It’s Not Rocket Surgery

I wrote the following letter as a Marine First Lieutenant at the end of my first tour in Iraq. I planned to hand-deliver it to my Senator from Maine when she toured our base near the Syrian border. I never got the chance – my platoon was out on a mission when Senator Snowe arrived and she departed before we got back. Within a year, my letter was moot: General Petraeus had listened to his company-level officers and NCOs, surged additional combat forces in theater, and re-tooled the strategy in Iraq to one of “clear, hold, build.”

The letter is included in its unedited entirety.

1stLt N.A. Smith

Camp Al Qa’im, Al Anbar Province, Iraq

August 2005

In western Al-Anbar province over 60% of Iraqi men are jobless because of the lack of infrastructure due to instability and violence. An out of work Iraqi is unable to adequately provide for his family, humiliating him and shaking his hope for the future and his confidence in the Iraqi government. Further compounding his disaffection with the government is the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis from the last elections, when less than 1% of people voted in western Iraq.

Unemployment is the causative factor for many Iraqis joining the insurgency, since they blame the Iraqi government and the Coalition for the lack of work and get paid by insurgent leaders for successful attacks on Coalition Forces. While the insurgent leadership is comprised mainly of former regime members and professional criminals, the rank-and-file consists of out of work soldiers and locals. Reason implies that introducing jobs to Al-Anbar and ensuring Sunni participation in the fall and winter elections will eliminate the major cause of anti-Coalition violence. However, it is impossible to introduce jobs to the area or safeguard political processes given the present level of violence and instability. This is the Catch-22 of western Iraq.

How do we solve this problem? To answer this question, we must first examine the failure of current military operations to provide lasting stability in the region. The crux of the problem lies in poor strategy, not poor tactics. Our senior military leadership continues to plan and execute operations based on a conventional, linear mindset, rather than an asymmetric, counterinsurgency mindset.

As a Marine rifle platoon commander in western Iraq I participated in three major offensives over a two-month period this spring: Operations OUTERBANKS, MATADOR and SPEAR. The mission for each of these operations was the same: clear insurgents and foreign fighters from a designated urban area. With varying degrees of resistance and resultant casualties, this mission was accomplished each time. Unlike the Pacific island-hopping campaigns of World War II, the outcome of a Marine battalion versus Iraqi insurgents in an urban environment is never in question. We will win handily every time. To be sure, Marines suffer killed and wounded during these operations – that is the nature of close-in urban fighting. But the cost is always lopsided in our favor – as many as 30:1 dead insurgents to dead Marines. So far, so good: we have established that Marines can successfully dislodge insurgents from a given geographic area at will. That is good tactics executed at the company level and below.

But good tactics does not equal a winning strategy. After each of the three previously mentioned operations, Marines were totally withdrawn from the areas just cleared. A tactical victory had been achieved, many insurgents had been killed and their arms and ammunition destroyed… but instead of establishing firm control over the newly cleared towns with a stay-behind force sufficient to do the job, military planners simply gave the towns back to the insurgents. Asymmetric theory of warfare notwithstanding, I defy a senior military leader to explain to a dirty, exhausted Marine rifleman how handing back to the insurgents the town that he has just spent a hot, bloody week clearing accomplishes any strategic goal for winning the war in Iraq. The practice of clearing a town just to gain a temporary public relations bonus does for strategy what it does for Marines’ morale: nothing.

The official response to the above critique is twofold. One, we are fighting an asymmetric enemy, so seizing terrain is of no strategic importance, and two, we don’t have sufficient forces to both secure cleared areas and also conduct enduring operations such as maintaining supply routes and guarding crucial Iraqi infrastructure.

To the argument that terrain is of no strategic importance when fighting a counterinsurgency I completely agree – as long as that terrain is a piece of desert or a random checkpoint somewhere. But when our own Marine Corps doctrinal publications state that the center of gravity for an insurgency is the local population, and in the case of western Iraq that population inhabits a tiny strip of land next to the Euphrates River, it would seem that control of the river towns would indeed make strategic sense. When you occupy a town or city, you have just taken away the insurgents’ base of operations. Closer to the truth of why we don’t secure population bases is because it exposes Marines to a greater risk of enemy contact and therefore of suffering casualties – a prospect that Marine commanders refuse to accept. They are too well aware of the American public’s tenuous support for Operation Iraqi Freedom – a support that dwindles with every report of new American casualties.

To the second argument, that we don’t have sufficient forces to leave stay-behind elements, I also agree. In western Iraq, Marines are spread far too thinly to adequately perform enduring operations while also securing towns and cities. So where is the request for more troops? It would seem that senior military leaders have assured Congress for too long that we have enough troops for the job to suddenly reverse themselves and admit that that is not the case. And of course Marines are famous for our “can do” attitude and for “getting the job done”. So, instead of manning up to the fact that our force structure in western Iraq is inadequate to properly secure the region, we simply mark time, launch big operations every few weeks to keep up the façade, and pray that the Iraqi Security Forces will be able to take over soon. This is not a winning strategy.   

So what is the solution?

In western Iraq, we need maybe twice the forces that we have now. If adequate forces are unavailable to properly secure urban areas, Marines should execute only intelligence-based operations such as limited strikes or raids, instead of large-scale cordon and searches or clearing operations, which expose Marines to great danger with little result. The only areas that we need to control are along the Euphrates; don’t look at Iraq as a geographical area, look at where the people are. Insurgents use the people as cover, converts, and casualties. They are intimately familiar with our Rules of Engagement and use them against us: they know that we limit our military force based on projected collateral damage, which is politically unacceptable to senior military commanders. But to use our ROEs against us, they must be intertwined with a civilian populace.

Much of Sunni Iraq is still unstable, which means Sunnis will not vote in significant numbers in the upcoming elections. Consequently they will continue to be disenfranchised and continue to foment unrest. We have to go in and provide a lasting presence in the urban population centers, not hide in our Forward Operating Bases to avoid casualties and occasionally conduct knee-jerk operations in response to enemy activity. The democratic process in Iraq will not automatically take care of this problem. The October and December elections are hardly the panacea that will eliminate instability in western Iraq. The fact that a political event happens does not equate success. Just as a military raid is not automatically successful just because it happens, we need to gauge mission accomplishment by the result.

Phrases like “We will remain in Iraq until it is able to function as a free and stable democracy” are worthless as goals. Quantifiable benchmarks are required and they can’t simply be event based, they have to be result based. For example, the next goals seem to be the Constitutional referendum in October and the Parliamentary elections in December. What needs to happen politically for the referendum and election to be classified as “successful”? All major Iraqi ethnic and religious groups need to be included in these elections, vote for their candidates, and feel a part of the democratic process.

In order for Iraqis to vote and for candidates to run for office, cities and towns need to be relatively free from violence and intimidation. To accomplish that militarily, insurgents must be driven out of the population centers, the power vacuum filled by stay-behind Coalition Forces, and the population informed of the political process. In towns and cities where this does not happen, there will be no voters. Therefore, shouldn’t all military offensive efforts in western Iraq be focused on achieving this goal in time for the elections? Of course. Now, is this what is actually happening? No. So, if the military goal will not be met, how will the political event achieve its intended results? Here is the major failure in American policy in Iraq: the failure to fully integrate political and military efforts to achieve a common goal.

What do we need from politicians and the public to successfully conduct this counterinsurgency and set Iraq on the right path to stability and democracy?

1.  An insistence on the right number of troops to get the job done and a willingness to deploy those troops, even if it involves National Guardsmen and reservists. The correct number of troops will allow us to aggressively pursue urban security operations while maintaining enduring operations. It will also enable the military to destroy the remaining thousands of open, unguarded ammunition dumps left over from the first part of the war, and from which the insurgents loot most of their projectiles for Improvised Explosive Devices. Reservists and Guardsmen should conduct low-impact, enduring tasks such as FOB security and convoy escort, while active duty infantry should conduct offensive operations, as we are better trained and equipped to do so.

2.  From our senior political and military leadership, a clearly-phrased endstate for military operations that has measurable milestones along the way to completion.

3.  Regular updates on what we have accomplished and what remains to be done.

4.  Let leaders know that just “marking time” until Iraq is up and running is unacceptable. Treat Iraqi stability and security as a goal and work aggressively towards it.

5.  Stop informing Syria when we are going to conduct operations near the border. Diplomacy be damned – the Syrians actively funnel terrorists into western Iraq and should never be privy to upcoming Coalition operations. During Operation MATADOR, local Iraqis informed us that they had known we were coming up to five days before we even left our base. Whether that was due to the courtesy heads-up that our senior military leaders gave to the Syrians is probably impossible to prove, but that doesn’t excuse it or make up for the 9 Marines killed and 40 wounded possibly as a result of it.   

6.  An accounting for all the money that has been earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction, especially from the contractors. The American public deserves to know where billions of dollars have gone and what the results have been. If the results are not in line with the contracted specifications and timelines, legal action should be taken against the contractors who are bilking theU.S.government.

A final thought. Many Marines are exiting the Corps not necessarily because they don’t want to go back to Iraq (although that is certainly the case for some), but because they don’t want to fight in a war that has no benchmarks for success and for senior leaders who appear cavalier about Marines’ sacrifice and patronizing with their inflated progress reports. Marines are goal-oriented and standards based. Don’t tell them about a “future democratic Iraq”; rather, tell them “this is our goal by this date and if we don’t achieve it, it will be mission failure”. That way the counterinsurgency operations can be focused and integrated with political goals, and military leaders held accountable for the success or failure of key enabling operations.

Without clear cut military goals and with an American public that has no stomach for an ill-defined and protracted war, what else should we expect from young Marines but to get out after their initial tours? A popular sentiment among parents of deployed servicemen is to either send over enough troops to get the job done quickly, or else to bring them all home and leave Iraq on its own. I disagree that there are two options for our policy in Iraq. Too many young Americans have given up their youth and dreams to fight for a democratic Iraq for us to pull out without finishing the job. That leaves only the decision to send as many troops as it takes to secure Iraq for a clearly-defined democratic process.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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2 Responses to It’s Not Rocket Surgery

  1. Steve Smith says:

    I like this. Thanks for sharing, brother. I wonder what Ms. Snowe would have done had you delivered your letter.

  2. Casey says:

    Great letter Nate! It was surge time baby! You called it.

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