  What does the military have to learn from the business world about retaining and empowering talent?  What advice would you have for those who make military manpower decisions in order to put talent in the right places as both combat advisors and combat commanders?

I’ll have to catch up on Kohlmann’s discussion, but if he used Goldman as a positive example I’ll have to recruit him for our next veterans’ internship program.  I have strong, mixed feelings on this topic. For years I’ve been baffled by the military’s reliance on outside expertise when they have so many smart internal ideas honed under fire. Examples range from gun nuts teaching blind shooting to strategic wanderings into the transformative wilderness like the Pentagon’s net-centric “New Map.” The latter had wonk-consultant-Wall Street influence but was incomprehensible (at least to a grunt trying to figure out where the Corps fit into the proposed SysAdmin Force). You asked about business influence. In my judgment we threw too much money at the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, like PE investors desperate to deploy investor capital. Dollars-are-bullets makes sense in some cases, but that phrase did not have its origin in a platoon. In classic military fashion these top-down investing ideas were swiftly dogmatized. But grunt magazines were filled with bullets, not cash. Violence is their business, and I think we tried to strike a balance that was not vetted at the bottom.

Closer to home for Team Outcast, the FM 3-24 founders also invited outsiders to the smelter. I don’t know the extent of their actual influence. I do know that when I deployed as a replacement in the Fall of 2006, I was as surprised by the supporting cast as I was at the reaction of the Marines when I asked them if they were following the manual. I don’t mean to be dismissive. 3-24 was overdue and has obvious merit. General Petraeus arrived in Iraq determined to spread the beta project in Anbar into tangled Baghdad and beyond, but he had wavering Stateside support. People forget that. He enacted changes with 3-24 as a foundation, and it worked. The unlikely group of counterinsurgency authors was part of that in a weird way. When I read an op-ed by the director of Human Rights for Harvard supporting the unpopular Surge in 2007, I thought the nation owed its gratitude to the person in charge of the counterinsurgency conference invitation list.

Why don’t we pass the conch within the ranks? Because in the Corps, at least—which eschews superstars—there is little differentiation. Iraq and Afghanistan are like Lake Wobegon: almost every officer is above average. There are some company, battalion and regimental commanders whose performance should be mirrored by all but they are not promoted in either sense of the word. Lauding them publicly is bizarrely left to writers. I won’t out them for fear of attention—outliers attract downside. The military is built to rigidly follow rank to enable interchange in combat. But even outside the combat zone, few step into the oncoming traffic. A Gazette article or a Powerpoint brief seem to be outer limit of fervency in the Corps. Asserting that a general’s tactics are counterproductive is impossible. On the one hand it is logical then for the Pentagon to look outside for ideas—especially think tanks and contractors filled with terrific former troops who can finally speak. On the other hand, the military should augment this outside influence with more internal empowerment. Petraeus himself cultivated idea generation among a military cadre, and [Marine General] Mattis has incubated several battlefield initiatives, but they are 4-stars. Widespread initiatives have to be structural because they must withstand the strong groupthink culture and the whimsy of personalities that can stifle thousands.

I work on a trading floor where ideas are passed back and forth in a constant OODA cycle. When an idea has merit it is immediately gamed, argued and then elevated. I’ve seen a vice president generate an idea that reached the senior level in a day. The trade was swiftly adopted, scaled up, and that man was promoted. The equivalent would be a company commander advocating for squad-sized outposting, the theater commander ordering all battalions in Baghdad to break up, with the captain in charge of the citywide shift (now as a Colonel).

In the military this is of course the age-old countercultural fantasy of frustrated lieutenants, captains and majors. Some fail to recognize just how difficult it is to overhaul tactics on battlefields run by twenty-year-olds (part of the problem with the confused application of counterinsurgency theory). Others have not cast their ideas against the backdrop of basic military principles. But something is needed to pierce the wall of risk aversion that is the large unit staff.

I’d recommend two immediate adoptions to start. First, 360-degree evaluations to winnow out those commanders who fall prey to the temptations of overcontrol and inertia. Second, risk teams at the grassroots and at the top [the corporare world has these cross-functional teams that advise management on different factors of risk and opportunity]. Our current assessment teams such as ‘lessons learned’ groups have no power. We should have teams filled with the most highly-rated combat veterans of all ranks that provide independent advice to commanders on risk-reward scenarios, and report their findings to all. Competition for these slots should be as competitive as the School of Advanced Warfighting Studies [or Military Studies for the Army].  As an outsider, it’s astonishing to read all these virulent emails from company grades about our prospects in Afghanistan that enormously diverge from senior sentiment. The only publicly competing views seem to come from occasional lieutenant colonels cast as a brooding idiots. Maybe that’s right. And the flat trading floor culture where ideas are argued as peers does not belong in the COC. But some internal group with power must give an independent assessment of the war without the stigma of internal affairs or IG. Those rotating off the line can best judge. Instead we assign some of our best soldiers to grind for another three sleepless years on recruiting tours!

Long answer, sorry. The bureaucratic cephalopod inspires madness. One axe at a time…

In bridging the cultural gap with the Iraqis, you argue that, “As reservists, they had already crossed cultures as citizen-soldiers and were comfortable making interpersonal connections in both worlds.”  I think there is quite a bit unsaid underlying this statement.  As someone who has operated in the active duty military, in the reserves, and in the civilian world, you have a unique perspective on the culture of the military.  To me, it seems that the void separating military from society has only grown during this decade of war.  I have argued that this is very unhealthy for a military that sometimes lionizes itself and its sacrifices, impeding honest introspection and self-criticism.  Have you seen this to be the case?  What can we do to narrow the cultural gap with our own society?

Actually I think troops can be too critical of one another. The pay and promotion system creates a lot of this. Because the system little differentiates among those who’ve served well in tough zones for dozens of months, those who’ve served well in the States, and those who’ve sometimes served, officers especially self-police to fill the gap. This results in reputational undercurrents. The byproduct is that the officers who aspire to general are careful not to shine, like politicians maximizing their bases. Good ideas remain harnessed until they’re in position to confidently make a difference. But that happens to few, and we have to wait until they join think tanks.

As for the civil-military divide, the gap is simply the troop strength v. population ratio, right? It’s true that there are many second and third generation troops (I’m one), and that narrows the experience, but those generational value systems we want to retain. The Army and Marines significantly lowered the bar to achieve a just minimal bump in recruiting. We’re not drafting anytime soon. So the gap is certain to grow with the drawdown.

I’m not concerned about the population. Thirty-five years after failing its Vietnam veterans—and eighty years after putting down the Bonus Army— the country is rallying to support its guardians, as it should. We’re in a relatively good place. Our focus should be cultivation of the all-volunteer force and your mention of reservists gives me an opening. Our reserves are not built for modern society, chasing points for a 1940s-era retirement plan that cliff vests at year twenty. There are three types of reservists: adventurers, pensioners, and career professionals who hold the units together. The reality of civilian careers—and modern family responsibilities—eventually drives out the adventurers and many of the professionals.

Most soldiers never sample the reserves. 70% of our recruits depart the service after one tour. This is a huge loss, the wasteful byproduct of an obsolete personnel system. No company functions with this turnover. Instead, when experience departs, an external pool of qualified replacements is tapped. This is the model used by contractors.

We need a new reserve component that reflects the modern workplace, taking the good lessons from our flawed experiment with military contractors. In companies across the country sits a massive untapped resource wearing corporate khaki. Many experienced soldiers would return to the military if they were afforded a contractor’s control over their tours, and a mountaineer’s choice of teammates. I do think the advising role meshes well. Advisors have to be combat veterans and mature—the 25 to 45 cohort, with interpersonal instincts as honed as their decision-making. Reservists excel in this role because they straddle two worlds.

The story of the medical outreach program seems to demonstrate that it was virtually impossible to win hearts and minds in a way recognizable to an American mind.  That story seems to encapsulate the seemingly maddening cultural differences that can turn a situation from a happy scene where children are dancing and scooping up candy to a potentially deadly hail of rocks.  Additionally, the roar of a physically imposing gunnery sergeant that parted the crowd suggests that it can’t all be a popularity contest.  How do we equip people to operate in this foreign environment?  What does it say about the balance that must be struck in these small wars between some sort of “hearts and minds” actions and the credible and respected threat of force?

That was a crazy day. A SEAL hopped up on the wall and encouraged the kids to dance for candy. When he ran out of candy, the older boys felt humiliated dancing for nothing, and threw increasingly larger rocks. Ours was the last Humvee in line to dash away from the crazed crowd. They surrounded the Humvee. Our turret gunner angled his 240. Didn’t work. Gunny Newton, who was the size of an NFL guard and was the largest man in the city, ran forward with a roar. I followed him like a terrified kicker. The crowd dispersed immediately, antelope flushed by a lion. Without Newton, I’m not sure what I would have done, but charging into a screaming throng never entered my mind. That’s a long way of saying that in my experience, instincts can’t be instilled (they can be honed), and bravery was a key trait of the best advisors I saw.

How can we prepare the troops for these everyday encounters in wars among alien peoples? It’s my understanding that today’s training is good, with emphasis on scenarios, war gaming, and reading. Of course, compared to the misguided training Troster’s team received, in which they defended Fort Atterbury from insurgent hoards and fired weapons out of Humvee windows, there was nowhere to go but up. More important than the training is the selection and the how-to. The SF publication on advising/FID from the 80s is worth reading, but still lacks concrete TTPs of traditional infantry publications. As for selection, Affourtit’s research on advisors in Vietnam and Iraq is a must read to reinforce instructors’ instincts that some superb infantrymen are clearly not cut out to be advisors. We don’t need widescale Robin Sage [the graduation exercise of the Special Forces qualifying course] but with team leaders especially, personal traits, skills and demeanor must be better scrutinized.

You tell us that Major Mohammed “had a clear, effective, streetwise philosophy that the Americans running the war did not.”  While your rendering of one American advisor places doubts that there is a definitive American way of war, the senior advisor says that perhaps we see it as a popularity contest where we want to win by being friendlier and spending more money, whereas the Iraq troops wanted to be tougher.  I get a sense throughout that you felt that our ideology, our pronouncements, and our actions were often running at cross-purposes.  You even go so far as to state that the vaunted FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency Manual, “was theoretical, filled with opaque guidance,” and that it and other writings on COIN “need drastic revision” while noting that the aggressive undercurrent of the Marine commanders in Anbar worked against its platitudes.  It seems that on the balance between kinetic operations and the softer, “pop-centric” ideas you fall out on the more aggressive end, at least where it comes to advising.  If it was up to you, what should the American way of war be, at least in these sorts of wars? 

Mike Troster’s team arrived in Iraq expecting to train jundis on a sprawling secure base with a Burger King, a fitness center, and a coffee shop. One of the men, a guitarist, told me he expected to post funny videos of the jundis on YouTube. So the first obstacle they had to overcome upon being plopped onto an outpost in Anbar was deep disillusion. Advising wasn’t training. It was fighting. On the first two patrols, jundis died and the advisors and their charges came to blows. So Mike faced an enormous task I did not—building credibility in combat to be able to give advice. Once this team of typical Americans proved they could fight, the next challenge was breaking the insurgency’s hold on the town. While gaining credibility under fire hadn’t been easy—several men were wounded—the formula was fairly simple: patrol, patrol, patrol. Stripping the guerillas of their anonymity was far more complex. They had zero guidance from higher on counterinsurgency but ample warnings of what not to do—don’t go in a mosque, don’t talk about religion, don’t abuse prisoners, don’t show the sole of your boot, and even “never let them see your Camelbak” i.e. don’t take the lead.

When I first interviewed Mike Troster, my predecessor who was back with the DEA, I was struck by his description when I asked about U.S. warfighting philosophy. He related the story you mentioned. The toughest Iraqi in the battalion was Major Mohammed. He refused to wear a helmet or armor on patrol, never lied, and ran his company like a Marine DI. He liked the advisors least—he compared the relationship to an arranged marriage—so the advisors liked him most. Mohammed carried an otherworldy reputation in town. His bounty was highest, every citizen knew his name, and they approached him like a benevolent dictator. He was incredibly kind at times, once diverting a patrol to look for a lost boy, or forcing the advisors to care for a man with diabetes. He was also cruel. If you crossed him, you might lose your fuel ration for the week. Or the entire winter. At dinner one night, he chastised the advisors—it was rare for an Iraqi officer to criticize an advisor—most of whom were fathers. “Would you ever raise your sons as you are treating the people, only with kindness and spoiling? Without harshness there is no boundary or respect. And when there is no respect, they’ll smile at you but do whatever the irhabi [terrorists] want.”

Roberson asked Troster how the hell they were supposed to communicate a clear plan for cracking the insurgency to the Iraqis when no one communicated it to them. From the top they received mixed signals to let the Iraqis design their own plan, as Lawrence had prescribed, while at the same time intervening to stop any manhandling of citizens. This put the advisors in a tough position. The Iraqi instinct was to gain an almost domineering control over Khalidiya. The American command’s signal to this team was to demonstrate a mix of western professional commitment, wealth and kindness.

Troster wasn’t expected to do it all himself. Fledgling Iraqi units were supposed to mimic their U.S. partner units, like inexperienced troops relying on old salts. But the 3/3-1 Snake Eaters’ partner, a National Guard battalion, had little interest in mentorship. The Marine command in Fallujah in 2005 had no integration plan. They had rules about minimum vehicle requirements and personal protective equipment—which were broken by the advisors—but no systematic plan to assimilate Iraqi units. So Troster had to figure out where his team fit in the war. In Troster’s opinion, talk about winning over the population stifled his soldiers’ natural instincts, which were somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi view and the platitudes coming from U.S. high command. So in February of 2006 Troster decided that population focus was the wrong way to articulate the mission to his own young men. He felt they had to appear as winners before the town would swing, and that meant finding the enemy. He set out to build a source network, as he had done in the DEA, and arrest or kill insurgents.

Like any political issue, the counterinsurgency debate splits the like-minded. 3-24 encourages the development of local snitch networks and does not preclude hunts for the enemy. It filled a hole in our doctrine and was a ruthlessly effective stop-gap for those unit commanders who “didn’t get it.” I do wonder whether John Nagl, a principal architect [of FM 3-24], includes his own unit that served in Khalidiya in 2003-2004, 1-34 Armor, in this category. The Iraqis accused every U.S. unit of clumsiness. During McCarthy’s (the police advisor in charge of Habbaniya) exit interviews with cops who’d seen five U.S. battalions rumble in and out, and local forces like ING come and go, the cops had the most grievances with 1-34 and 1-506 (who followed 1-34), but the passage of time may have made them safer targets for complaint.

I find two things strange about the most famous military publication in history. First, in 2007 I took an informal poll of senior Marine officers. Few had closely read it, some had not read it at all, and none could cite three concrete concepts. Over the years I’ve found that that the number of folks who have really read it is dropping. So the controversy surrounding it may be grounded more in what it does not say than what it does. That brings me to my second point. While emulating NGOs and nation building is mentioned at the outset—which establishes the theme—Troster and I found it lacked the basic guidance you’d expect to find on defeating an insurgency as soldiers. Kilcullen’s 28 Articles was a helpful underpinning but on balance it had very little utility.

The publication itself states that it’s going to be continuously adapted. I’m looking forward to the revision with grassroots input that includes a chapter on how-to tactics. First on my list would be a census. It is mind-boggling that for all the borrowing from Galula, 3-24 does not require census operations as the foundation, as he did. In Iraq and now in Afghanistan we’ve never taken a nationwide census though we have the tools to do so quickly. Nagl’s unit labeled the buildings in Khalidiya and began to outline the local social network in 2004. Three years later, we started from scratch and relabeled the town and began to list its occupants. This isn’t the fault of any individual unit, whose posterboard-Excel turnovers were flimsy. The high command refused to commit to institutional memory all this hard work at the bottom. As a result, every year, every friendly unit started from zero. That’s infuriating considering an insurgent thumb drive was discovered that listed all the friendly and traitorous households in Khalidiya. We claimed to focus on the population but that was false. Look at all the nightly reports, DIRs [defense intelligence reports], and read boards. We focused on the enemy. The enemy focused on the people.

I was struck by the concept of the “Jundi Advisor Group” of Iraqi soldiers operating with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, the Betio Bastards.  It seemed to me that this concept had several positive effects.  Switching roles gives the partner force some credibility and sense of worth, it introduces regular U.S. troops to the tactical thinking of their partners which is likely much closer to that of the insurgent, and it shows the partner troops much more closely how a U.S. unit operates.  Do you think this is a technique that should be applied more widely?

I do. 3/2 CO Todd Desgrosseilliers—I think that’s right, I’ve been spelling it for four years!—his India CO Joe Burke, and the Snake Eater advisors designed a reverse embed of sorts. Jundis were sent to marine outposts to “advise.” At least that’s what these wide-eyed Iraqis were told. They did provide the devildogs with cultural pointmen, but the returns were much greater. Each group of jundis returned to our outpost swollen with pride at showing the Marines a rope or two. They also returned with that wonderful cocky edge U.S. infantrymen have. They wanted to hunt. Spending a few weeks on a Marine outpost does wonders—ask any embedded reporter. One group returned demanding a unit nickname. All the marines had nicknames, and the Betio Bastards particularly thrilled the jundis, who at the time were stuck with numerals: 3-3-1. Over dinner discussing possibilities, the unit patch of a hawk snatching a serpent evolved into “The Snake Eaters.” When the Iraqis learned this was the nickname of U.S. SpecOps in Vietnam, they were beside themselves.

A possible downside of embedding small groups within U.S. formations could be that it would encourage partner forces to fight too much like us.  Many have argued that that we have invited failure by creating analogs of U.S. bureaucracy, formations, equipment, and tactics that cannot be fully adopted and sustained by partner nations with different cultures and socio-economic capabilities to underpin such a force.  What are your thoughts on this from the perspective of an advisor?

Somewhere there is guidance that warns advisors not to build local forces in our image but that’s exactly what we’ve done. According to the various advisor papers, there is little room for cultural relativism, like open handed slaps on the street, which were commonplace in Iraq. I think embedding squads of locals in U.S. units is the least of our problems.

On April 14, 2006, far ahead of the Surge and the Anbar Awakening, the head of the Khalidiya Tribal Council came forward to 3/3-1 to broker some form of cooperation in Habbaniyah.  A few short days later, a special operations night raid detained an influential imam, derailing a much anticipated meeting with the sheikh and sending violence – which had dropped off significantly due to the battalion’s COIN success – skyrocketing again.  A common narrative is that the Surge and its population-centric counterinsurgency focus caused the Anbar sheikhs to throw their lot in with the Coalition.  This example from Habbaniyah suggests that the sheikhs’ discontent with Al Qaeda in Iraq extremism may have percolated earlier, had it not been for our one step forward, two steps back fumbling as varying conceptions of war (advising and partnership, COIN, special operations direct action, or unilateral large unit operations) each denied the other successes.  Do you think the Awakening would have happened in 2006 or earlier if we had followed a different way?

I don’t know. In Khalidiya, the truth was elusive. Many of us were surprised by the events you describe. There were two secretive night raids where the Superfriends [special operations forces] flew into town unannounced even to the advisors and snatched the wrong guys. It happens, but it’s terrible policy that the advisors were not involved or even informed. They [the advisors] and their embarrassed Iraqi charges were left to clean up the messes. In the first instance, SF captured a popular sheik who also was the only imam in town friendly to the Snake Eaters. The sheik was returned a few days later. A few weeks later, SF hit the wrong house, then rolled to a secondary target and captured a 16-year-old. The missing boy was lionized. The town rallied. And yes, the leader of the Khalidiya Council cancelled his meeting in April.

He appeared again in September, again offering to activate his militia. The difference was that McCarthy had just come on with hurricane-force determination to build a police force. And the jundis had had six more months to make inroads with the people in town. In September and October of 2005, Troster’s group found mines when they exploded. In September and October of 2006, the Snake Eaters discovered nine of ten mines, a rate much better than the national average. They had a widespread network.

Could Khalidiya have turned earlier, had we not had so many fumbles?  Possibly. But the truth is, no one knows why a population turns. By the Fall, it was clear to the Khalidiya Council that the jundis were here to stay, and that cops were building up. In my judgment the presence of the Iraqi forces enabled the shift, but the credit goes to all those grunts, cops, contractors, and jundis who stuck it out through the bad times.

Your friend and interpreter “Alex” asked of the American generals, politicians, and commentators, “How can they understand so little?” When I was in Afghanistan, a senior general visited with a group of commanders operating in Helmand Province.  He told us that he was very impressed with the success the Marines were having at the tactical level, but he was not sure how all those successes could be aggregated strategically.  That was my “Alex” moment.  It doesn’t much matter to win every battle if there is no strategic whole they are feeding into.  Tactically, you feel we should be placing much more emphasis on training indigenous forces.  What do we need to understand strategically so that we either create the conditions for success or avoid such fraught wars altogether?

Alex is a US citizen now, and graduated airborne school in Benning last week, by the way. He’s off to college, but if any of your readers have ins with the SF, please contact me. That’s his ultimate goal. He’ll make a wonderful advisor to Mexicans when we head south in five years!

Stepping back from the fact that we all fought our own little wars, the lesson after a decade of fighting is that America must train indigenous forces at the outset of these wars among the people. The lost years are staggering. We can’t get them back, but we can make permanent changes. What structure reinforces that truism I’ll leave to others. I lack the savvy for the battles in Washington, where true patience is required. I do think general purpose forces can do the job, but the emphasis must be on individual talent, and we’re not good at that.


The Snake Eaters is in many ways a story of underdogs. Everyday Americans—including a plumber, a cop and a postal worker—were shoved into the dragon’s mouth with no combat experience and little understanding of their mission. But they were soldiers at heart and they followed their instincts. I hope future advisor teams are not placed in the same position, but the job remains a mystery to Americans, its politicians, and even some general officers. This may shed some light. And to the families who wonder what their sons, brothers and fathers are doing as advisors, you’ll be very proud, as the nation should be.

Categories: Iraq - FM 3-24 - COIN - advisors

About the Author(s)

Peter J. Munson is a Marine officer, author, and Middle East specialist.  He is the author of War, Welfare, and Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History (Potomac, 2013) and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy (Potomac, 2009) and .  A frequent contributor to multiple journals and blogs, including his own, he was also the Editor of the Small Wars Journal from January 2012 to June 2013.  You can follow his Twitter feed @peterjmunson and find his LinkedIn profile here.  He is leaving the Marine Corps in summer 2013.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 2:44am

We in the Vietnam SF CIDG program use to have a saying---you are an advisor until the first bullets were fired in anger and then you were the Cmdr.

Nice to see things have not changed much in the last 42 years---strange that we as a military have a hard time learning from our past advisor experiences.