Views from the front
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.