Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tikrit and ar Rutbah: How To and How Not To Serve Iraq

A lot of members of the military are fighting machines. Not so many of them are understanding of and friendly with the indigenous people among whom they serve. Developing a rapport is, however, a critical facet of a successful counter-insurgency. Here are some examples of how it was done correctly and how it was done miserably in two places--Tikrit and ar Rutbah.

The other day I walked out of my office and found the parking lot encased in a construction fence. No one had given any warning that construction was about to begin, but it was clear that we would not be allowed to park in our parking lot for several months to come. There was a lot of talk the next day at work about how someone had come unannounced onto our turf and barred us from using it in the way that we were used to.

Imagine, if we felt so violated by a simple construction fence, how the Iraqi people felt when the coalition forces not only broke the Hussein regime, but then stayed and occupied their country. Some military leaders understood and sympathized with the indigenous people and encouraged them to invest in their own future, while other military leaders ignored the high dividends that such mutual understanding would engender. One of the most important facets of counter-insurgency tactics is to build a rapport with the people and let them know that you are there to help them achieve peace and living enjoyment. In essentially every case where this has been implemented in Iraq, it has worked marvelously. But then there are those who come in and screw it all up.

Here are two stories of how, at first, large amounts of mutual trust and understanding were built up, and then how after a battle handover, new units in the area ruined pretty much all the goodwill that had been created.


The first Marine Division had occupied Tikrit in 2003. They established a good rapport with the people of the city, particularly its leaders, considering the negative feelings the people were bound to feel for an occupying force. Then the 4th Infantry Division arrived. As the Marines gave the soldiers a tour of the city and were introduced to its leaders, who were working very peacefully with the Marines, they began to get the feeling that the 4th ID people didn't share the same priorities as they did.

The 4th ID initially assumed that the Tikritis were their enemies, and the 4th ID's oppositional tactics formed accordingly. The Marines threw a farewell party for the Tikritis, but the 4th ID representatives who were invited refused to attend. The adversarial perception became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It took a couple of months before the gains the Marines had achieved were completely wiped out in Tikrit. A city that had developed understanding and trust for the Americans now hated them.

Ar Rutbah

Ar Rutbah is a fairly small city of about 25,000 in far western Anbar province. Despite having initially taken some hostile fire from the city, Major Jim Gavrilis approached its leaders in a non-hostile fashion. He tried to understand the feelings of the people, and because of this he was able to build strong relationships. He dined with them and got to know their concerns. He encouraged members of the local police force to take part in local checkpoints. He put sheikhs in charge of monitoring looting and other crimes. He handed relief supplies to the local leaders to be distributed as they saw fit. "The laws and values of their society and culture were just fine," he said. They just needed to be enforced.

The unit that replaced Gavrilis' unit had other ideas as to how to function in Ar Rutbah. No longer were the Iraqis treated as equals. No longer were American troops integrated into the social structure of the city. Quickly the situation deteriorated, and Americans came again to be seen as the occupying enemy.

It is common sense that when an army occupies another country, it will not for long be perceived as liberators. Unless--unless those who occupy make an attempt to understand the people and their history and culture. In those cases where an empathic attempt has been made, it has reaped huge dividends. Where such an approach has either not been tried or has been overturned, it has reaped the whirlwind.


Rich Warnick said...

Like many of the officers of the 4th ID, my Army training taught me how to annihilate enemy vehicles at 4,000 meters with my tank and how to call in artillery fire. Winning hearts and minds never came up.

OTOH, the culturally sensitive approach of the Marines in Tikrit and the Special Forces in Ar Rutbah could only work in the short run. When the Bush administration established permanent bases for a long occupation, this was bound to produce an insurgency.

Elizabeth said...

This is interesting. I wonder if it shows how common cultural ignorance and bigotry might be in the general US population or at least in those who sign up for the U.S. Army.

I believe all high schools should incorporate anti-bigotry education into their curriculums.

Frank Staheli said...


I think you're right, even if it's simply that the bases were very isolated from the Iraqi populace, even though they lived right next to us. I found it interesting (I was on active duty in most of 2003 as well, so I wasn't paying attention) that when the US troops got to Baghdad the first question they started asking was 'Okay, we're done. When do we get to go home?'


I think the Army is probably a bit more reflective than the American populace as a whole of cultural ignorance and bigotry. I agree that there is not enough anti-bigotry education in our schools.

Scott said...

Well stated . . . thanks for your thoughtful insights. I wonder, can the average American be ‘trained’ in diplomacy or is that something that must come from within? Does our society have the moral fiber to care the way we need to? I say for many, the answer is YES. I believe Americans are still more good than evil, though that fight will continue.

Frank Staheli said...


Diplomacy is definitely not something that US troops have been trained in very much. We had Iraqis who posed as insurgents and townspeople in our training scenarios before we went to Iraq, but somehow no one thought to ask them to do our Iraqi Culture Brief. Go figure! I befriended one of the Iraqi americans and asked if they would give my Battery (company of 100 people) a culture brief of their own, and they were thrilled! So were most of the guys in my Battery. Yet still when we talk about respecting the people that we serve, most soldiers get a glassy-eyed stare, and a small group of them are downright of the "me hatum Iracki, me killum he look me funny" mentality.

It was "easier" when all we did was carpet bombed people in Japan and Germany. Now that we are trying to be more surgical about things we must train our troops in the diplomacy you speak of.

Thanks for an excellent insight!

When it comes right down to it, even war is a choice between moral incentives, and if the incentives are skeewompus, we lose.

gunnyg said...

The Army also did the same thing in Somalia thus leading up the "Black Hawk Down." The Marines saw the Somalis as friends and once the Army came in, it became adversarial. The Marine Corps had a prorgam in Vietnam called: Civic Action Groups where a fireteam LIVED with the Vietnamese in their villages, teaching them how to fight and fighting ALONGSIDE them. So effective that it embarassed the Army. Gen Westmoreland ordered it ended.

Frank Staheli said...

Interesting observation. I was not aware of this, but I'm not surprised. Back in November 2006, I did a tribute to the Marine Corps on this site because they often seem to be in the forefront on technical and tactical issues.