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.
Inkblots. Some experts, like Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, think the United States has become too obsessed with counting how many Iraqi Army and police units have been trained. "Don't tell me how many more Iraqi security forces there are," he says. "Tell me how people's lives are more secure." Last fall, in an article in Foreign Affairs , Krepinevich argued that U.S. strategy needed to change. The United States, he wrote, needs to create safe zones in Baghdad and Mosul, routing the insurgents from those areas and keeping them out. From there, the zone of security would gradually grow. "It's the image of an expanding oil spot or inkblot, an expanding zone of security," Krepinevich says. "It is not just about sweeping out insurgents. People have to be convinced you are going to stay. They have to see their lives get better, their neighborhoods safer."
A few commanders and top officers say the military has begun adopting some tenets of the oil-spot strategy. "We have done it in Mosul, we have expanded the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army presence into troubled districts," says Col. Michael Shields, commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. "We are improving the police capability every day." The success of holding territory can be seen in western Iraq, says one senior officer in Baghdad. Marines have been sweeping out concentrations of insurgents for the past year. But since the summer, much of the emphasis has been ensuring that Iraqi Army units can hold the areas that have been cleaned out. The tactic seems to be working, says a senior military intelligence official, who points to the declining number of suicide bombings in Baghdad and decreased number of attacks in Mosul in recent months.
Still, the No. 2 American general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John Vines, says adopting the new strategy wholesale would essentially give insurgents--or jihadists as he calls them--safe havens. "A concept of controlling a few areas and leaving the rest to the predations of terrorists oversimplifies the problem," Vines says. " It doesn't take into account enemy intent. It allows sanctuaries to develop and strategic resources to be interdicted."
The oil-spot strategy was originally developed for a war fought in a predominantly agrarian country, Vietnam, where there was little infrastructure to protect. Iraq, by contrast, has pipelines running every which way across the country. An oil-spot strategy, says one senior military leader, would allow insurgents "to sever the jugular vein of Iraq and cut off the oil."
Finding a way for Iraq to export more oil is critical to rebuilding the country. Until now, the American military has been focused on creating strategic infrastructure battalions of Iraqi soldiers to guard the pipelines. But there will always be too few soldiers to watch every mile of pipeline. So, in many places, local tribes are paid to protect and repair the pipelines. That, some top officers say, has created an incentive for locals to attack the pipeline. "If the only money people in a province see from oil is money to repair and protect, you need to prove that you are needed to protect the pipelines," says Col. Rick Waddell, an Army reservist and energy company executive advising the 101st. Although the division of oil revenues is one of the most contentious issues in Iraq, American officials hope to convince the new Iraqi government that adopting a royalty-payment system would create incentives to protect the pipelines. "What we hope to do in Iraq," Waddell says, "sooner rather than later, is ensure that people in the province make money when the oil flows."
Such a strategy would be a major departure. But if the United States is going to start drawing down troops, it is going to take more of that kind of creative adaptation. "You have to be ready to change every day," Hutson says. "It is a complex environment, and you have to be willing to adjust your approach to every problem."
This story appears in the January 9, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.