Green Zone Follies July 3, 2006

Nation Breaking
Baghdad, 26 June 06: “I got a copy of the following story that came in on the Internet and is says a great deal along the lines I have been speaking about. Here it is:

I didn’t grow up with dreams of spreading democracy. I was an all-American kid from a small southern town who went to college on a baseball scholarship and joined the National Guard to earn some extra money. During graduate school, recruiters persuaded me to join the Army through ROTC so that after graduation I would enter as an officer. I bought their pitch and believed our newly elected president when he promised no more nation building. My dad told me, “It’s a great time to join the military. It has done an excellent job of repairing itself after Vietnam.”

I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 2002 and, after paratrooper and additional officer training, was transferred from the 82nd Airborne Infantry to the new Stryker Brigade units at Ft. Lewis. In October 2004, I deployed to Iraq.

I went with an open mind. By then, the mission was well underway, and we had heard the negative reports filtering back. But I believed that I could make a difference and felt honored to serve. The fact that I had received more Arabic language and culture training than any other soldier in my battalion made me feel vital to an important mission.

But I was anxious too. I had gotten married just three months before and wondered whether I would ever see my new wife again. I wondered what I would do in a firefight. My whole life I had heard that fear of the unknown is the greatest fear, and in October 2004, it was for me.

Confidence in my training and my government somewhat quelled these fears. During the flight to Iraq, I thought of my first jump in airborne school three years before. No clearer picture of the proverbial leap of faith existed in my mind—yet I knew greater challenges awaited. I also flashed back to that conversation with my dad when I joined the Guard. Having lived through the Vietnam era, he had always expressed displeasure with certain government institutions during that period. Like many of his generation, he found himself questioning authorities previously considered worthy of unflinching support. I always found these views curious because with the exception of this interlude in American history, my father always supported the government and raised me to do the same. “I don’t believe that our government will ever allow our military to become involved in a war like Vietnam again,” he told me. “The American people would not stand for it.” Those words would haunt me in the months ahead.

Within 48 hours of our boots touching Iraqi soil, my battalion was on the move to Mosul, which had historically enjoyed a reputation as a center of Mideast commerce, prized for its oilfields. But by the time we arrived, it teetered on the edge of collapse. Iraqi police had nearly all deserted their duties, and lawlessness reigned.

I was designated the Iraqi army liaison officer, an assignment I took seriously. From the outset of the war, both President Bush and my superior officers had emphasized that training the Iraqi army was key to our mission’s success.

But the longer I spent, the more I came to realize that this was not only a lie but an impossible strategy for achieving victory.

Army doctrine and training have not accounted for a unit in combat having both to fight an insurgency and train indigenous peoples to assist in the fight. I started out as a one-man operation that grew into a cell of 60 people who rotated in for a week to a couple of months at a time. That infusion of manpower would seem to bolster the notion that Iraqi training was a priority. In reality, our leadership sent soldiers with suicidal tendencies, weight problems, and disillusionment. In a year’s time, we received only one visit from the battalion commander, only one visit from our battalion’s operations officer, and only one visit from the battalion executive officer.

This isolation set us up for failure with the Iraqis. Meetings with the Iraqi colonel in our partner Iraqi army battalion were conducted by a master sergeant and me, and almost always a problem arose in these meetings beyond our authority to control. When asked to meet with our Iraqi army colonel, our battalion commander refused.

I began to wonder: if the highest-ranking officers in a battalion did not care to interact with the Iraqis, how were the generals in the Pentagon to know what was going on? How would the president know? I realized that they wouldn’t—and they didn’t care because training the Iraqis was of little real interest.

From October 2004 to September 2005, fewer than 180 fresh-from-the streets recruits were trained by our cell and incorporated into the Iraqi army battalion in Mosul, though the battalion’s personnel total was exaggerated by the Iraqis. These errors, while reported by our cell, were ignored by our superiors. Between October 2004 and April 2005, we conducted several headcounts of Iraqi army battalion personnel and never found more than 350 present at one time. But the Iraqis recorded 1,300, and the Iraqi figures were taken as accurate. When we reported this discrepancy, we were told we must factor in the number supposedly on vacation. Every month we sent accurate numbers, and in each case we were ordered to count at least 200 soldiers as being on leave. No proof that they were actually on authorized leave was ever provided except for the Iraqi army officers’ word.

During our first month in Mosul, we were unable to conduct basic training due to Ramadan, so we opted to focus our efforts on facilities upgrade. But our requests to KBR—Kellogg, Brown and Root, Halliburton’s subsidiary company—failed because the contractor would not service any facility housing Iraqis, only Americans. Air conditioning and heat did not exist. Electricity often did not flow. These amenities could have been added easily by KBR.

Our cell searched for help with money from a budget earmarked for Iraqi training but was ultimately unsuccessful. Iraqi contractors were often crooked and more familiar with the American system of payments than we were, our battalion chain of command refused to divert any American supplies or manpower to solve the problem, and giving money to Iraqis to fix their own infrastructure proved worthless because the money simply went into the hands of the highest-ranking Iraqi present.

During our struggles, our U.S. battalion enjoyed much greater success finding contractors for its own projects. Upgrades for our detainee facilities were completed in less than a month, but the contractors responsible for these projects were never allowed to help us.

In addition to manpower shortages and facility failure, training doctrine was never uniformly approved nor implemented. An example: when we arrived in Mosul, we were given a manual by our preceding unit, which falsely described the procedure for clearing—making sure ammunition was no longer in the chamber of a weapon. The procedure given to us, which had been taught to the Iraqis for months, called for an additional step that did not appear in any manual in the U.S. Army. Upon discovering this error, our cell’s master sergeant blacked out all manuals illustrating the errant function and instituted the correct teaching. However, old habits die hard. In January 2005, one of our U.S. soldiers was killed by an Iraqi attempting to clear his weapon inside a Stryker vehicle. He pulled the trigger, consistent with the mistaken teaching he received, and one of our heroes was gone forever. The Army investigators ruled that the faulty system instilled by the American unit preceding us caused the problem. However, this practiced continued. In June 2005, some of the soldiers within our cell witnessed Special Forces soldiers implementing the same procedure that cost our soldier his life. After correcting the Special Forces team, our soldiers were told to “get your nose out of SF business.”

In June 2005, Special Forces took over some of our training mission. After a quick tour, they announced that they would initiate driver’s training for our Iraqi battalion though we had completed it four months prior. Our master sergeant complained to both Special Forces and our battalion commander that this training had already been covered, and he was overruled. Our superiors were so uninterested in the training program that they would have voiced equal approval of Iraqis riding pigs.

In March 2005, we began to push our trainees out on independent missions. They planned, briefed their troops, rehearsed, and executed the missions by themselves. All of these actions were repeated in June 2005, when Special Forces took over. Similarly, beginning in January 2005, every soldier in our Iraqi army battalion had participated in basic rifle marksmanship training. In June 2005, the same training was repeated by Special Forces. There was no coherence to the program—nor discernable progress.

In April 2005, a push began across Iraq to utilize more personnel in Iraqi army training. According to the briefing I was given, a minimum of 15 soldiers made an adequate cell. Our cell already surpassed this number, but our battalion decided to upgrade it to nearly 60 soldiers to satisfy the Bush administration’s contention that large numbers of Iraqis were being trained and large numbers of U.S. soldiers were doing the training. But we needed more officers, not soldiers, so many of the newly acquired men ended up sitting around. No one bothered to ask whether a need existed. If anyone had, we would have said that the Iraqis did not have as many people present as U.S. commanders contended and that the Iraqi soldiers supposedly coming off vacation never did so simply because they did not exist. When these problems were brought to our battalion, our integrity was questioned.

Moreover, our daily presence became highly resented by the Iraqis, especially their officers. They felt that the Iraqi army needed to be the sole authority responsible for training. Their battalion commander told me that any attempt by American officers to live in his training compound would be considered spying. And that was just the start of the conflicts. Most Iraqi officers considered their knowledge of the city and insurgents far superior to American technology and training, while Americans considered the Iraqis undisciplined and lazy.

Logistical issues compounded these operational headaches. For the first five months of our tour, we received no boots or uniforms for the Iraqis despite numerous searches and deals gone awry. We were told to utilize the local economy, but the only contractor we could find disappeared after we gave him an initial payment of $20,000. (The vanishing contractor had been recommended by the Iraqi battalion commander.)

Months later, we discovered that two buildings, covered in weeds and rust and seemingly empty, were not. The Iraqis had told us that nothing was housed in these two buildings. One day we decided to open them and discovered enough equipment to outfit three battalions. Some of it read “March 2003”—the leadership of the Iraqi battalion had been hoarding this equipment for years. For all we knew they had been selling the uniforms to terrorist organizations. In addition, we also found a large cache of mines, mortar tubes, machine guns, and ammunition in an adjacent building. The resident Iraqi company commander was ostensibly fired by the Iraqi battalion commander, but we saw him return less than two weeks later. When we reported to our battalion, we were told, “Well, after all, it is their army.”

Our cell’s replacement arrived in June in combination form. The first part came from two Special Forces teams. The second was part of the MiTT program (Military Transition Team), consisting of ten soldiers who were either experienced enlisted personnel or officers—meaning they had at least six to ten years time in the Army. I went with other Iraqi Army Liaison Officers from different battalions to Taji to meet with these men and describe what they would face in Mosul. To my dismay, I quickly learned they possessed no knowledge of their final destination. They made the journey with no radio communication, some with only one pair of boots, no information on where they would go or what they would be doing when they got there. I expected to hear questions like “What sort of operational tempo do your Iraqi counterparts possess?” In contrast, I was asked, “Lieutenant, do you have e-mail capability up in Mosul? Nobody has told us anything and I really want to know how I will communicate with my family.” I later found out that they were selected mostly from desk jobs in the Recruiting Command or the Pentagon. Yet I listened with them at their initial briefs about how they were performing “a mission that was the most important key to our success in Iraq.” If this were true then why were they sending desk jockeys with little or no experience training indigenous soldiers? And why during one of their initial briefings did their leader, a full colonel, have to plead for more boots for his men?

Once these men arrived in Mosul, they were given a two-day welcome briefing. Then they were sent to remote combat outposts in the middle of the worst areas. Their only radios had been given to them by us. Running water worked on occasion. And they received no equipment to outfit their Iraqi counterparts. To this day, MiTT teams operate under the same conditions. Future help probably will not come due to our battalion replacement’s apparent apathy: they refused any data concerning our experience despite numerous attempts.

Another logistical problem arose due to the Iraqi army’s masterful deception in accounting for their equipment. For the first six months of our tour, our cell inventoried every piece of military equipment their battalion possessed. We reported in April 2005 that we had names showing which soldiers signed out AK ammunition and then returned differing ammunition. (This differing ammo was made during the time of Saddam and is readily available on the market; most of it does not work.) We also had six Iraqi witnesses working in the Iraqi arms room who observed the fraud. My superior officers weren’t interested.

In addition, every month the Iraqi army leadership and our cell agreed to a list of items mutually decided to be essential. However, the end of the month’s expenditures routinely included space heaters for the Iraqi army leadership’s quarters, satellite television for the officers only, and new furniture for the officers, to name just a few items. And trips down to the Iraqi army compound in the wee hours of the morning resulted in all kinds of discoveries. Sometimes I saw Iraqi soldiers sucking gas out of the tanks of the trucks to sell. Another time, I saw two Iraqi soldiers painting a tan Iraqi military truck white in an attempt to sell it on the open market. We were told to “tolerate a certain amount of graft.”

Not surprisingly, I never received an accurate vehicle count from the Iraqi army. Each month, I counted the vehicles that the Iraqi army owned, a number that never matched the figures given to me by the Iraqi battalion. To make matters worse, after I turned in the number that I had counted, I would often find my figures altered after brigade released their own report. In April 2005, I documented the fraud in an e-mail. Two days later, I was confronted by two superior officers and told that my reports would no longer be needed.

If I doubted that the Iraqis were any more committed than my own superiors to outfitting and training their army, the answer came after a long presentation to the Iraqi army battalion’s executive officer, offering suggestions on his logistics operational plan. I concluded by asking what he thought. “My plan is that you should care for all of our logistical needs,” he said. “Why?” I asked. The Iraqi executive officer replied, “You broke our country. Now, you fix it.” The essence of a failed policy did not get any clearer than that.

From October 2004 to June 2005, the prevailing attitude of our battalion—including my own at first—was that the Iraqis were incapable of conducting operations independently. However, after speaking with locals and Iraqi army officers, I reached a different conclusion. The locals asked me why Iraqis were not doing more on missions. Iraqi officers told me that they conducted company-level operations on their own nearly a year prior to our arrival. Did our higher command know and simply not choose to use this information? Or was it a ploy to prolong a state of perpetual war?

I decided to test the theory. In March 2005, I began to send Iraqis out on missions into Mosul, usually unbeknownst to my battalion, and found them capable of conducting missions on their own except when they were hampered by our military values and horrible perception of the local area. When I sent Iraqis out alone, they found evidence and insurgents that we never were able to, though they were none too careful about complying with the Geneva Conventions. Once battalion discovered these missions, they quickly reeled them, and me, in. All Iraqi missions would thereafter be dictated by our U.S. battalion, and I would make sure that the Iraqis performed these missions in the exact manner in which they were dictated.

During the last week of March, I relayed this new strategy to the Iraqi battalion commander and his underlings. They asked to speak with my battalion commander, but he refused and dismissed the matter, reminding me that all parties would comply with his wishes. Two days later, I argued with two Iraqi officers, who up until then had been my friends. One said that the only reason they would go to an area they knew to be heavily laden with IED ambushes was that they respected me.

That respect was shattered less than an hour later when an IED wounded four of their soldiers. Although I rushed them to the hospital and they lived, the respect I worked for five months to earn vanished. From that point on, my time with the Iraqis was much more difficult.

Our relationships with the locals fared no better. Our line companies spent nearly every waking minute on patrol. The nightly door-kicks on residents’ homes proved excellent recruiting tools for local terrorists. I recall several occasions of having to kick in doors to take cover only to hear screaming locals.

Moreover, due to the high frequency of our line companies prowling the city, the Iraqi army and our cell working with them took a very distant backseat in priority. If we needed to discuss a problem with our battalion commander, he was in the city on patrol. If our goal was to turn the city over to the Iraqis, so we could leave, why was he out all the time without the Iraqis? At the very least, if the Iraqis stirred up a hornet’s nest among the local people, it’s their own nest.

Though force structure was problematic, training inefficient, logistical support nonexistent, and combat operations illogical, by far the most personally frustrating factor in fulfilling my assignment was the ocean of financial corruption. Our government has tolerated a systematic culture of “spend to win” that fattens the pockets of the few and accomplishes little.

Each month, along with our cell’s master sergeant, I handed a minimum payment of $100,000 to the Iraqi army battalion. $50,000 covered their monthly operational budget—facilities upgrades, maintenance parts, etc. The other $50,000 went toward the battalion’s subsistence budget, which allowed each soldier $90 a month for food. The problem was that the Iraqis said they had 556 soldiers, and we never counted more than 350 at any given time. Yet we were ordered to pay on the basis of the numbers they declared, with the remainder going directly into the Iraqi leadership’s pockets.

The operational budget proved to be an even worse disaster. Each month we handed over $50,000, yet no money was ever spent on tools for the mechanics, no improvements were made to the buildings, no new vehicles were ever purchased. So why did we continue to give $50,000 each month? The Iraqi army officers would not perform for anything less. We were bribing them to keep up the appearance of a workable fighting force.

Our receipts for these transactions were cleared back through the comptrollers who tracked what U.S. battalions were spending. When it was learned that we were spending $100,000 a month, we were told that we were not spending enough and were accused of not supporting the mission. The message was clear: the more money we gave the Iraqis, the greater chance of keeping the Iraqi unit together.

We also had a projects account for spending money on the Iraqis. After the theft of the uniform payment of $20,000, we only used this system two more times. Both resulted in complete failure. In December 2004, we negotiated a contract for 15 Toyota 4×4 pick-up trucks. All were to be no older than 2000, and the price of each was $11,000, making the total contract value $165,000. We traveled to Dahuk to make this transaction, but a 1994 model was the newest truck before us. Many of the others were badly damaged and barely running. We called off the deal and in turn angered the Iraqi army battalion’s leadership, which had recommended the vendor.

In February 2005, desperate to initiate some progress on new barracks on the Iraqi army battalion compound, we again enlisted the help of the Iraqi army to find a contractor. But the deal fell flat after the he refused anything less than 40 percent of the total price quote for the buildings up front. By our rules, we could not surrender such a sum. (After the failed sale, we returned the funds and were asked by the comptroller if we were sure we wanted to return this money.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Army Civil Affairs began to compensate Iraqi army soldiers for damages incurred by “terrorist” attacks. On one occasion, two Iraqi brothers who were junior officers in our battalion stated that someone burned down their house and shot up their car. They were paid even after we told Civil Affairs that several Iraqi soldiers told us that these men inflicted the destruction themselves. Civil Affairs did not ride out to the site, they merely took the brothers’ photos of the damage at face value.

They also rewarded any Iraqi for information concerning insurgents. One soldier brought information on compact discs that he explained was terrorist intelligence. The CDs did show insurgent propaganda but could be purchased at many different marketplaces in Mosul and served no purpose other than general propaganda. Yet Civil Affairs paid off this soldier.

We alerted our battalion leadership to all of this, and some of the information was sent up to brigade, but that was as far as the inquiry ever went. The system was set up so that we could not physically account for the money without breaking the rules.

I returned home in September 2005, grateful and safe, but stripped of the illusions I had taken with me. My experience proved that contrary to countless official pronouncements, the Bush administration has no interest in the Iraqi army training program. We were fighting a war to establish permanent bases in Iraq to better manipulate the flow of Middle East oil. For if this war was about human rights, why were we not in Rwanda? If our mission was about bringing democracy to a region, then why were we not in Cuba? And if the intelligence leading up to this war was merely faulty, why was no one fired?

I believed in my mission, and I wanted the Iraqis I was training to run their own country. But this wasn’t an American priority, and I left Mosul feeling that my efforts were either erased or ignored.

That’s not to say that the men who died in Iraq died for nothing. They were doing their jobs. But the Bush administration disgraces their memories by stating that our only option is to prolong a losing policy. If I learned anything from the lessons I was charged with teaching, it’s that a good military leader examines costs and benefits and adjusts his course accordingly. Yet this administration refuses to learn from its mistakes, level with the soldiers fighting its war, and bring the sad American chapter called Iraq to a close.

Joe W. Guthrie served three years in the U.S. Army as an Infantry officer and was honorably discharged in December 2005. He now works as a PE teacher and coach at a private school in Florida.

http://www.tbrnews.org/Archives/a2406.htm#003