Views from the front

The Covington News - - OPINION -

July 20, 2007: We’re in a lightening storm at night over the Hi­malayas. The ride’s pretty rough, and the worn out in­te­rior of this air­plane makes me won­der about its me­chan­i­cal con­di­tion. But the pilot has his wife and chil­dren on board. So I as­sume we’ll make it to La­hore, Pak­istan, the sec­ond of four stops on my way to spend­ing about 24 hours embed­ded with a Spe­cial Forces A team on a small, re­mote fire­base along the Pak­istani border.

If all goes well, the trip will last about 84 hours door-to-door. Forty one of th­ese will be in the air. I should be back in time for votes Mon­day night.

I’ve been skep­ti­cal of our Iraq strat­egy since the sum­mer of 2003 and have reg­u­larly shared my mis­giv­ings with ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­gres­sional and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. I’ve also re­peat­edly sought per­mis­sion to em­bed with front­line troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to get an un­cen­sored, un­con­trolled, up close im­pres­sion of how th­ese en­gage­ments con­trast with my counter in­sur­gency com­bat ex­pe­ri­ences in Viet­nam. I think my ex­pe­ri­ence givesme bet­ter per­spec­tive and judg­ment. But don’t we all, right or wrong?

This is my 11th trip to the war zone. And I’ve cer­tainly had some in­for­ma­tive ones. Three were with the (then) Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Pete Schoomaker. That’s pretty high cot­ton com­pared to my days as a snot-nosed Re­con pla­toon sergeant who didn’t even know the name of his brigade com­man­der. And it’s also a long way from where the rub­ber meets the road in con­flicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ef­fec­tive counter in­sur­gen­cies are bot­tom up driven. Ideally, above the pla­toon, com­pany or bat­tal­ion level, com­mand should set broad rules and then take di­rec­tion from, and give sup­port to, the com­bat units in daily con­tact with lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. Big hearted, savvy, pa­tient troops are more ef­fec­tive than good shoot­ers. Mean tough guys are a dis­as­ter. What’s needed is tough Peace Corps types, Peace Corps with a punch, a Spe­cial Forces-like op­er­a­tion backed by con­ven­tional power used spar­ingly and dis­creetly.

So I’ve been ar­gu­ing for a smaller con­ven­tional pres­ence on the ground and a more ex­panded Spe- cial Forces and Spe­cial Forces-like com­bat op­er­a­tion. Not so much of the di­rect ac­tion, Delta Force, ki­netic mis­sions, but rather more use of tra­di­tional Spe­cial Forces. We’ve been play­ing what the mil­i­tary calls “whack a mole.” Hit the en­emy here and it pops up over there. Time per­mit­ting, maybe I’ll write some­thing to­mor­row that fleshes out why this may be a los­ing game for us. I’m not the only one that thinks it might be. Many mil­i­tary plan­ners are com­ing around to this point of view.

I hope my front­line visit with this Spe­cial Forces A team gives some in­sights into our strate­gic/tac­ti­cal mil­i­tary chal­lenge. I don’t like miss­ing votes, even ones that should not be close. But af­ter so many no goes, I can’t miss this op­por­tu­nity. The House Sergeant at Arms in­sisted that I be given a brief­ing about the dan­ger, a first for any con­gres­sional trip. And thank­fully, Nancy Pelosi waived the rules to per­mit the trip af­ter twice try­ing to talk me out of it. She said she would de­fer to my judg­ment in light of my mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence. I didn’t men­tion that ex­pe­ri­ence some­times warps judg­ment.

July 21, 2007: Fire­base Chamkani is lo­cated on the foothills of a moun­tain over­look­ing the small vil­lage of Chamkani, about six miles from a road cross­ing into the tribal, un­governed, west­ern moun­tain re­gions of Pak­istan. The base is only a 45 minute he­li­copter ride through the moun­tains head­ing south­east from Ba­gram Air­field. By road it is worlds away. The moun­tains are vir­tu­ally im­pass­able. Re­sup­ply con­voys take three days to reach Chamkani by road from Ba­gram.

Two mem­bers of Chamkani’s Spe­cial Forces A team are ab­sent re­cov­er­ing from com­bat wounds. Be­sides the A team, Chamkani houses a small num­ber of ad­di­tional Amer­i­can sol­diers, a larger force of Afghan Se­cu­rity Guards and two small dogs, Scrappy and Dog. Be­sides the dogs, I won’t men­tion de­tails for se­cu­rity rea­sons, al­though it is pretty in­con­ceiv­able to me that the Op­po­si­tion Mil­i­tary Forces (Tal­iban plus two tribes) don’t have a good grasp of the num­bers and ca­pac­ity. I imag­ine the OMF have nu­mer­ous pic­tures and re­ceive reg­u­lar in­for­ma­tion from one or more of the Afghans em­ployed on the fire­base. Team mem­bers know I’m a Con­gress­man. For se­cu­rity rea­sons, they will keep that fact to them­selves. Knock­ing off a Con­gress­man would be quite a coup for the OMF.

We ar­rived on Chamkani late in the day since my es­corts had planned var­i­ous com­mand brief­ings and a tour at Ba­gram. I would have moved up our ar­rival time had I been more at­ten­tive to the sched­ule’s de­tails. We all headed to din­ner af­ter fin­ish­ing the for­mal greet­ings and stow­ing our gear in a bare room fur­nished with ply­wood bunk beds. The bal­ance of the evening was spent break­ing the ice with sol­dier talk. It was all pretty com­fort­able. Team mem­bers un­der­stood when I didn’t rec­og­nize some of their acronyms and ref­er­ences. And I cer­tainly un­der­stood when they didn’t rec­og­nize mine. The old­est of them, Team Sergeant Gir­sham, was a one year old when I left the Army.

As we talked, I couldn’t help but re­flect on why our con­ven­tional mil­i­tary forces face such long odds in Iraq. We are not the Ro­mans in Gaul. We are not the armies of Alexan­der the Great, the only mil­i­tary force to ever pre­vail in the tribal moun­tains of west­ern Pak­istan and east­ern Afghanistan. Both of th­ese con­querors ruth­lessly slaugh­tered their way to vic­tory. Amer­ica cur­rently has the power to do so as well, but we quite rightly play by moral stan­dards that make it dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble for our con­ven­tional mil­i­tary force to calm an in­sur­gency hid­den within or sup­ported by a hos­tile alien pop­u­la­tion. To de­feat an in­sur­gency with­out the com­pe­tent help of in­dige­nous forces, alien con­ven­tional forces con­strained by our rules need an ex­traor­di­nar­ily high ra­tio of com­bat troops to the size of the pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly in mo­bile, ur­ban set­tings.

For Amer­ica in Iraq, with­out ac­tive and ef­fec­tive help and lead­er­ship from Iraqis, it’s not just a cop on ev­ery cor­ner. It’s dozens of cops. Since we fool­ishly de-Bathi­fied and then dis­banded the Iraqi Army, I be­lieve the re­quired ra­tio of Amer­i­can troops to Iraqis is far greater than we can sus­tain mil­i­tar­ily, let alone po­lit­i­cally, as­sum­ing we con­tinue a largely con­ven­tional approach to that con­flict. I op­posed the anti-surge res­o­lu­tion, just as I will op­pose any­thing that lessens the like­li­hood that we will give this ef­fort our best shot so long as a rea­son­able chance for suc­cess re­mains. I fer­vently hope the surge works. Whether it does will de­pend upon Iraqis. If enough good ones step up, we’re OK. If they don’t, we’ll fall far short of the con­ven­tional force quan­tity needed, par­tic­u­larly given that the in­sur­gency is now well or­ga­nized and en­trenched.

Con­ven­tional forces us­ing con­ven­tional tac­tics in­evitably rub the pop­u­la­tion the wrong way, typ­i­cally caus­ing col­lat­eral dam­age and spi­ral­ing ill will. The en­emy is hid­den in plain sight. And un­less the con­ven­tional force is quite large, the en­emy strikes with rel­a­tive im­punity. This frus­trates and angers the con­ven­tional force. It grows quite hos­tile to­ward the alien pop­u­la­tion, rightly be­liev­ing that the lo­cals are at least pas­sively com­plicit in the at­tacks that kill and maim. This re­in­forc­ing cy­cle of ill will sim­ply heads in the wrong di­rec­tion with no end in sight. And that fact, plus the toll in deaths, wounds and money wears away the po­lit­i­cal sup­port for the ef­fort.

That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma in Iraq. The surge is Plan A. If it doesn’t pro­duce the needed re­sults, I think Plan B should be a smaller foot­print and tran­si­tion to a ro­bust Spe­cial Forces type op­er­a­tional model with con­ven­tional backup.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.