A Pullback, Not A Pullout--Not Yet
HUWIJA, IRAQ--For hours, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division chase shadows across the streets of this small Sunni Arab city. The crowds hide a sniper--or more likely, several snipers, who follow military patrols in a car or truck, wait for the American gunners' eyes to turn away, then fire a single shot. The sniper keeps the Americans inside their humvees, generally preventing them from walking the streets and engaging with residents. Over the course of this patrol, the soldiers will be shot at three times by snipers and once by someone with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Staff Sgt. Michael McMath's humvee, already decorated with five bullet holes collected in the last month, will pick up its sixth. After each shot, the soldiers will scan and search for suspects. Each time, though, the search will come up empty.
If every time the Americans enter Huwija they get shot at but never catch the shooter, should they bother entering the city? "It's a great question," says Lt. Col. Marc Hutson, commander of the 101st's 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. "We talk about it twice a week. We wouldn't get shot at if we never went into Huwija. So why not avoid it?" The answer, says Hutson, is that the Iraqi police and Army in his area of operation are not ready to patrol the city. Leaving the city alone, therefore, would allow insurgents to plant bombs with impunity. Then, when the Americans had to enter the city--to capture an insurgent leader or to attend a local Arab council meeting--they would be very vulnerable.
As America prepares for its fourth year in Iraq, commanders across the country are re-evaluating their tactics and looking for better ways to train Iraqi units and increase security. In some respects, Iraq is as violent as ever. Nevertheless, in places like Kirkuk and Mosul, there is a sense of progress. Many commanders have grown more sophisticated about conducting operations that mix fighting with diplomacy--sometimes relying on their M-4s, other times, tossing out soccer balls to kids or sitting down for a cup of tea with the locals.
But what then is the way ahead? In Washington, the debate over withdrawing or reducing the size of the American force has intensified this fall. Although plans are being put in place to reduce the number of combat brigades in Iraq, top military commanders like Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace emphasize that if attacks increase, the troop levels could go up, not down. American officers serving in Iraq disparage the idea of setting a pullout timetable. "I've not yet met a guy in uniform who supports a timetable for withdrawal," says Col. Ben Hodges, the Multinational Corps-Iraq operations chief. "We have invested too much, the administration has invested too much, not to see this through. If we pull out too fast, you will see setbacks."
The latest plan is for American commanders around Iraq to begin preparing to remove their troops from Iraq's cities, turning over urban security to the Iraqi Army and, eventually, the Iraqi police. Therefore, as military leaders have said time and again, the readiness of the Iraqi security forces remains critical to any drawdown in 2006. The police, nearly all American officers acknowledge, have received little effective training until now. And the competence of the Army varies as well. In some places, like Mosul, a year of intense instruction by Americans has created a force that is able--without much help--to find and eliminate insurgent cells. In other places, like Huwija, the training is only just beginning, and the Iraqi Army simply isn't ready to fight on its own.