It was April 19 and the Marine battalion I was commanding in Iraq was leaving Samarra to begin a long trip south through Baghdad along highways we had fought on just a few weeks earlier. Major combat operations were coming to a close, and we were headed to the small south-central city of Diwaniyah to undertake the uncertain business of post-conflict operations.
For most of us Diwaniyah was personal. The site of skirmishes we had with fedayeen, Iraqi Army Special Forces and local militias, the city represented my battalion’s “blooding” — the scene of our first important combat action and casualties. By returning, we had the chance to root out remaining resistance and help restore a community wrecked by war.
As marines only a few days out of intense combat, it was natural for us to want to undertake the “rooting out” part first — going after the resistance with a vengeance. Fortunately, our division commander, Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis, had a different approach. He shifted our focus from conventional combat toward winning over the people. In so doing, his thinking went, we could isolate the Baathist insurgents and criminal elements and make them easier to detect and eliminate.
His guiding principle was “do no harm.” So he detached our M-1 tanks and armored personnel carriers and, together with artillery, returned them to Kuwait. Armored vehicles are threatening by their very presence — not to mention being magnets for rocket-propelled grenades. General Mattis believed that any engagement with remaining insurgents could be handled by dismounted infantry.
We also tried to be aware of Iraqi sensitivities. We “dressed down” during foot patrols, removing body armor and helmets. Arabs consider sunglasses distasteful, so we took off our wraparound Oakleys when talking to Iraqis. And with varying degrees of success, we directed young marines not to look at Iraqi women and teenage girls.
Most of our efforts were straightforward. We cleaned, painted and picked up trash at schools. Wherever we went, we used “wave tactics” — waving at locals, especially children, and smiling at pedestrians. After capturing $5 million during a raid on suspected Baathists, we donated a large sum to a leading mullah for the needy who were not directly eligible for reconstruction money. It seemed the right thing to do and not “buying the peace.” And it worked. The mullah became a grateful and helpful friend of the Marines.
In our efforts to overcome rampant crime and pursue remaining Baathists, we flooded neighborhoods with foot patrols, talked with townsfolk to gain information and laid ambushes in problem areas. We avoided rotating companies so that each company could develop a relationship with a specific village.
When out-of-work Iraqi soldiers began staging demonstrations, we invited their leaders into our compound and listened to their grievances while offering them cold sodas. By treating them as equals, we eased frustrations and countered a descent toward armed confrontation.
None of these techniques were particularly novel to the Marines. And they were practiced by our battalions across south-central Iraq. To be sure, we all benefited from the Shiite majority in the region, most of whom were joyous at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But it is undeniably significant that in the succeeding five months of post-conflict presence, not a single marine was killed because of hostile action.
I turned over the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment last summer and headed back to the United States for a new assignment. When my fellow marines return to Iraq in March, they will pick up where our battalion left off and work once again to win over Iraqi hearts and minds. This philosophy will stand in contrast to the new get-tough strategy adopted by American forces in the Sunni Triangle. That area, north and west of Baghdad, is the scene of the most intense violence against Army soldiers, a dynamic much more volatile than the one we faced in south-central Iraq.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that the lessons we learned can’t be applied to cities like Tikrit and villages like Abu Hishma. In the spirit of reconciliation, this may be a good time to hold back the iron hammer and extend our velvet glove.
Devising effective counterinsurgency techniques is a challenge. And based on my own experience — not necessarily the official Marine Corps position — I do believe additional considerations for fighting the insurgency may be needed. Certainly, United States forces need to press their attacks against regime loyalists and foreign fighters.
But for every reported military success there are also reports of Sunni Iraqis who are angered by tactics like knocking down doors of houses and shops, demolishing buildings, flattening fruit groves, firing artillery in civilian neighborhoods and isolating large segments of the population with barbed wire fences. Whatever the short-term tactical success of these techniques, they present several problems in America’s long-term effort to win support of the Iraqi people.
First, humiliating the Sunni population will set back efforts to establish a rapport with citizens and bring about civil reforms. Resentment of the United States military presence seems to be on the rise. The continued use of such hard-nosed tactics only risks further erosion of trust.
Second, the “get tough” approach resembles tactics used by Israelis in the occupied territories. Talk of Israelis providing “lessons learned” to American forces plays right into the hands of those spreading fatuous propaganda about United States-Israeli desires to dominate Arab lands. Continued use of this approach is sure to reinforce a negative image in the Muslim world that the United States clearly needs to avoid.
With Saddam Hussein out of the picture and regime change deemed complete, Iraqis may also more fervently question why United States soldiers remain in their country. Heavily armed raids and air strikes used to “send a message” instead promise to further alienate the Sunnis, especially when they result in so-called collateral damage. To a lesser extent, but no less important, the hard-nosed style could also diminish the American public’s enthusiasm for the war. The danger of any counterinsurgency operation is that it will create sympathy for the insurgents — or worse, push fence-sitters to the wrong side of the fence.
In light of this, the military should rethink its new strategy. I am not arguing for a “kinder, gentler” solution. I am, though, calling for a return to traditional, integrated methods aimed at maintaining security while genuinely intensifying efforts to improve Iraqis’ quality of life. In addition to marines in south-central Iraq, British soldiers around Basra and 101st Airborne Division soldiers in northern Iraq applied this approach with great success. Now is the time to dangle more of the carrot and apply less of the stick in the Sunni region as well.
As a general rule, counterinsurgency operations call for patience and restraint. We need to abandon techniques like surrounding villages with barbed wire and rounding up relatives of guerrillas. In the short term, the challenge will be accepting the increased risk of violence against American soldiers. In the long term, however, the risk will decrease as conditions improve and the insurgent leadership has less with which to incite the Sunni population. We must outlast the insurgents one day, one week, one month at a time.
Throughout Iraq, the United States needs to place a premium on respecting local customs, building relationships among sheiks and mullahs, pouring money into the economy and finding ways to take disgruntled former Iraqi soldiers off the streets. Servicemen and women can be key symbols of American strength and resolve, as well as ambassadors of American goodwill and compassion.
The moment has arrived for United States forces to reconsider the tactical ways and means they are using to remake Iraq. There will be no quick fixes, but by shifting to more of a velvet glove approach, the long hard slog may be a lot less painful.