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Six Steps to Victory

The bottom-up plan to defeat the insurgency.

11:00 PM, Nov 15, 2006 • By ERIC EGLAND
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IN THIS POLITICAL season, the debate about Iraq has become almost completely backward looking. It has degenerated into finger pointing and partisan sniping--stuck between a false choice of "cut and run" versus "more of the same."

Failure in Iraq is not an option, because it would spell disaster for U.S. national security and foreign policy credibility, not to mention military morale. Our mission in Iraq continues to move forward, and U.S. forces have successfully defeated the insurgents in several areas, yet the enemy has proven resilient and effective. Thus, we must succeed in Iraq by changing the status quo.

The plans for victory so far have fallen short. They have come, top-down, from the Pentagon or the palaces-turned-coalition headquarters in Baghdad. Now, American leaders, especially the nominee for secretary of defense, should consider a bottom-up plan to win that taps the collective grass-roots wisdom of successful battlefield innovators. In particular, there are six course corrections that can be taken almost immediately.

1. Encourage innovation by emphasizing small-scale technological solutions and rejecting peacetime bureaucracy.

The White House, Congress, and the Pentagon earn commendations for their commitment to winning in Iraq. Steadfast leadership, generous supplemental spending, and a streamlined acquisition process have resulted in the rapid fielding, on a massive scale, of critical defensive equipment such as body and vehicle armor, as well as jammers to impede the enemy's use of remote-detonated IEDs.

While these measures have helped us defensively, a more entrepreneurial approach is needed to field capabilities that enable offensive success against an adaptive enemy. Deploying unit commanders, most of whom have already served at least one tour in Iraq, must have direct input into how supplemental funds are invested in new technologies. Technology providers should conduct road shows to earn at least some funding approval and priority from ground commanders.

In Washington, there remains too much focus on massive technological efforts that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to develop, test, and field. Meanwhile, low-cost programs like remote handheld cameras, biometrically-capable, Wi-Fi enabled PDAs, and tethered blimps with mounted cameras are put on the back burner. To inspect suspicious objects that could be roadside bombs, troops have resorted to spending their own money to buy remote-controlled cars with jerry-rigged mounted cameras because the thousands of remotely controlled robots in Iraq are held by specialized bomb disposal units.

Without such an option, they are told to "guard" possible IEDs until the heavily tasked bomb disposal experts can arrive, often hours later. This creates a situation where our troops lack needed gear and are exposed, on the defensive, at a time and place of the enemy's choosing. U.S. troops should no longer be required to stand guard over enemy weapons, and they should be empowered to rapidly acquire the tools they need to do their job without exposing themselves unnecessarily.

We must also eliminate the peacetime bureaucratic hurdles that keep useful innovations from getting fielded to help our troops. In early 2005, the military demonstrated a peacetime bureaucratic mentality by placing a 'safety hold' on an urgent request from Iraq for thousands of powerful handheld lasers. Field commanders wanted to broaden the success achieved by a few units that employed the lasers to alert local drivers of upcoming checkpoints and approaching patrols. In those areas, the measure was dramatically reducing 'escalation of force' incidents, where troops are forced to open fire, assuming non-compliant vehicles to be car bombs. Yet, the lasers never came because bureaucrats declared they were not 'eye safe'--as if the alternative, a .50 caliber slug, were. The deaths of many innocent Iraqis caused by these incidents, while legally justifiable, scar our troops emotionally, weaken support for the new government, and fuel the insurgency.

2. Improve pre-deployment training realism and abandon Cold War-era checklists.

When troops were first preparing to deploy to Iraq, they followed the same checklists that had been used in the Cold War and Gulf War that focused on the conventional military's core mission: "high-intensity conflict." Once the invasion was successful, though, the threat facing our troops changed as the insurgency started using ambush tactics, but the training and preparation that our troops receive has not kept pace.

"Train how we fight" is a mantra in the military, and for good reason. Training intensity and realism is the number one predictor for combat success, especially when facing a thinking, adaptive enemy who observes our patterns and exploits perceived vulnerabilities.