The Magazine

An Iraq To-Do List

How we can help the surge succeed.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By MAX BOOT
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Another necessity is to go more aggressively after foreign fighters. They comprise a relatively small percentage of the overall insurgency, but they account for a very high percentage of the most grotesque attacks--80 to 90 percent of all suicide bombings, according to General Petraeus's briefing with Pentagon reporters on April 26. These jihadists are of many nationalities, but most infiltrate from Syria. The Bush administration has repeatedly vowed that Syria would suffer unspecified consequences if it did not cut off this terrorist pipeline, but so far this has been an empty threat. The administration has refused to authorize Special Operations forces to hit terrorist safe houses and "rat lines" on the Syrian side of the border, even though international law recognizes the right of "hot pursuit" and holds states liable for letting their territory be used to stage attacks on neighbors. It's high time to unleash our covert operators--Delta Force, the SEALs, and other units in the Joint Special Operations Command--to take the fight to the enemy. They can stage low-profile raids with great precision, and Syrian president Bashar Assad would have scant ability to retaliate. We also need to apply greater pressure to Iran, which continues to support both Shiite and Sunni terrorist groups in Iraq, but that will be harder to do because Tehran is a more formidable adversary than Damascus.

There are some less urgent moves than those above, which still might significantly improve our effectiveness in Iraq. It would be helpful to streamline the U.S. command structure. At the moment there are a bewildering variety of senior headquarters in Iraq: Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNFI, the four-star command in charge of overall strategy), Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNCI, the three-star command in charge of day-to-day operations), and Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTCI, the three-star command in charge of training and equipping Iraqi security forces). In addition, many of the functions performed by these military staffs (e.g., economic aid, legal affairs, contracting, public affairs, liaison with the Iraqi government) are also carried out by diplomats at the world's largest American embassy. And that's to say nothing of the parallel, often Byzantine structure of the Iraqi government.

The senior American leaders in Iraq today--General David Petraeus of MNFI, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno of MNCI, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey of MNSTCI, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker--seem to be working fairly well together, but that wasn't always the case among their predecessors. And in any case, no matter how much goodwill there is at the top, the overlap between staffs can cause needless duplication and confusion. One recently returned army officer who served as an adviser to Iraqi troops complained to me that he was never sure who he was supposed to report to: Both MNSTCI and MNCI had jurisdiction over him.

A more serious problem is that rebuilding projects undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, and their assorted contractors have often not been well coordinated with the pacification efforts of American combat troops. That's why so many projects have turned into white elephants--they were built in areas that didn't have a modicum of security. This problem is starting to be addressed by the embedding of the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams within U.S. brigades, but greater efforts should be made to streamline and rationalize operations so as to further the essential principle of unity of command.

An Iraqi version of CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) might help here. This was the agency created in 1967 under the leadership of "Blowtorch Bob" Komer (with a young Richard Holbrooke as his aide-de-camp). A veteran of the CIA and the National Security Council, Komer coordinated all civilian pacification efforts in Vietnam. He and his successor, William Colby, reported to the four-star commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, thus tying civil and military efforts closely together.

As part of a broader administrative overhaul, it would make sense to put more emphasis on "information operations" and to push these efforts down to lower levels of command. There is widespread agreement within the U.S. military that the war for hearts and minds is essential, and that so far al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have done a more effective job than the United States of competing in the "information battlespace." They are able to get their messages out more quickly and to make a bigger splash. Part of this is due to the natural disparity between a ruthless foe that can lie with impunity and intimidate the press and a democratic government that must tell the truth and not interfere with the free functioning of the media. But part of the disparity is also due to self-inflicted wounds on the part of the U.S. government.

I was stunned to learn in Iraq that leaflets and radio broadcasts need to be approved at the division level, and that press releases need to be approved one step higher, at the corps level. Even more amazing was the revelation that U.S. forces are forbidden to conduct information operations on the Internet--the jihadists' favorite venue--because of concerns at the highest levels of the U.S. government that American propaganda might inadvertently be seen by U.S. citizens browsing the web. Several junior officers told me that they have the authority to call in an airstrike that will kill dozens of people but not the authority to issue a press release. That's crazy. The authority to conduct public affairs and information operations needs to be pushed down to the level of the battalion and even the company, and American commanders at those levels and above need to be graded on their success in engaging in this all-important battleground.

Accountability should extend far beyond information operations, of course. There needs to be a much greater effort to promote good commanders and weed out bad ones. Imagine how poorly the Union would have fared in the Civil War if Lincoln had not cashiered McClellan, Pope, Hooker, Burnside, and numerous other ineffectual generals, while promoting Sherman, Grant, and Sheridan. President Bush has singularly failed to hold his commanders accountable. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq, rightly complains in the new issue of Armed Forces Journal that, "As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war." Yingling isn't the only one upset by this. I've talked to many serving soldiers who are still fuming over the Medals of Freedom given to General Tommy Franks, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, and CIA director George Tenet--well-intentioned men all, but their medals were seen as a reward for failure. There was also a fair amount of grumbling within the ranks when the previous commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General George Casey, was appointed Army chief of staff notwithstanding the deteriorating security situation on his watch.

Failed commanders ought to be fired or pushed aside, following the example of Major General Lloyd Fredendall, who was relieved after the debacle at Kasserine Pass in 1943 and replaced by George S. Patton Jr. Equally important, those who prove their mettle on the battlefield should be quickly promoted. At the moment, battalion and brigade commanders--the key combat leaders in this decentralized war--cycle through Iraq on their 6-7 month (Marine) or 12-15 month (Army) tours, and then proceed with the normal course of their careers. The successful ones may eventually be rewarded with promotion over their less successful colleagues, but the process will take years to play out. Given that we're at war, it would make sense to modify the peacetime personnel system and to resurrect the 19th-century practice of giving brevet ranks or field promotions to outstanding officers who have proven their merit in combat.

Of course, we could achieve an acceptable outcome in Iraq even without taking some of these steps. Conversely, we could lose even if we implement all of these recommendations. But the more of them we implement, the easier the job will become--and the greater the likelihood of success.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is author most recently of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.