Colonels Gamble in Ramadi


A colonel’s gamble led to Ramadi success

By Jim Michaels - USA TODAY
Posted : Monday Apr 30, 2007 21:45:08 EDT

FRIEDBERG, Germany — When U.S. strategy in Iraq called for pulling American forces back to large, heavily protected bases last year, Army Col. Sean MacFarland was moving in the opposite direction. He built small, more vulnerable combat outposts in Ramadi’s most dangerous neighborhoods — places where al-Qaida had taken root.

“I was going the wrong way down a one-way street,” MacFarland says.

Soon after, MacFarland started negotiating with a group of Sunni sheiks, some of whom have had mixed loyalties in the war. His superiors initially were wary, fearful the plan could backfire, he says. He forged ahead anyway.

Today, with violence down in Ramadi and the surrounding Anbar province west of Baghdad, MacFarland’s tactics have led to one of Iraq’s rare success stories. Al-Qaida’s presence has diminished as Iraqis have begun to reclaim their neighborhoods. And Army officials are examining how MacFarland’s approach might help the military achieve progress in other regions of the violence-racked country.

Pentagon officials say the encouraging episode in Ramadi is a poignant reflection of shifting leadership tactics within the U.S. military, which is trying to develop a generation of officers who can think creatively and are as comfortable dealing with tribal sheiks as they are with tank formations on a conventional battlefield.

“You can’t take a conventional approach to an unconventional situation,” says Col. Ralph Baker, a former brigade commander in Iraq who is assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

The Army is training its officers to be more collaborative with non-military types and to be able to work with relief groups and local reporters, says Col. Steve Mains, director of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, an office based at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that analyzes battlefield tactics and distributes its findings across the Army.

As shown by MacFarland, 48, that pragmatic style can run counter to the traditional image of a hard-charging, swagger stick-carrying Army commander epitomized by Hollywood’s version of Gen. George Patton. It’s also an adjustment for a fighting force that has been armed and organized for conventional wars.

“There are big changes coming,” Mains says. “It’s not like we turned into a debating party. ... It’s just the way we try to draw in other people to get the other viewpoint.” The military’s new counterinsurgency manual makes clear that firepower is only part of the equation.

Mains acknowledges that in the current Army, “not every brigade or battalion commander has gotten that.” He says MacFarland, whose brigade returned to its home base here in Germany in February, “really understood that this is an argument between us and the insurgents.”

During debriefing sessions here, Army officials are examining what MacFarland’s brigade accomplished during its 14-month tour in Iraq to see whether his approach can be applied elsewhere. Last week, the Army sent a team here to interview MacFarland and other key leaders in the brigade.

“A lot of ideas are out there,” says Col. Eric Jenkins, who headed the team from the Center for Army Lessons Learned. “Everybody’s looking for solutions.”

MacFarland said he was willing to try just about anything to win over the population and reduce violence in Ramadi. “You name it, I tried it,” he says.
‘I had a lot of flexibility’

As his tactics might suggest, MacFarland, who grew up amid dairy farms in Upstate New York, doesn’t have the look of a traditional Army leader on the battlefield. He exudes confidence but little swagger, he doesn’t sport a buzz cut, and he speaks softly.

Nor is he from a long line of military officers. MacFarland’s father worked in the insurance business, and MacFarland attended Catholic schools as a youth. He graduated from West Point in 1981 and later received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech as well as two graduate degrees from military schools.

When most of his 1st Brigade was ordered from Tal Afar in northern Iraq to Ramadi in June 2006, “I was given very broad guidance,” MacFarland says. “Fix Ramadi, but don’t destroy it. Don’t do a Fallujah,” he recalls, referring to the 2004 offensive in which Marines and soldiers fought block by block to expel insurgents from that Sunni stronghold. The operation leveled large parts of the city and angered many Sunni Muslims there and across Iraq.

In Ramadi, MacFarland embraced the freedom and accepted risk. “I had a lot of flexibility, so I ran with it,” he says. He lacked the number of troops required for a large offensive. The combat outposts allowed him to secure Ramadi “a chunk at a time,” he says, adding that he pursued the sheiks because of their “leverage” over the population.

The brigade, which commanded about 5,500 soldiers and Marines, immediately began building combat outposts in Ramadi. “We did it where al-Qaida was strongest,” MacFarland says. The outposts housed U.S. troops, Iraqi security forces and civil affairs teams.

It was a risky strategy that put soldiers in daily battles with insurgents.

The brigade lost 95 soldiers; another 600 suffered wounds over the course of its tour in Iraq.

MacFarland put a battalion under Lt. Col. V.J. Tedesco in the southern part of the city, where al-Qaida fighters were concentrated.

Before the battalion arrived, that part of the city “was largely off-limits to coalition forces,” Tedesco said at a briefing for the Army Lessons Learned team last week. His battalion lost 25 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and trucks to roadside bombs as they began patrolling and setting up bases.

“We just absorbed IEDs,” Tedesco said, referring to roadside bombs.

MacFarland’s brigade didn’t wait until a neighborhood was entirely secure before launching construction projects, recruiting police and trying to establish a government. Lt. Col. John Tien, commander of 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor, says the brigade was “aggressive” about pushing ahead on projects as soldiers were establishing security.

By the time the unit returned to Germany, the brigade had built 18 combat outposts in and around Ramadi.

The combat outposts helped reduce violence last summer, but the brigade wasn’t close to winning over the population, an essential part of defeating an insurgency.

Anbar province, population 1.2 million, is a vast tract of desert dotted by cities and villages, stretching from outside Baghdad to the Syrian border. It’s a region of very religious Sunnis governed largely by sheiks, imams and tribal law. Ramadi’s population is 300,000.

MacFarland says he soon realized the key was to win over the tribal leaders, or sheiks.

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But the sheiks were sitting on the fence. They were not sympathetic to al-Qaida, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says. Their outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaida operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaida beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaida just mopped up the floor with those guys,” MacFarland says. “We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “
‘Are you with us?’

MacFarland’s brigade initially struggled to build an Iraqi police force, a critical step in establishing order in the city.

“We said to the sheiks, “What’s it going to take to get you guys off the fence?’” MacFarland says.

The sheiks said their main concern was protecting their own tribes and families.

The brigade made an offer: If the tribal leaders encouraged their members to join the police, the Army would build police stations in the tribal areas and let the recruits protect their own tribes and families. They wouldn’t have to leave their neighborhoods.

“We said, ‘How about if we recruit them to join the police and they go right back into their tribal areas?’” MacFarland recalls.

Some tribes agreed. The number of police recruits in Ramadi jumped from about 30 a month to 100 in June 2006 and 300 in July. More than 3,000 new recruits had joined the police by the time MacFarland’s brigade left in February.

Trying to blunt the police recruitment drive, al-Qaida fighters simultaneously attacked one of the new Ramadi police stations with a car bomb in August 2006, killing several Iraqi police, and assassinated the leader of the Abu Ali Jassim tribe. They hid the sheik’s body, denying him a proper Muslim burial, and his remains were not found until four days later. Members of the tribe were outraged.

A couple of weeks later, one of the brigade’s officers went to visit Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, a local tribal leader. The officer was shocked to see a gathering of 20-30 sheiks jammed into al-Rishawi’s home. Al-Rishawi was asked what was going on.

“We are forming an alliance against al-Qaida,” the sheik replied, according to MacFarland. “Are you with us?”

MacFarland was. Now he needed to convince his bosses.

Officials at MacFarland’s higher headquarters, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based near Fallujah, were worried. The U.S. military was supposed to be supporting Iraq’s government. A tribal alliance could pose a threat to Anbar Gov. Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Awani. Al-Awani’s government wasn’t popular and had been thinned by threats and assassinations. Still, U.S. policy was to back Iraqi government institutions.

The tribal leaders didn’t like al-Awani and wanted him replaced. MacFarland said the sheiks agreed to back off their demand that al-Awani step down.

There were other concerns. Al-Rishawi and his colleagues were second-tier sheiks. Most of Anbar’s senior tribal leaders, some of whom amassed considerable wealth in a variety of businesses, had decamped to Jordan because of the growing violence after the U.S.-led invasion. The Marine headquarters in Anbar was in contact with the tribal leaders in Jordan and was concerned that an alliance involving the U.S. military and junior leaders — the ones who remained in Ramadi — would jeopardize that relationship.

MacFarland says he saw it differently. The contacts in Jordan had yielded little. “Maybe there is a power struggle between the sheiks in Jordan and the sheiks in Anbar,” MacFarland says. “But let’s back the sheiks in Anbar. Let’s pick a horse and back it.”

He says the results were immediate when a sheik pledged to support the alliance with the U.S. Army, an agreement some of the sheiks involved would grandly name The Awakening. “Once a tribal leader flips, attacks on American forces in that area stop almost overnight,” MacFarland says.

Marine headquarters officers also raised concerns about the backgrounds of some of the tribal leaders involved in The Awakening. Anbar’s desolate roads and stretches of empty desert have long been home to smugglers. “I’ve read the reports” on al-Rishawi, MacFarland says. “You don’t get to be a sheik by being a nice guy. These guys are ruthless characters. ... That doesn’t mean they can’t be reliable partners.”
More than 200 sheiks in alliance

The Marine headquarters let MacFarland pursue his work with the tribes and ultimately supported it. The alliance grew to more than 50 sheiks by the time the brigade left Iraq, spreading throughout the province. Police recruiting continued to increase. The tribes began attacking al-Qaida leaders who were on U.S. target lists, according to brigade documents.

More than 200 sheiks are now part of the alliance. Recently, they said they would form a political party.

Military analysts say there are no textbook guides for what MacFarland did. Battling a counterinsurgency demands leaders “who understand that this is a different kind of war than the Army and Marine Corps have trained for,” says Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “The big difference is in the leadership.”

From MacFarland’s standpoint, it was less about leadership style and more about necessity.

“Maybe I was a bit of a drowning man in Ramadi,” he says. “I was reaching for anything that would help me float. And that was the tribes.”
excellent news , however that is the type of deals which you have been slating the British for.

Unfortunately the sheiks in basra have backed another horse , namely Iran, Basra is far larger than ramadi wth tribes such as the gammancha(sp) who tolerate or support attacks on britfor
I think there is a difference between a deal like this where combat operations continue vs a deal where no combat operations occur. Colonel MacFarland didnt sit tight in a base rather he continued on the goal which was to defeat the tango's in Ramadi. If you can draw tribes to your side and get them to work with you against a common enemy then I think thats a good way to go.
my info is 2 years out of date as that is when i left iraq but i thought operations in our ao were ongoing , perhaps someone with more recent experience could fill us in on the true picture.

however i agree with you bud. your col. seems to have found a good middle ground( between jaw jaw and kick ass) and will perhaps serve as an example to future american commanders in your ao, guys with ideas like his can make all the difference.

what a difference it would have made if these tactics were used 4 years ago mate, could be a whole different ball game today


Book Reviewer
There has been another thread on this where it was noted that the septics are taking a new approach that is very much along the lines of Brit 'hearts and minds'. Unlike us, they can back it up with some serious hardware and a better and more extensive intelligence network stretching across the entire ME. We used to be able to do that, but not anymore, or at least not to the extent that we used to. Also, the US can back it up with a very large amount of money indeed; something that this lying, useless and corrupt gummint is wont to do.
The US is certainly capable, so long as the professionals are the ones who do it. It seems the Administration is backing off on the micromanaging.
IMHO, this article ties in nicely with the very small thread that msr posted in the Staff Officer forum. This is a shining example of a career officer, breaking the career/promotion mold and remembering why he puts his boots on in the morning. Well done that man!
Chief_Joseph said:
The US is certainly capable, so long as the professionals are the ones who do it. It seems the Administration is backing off on the micromanaging.
Only now the House and Senate are trying to get in the fray and micro manage.

IMHO: I don't think the "Administration" was micro managing efforts on the ground, but more likely senior officers still stuck in the cold war pre 9/11 convention of war.

Good drills on the Col. though seems to have a grasp of his AO and what needs to be done, am sure he has a bunch of top NCOs and Os keeping him updated on events and progress.

A leader is only as good as those he leads and it appears this Col. has fostered good leadership throughout his ranks.

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