In 2005, President Bush articulated a national strategy for Iraq that hinged on successfully advising Iraqi security forces. "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," he said.
The critical piece of this strategy was the adviser capability itself. Although the military's special operations community had long nurtured the capability to conduct "foreign internal defense," the Army and Marine Corps had largely marginalized this capability by the time of the Iraq war, disdaining it in favor of conventional combat operations. To achieve the president's vision for Iraq, the Army and Marines would need to build this capability from scratch, tearing officers and sergeants out of their existing combat units, assigning them to newly created adviser teams,and embedding them with Iraqi army, police and headquarters units.
In God Willing, Marine Corps Reserve Capt. Eric Navarro tells his story of serving on one of these teams, as an adviser to the Iraqi Army's battalion in the then-violent Anbar province in Western Iraq. Through graphic and colorful stories, Navarro relates the daily struggles of his adviser team, from training his Iraqi officer counterparts to be leaders to figuring out how to feed and house an Iraqi infantry company.
Having served as an embedded adviser with Iraq's police, I could relate to many of his stories, especially his tale of frustration illustrating the difference between command and influence (advisers generally exercise only the latter). Before I deployed, I read everything I could find on combat advising, The Village, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and A Bright Shining Lie, trying to learn as much as I could to help me climb the steep learning curve of a combat adviser. Navarro's book joins this library of knowledge about combat advising and should be on the pre-deployment reading list for anyone heading to Iraq to do this job.
I had lunch with Navarro last month, after he returned from his second tour in Iraq, to talk about his book and his thoughts on Iraq. A transcript of our Q&A follows:
Q. One of the things you talked about in the book is a parent child metaphor between the American army and the Iraqi army. What do you mean by that and how do you think the relationship evolved over time?
NAVARRO: I would say the reason I started thinking of the Iraqis in that way and our relationship in that way is we filled both roles, the father figure and the mother figure. It seemed like the Iraqis could not take care of themselves as far as securing rounds, securing food, traveling, transportation issues, mechanical issues, all that. So there was a motherly role where we are supporting the combat support service, and the father role was like teaching them certain things and then holding on two standards, disciplinarian type stuff. It was really balancing those two things. Now the reason why I call this strategic parenting; I think we should have taken a stronger role in the beginning, instead we had to negotiate. We had to persuade them to do things as appose to we did not have the final say. I would have said in the beginning we should have had the final say and then over time, I would have given more and more lea way to conduct their own operations. We did that a little bit based on the abilities of our own advisors. I did well in that but that was strictly because I think they respected me for some reason more so then some others. For example, there were only three officers our team. The first was a major. They respected him; he held a strong command presence; he got along well with the Battalion Commander. We had a Captain.... a smallish guy, nerdy guy... they would talk behind his back a little bit. I think it's almost because of just his demeanor and his build and his size. I was a bigger guy, and if they ever challenged me, I presented a strong presence and would never take any of that and they respected strength as a result of that. I would translate that to all advisors. Advisor teams that take a strong command presence and present that to the Iraqis and say "no, this is how it has to get done!" They got better results than the people who were wishy washy.
Q. One of the things that you talked about a lot, between the early part of your book and it dealt with the strategic parent concept was bathroom habits and bathroom issues. Why was this so important and why do you think this illustrated some of the larger issues between the team?
NAVARRO: So many different aspects about this. The number one reason was it was that important on a day to day basis to figure out exactly where the Iraqis were going to go to the bathroom. It was a logistical nightmare. Anytime we ever moved to any place that was almost the first logistical calculation we had to make; was where the Iraqis were going to go the bathroom, and it was a problem everywhere we went. "Al Hillah" was just a classic one where we moved the entire battalion there and had to make sure that we had Porta-Johns, enough Porta-Johns to support the whole force. Originally the Army's unit there, who did not have any experience with 500 Iraqis living next to them, just wanted to do these old type bathrooms where you dug a hole in the ground and then moved them. They were called Turkish sh--ters for a lack of better term and it was just a box over the hole, and then when the hole got too filled, you covered it up with earth and then moved the box. Well this was suppose to be a permanent base so how could we? By the end of month three, we had crap hole's all over the base. On top of that it just on several different levels I thought it came to symbolize our experience there. When you talk about Iraq, you go to the bathroom, they don't use toilet paper. For whatever reason me the advisors came to see that as shocking and part of their problem. I don't think the American people realized what we are talking about when we talk about Iraq. I think we are talking about a society that is still developing that is not even close to our standards of what we call a modern society and this is just one example of it.
Q. How else did you experience this cultural gap or this language gap and how did it play out for you as an Advisor?
NAVARRO: There's too many instances. I mean cultural gap was you know, understanding the impact that God or Allah had on their day to day lives and that's why I call the book God willing. Because "Insha Allah" was literally what we heard everyday as an explanation for their actions. they believed that every single thing that they did was controlled by God's will. Therefore, they had no personal responsibility. Well then how can we then hold them responsible for let's say going to the bathroom in an abandoned building where we live?
Q. Or trained to do something like shooting?
NAVARRO: Exactly or train! So if they miss the target, it wasn't because they were poorly trained or did not practice enough. It was because God did not want them to hit the target. Well how do you then construct a modern fighting force out of something some people that hold that as their basic tenet and basic organizing principle? Over time I came to think that it wasn't just a symbol of the larger Iraq war, but even the global war on terrorism. Because I spoke to other Muslims that were not Iraqi that held the same belief or understood the same idea of "Insha Allah" that God runs their lives on a day to day basis. I think it helps explains the vast cultural gulf that exists between the Western world and the Muslim world. Now I'm not saying one is better than the other. But the point is, regardless of what side you are on, until you cross that bridge and until you recognize that the existence of that we're kind of pissing in the wind.
Q. Were there friction points between the American military and the Iraqis that you saw as a result , then there were American units able to work with Iraqi units?
NAVARRO: They were, but there is a mixture of reasons why there were difficulties. Number one at that stage that I was an Advisor, this is right in the heart of when the insurgency was at its fullest. We had just gone through the second battle of Fallujah. Our forces were still in the mindset of killing the enemy. Finding the enemy and killing the enemy. Even though President Bush's Secretary of Defense were saying that training the Iraqis and standing them up was the primary mission now, that mentality had not seeped down to the ground level. We were still focused on just killing the enemy. To them all Iraqis were the enemy, were potential enemies. So when we showed up, we advisors showed up with Iraqis, we were working with potentially the enemy. So obviously there were problems there, we couldn't a lot of support, training, they didn't want to do joint missions at first. They had to be ordered basically from "on high" which were coming from Security of Defense all the way down to us. Combat units had to be ordered to do joint missions. To tell one story, we did a cordon and search with the Army's 1st of the 506th Infantry. The way you are suppose to do a joint mission with the Iraqis is the American leadership is supposed to talk with the Iraqi leadership, give them an idea of the overall plan and then allow the Iraqi leadership to lead their Iraqis through their part of the plan. That's not what happened. All the Americans did was have the Iraqis there say they were there, and they would just direct the Iraqis. They didn't conduct any recon with the the Iraqi squad leader -- just told him "go into that house we need to go question that person." That's not the way you are suppose to do a mission. The Iraqis didn't know really what they were supposed to be doing there.
Q. During your tour what do you think was the main effort? In theory, the advisory effort was the main effort, but what did you perceive on the ground?
NAVARRO: Well, I perceived that we were paying lip service to their advisory effort. From what I saw the main effort was to democratically hold elections in Iraq so we could leave. That's what at least the American main effort seemed to be. We held a very successful election in January of 2005, we were in Fallujah. Fallujans came out and voted, there was very little violence, they seemed to be hopeful of their future. However, the Iraqi army, their main effort seemed to be getting paid and then getting home. A month into our tour, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense decreed that every Iraqi would get at least a week of vacation every month where they would go home take their money that they were paid give it to their families, and spend a week with their families. Now you add two days of travel time on the front and back ends, and that's eleven days off. Plus they took off Friday's for their prayer days, so they basically ended up working half a month on the U.S. dollar. On top of that, they did not wait for the next group to come back before they left. There were 500 in the battalion, so about 125 would go in each leave convoy. They did not wait for the one convoy to come back before they sent the next convoy, it didn't matter. All they cared about was that the next group had to go home on leave. So at any given time, we were down below 50 percent combat power. We were supposed to be defeating the insurgents, but they (Iraqi soldiers) were more concerned with getting paid and then going to see their families.
Q. Who was the enemy? Who was the enemy during your tour?
NAVARRO: A mixture I would say Sunni nationalists probably pissed off once Saddam got toppled and the Al-Qaida in Iraq.
Q. Did you see any of the Sectarian violence or Shiite on Sunni violence while you were at ...?
NAVARRO: Not full on shooting violence, but definitely tensions. And even within their own unit, there were tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites that sometimes would bubble up to fisticuffs.
Q. A lot have been made particularly since General Petraeus came into Iraq in early 2007 about a transition into a new counter-insurgency strategy focused on securing the people, less on killing the enemy, more on political and economic and other lines of operation. What do you think about and is this something we should of tried earlier?
NAVARRO: It definitely should have been tried earlier, I just came back from second tour in which I saw the effects in those lines of operation. General Petraeus... I met him during his first tour and he seemed like a very intelligent general that actually understood how our current strategy was not working. It just wasn't; we were just being too brutal try to kill basically everyone as opposed to trying to turn the Iraqi population against the enemy. Over time we did, but the enemy also did it themselves. The insurgents killed too many of the Iraqis and pissed them off to a level where we were able to exploit that. I believed that's what was the turning point. Eventually we got the Shiites and the Sunni Shiites to switch sides because we portrayed that we were the strongest tribe. Now we should have understood the mentality of the people and the culture from the get go. For whatever reason, I understood it right when I got there. I had been reading about this culture and Islam for many years before I got there. So maybe that prepared me. But I understood as a tribal nation that we had to somehow get the leaders of those tribes on our sides. During my first tour we weren't doing that. We had the Iraqis at the end of our hands and we were helping them but in a haphazard way, not coordinating, and we gave the Sunnis the impression we didn't want to deal with them. I think that had a dramatic effect. Once Petraeus came in and adopted this new strategy, I think that's when things really turned, plus more troops in Iraq.
Q. What role should advisors play in this war? If it's important to develop Iraqi capacity do we also need to develop our own capacity to work as advisors with the Iraqis?
NAVARRO: Absolutely. advisors should be the main effort in our forces right now. We shouldn't be there to just hunt down the enemy. The Iraqis should be the ones doing that. We still protect ourselves obviously but the main bulk of our forces should be focused on advising. I believe there should be larger teams of advisors in the book I write that it should go down to a one on one to at least a platoon level. At least every Platoon Commander, Iraqi Platoon Commander should have an American counterpart there. Plus every member of the primary staff should have an experienced American there to teach him and mentor him through logistics, intelligence, operations, admin all that stuff, plus the Company Commanders. I think the total I came up with is somewhere between 24-28 advisers for a battalion. We later developed a team that looked something like that, taking from different units to do it. But that made no sense, because there was a hodgepodge and a very mixed up command relationship. Also, the training effort should extend not just to military units. We should have advisors all the way through the government of the Iraqis. All the way up the chain of command -- battalion, brigade, division, all the way up expanding into to Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior and then all the way to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister should have an American counterpart that is advising him. Now whether we do that on the sly because they're a sovereign nation, so we have to pretend ... whatever at this point, but that's the only way I think it would work. We should be partnered up side by side.
Q. And what's the road ahead?
NAVARRO: The road ahead is either we stay or the place implodes, that's what I believe. In the book I say a minimum of 20 years probably more like forever. My question when people ask well how long do we have to say? When did we leave Japan, Germany and Korea? Well the answer is never we are still there. In Japan and Germany we actually, the U.S. Military governs that place for a period of time before we ever allowed elections and gave it back to the locals. Now we went a little too fast here and we're paying for that. However, we should stay there, we should set up permanent bases in Iraq, there should be a partner and ally forever. We should be able to project our power throughout the region and protect all the interest in that region.
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