New York Times
October 15, 2006
Waging War, One Police Precinct At A Time
By Phillip Carter
Los Angeles--THE military’s new counterinsurgency manual offers a great deal of wisdom for those who will wage the small wars of the future. Its prescriptions and paradoxes — like the maxim that the more force used, the less effective it is — make sense. However, having spent the last year advising a provincial police headquarters in Iraq, I know it’s far easier to write about such wars than to fight them.
The war I knew was infinitely more complex, contradictory and elusive than the one described in the network news broadcasts or envisioned in the new field manual. When I finally left Baquba, the violent capital of Iraq’s Diyala Province, I found myself questioning many aspects of our mission and our accomplishments, both in a personal search for meaning and a quest to gather lessons that might help those soldiers who will follow me.
The first question was how Iraq in September 2006 differed from that of October 2005. Our Iraqi interpreters told us things were better than last year, which in turn had been better than 2004, when American forces frequently fought pitched battles in Baquba. Yet, sometimes in the same breath, they would long for the days of stability and order under Saddam Hussein.
During my time there, the hundreds of thousands of residents of Baquba went to work or school, shopped in markets, spent time with their families and lived their lives. The vibrancy and vitality of Iraqi society was the norm, not the anarchic violence we see in the news.
And yet, the violence did exist; it was not a figment of reporters’ imaginations. Gunfire frequently echoed through the streets of central Baquba, and homemade bombs often interrupted the bustling marketplace just north of our compound. This violence worsened during my time in Iraq: the Army’s PowerPoint presentations depicting attack and death statistics from across the country showed the same, steadily increasing trend lines.
Despite the trend towards consolidation of American units onto huge bases in the desert, my team remained in downtown Baquba. We shared our compound with the provincial government; it adjoined the provincial courthouse and was just 800 yards down the street from the police headquarters. This proximity made us more effective, both because it made it easier for us to talk to the Iraqi leaders with whom we worked, and because it enhanced our credibility with our Iraqi counterparts, who saw us living and working by their side.
When the power grid failed or water supply stopped working — a daily experience during the summer — we knew and felt it firsthand. Likewise, when explosions or firefights erupted in the city, we could judge their severity with our own senses. We learned that counterinsurgency cannot be conducted from afar.
But did we make a difference? Diyala Province has 1.4 million citizens and stretches from the northern edge of Baghdad east to the Iranian border, north to Kurdistan, and west to the Sunni heartland. My brigade commander, a sage infantryman from Colorado, called Diyala “little Iraq,” because its mix of people, geography and conditions represented a microcosm of the torn country. As goes Diyala, so goes Iraq, he and others said.
Our mission was deceptively simple: to build the provincial police so they could provide security and the rule of law. In these areas, we observed tangible progress. My team delivered hundreds of recruits to American-financed police academies, and oversaw a local academy that retrained hundreds of officers who had served under the old regime. Our civilian advisers, American police officers who came to Iraq as State Department contractors, trained hundreds of Iraqi patrolmen in street survival and investigative skills.
We gave trucks, rifles, body armor, radios and countless other items to the police, and oversaw the construction or renovation of police stations throughout the province. With our help, the police chief, a corpulent former army officer, and his staff became better managers, and replaced many ineffective and corrupt officers. We also brought our expertise to the Iraqi jails, judges and lawyers, resulting in hundreds of innocent Iraqi detainees being released after languishing for months or years in jail.
Despite these successes, I still left Iraq feeling uncertain about what we had accomplished. In theory, security should have improved with the development of capable Iraqi Army and police units. That did not happen. This is the central paradox of the Iraq war in fall 2006: we are making progress in developing the Iraqi Army and police, yet the violence gripping the country continues to worsen.
This paradox raises fundamental questions about the wisdom and efficacy of our strategy, which is to “stand up” Iraqi security forces so we can “stand down” American forces. Put simply, this plan is a blueprint for withdrawal, not for victory. Improving the Iraqi Army and police is necessary to prevail in Iraq; it is not sufficient.
Counterinsurgency is more like an election than a military operation; the Iraqi government must convince the Iraqi people to choose it over the alternatives offered by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants. To do so, the Iraqi government and the coalition must deliver public goods — security, public works, commerce, education and the rule of law, to name a few. The campaign must convince not just a majority or super-majority but virtually everyone, for as the noted insurgents T. E. Lawrence and Mao Zedong have noted, it takes the support of just 2 in 100 citizens to sustain an insurgency.
At this point, and with this strategy, it may not be possible to win in Iraq. America gained a spectacular victory in 2003, toppling the brutal Saddam Hussein regime. But there are limits to what military force can accomplish. You cannot plant democracy with a bayonet, nor can you force Iraqis to choose a particular path if their democracy is to mean anything at all.
Moreover, our choices in 2006 are not as good as our choices were in 2003; we cannot simply stay the course now and hope for victory. Given Iraq’s historic antipathy to invaders and the strength of today’s insurgency, I believe only a wholly unconventional approach will work. This means many more embedded advisers like myself, working in tandem with teams from the State Department and other agencies, supported by combat forces only when force is necessary.
We should strive in 2006 to build on our successes and to find a smarter way to shift the counterinsurgency effort to the Iraqis in order to secure an imperfect victory. For, as Lawrence wrote eight decades ago about helping the Arabs fight the Turks: “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.”
Phillip Carter, a lawyer, returned from Iraq last month after serving with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.