The Insurgency [home page]
  • home page
  • watch online
  • can it be defeated?
  • site map
  • discussion

lt. col. ross a. brown

photo of brown

His regiment, the 3rd Armored Cavalry, operate out of Camp Chaos, a forward patrol base manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops in southern Baghdad. The area is a Baathist stronghold and recently Al Qaeda has started moving in. Brown's unit conducts regular patrols with Iraqi soldiers to gather information and root out insurgent leaders. In this interview, he paints a picture of the hybrid, evolving nature of the insurgency and the challenges facing coalition forces. He also talks about what his unit has accomplished and the work that's still ahead. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in the fall of 2005.

[Can you give me an idea of the situation you found when you arrived in Iraq?]

We were deployed out of Kuwait early because the unit we were relieving were the Marines, and the Marines are new, and they had to get back to the ship, because the Navy was insistent that to meet their schedule worldwide, they had to get them back on the boat.

As a result, we moved up here early. Normally what the Army tries to do is provide you with a left-seat ride and a right-seat ride. You're coached 14 days. During that period of time, you get a feel for the environment; you get a feel for the enemy; you get a feel for just about everything. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that. We arrived, and within two days … we were thrust into combat.

This area of southern Baghdad was part of the military industrial complex; it also had a Republican Guard division. So you had a great many folks that worked in the military industrial complex who were Republican Guard that now were out of work. … What evolved and grew was what we term a support zone, … where the enemy did their planning, their preparation, their training for operations that would then occur in Baghdad or elsewhere.

[So there was a military vacuum of sorts when you came in?]

It's not just a military vacuum. I think one of the areas we could have done better when we came in here -- you have a military solution, but that's combined with a political solution, an economic solution and an informational solution, the elements of national power. There wasn't an economic alternative here, and there still isn't in many ways.

[What was your plan when you came in?]

I go out there... and I'm talking to everybody, and I'm saying, 'Well, we're bringing you hope,' and they're looking at me like, 'Yeah, so?' ...What these people want is a job ... food ... a sense of security.

When I first came here, I had an op plan, and within that operational plan we had phases. The first phase was the reconnaissance phase. I realized in Kuwait that I didn't know the terrain; I didn't know the people; I didn't know the families; I didn't know the tribes; I didn't know the economy; I didn't know how they made their money. I didn't know any of that, so I had to go out and conduct reconnaissance, and I had to figure out the political, military, economic, informational makeup of the environment.

We will continue to conduct reconnaissance until we leave, and that reconnaissance phase and how we perceive the enemy, how we perceive the trend, was then going to allow us then to move to the next phase, which we dubbed the precision offensive operations phase. Once I had an appreciation for how I could operate, I was able to operate.

Then finally the third phase, … as I envisioned it, was the phase where I become the supporting effort, and the Iraqi security force that we're operating with as partners becomes the main effort. So rather than me leading the operation and pulling them along, I'm now supporting them and facilitating their operations, and they're the main effort in this fight.

Right now I'm in phase two, precision offensive operations, my goal being that by the time we leave here in the next four months that I will have met the end state, the vision for where we're going to be in the third phase, [where] I'm the supporting effort and my Iraqi partners are actually leading, coming up with operations, taking their view of the enemy, then developing operations to go and kill or capture them.

But you're not there yet?

Not there yet.

[Do you think you'll get there?]

I'm optimistic that we'll achieve our end state in regard to the Iraqi security force [being able to take over]. … I have a responsibility to my successor unit to set the conditions for them to come in and operate with less forces. In order for them to do that, the Iraqi security forces must increasingly be more capable. I am optimistic that I will be able to … shape the environment so that my successor unit will be able to do more with less, and the Iraqi unit will be much more viable.

Will [the Iraqi security forces] meet my expectation of operating independently without us? It was never my expectation [that] they be there in the next four months, no. I mean, there's some cultural things we've got to overcome, military, cultural things. We've got to build an NCO [non-commissioned officers] corps; they don't have that. That's what really makes our army unique and special and as strong as it is. Officers in this [Iraqi] organization are really familial-based. They're friends; they're family -- or most of them are family, and so you [have to] break through that, all that kind of stuff, before you really have a reliable military force.

Would you make any predictions about when [a withdrawal is] likely to be?

I would never make a prediction about when that's likely. It's an important thing here to point out, I learned in my studies and conduct of operations, that the only importance of time is when you start an operation: "We're going to start at this time." After that, everything is driven by event, and if you utilize time as measurement in these combat operations, it's not going to happen the way you envisioned. You're just not going to make it according to time; it's event-driven.

I think the same thing is applicable towards the Iraqi security forces. I've been in meetings with … Gen. [George] Casey, [commanding general, Multi-National Force-Iraq], and Gen. Casey's come in and briefed his vision, and we've been able to talk to him and ask questions and explain what we're seeing to give him a kind of insight at our level. Gen. Casey's made it very clear that the main effort, the focus of what we're doing here, is to prepare the Iraqi security forces to take the fight.

That's the most important thing we're doing; we're continuing to fight the insurgency. And in my perspective, in my area of operations at this point in time, I'm winning. But the most important thing I do is I prepare the Iraqi security forces, and increasingly the resources and focus of the Army here is going towards that vision.

So your answer to the critics who say the war is unwinnable, that a drastic change has to occur where the U.S. has to pull out, we can't stay, we can't win?

Ross Brown's view is we can't win this alone, the U.S. I can't lose militarily, they can't beat me, but I can't win. We as partners with the Iraqi forces can win together, because what the Iraqi forces bring that I can't bring is a feeling for the environment, an understanding of the culture. They're able to persuade the people to come forward with human intelligence.

It's an amazing dynamic. When I introduce Iraqi forces into an area, they're welcomed. They're offered tea; they're welcomed. And yet when I'm there, there's a perspective that I'm not welcome, or the enemy or -- the best thing is neutral. So I don't think we can win alone. We can't win. I can't lose, but I can't win alone. But with the Iraqis together as a team using what they bring to it partnered with what we bring to the fight, I think we can win, absolutely.

[What is your sense of the insurgency? Who are they? How do they operate?]

As I drive around and I'm out there fighting, it's so difficult to discern … the enemy from the local population, and when you analyze all the way from the center of gravity being the friendly populations down to who you're fighting and the fact that they're disparate groups -- some are criminal groups that have now all of a sudden found religion, and they want to partake in a jihad.

They are decentralized, but what we look for is opportunities in the way that they're organized and the way they operate. For example, the enemy in our area of operations I think have a common logistical tale; they have common folks that they go to for ID billing, for ammunition, for resources. Because of that, we don't see attacks at all different times during the day, all different times of the month.There's a certain predictability in when they attack, even in a monthly cycle, and I attribute that to some common things.

But while there are disparate groups with different motivations, there are some commonalities. The biggest factor they have in common is we're the enemy, so that brings them together. The other one I think that brings them together is the fact that they're tied together logistically. After that, there's not necessarily a lot of commonalities between them. …

[What have you learned in analyzing the enemy?]

We're looking all the time for ways to get at the enemy, to maintain the initiative over the enemy. One thing we've noticed is there's a lot of attacks at the beginning of the month. Well, what happens at the beginning of the month? People are paid at the beginning of the month, so now they have resources and go and buy things; they can build things. They can go and get these bombs.

And then towards the end of the month, [the attacks] kind of [slide] off again. So is that associated with pay? Perhaps it is. Then how do they transfer funds? Some of my guys did some thinking that said if you look at the attacks, a lot of the attacks in my area in particular were occurring around mosques, so perhaps the mosques were the meeting places. How was the funding being done there? Could the imams that come down -- they're normally in Baghdad, but they come down once a week -- be bringing money and resources and then disbursing it to the folks inside the mosque? Well, yeah, possibly. So then perhaps we stop some of these imams as they're coming down at the end of month when they're bringing money. In that regard, we're all the time looking for ways to get at the enemy, for ways that he may be operating, for commonalities, things that they're tied to, and go after them in that way.

Can you give me some idea of the different kinds of motivations that operate and may in fact produce friction among the groups?

I think that their common interests far outweigh their disagreements, and I think that perhaps there will be a time when they'll have to face their disagreements, but it will be after the fight has been waged against the coalition forces and against the Iraqi security forces.

Or if the Americans left, would those common interests break down, do you think?

I don't know. I think one of the triggers for the U.S. leaving is our belief that we have a viable Iraqi security force. If, in fact, we have a viable Iraqi security force that can continue to fight the counterinsurgency, then no, they wouldn't fight amongst themselves, because there's still a viable enemy.

[Have you thought about what it will take for the United States to be able to pull out of Iraq?]

What I've tried to do is figure out how can we win the war, and how we can win the war, I think, in my area of operation is what I'm seeking to do. I'm seeking to attack the sources of strength. I'm trying to attack the sources of strength within the insurgency. And what's the biggest [thing] that the insurgency relies upon? That's the ability to move freely throughout the population. …

Some folks don't like to quote Mao, but he talked about [how] the guerrilla must move through the population like a fish moves through water, and you're losing if the enemy can move freely through the population. I was trying to figure out for the longest time when I was here, I've got to make the enemy fear me, make the population fear me more than they do the enemy. But I can never do that because these folks can pull somebody out of their house or out of their car in the middle of the street, shoot them in the head, have everybody else look at them and say, "Look what I've done; you'd better fear me."

So what do I do? I continued to think through this in my mind, and I said, "What are we bringing to this fight?" Well, one thing I bring to the people that the enemy doesn't is, I'm bringing hope.

[How do you bring hope?]

I go out there, … and I'm talking to everybody, and I'm saying, "Well, we're bringing you hope," and they're looking at me like, "Yeah, so?" … What these people want is a job. They want food. They've got all these kids. They want a sense of security. It's all about [Abraham] Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You've got to satisfy this down here if you want them to self-actualize.

So as I approached the fight, I wanted to be able to face the challenges that were inherent in the fact that there wasn't an economic alternative. I'm a soldier; I can't build jobs. So I'm wrestling with that. I'm wrestling with the fear factor. I'm wrestling with all these components, and I'm trying to figure out how to get at the enemy, because to me it wasn't good enough that if I put a couple of tanks and Brads [Bradley fighting vehicles] out there and deter the enemy from attacking, that ain't winning. So how do I win?

The way that I've told you that I think we're winning is this: I'm not still providing an economic alternative really that much, although we do hire some folks to clean canals and do that, but that's not an overall economic alternative. I can't do that; the Iraqi government has to do that. But no one is going to come in here and provide jobs or invest in Iraq until they believe that the environment is stable and secure enough so that they can invest in that.

This is what I try and reinforce to the Iraqis that I talk to all the time, is you've got to take risks to break the cycle, because it's a cycle that will continue. [If] there's not a stable and secure environment, nobody will invest in Iraq. You can't hire folks, so they don't have a job; they don't have a job, so they join the insurgency. Then we kill some of the insurgents or we detain them, and then we grab large numbers of folks, and we add to the insurgency, and the cycle continues.

So how do you break this cycle? Well, part of the way you break the cycle goes back to what I said about the enemy being on the move freely in the population. …

So what we did by integrating the Iraqi security forces is we provided the population with a sense of security in a way that just U.S. forces alone couldn't do. What I am doing now is I'm having a much more stable and secure environment, and the people are believing that they're safe, and when they believe they're safe they're coming forward [about] where the enemy [is], and they're starting to believe in their future.

And so now I'm starting to win, because they're pointing out where the insurgents are. We're going to get the insurgents; we're taking more bad guys out of the equation, and so other good things will result from that. That's why I think we'll win.

[Can you define the insurgency?]

They evolve; they're adaptive; they're decentralizing their operation. They apply themselves to their unique terrain, to their environment, to the makeup of their adversary, meaning us. They apply themselves to that, and their tactics are different depending upon that. I have a lot of tracked vehicles. I see large bombs and IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in my area of operation. If I were a dismounted force and I used a lot of wheeled vehicles, he would be able to allocate smaller bombs and so forth and get the same effect against us.

And so this enemy is, as we said, it's decentralized; it adapts constantly. It observes us in everything that we do. It moves, unless you can prevent it, throughout the population. … I've been asked, "What have you done previously in your career to prepare you for this fight?" Either everything or nothing. I think everything, but maybe nothing. …

I'm just kind of kidding [about] that. It's everything that I've done, but this is nothing I ever imagined. I never imagined I'd be fighting a fight like this, ever in [my] wildest dreams would we be fighting an insurgency like this.

As a professional soldier, do you respect your enemy?

Do I respect my enemy? This is not a professional that I'm fighting in terms of a professional soldier. I respect the enemy -- you bet I do -- and if you don't respect the enemy, then you're wrong, and you're going to get your own soldiers killed, so you bet I respect them. But do I respect them as a professional adversary like [I did when] I looked across the border of East Germany in the mid- to late '80s when I was a lieutenant and said, "That's a professional soldier like me"? … No, not at all, not at all.

I mean, these are terrorists. Some of them are terrorists; some of them are former soldiers; some of them are just people that need to work, that need to get paid to support their families because [of] that economic alternative that they don't necessarily have. So in that regard I respect them. I don't respect them as much as I understand why they're doing it.

So, in fact, if the economic [situation were] different, they wouldn't all be your enemy?

Absolutely not. I think a number of them would rather not be the enemy, but they're driven to that because they don't have alternatives, and that's my frustration. …

When we arrived in Iraq, there was, what, a 400,000- to 500,000-man army, and they were disbanded. And when you've been trained as a soldier and you don't have many skills, but you have those as a soldier, and nobody's there to offer you a job to do anything else, to be a farmer or to do this, to do that, and you've got five kids -- and a lot of these folks have a lot of kids -- and you're being offered $300 to $400 to blow up a Humvee and $500 to blow up a tank, and you've trained your whole life to do that, what would you do? I mean, I'd try and get a job and try an honorable profession for a certain amount of time, and then if the economic situation doesn't support that, I've still got five kids, so I've got to find a solution.

And they find a solution. … They try and blow up a tank, or they try and blow up a Bradley. That's the insurgents. So they're not all wacky terrorists, and they're not all jihadists. What they are is people that are trying to get by that have skills that aren't applicable, and they are not given an alternative, and so they have to apply themselves to their situation, and this is what they're doing. Now, I don't try and kill them any less than I do the jihadists, but I understand more why they're doing it.

home + introduction + site map + watch online + can it be defeated? + interviews
map + enemy attacks + previous reports + producer's chat + join the discussion
readings + links + teacher's guide + dvd/vhs & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE home + WGBH + PBS

posted feb. 21, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright ©2006 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Stickup KidDecember 17th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS