U.S. Military Takes Two Paths

An interesting article on Special Forces Operations in Iraq, Vs the Conventional forces views of their Ops.

Washington Post
September 15, 2006

In A Volatile Region Of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths
By Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post Staff Writer

AL-FURAT, Iraq -- With a biker's bandanna tied under his helmet, the Special Forces team sergeant gunned a Humvee down a desert road in Iraq's volatile Anbar province. Skirting the restive town of Hit, the team of a dozen soldiers crossed the Euphrates River into an oasis of relative calm: the rural heartland of the powerful Albu Nimr tribe.

Green Berets skilled in working closely with indigenous forces have enlisted one of the largest and most influential tribes in Iraq to launch a regional police force -- a rarity in this Sunni insurgent stronghold. Working deals and favors over endless cups of spiced tea, they built up their wasta -- or pull -- with the ancient tribe, which boasts more than 300,000 members. They then began empowering the tribe to safeguard its territory and help interdict desert routes for insurgents and weapons. The goal, they say, is to spread security outward to envelop urban trouble spots such as Hit.

But the initial progress has been tempered by friction between the team of elite troops and the U.S. Army's battalion that oversees the region. At one point this year, the battalion's commander, uncomfortable with his lack of control over a team he saw as dangerously undisciplined, sought to expel it from his turf, officers on both sides acknowledged.

The conflict in the Anbar camp, while extreme, is not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, U.S. officers say. It highlights two clashing approaches to the war: the heavy focus of many regular U.S. military units on sweeping combat operations; and the more fine-grained, patient work Special Forces teams put into building rapport with local leaders, security forces and the people -- work that experts consider vital in a counterinsurgency.

"This war was fought with a conventional mind-set. The conventional units are bogged down in cities doing the same old thing," said the Special Forces team's 44-year-old sergeant, who like all the Green Berets interviewed was not allowed to be quoted by name for security reasons. "It's not about bulldozing Hit, driving through with a tank, with all the kids running away. . . . These insurgencies are defeated by personal relationships."

The real battles, he said, are unfolding "in a sheik's house, squatting in the desert eating with my right hand and smoking Turkish cigarettes and trying to influence tribes to rise up against an insurgency."

Cutting Deals
Under the glittering chandeliers of his newly remodeled salon, Sheik Jubair adjusted his fine, white cotton dishdasha , or traditional robe, and lit a cigarette.

As if on cue, the American team sergeant leaned over and handed him an ashtray.
The 63-year-old sheik is the de facto ruler of the Albu Nimr, a wealthy tribe whose influence stretches from Anbar's violent capital of Ramadi up the Euphrates to Haditha. Jubair knows the U.S. military needs his tribe as much as it needs the military. Shunned in the 1990s for plotting against Saddam Hussein, the tribe backed the U.S.-led overthrow of Hussein in 2003. But Jubair now faces threats from Anbar's entrenched Sunni Arab insurgency, which he said put a $5 million bounty on his head.

Week after week, the team has spent long hours cultivating Jubair -- funding his projects, buying his son a PlayStation, even holding his hand during treatment at a U.S. military hospital for an infected toe. In return, Jubair has supplied hundreds of police and army recruits, as well as intelligence targeting insurgents in the region.

During a recent visit at his home in al-Furat, Jubair pressed the team sergeant for a hospital, a gas station, a school, payment for a damaged car and a mosque. "We don't do mosques," the sergeant replied.

One minute the tough and temperamental Jubair was unbuttoning his shirt to show off a wound acquired in the Iran-Iraq war. The next, he was pouting because the American team dared visit his nephew and rival, Sheik Hatem, a.k.a. the "boy king," who officially heads the tribe and lives in the same compound.

"He's young and doesn't know anything," Jubair scolded the team sergeant. "If you give him projects, I will close the city council and come here!"

For the Americans, such engagement is as vital as it can be maddening. "Sometimes I feel like I'm dealing with teenagers," the sergeant said. "They even do the 'mom' and 'dad' thing with me" and the team captain.

It's also work that involves keen judgment and knowing when to cut deals. After the team arrived in January, it captured a former police colonel accused of stealing cars and $60,000 in pay and killing another police officer. But when the colonel was detained and sent to Abu Ghraib prison, sheiks Jubair and Hatem pleaded for his release. "They said you will increase your wasta and all that," the team sergeant said, "so we secured his release, a controlled release."

The compromise helped win the tribe's backing for a local police force. But it also heightened frictions with the U.S. Army battalion, whose convoy transporting the detainee had hit a roadside bomb.

A Clash of Cultures
Every night like clockwork at the U.S. military camp -- known as a forward operating base, or FOB -- outside Hit, a loudspeaker atop the Special Forces team house blasts an alert that the Army battalion is about to shoot off flares.

"Attention on the FOB! Attention on the FOB!" a male voice boomed one recent night. "There will be an illumination mission in 10 minutes. Go Cowboys!"

"I've tried to figure out a way to cut that wire," the team sergeant muttered as he stood on the roof, bemoaning the battalion's predictable tactics.

The clash of military cultures was apparent from the start in late January, when the Special Forces team captain, scruffy after days in the desert, arrived at the Hit camp and introduced his team's mission to Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, commander of the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Graves, a close-shaven West Point graduate from Texas, said nothing and walked away, according to team members.

"We grow our hair a little longer," the team sergeant said. "We wear mustaches, and the conventional Army doesn't want to deal with you because they look at you as undisciplined. We're the most disciplined force in the Army!"

To Graves, the problem boiled down to communication and his battalion's limited, or "tactical," control over the Special Forces. "It's not that they have long hair. I don't care if they're frickin' from Mars," said Graves in the camp's chow hall. "They have a responsibility to tell us what they were doing, but they refuse to do it."

Graves said the Green Berets and their Iraqi army scout platoon once shot at his tanks; he said he never investigated the incident but declined to explain why. Concern over his troops' safety led him to initiate steps to remove the team, he said, adding, "I don't care if you're frickin' naked, just don't shoot at my tanks!"

Training Iraqi Forces
At a desert firing range outside Hit, a squad of Iraqi army scouts attacked a line of silhouetted targets, emptying their AK-47 assault rifles and then switching effortlessly to pistols. Next, they practiced sweeping a room, pivoting through the doorway and shouting bursts of Arabic.

Training foreign military forces is a core Special Forces mission -- and the top priority of the U.S. command in Iraq. The Iraqi scout platoon, recruited from the Albu Nimr tribe and coached by the team in Hit, displayed an agility and confidence unusual among Iraqi soldiers. And the Americans fostered loyalty in the platoon.

"We've been to their homes, we've treated their children. They are our partners," said the team captain, an energetic officer from Los Angeles.

"We walk with them as brothers," said Mokles Ali Muklif, the Iraqi platoon leader.
But last spring, when the scouts spotted a roadside bomb during a solo mission and warned U.S. forces about it, they were detained by Graves's battalion, blindfolded and forced to sit in bitter cold for seven hours before the team could secure their release. "I was livid," the team sergeant said.

Later, when the Special Forces team offered to give advanced training to the entire Iraqi army battalion, Graves rejected the idea. Morale continued to drop in the Iraqi battalion, its manpower down to 60 percent after hundreds of soldiers quit over lack of pay, poor food and duty far from home. "We could have had the battalion conducting unilateral ops, and 1-36 could be sitting back at the firm base," the team captain said.

Instead, the team threw all its energy into mobilizing the Albu Nimr tribe behind a police force -- first in its territory of al-Furat, then in the broader region including the contested town of Hit.

A Recruiting Drive
Col. Falah Salah Shimra, 41, a portly tribesman with an imposing demeanor, examined the charred shell of a police station destroyed by a bomb planted on the roof.

Chief of al-Furat's growing tribal police contingent of several hundred men, Shimra minimized the attack on his fledgling force. "Basically, within our area we have no threat at all," he said. "The threat is from outside."

Nearby, tribal police manned a checkpoint, wearing blue shirts as uniforms. None had body armor. Most used their own rifles and ammunition and patrolled in their own vehicles. Many had gone for months without wages until the Special Forces team helped cut through red tape and graft to secure their full pay in July.

Once they get more equipment, Shimra said, he plans "to extend our security all around Hit and get rid of the insurgents."

Indeed in July, backing from tribal leaders led to Hit's first successful police recruiting drive.
"We knew there would be no people in Hit, so to facilitate success we put out word in al-Furat," the team sergeant said.

But a dispute emerged when Graves decided to "lock down" Hit with tanks and hold the recruiting drive at a frequently mortared U.S. combat outpost inside the town rather than in a safer tribal area across the Euphrates. "It's the most dialed-in place!" said the team sergeant, whose men narrowly missed being struck by a mortar shell during the drive.

In the end, only three Hit residents volunteered. But about 150 tribesmen crossed the river to sign up. Graves said he considered the police recruitment to be one of the U.S. military's biggest achievements in his area, and he acknowledged the Special Forces team's help in enlisting the tribesmen. "They deserve credit for that," he said of the team, whose tour ended last month.

The Special Forces soldiers realize there are drawbacks to relying on the tribe, which is focused on protecting its own territory and interests and which imposes tribal law that can undercut civil authority. Every decision, from firing a policeman to averting revenge killings, requires the sanction of tribal leaders such as Jubair. But the reality in Anbar, the team captain said, is either to "engage the tribes . . . or leave them to the will of the insurgency."
Well, not doubt Trip was looking for a "Hooray for the snake-eaters" from everybody, but I think there are two bigger lessons from the piece.

1. When the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, it's typically the result of a failure in leadership and a lack of understanding about the strategic objectives. As has been pointed out in other threads (the one where we were talking about HR McMaster and the 11th ACR springs to mind) the problem seems to be that there is no real operational guidance coming down from on high and individual commanders are left to figure things out for themselves. Don't get me wrong, sometimes giving commanders autonomy is a good thing, but when you have conflicting missions in conflicting AORs, it can get rather messy, as this piece has shown.

Personally, I think this is primarily because the people in the head-shed in Washington are now too risk averse. It is now clear that the Administration has no cogent plan for victory (or even a cogent idea of what victory actually means) and is just trying to run out the clock to 2009, and none of their subordinates in uniform want to sign their name to any plan because they don't want the blame when it fails.

2. What does is say about the prospects for the poltical process and the ability to build a democratic Iraq supportive of US interests (which, unless I'm very much mistaken, is the declared objective of the war for the Bush Administration this week) in cases where stability can only be provided by the co-option of the local hard men. In Afghanistan, and even in Iraq before the war, they have been notorious for their "what have you done for me lately approach". The trouble is that you can't buy them off- you can just rent them for a while. It's not "heart and minds", it's "Show me the money". Are we supposed to believe that when "order" is restored that these guys will just roll over and cede power to democratic forces?


Still Crabtastic, an interesting read. I had an image of the SF, long hair and bandanas, on Harleys in a 60's remake; 'Not so easy rider'.
I'd like to know why the American forces seem to not be able to co-operate. Both the SF and the Infantry were working in the same area, with the same people, but quite clearly were unable or unwilling to talk to each other. Is this common? Because i can see this as being a very big problem.

You are dealing with ego. MALE EGO. Men who are in SF Units, both British and US, are Type A, Class 1 personalities. They are the best of the best, blah, blah, blah.

No matter what the circumstances, MOST of these guys are going to look down on your average, everyday grunt. It goes with the terroritory. I don't see it being any different with the SAS or SBS, or even the Para's, and say the Green Jacket's.

That elitest attitude is always going to be around and it will always, unfortunately, interfere with "getting the job done properly."

Big sigh...
army-hopeful said:
I'd like to know why the American forces seem to not be able to co-operate. Both the SF and the Infantry were working in the same area, with the same people, but quite clearly were unable or unwilling to talk to each other. Is this common? Because i can see this as being a very big problem.
army-hopeful & others:

Here is a response (excerpt) from a Retired COL of Special Forces, to this very article. He has commanded a Special Forces Group and has had commands in the conventional Army as well. He is a man, that I have a great deal of respect for and agree 100%, with what he has to say about this issue.


"This would take a book to answer but I will try and be concise. First of all there has been and always will be a turf battle to protect that which is your bread and butter.

You can see it now with everyone yelling about the death of armor as a practical system for use in urban combat-which of course is not correct but it is being waged at the highest levels in the pentagon.

There is more awareness today of what SOF does than ever before, however there are also those within SOF that do not understand the total breadth of SOF missions nor how to integrate with the non-SOF Army to acheive the synergistic effects that both bring to the battle.

There are also those that see their role in life becoming something other than what they have been trained to do over their entire career. To see yourself and your chosen branch becoming less relevant in the operations of the future makes you do stupid things to protect your relevancy.

Then there is just pure jealousy-that has always been the case when SF can operate without having to ask for permission using just broad mission guidance and accomplish the task at hand with less resources folks get upset.

Then there is the reality of what it takes just to be an infantry, armor, engineer, artillery, medical service, quartermaster, signal, aviation, ordnance, transportation, medical corps, military police, military intelligence, etc officer.

Your focus for your formative years are binocular in scope and you are bred to become a platoon leader and company commander of a pure force of other like branch folks with the requirements and standards of that branch. It becomes incestuous if you expect to succeed. A Special Forces Team is a combined arms team from the outset and has the capability of a combined arms team in that it has built into it. It has its own operations, intelligence, engineer, reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, medical, civil affairs, psyop, and communications skills capable of organizing and running a combined arms battalion sized organization.

No conventional Lieutenant Colonel wants to hear that some no-necked Captain with his merry band of guerrilla leaders has the capability of accomplishing what has taken him 15 or so years of training to be able to do the same thing.

There is also an officer-non-commissioned officer mindset in the regular army that makes them incapable of understanding that SF NCOs are trained and capable of leading and/or advising companies, battalions and brigades and that given a chance to do so they will out perform those officer "commanders" in the field because they will lead from the front, know their men, and are working under a stituation of mutual respect and understanding that just never seems to get established in like conventional organizations.

While you can conduct a relief in place with any old infantry unit replacing another of like size, SF teams are not interchangeable in many situations because of the personal interactions required between them and the indig that takes time and effort to establish.

Now I have only marred the surface here and each mission area that SF performs has different tipping points that seperates them and defies understanding by the conventional force folk and I won't even talk about the personality differences."

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