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Iraq War Veterans Respond To President’s New Strategy

January 12, 2007 at 4:33 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: We get those two views from retired Army Colonel Joel Armstrong. He was stationed in Iraq from February 2005 to February 2006. He served in Tal Afar as the deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

And former Army Captain Phillip Carter. He also served in Iraq. He was an operations officer for a task force that advised Iraqi police in Baqouba, from October 2005 to September 2006.

Gentlemen, welcome. Joel Armstrong, let me start with you. Earlier this week, when the president laid out his plan, did you come away from the television feeling that this was an outline that could work?

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG (Ret.), U.S. Army: Yes, I agree that five more brigades into Baghdad and two more regimental combat teams of the equivalent into al-Anbar can set the conditions for success in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Set the conditions how, do what that hasn’t already been done before?

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: Well, I think the key is protecting the population, specifically in Baghdad. And I believe that, with that amount of combat power, if we include — and this is really key, that we include the enablers with those brigades — it’s not just the brigades, but it’s the other enablers, such as interpreters, increased engineer support.

We need to make sure that our system to provide life support for the Iraqi soldiers that will be living in the neighborhoods, you know, go alongside of the American forces and are partnered with the American forces, we need to make sure that all those resources are available to those brigade combat team commanders, leaders and soldiers, to enable success in their mission. The success will be when they protect the population of Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Phillip Carter, how about you? Did you come away from the speech thinking you had just heard a plan for success?

CAPTAIN PHILLIP CARTER (Ret.), U.S. Army: I came away thinking it was a good speech, but counterinsurgency is easier said than done. And I don’t think the president is putting the right amount of resources into this fight.

Hey, look, you know, 20,000 troops is important. And our commanders have been saying for quite some time they need more resources. But if you’ve got a platoon of 35 guys, and your company commander gives you five more, that’s not a meaningful increase in your capabilities.

What we really need right now on the ground are three more platoons, to stretch that analogy a little bit. And every estimate of what it will take to secure Baghdad alone, let alone the rest of the country, says we need orders of magnitude more troops here.

Even the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual says that. We would need at least 150,000 to 200,000 troops for Baghdad alone. And so I’m skeptical that this plan will work.

Setting conditions for success

Former Capt. Philip Carter
U.S. Army
We have to, as Secretary Rice has rightly said, surge civilians from the State Department, and the Justice Department, and the Agricultural Department into Iraq to help the government stand up and start serving the people.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Phil Carter, you heard your colleague, Joel Armstrong, talk about other conditions that would have to be put in place. What besides a simple increase in the numbers is needed to change the outcome?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, this really goes to the heart of Counterinsurgency 101. Military insurgencies alone aren't going to win the day. We have to, as Secretary Rice has rightly said, surge civilians from the State Department, and the Justice Department, and the Agricultural Department into Iraq to help the government stand up and start serving the people.

We have to set the political conditions for success by getting Iraqi leaders to take responsibility for their own people. And so far that's been very difficult. You know, this is not a majority-based government. This is a very tenuous government that we're dealing with in Iraq, and I'm skeptical that the Maliki government can do what has to be done here, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Armstrong, maybe you could respond to Phillip Carter's point that the 20,000, that adding the five brigades in Baghdad alone just isn't enough?

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: Well, of course I agree with all of the statements on the political, economic, and the diplomatic lines of operations. And we have to have mass and surge on those, as well.

I think the premise of putting additional forces in Baghdad, given the mission to protect the population, reduces the violence enough to where that kind of progress can happen. I believe that the State Department does have to surge. I believe that we need to establish rule of law in Iraq.

We need to solve the detention and the detainee problem. We need to give police investigative capability where they can investigate a crime and where they have the system to try people and incarcerate ones that need to be. And it needs to be fair and it needs to be transparent. We need to make that happen.

Security issues

Former Capt. Philip Carter
U.S. Army
We're talking five, ten years of sustained presence in these police stations, with advisers working closely, hand-in-hand with their Iraqi counterparts.

But what I don't think can happen is, in this security environment, with the sectarian violence and the insurgent violence, that none of that progress can happen. And I believe that that's why we're having so much trouble getting the power turned back on and the water.

It's that we haven't addressed the fundamental problem of protecting the population. And, once we do that, the rest of the progress can happen. But of course it's not military solution. It's every line of operation. The military will set the conditions for those other lines of operations to proceed.

RAY SUAREZ: Phillip Carter, you heard the points Joel Armstrong just made. And when the president was talking about those same aspects of the operation, one of the things he talked about was much closer coordination with Iraqi security forces. Now, you were training Iraqi police officers in Baqouba. What about those ideas, of having American forces operate out of the Iraqi police stations, being, as the president said, embedded in their formations?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, as someone who lived and worked with the Iraqi police for a year, that certainty warmed my heart. I would like to see more folks doing that, because I think it's one of the most effective things we're doing in Iraq.

But I think that we should be careful not to be too optimistic here. The Iraqi police and the army have a long way to go, particularly the police, who we've largely neglected over the last few years.

And those police are essential to all of the things that Joel talked about, to restoring the rule of law and to providing security so people can go about their lives.

I think it's going to take a very long time, much longer than this surge, to get the police to where they need to go. We're talking five, ten years of sustained presence in these police stations, with advisers working closely, hand-in-hand with their Iraqi counterparts.

And that kind of realism was really missing from the president's speech, and I think it needs to be there.

Partnering with Iraqi people

Col. Joel Armstrong (Ret.)
U.S. Army
If we genuinely commit to it on an individual level, at the captain to captain, and lieutenant colonel to lieutenant colonel, and general officer to general officer, and develop relationships, I believe the Iraqi army has the capability to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Armstrong, did you find that there was a heavy reliance on the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government in this plan? And given what you saw during your time there, are they ready to be relied upon in that way?

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: Yes, I think if we partner with them, and if we genuinely commit to it on an individual level, at the captain to captain, and lieutenant colonel to lieutenant colonel, and general officer to general officer, and develop relationships, I believe the Iraqi army has the capability to do it, but we need to partner with them, we need to embed with them, and train them, and advise them.

But we also need to partner units with Iraq units, and I believe that's part of this plan. I believe that it would be important to co-locate headquarters, for example, develop systems and techniques to share intelligence, be around them as much as possible.

Sometimes that isn't easy. It's going to take a major effort. The police stations right now in Baghdad don't have enough room for everybody to live in, and we need to start and we need to start right now developing barracks and places where soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, can operate from.

I think that's a big problem in the country right now, and nobody is really talking about that. But there are some physical aspects of making the Iraqi army successful that I think our system could be made to produce better on.

RAY SUAREZ: Did it work in Tal Afar? You were involved heavily in that operation, and for a long time that was held up as one of the poster children of what the U.S. was trying to do there.

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: It did work in Tal Afar, but it was more than the partnership between the Iraqi army and the American Army. We also brought the police in, so there was a partnership to force the police and the army to work together. And there was reluctance with that at first.

But as we developed the relationships there, that improved. We also developed relationships with the local leaders. The squadron commanders that we had in Tal Afar were phenomenal, as were the troop commanders and the platoon leaders, that engage in the population and go in with the Iraqi army.

And at first, they did most of the talking. And by the end, the American forces weren't doing any talking at the meeting. They were simply there listening, and the Iraqis were solving their own problems.

But we were there to bring them together, to force the issue initially to let that progress and that natural progression continue, and it does work.

Understanding complexities

Col. Joel Armstrong (Ret.)
U.S. Army
As soon as we establish the security, I believe everything else is going to be easier to work. No doubt about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we go, I'd like to hear quickly from you both. One of the complaints frequently reported in the press here in the United States from combat soldiers is that they're not well-understood by people making policy in Washington, D.C., or by the upper reaches of the military. Phillip Carter, did you get a sense when hearing this plan that the people in charge understood what front-line soldiers are up against?

PHILLIP CARTER: No, I didn't. And I think this Tal Afar example might be one case where they see something reported in the press, and they assume that it must be true or they assume that they can copy this model.

Look, Baghdad is not Tal Afar. We're talking about scaling a solution from a town of 300,000 up to a massive, teeming, complex city of 6 million. And there's not a linear relationship there.

I think much of the complexity of Iraq gets lost in the coverage, as do a lot of the difficulties and the frictions that we face. You know, people assume that, for example, with the police, you can give them modern evidentiary techniques, and you can give them modern systems for managing criminal justice, but if they don't have electricity, it's hard to use those computers. And if they're not literate, it's hard to use them, as well.

And so these are some of the sort of complex problems that you face on the ground level that add to what's called the friction of war. And I don't think those complexities are adequately reflected in this plan.

RAY SUAREZ: And Joel Armstrong, quickly on that last point?

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: Yes, I absolutely agree about the complexities and the difficulty. But the reason we can't get electricity into the police stations is because insurgents continue to take down the towers, and we can't get electricity going. As soon as we establish the security, I believe everything else is going to be easier to work. No doubt about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Armstrong and Phillip Carter, gentlemen, thank you both.

PHILLIP CARTER: Thank you, Ray.

COL. JOEL ARMSTRONG: Thank you.