How to win hearts and minds in Iraq

· Iraq

The following consists of some tactical suggestions for engaging with the population in Iraq from an active duty soldier currently stationed in Iraq who prefers to remain anonymous:

One thing I would do is start taking an honest accounting of collateral damage. Moral considerations aside, refusing to count civilian casualties is blinding us to a serious grievance on the part of the Iraqi people. The insurgency is able to exploit this grievance. In addition, without counting civilian casualties we have little incentive to move toward tactics and technologies that can reduce collateral damage. An increased emphasis on sub-lethal technologies might yield good results. For example, instead of using explosives against an insurgent strong point, perhaps we could use concussion rounds and riot agents, and then follow swiftly with an infantry assault. (Just speculating on specific tactics here – I’m not an infantryman and I don’t have a combat-eye view of what’s actually going on.)
I would also push translation capability down to the lowest level possible. In many cases translators, if they are available at all, are often tied up at staff levels instead of going out on patrol with the grunts. If I had my way, every platoon would get a good translator to help the platoon read the street and the situation. Currently most of those translators would be contractors – there simply aren’t enough trained military personnel to fulfill that role. Concurrent with this effort I would be seriously revamping the Arabic language program at the Defense Language Institute – and implementing new programs in languages like Kurdish and Pashtun, which are still very under-represented. In fact, the Army historically has an absolutely lousy track record when it comes to linguistic capability. Case in point: Guess by what percentage the Arabic faculty grew at DLI after Gulf War I? Zero percent, that’s how much. I still can’t wrap my head around that.
In addition, I think we just need more soldiers here. The Pentagon claims we have plenty of soldiers, but I’ve yet to meet a guy in uniform who believed that. If we have all these soldiers available, where the hell are they? There are generally not enough troops in place here to actually provide both meaningful stability and contingency force projection into trouble areas. In other words, if we need to go on a major offensive, we get spread rather thin. The Pentagon continues to argue against a permanent increase in force structure, saying that those soldiers may not be needed in the future and would be expensive to maintain. So we continue to tax our regular Army and Marine units with repeated tours (my own unit will be returning to theater within nine months of going home) while attempting to plug the gap with poorly trained and equipped Gaurd and Reservists. To me this like maxing out your credit card while simultaneously failing to put up good long-term investments. Only instead of money, it’s blood.
I also think there needs to be a sea change in the way we equip our forces, starting from the ground up. In many ways our military is still focused on high-tech, maneuver warfare style weapons. Technology does have it’s place – we are making a rather good thing of UAVs, for example. But the battle is really being won or lost by the grunts on the ground, and that’s where we should be focusing our efforts in my opinion. We are doing this to some extent – the Rapid Fielding Initiative here in theater went a long way toward providing soldiers with things like better boots and sunglasses, things they would ordinarily have to shell out their own cash for. (I personally got a great pair of boots.) Weapons improvements have also been part of the RFI. But I think we need to do more. For example, the body armor is still really damn heavy. We might also do more with microelectronics – I wonder, for example, if a PDA-based translation program would be useful. I know such a system has been tested here, but I have yet to see it in wide use. And finally, I think we need to relook some of our basic weapons systems, even taking lessons from the insurgency. Every bad guy and his brother has an RPG here. Why not? It’s light, it’s cheap, and it’s effective. We, on the other hand, have the AT-4. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and you only get one shot – after firing it, you dispose of the tube. Kinda stupid. We need our own reusable-type RPG.
And of course, we need more HMMWV and other trucks which are hardened against RPGs and IEDs. The Army is also trying to do this. I am also seeing some very novel (often homemade) gun truck arrangments. Typically a truck has only one crew-served heavy weapon. Now we are seeing trucks which have two crew-serve weapons, one at the front and one at the rear. It makes sense.
Also, I would change the focus of our civil affairs work. According to my understanding, the civil affairs guys now go out and survey an area for local needs, and then attempt to find local contractors to build the needed service. However, this is still kind of a money-and-technology heavy focus. While that has its place, I would also look right at the dirt level for small but effective ways to improve the lives of the poorest locals. The idea here is appropriate technology. I would love to see Army guys teaching small-scale water purification or fired-earth housing technology, for example. It would be great if US military forces or associated NGOs could set up small remote communities with their own renewable power systems instead of relying on large centralized power plants.
And finally, we really need to be winning the perception management battle among Arabs and other ethnic groups in this area. (That includes Persians and Kurds.) This will require, among other things, more public presentations of the way we are helping the Iraqi people. And just using photo ops isn’t enough, we need to be actually doing this in a big way. We already treat some local nationals in US military hospitals – that stuff needs to be on TV a lot more, and on Arabic channels instead of just western channels. And there needs to be more of it – I would say a crash program in creating and supporting local clinics, probably in conjunction with various NGOs, would help a lot. I don’t think there is any such thing as healing too many people.
Those are a few tactical ideas, anyway. Don’t know if we’ll ever get to that point.