The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Business They’ve Chosen

Dispatches from a Police Transition Team in Ramadi.

Published on November 1, 2008

May 3, 2006 was the day Army reservist Michael Noonan’s analytical interest in the reconstruction of Iraq became personal.11.
Noonan, “The Business We’ve Chosen”, The American Interest (November/December 2007).
My day came almost precisely a year later, when I learned that my artillery platoon was to be re-organized and moved from Camp Ramadi to train and advise Iraqi police in Ramadi proper. Noonan’s account of his experiences leading a Military Transition Team (MiTT) in Ninewa province—the challenges, exasperations and above all the surreality of it all—rang true to me as the leader of a Police Transition Team (PiTT). I, too, encountered the lax discipline, the “ghost soldiers” and highly “irregular” officers, the constant scent of corruption and graft, and the nagging feeling that I would never truly know what lay in the hearts of my new allies.

The very fact that a Shi‘a-dominated national army would share the same basic institutional culture as a local Sunni police force may say something at once encouraging and discouraging about Coalition efforts to make this fractious country functional. I recently completed my stint with the Iraqi Police (“IPs”), and after that singular experience I find myself, on the whole, more encouraged than discouraged about the future (though with many caveats). More important, it’s worth examining our work here in al-Anbar province in order to see what early lessons may be drawn from it, because we’re not finished yet, not by a long shot.

The author in Ramadi with a local sheikh, the police chief and U.S. marines [credit: 1st Sgt. Vira Lanpolsaen]

Ramadi in 2006 was a horror. Insurgent forces had freedom of maneuver and were terrorizing the local population. But by 2007, Ramadi was a different kind of place. Today it is one of the few Iraqi cities in which the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy can be observed in all of its phases, from standing start to full sprint.

The basic strategy that has been employed in Ramadi is two-pronged: the projection of military force into every corner of the city, and the simultaneous build-up of the IPs to maintain security when American forces have inevitably drawn down. The first prong was enabled by the surge, the second by the tribal alliance with Coalition forces—the 2006 “Anbar Awakening”, which signaled the civilian population’s disgust with the jihadists and brought forth thousands of new IP recruits throughout 2007 (with 9,000 and counting now on the payroll).

The results have been striking. The capital of the province that was famously declared lost two years ago now sees weeks, even months, without a significant attack. Families ply the markets, Iraqi flags fly above the boulevards, and everywhere there is the visible activity of basic reconstruction. Banks and a hospital are functioning, local councils meet and squabble, and the provincial government, though mostly dysfunctional from a Western perspective, does function in its own peculiar way. My exasperation with the local administration turned to wonder on an August day as I stood by sweating in my gear in the government center while an IP officer noisily argued with a difficult bureaucrat over a pay issue. Papers were waved in the air, angry referrals to other departments were made, empty threats to arrest the bureaucrat’s supervisor were launched, and then it dawned on me: Where bombs fell and bullets flew only a short while ago, we were now conducting the business of government—Iraqi style. Frustration, too, is a relative thing.

Make no mistake: The city has been shattered. There hardly seems a square foot of anything that doesn’t have a bullet hole or crater in it. Attacks, though now often minor and incompetently executed, do still occur, and the possibility of major incidents always hangs in the air. Yet the changes over the year are obvious and immense. Today, were I so inclined (I am not so inclined), I could ditch my body armor and weapon and, on most days, securely walk the main boulevard in a T-shirt. The Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy, at least by the evidence of its immediate application here, works.

The hope now is, first, that the gains can endure and second, that al-Anbar’s progress can be replicated in other parts of the country. Thus far the evidence seems positive, but the devil, as always, is in the details. My experience on the PiTT was a reminder that a strategy—particularly a counterinsurgency strategy that relies on continual, face-to-face relationships—is only as effective as the individuals implementing it at the lowest levels.

I was fortunate to see many effective individuals in action. My team was spread across three different IP stations in the city, and because my station was host to the city-wide police chiefs’ meetings and the site of the IP fuel depot, I had frequent contact with IPs and PiTT leaders from numerous stations administered by a variety of units from different branches of service. My somewhat unique position—working at the ground-level in a security station, but also able to sample practices from across the city— afforded a certain perspective on what tends to work and what doesn’t.

In a counterinsurgency mission, a mission suffused by personalities, ambiguities and undefinables, there are innumerable ways for something to go wrong and only a few ways for it to go right. I have seen, and perpetrated, enough of the former that I feel obligated to pass on some initial observations on the latter. Since we are still learning this game and the curve is steep, let me offer three ground-level lessons on how we can help local security forces stand on their own feet, so that we can gracefully head for the exits.

Get Yourself Out There

When I first learned of my PiTT assignment, I thought I would continue to live on Camp Ramadi and “commute” daily to the IP stations. This was how the previous unit had done it—a small, rotating element on-scene 24 hours a day, with daily visits by the rest of the team. They presented it to me as the obvious way to do business. The command element of the Marine battalion I was to be attached to quickly disabused me of that notion, however, making it clear that they expected my entire team to live in the field 24/7. I soon saw why.

The task is not simply to train the IPs in a specific set of discrete skills. Rather, we are trying to instill an organizational culture encompassing all the disciplines, habits, attitudes and practices necessary for a security force to function as a reliable arm of government. Constant presence is the key to success. You cannot create such a culture overnight, and you certainly cannot do it as a drive-by team whose members think of themselves as advisers visiting to teach a class for whomever is interested.

By the book, PiTTs are indeed advisers and nothing more, but the word suggests someone whose opinions are independently sought and thus may be discarded at will. We are more aggressive and insistent than that. We walk the line between offering advice and saying, “You will do this, and you will do it in this way, period.” Since we can’t force our will in all or even most matters, walking this fine line requires a real, ongoing relationship with our counterparts. It requires being present for everything that occurs, great and small, at noon or midnight, because only by witnessing and influencing how the IPs choose to handle situations can we build trust and share burdens. Only when Iraqis see that our judgment brings positive results are they prepared to own the psychological and organization infrastructure that makes it work.

For example, I received an anxious call one evening from the marines overseeing a checkpoint manned by “my” IPs. An Iraqi woman had come there seeking protection from her violent family and had been ushered into the bunker to speak to the sergeant in charge. Our IPs, perceiving a scandal that might later endanger her life, assembled outside the bunker with their weapons, angrily demanding she be “released” to them. Things quickly became excited and escalatory. “You’ve got to get your IPs to stand down! This is about to get bad!” called the marine sergeant into my radio.

I could stamp my feet and demand all I wanted, but the fact is that those IPs weren’t under my command. I had developed a trusting relationship with the IP station chief, however, and I was able to convince him to hold his people at the station (with my guys quietly barring the gate while we discussed the matter) and go to the checkpoint alone. The sight of the police chief telling his men, “It’s okay, I’ve got this. Go home”, instantly relieved tensions and allowed breathing space to find a solution. The woman was eventually escorted at her request to a familiar mosque, where she found asylum with the imam there.

The lesson is that things happen—frequently, unexpected things—and to truly influence how the IPs choose to handle them you have to be present consistently enough to demonstrate that you are worth listening to. Units that took the “visiting advisers” approach tended to be resented and ignored because the IPs saw them as outsiders who didn’t understand the station’s circumstances. Those who toughed it out at the station became honorary family members, and our opinions were respected as such.

They Are Grown Men

The great danger in an ongoing, top-to-bottom mentoring relationship is that Coalition teams infantilize their Iraqi counterparts. There are two ways American units can go wrong in this respect: by doing everything for the Iraqis instead of helping them do it for themselves, and by treating them disrespectfully.

The latter problem, when it does arise, usually takes the form of impatience, verbal abuse or a generally contemptuous attitude. Military personnel sometimes inappropriately transfer behavior that is socially appropriate for dealing with subordinate-rank Americans to Iraqis. This problem often sorts itself out with time because, generally speaking, it is harder to mistreat someone you know personally than someone you see as a stranger. Time spent together in a place like an IP station humanizes each group to the other.

It does not always sort itself out, however. It is a fact of life that not every soldier or marine is cut out for this kind of mission. Straddling the friend/enemy divide demands a tolerance for ambiguity that often frustrates the combat-oriented mindset. The key distinction that leaders must impress upon their personnel is the difference between being firm—and when building a security force from minimally trained neighborhood men, it is necessary to be firm—and being abusive. The former conveys the message in a way that sticks because it emphasizes the seriousness of the mission; the latter is simply tuned out, retarding progress. On the rare occasions I had such problems on my team, the Iraqi officers in charge would complain that their men didn’t have to tolerate this kind of treatment, and they were right. At the end of the day, it is their station.

Which brings us to the other common misstep: doing for the Iraqis things that they are capable of doing for themselves. That can include performing major administrative tasks, making improvements to the station itself or simply sweeping the floors. The most common bad habit of can-do Americans, always eager to see quick results, is to leap in and do it themselves. Doing that undermines the goal of enabling the IPs to function independently, but it happens because it is so easy. The harder but more valuable task, because it requires patience, is to mentor. This is not rocket science. We must simply teach what needs teaching and then get out of the way so that Iraqis have to take the lead. In the relatively short time we have to mentor there, our goal is to supply the glue that holds them together, not the crutch that props them up.

Push the Philosophy All
the Way to the Ground

Acounterinsurgency campaign places unique demands on individual service members. They live “outside the wire”, among unfamiliar people whose loyalties they cannot know for certain. They become immersed in the interpersonal dynamics, rivalries and secrets of a place where whispers float on the wind and motives swirl in sand. They must cultivate these relationships while maintaining professional distance, and they can’t go back to base every few hours to gain distance and perspective. They become not just trainers and mentors but also personal intelligence analysts and diplomats. In short, they become decision-makers at the ground level.

This is something fundamentally new for U.S. servicemen. It is not something ordinary soldiers and marines have been trained to do in any significant way. Prior to joining me on the PiTT, my soldiers were artillerymen, performing complicated but narrowly circumscribed jobs under constant supervision. The IP station was a totally different reality for them. I had at most 15 Americans, often fewer, to watch over the 24-hour operations of a 350-man station. Activity was, to say the least, constant, so it was inevitable that considerable responsibility would devolve to every individual on the team. We simply lacked the manpower for leaders to address every problem on the spot. While a fight was breaking out among detainees in a cell, a civilian was at the gate demanding to speak to the chief, and random gunfire was echoing on the street. These situations might variously require diplomacy, aggressiveness, finesse or simply standing back and watching the IPs handle business. The individual soldiers and marines on scene simply had to use their best judgment and report to leadership later.

Junior personnel always need the tools to react appropriately to unexpected circumstances. Counterinsurgency, being at its roots a people business, not a weapons business, multiplies beyond counting the variety of such circumstances. Personnel at the lowest levels must therefore understand not just the intent behind their mission (to train the Iraqis), but the philosophy behind it, too. The key to this is discussion within the unit. We discussed the best ways to defuse tense situations, and why they were best. We discussed balancing firmness with respect in dealing with the IPs. Above all, our lodestar was how to make the Iraqis help themselves. My mantra was, “Do everything as though we will be pulled from this station tomorrow.”

As the IPs became more capable, we were increasingly able to simply stand back and watch. That’s hard for Americans to do, but we understood that our metric for success was to render ourselves superfluous. How did we know when we had done our job? When we became capable of being bored.

Prior to the PiTT mission, my platoon led a cloistered existence on Camp Ramadi. We had not read Army Field Manual 3-24, General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency bible—though we ought to have, for there is much wisdom there—so we came to our mission with few doctrinal preconceptions. Our experience was pure seat-of-the-pants.

Not surprisingly, the lessons we learned are mostly commonsensical, maybe even obvious. I hope they apply to other parts of this highly variegated country. Some suspect that Iraqi political culture may not be ready for what we offer, and it is certainly true that different societies harbor their own particular hatreds and forms of intolerance, and manufacture their own particular follies and foibles. But in any human group a majority are not fanatics or ideologues; most people simply want to be left alone to live their lives together with those they love. They may or may not share our vision of political freedom in their hearts, but this vision of personal freedom they unequivocally cherish. That is why, once given the choice, the people of al-Anbar are choosing security, without which nothing else follows and “freedom” as an abstraction is meaningless.

As the newspaper commentariat reminds us every day, the hard-won successes of the surge merely set the stage for painful but necessary compromises between Sunni and Shi‘a, Arab and Kurd, that remain to be made. But it is folly to wait on decisions from the top to save this country; the most promising results thus far have come from the bottom, from small groups at the ground level deciding that security matters more than hopeless fantasies of final victory over their rivals. By focusing efforts at the bottom, by empowering individuals at the local level, Coalition strategy seeks to aid these halting first steps. We foster incremental change in the only way it will ever stick: allowing people to experience the benefits of change on an individual level. Over time, perhaps more time than we care to imagine, the culture as a whole may follow.

What this means, I think, is that the war in March and April of 2003 was against the Iraqi regime and its military forces, but the war ever since has been against the deeply corrupted civic culture that the Ba‘ath regime helped to create. The outcome of the former campaign was in our control in a way that the present campaign fundamentally is not. The former was, as Michael Noonan said, the “business we’ve chosen.” From here on out, with the days of the surge already passing, in cities like Ramadi this will have to become the business they’ve chosen.

Noonan, “The Business We’ve Chosen”, The American Interest (November/December 2007).

John Renehan served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division during its 2007–08 deployment to Iraq.