06.29.09

Mission Accomplished?

Today’s pullout from Iraqi cities vindicates Bush’s "surge" strategy, says former Marine Zachary Iscol. The change in tactics—which reversed our fortunes in Iraq—could even help Obama in Iran.

As a Marine, I learned that peace is predicated on compromise, not superior firepower or belligerence.

Today, witnessing U.S. troops withdraw from Iraqi cities, I find the right’s accusations of appeasement levied on President Obama about most issues in the Middle East incredibly ironic. Today’s withdrawal, perhaps the greatest success of the Bush administration, would not have occurred if we hadn’t learned to appease.

Today’s withdrawal, perhaps the greatest success of the Bush administration, would not have occurred if we hadn’t learned to appease.

When President Bush announced the "surge," on January 11, 2007, he was announcing much more than the deployment of 35,000 additional troops to Iraq. He also was adopting a set of successful tactics that had already been implemented successfully by a few industrious officers. It amounted to a radically different approach to how troops would be employed on the ground.

In 2004, I took little risk with the lives of my Marines. It was simply too dangerous. If a vehicle failed to stop as it crashed through our checkpoint, we used deadly force. If a military-aged male was in the vicinity after a roadside bomb detonated, he would be detained. I often wonder if some of our tactics created more insurgents than we were able to kill or capture.

In the violent summer months of 2004, we put the risk on the civilian population, but in 2007, as the surge began and General David Petraeus took over, the force began to accept more risk in order to protect the population. Troops moved out of large, fortified bases and lived in smaller outposts among the population. They patrolled more often on foot instead of in armored vehicles. At first, casualties went up, but then something remarkable happened: Coalition casualties plummeted.

FM 3-24, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, published on December 16, 2006, encapsulates a number of the paradoxes of counterinsurgency. It turns out, “The more you protect the force, the less secure you may be.” And “Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.”

Perhaps former Bushies are so quick to criticize Obama because they never really bought into the change in tactics and strategy that reversed our fortunes in Iraq. Over time, it was our military, mainly junior officers and NCOs, who realized that the vast majority of people in Iraq were not our enemy—but that our tactics and emphasis on force were turning many of them into enemies. This, more than anything else, is the Achilles’ heel of the counterinsurgent.

Antagonizing and creating new enemies is much more dangerous than failing to kill one, which is why Obama’s limited response to the political unrest and demonstrations in Iran is commendable. Action or support from the United States would largely alienate the demonstrators from greater support from the population of Iran. As the counterinsurgency manual states, “Sometimes, doing nothing is the best reaction” especially when action would be counterproductive or foster greater resentment. Those critical of Obama’s initially tepid response would do better to explain what they hope to accomplish and how through more active support for the demonstrators in Iran.

In 2004, as a young Marine lieutenant, I gave a poster of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to a local tribal leader named Sheik Jabbar. I was 25 years old and he was a foot taller than me, regal, wise, and twice my age. As I handed him the poster, I explained that he had the opportunity to be his nation’s Thomas Jefferson. He graciously accepted the poster and then asked me if I meant he would write his country’s declaration of independence, be its ambassador to France, or serve as its president. He then listed the names of his family’s patriarchs going back 1,200 years. He wanted to be like his forefathers, not mine.

Last Friday, Obama clearly articulated that what is going on in Iran is not about us. It is about the Iranian people seeking justice for themselves. Obama understands, much better than I did, the folly in thinking otherwise. He also understands the incredible danger of taking action and siding with the protesters. Creating the illusion that the protesters are American pawns would alienate them and fracture their ranks. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.

Over kabobs, chai tea, and the hookah, I learned a tremendous amount about Iraq’s history and local issues from Sheik Jabbar, and he would often complain to me about the local city council. Unelected bodies, the city councils had been appointed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority with the intent that they would become legislative bodies after elections were held. For Sheik Jabbar and most of the local people, they were an illegitimate and corrupt governing body that would siphon funds for local municipal projects for personal gain. I soon learned that the tribal councils were much more democratic and just than our appointed councils, but we treated them as an archaic remnant of Iraq’s past and alienated them. So they came to see us as occupiers, supported al Qaeda as liberators, and fought against us.

But in 2005, two years before the surge, along the Euphrates River Valley, Marine company commanders began working closely with tribal leaders, shifting their emphasis from promoting democracy to promoting the peace. Former enemies became close allies. Soon battalion commanders and regimental commanders were following the path laid out to them by junior officers. The generals followed. Soon even Bush was gripping and grinning with the tribal leaders of Iraq as Democrats in Congress cried appeasement and debated the merits of a bill deriding the Maliki government for offering asylum to former nationalist insurgents with American blood on their hands. Almost overnight, the most violent province in Iraq became one of the most peaceful. This willingness to appease fostered the peace that now enables us to withdraw our troops from Iraq’s cities.

I recently returned to Fallujah, this time as a journalist, and I was astonished at how different the city had become. Four years earlier, the city lay in ruin. It reeked of death and was littered with trash and human remains. As I accompanied one of the last Marine patrols through the city, I wondered where we would be and how long we would still be there if we had never learned to appease.