Learning from the Triangle of Love

By John Nagl

There is a town where I served in Iraq, south of Baghdad in the al-Anbar province, named Mahmoudiyah. Since the insurgency began attacks there have been so frequent and severe that it came to be called the "Triangle of Death." The area suffered 35 attacks a week in 2007, according to Colonel Dominic Caracillo, commander of the Army's 3rd brigade of the 101st Airborne division. I visited Colonel Caracillo there in July and just spoke with him by phone today, and the changes he described to me are encouraging. Violence is down to only a few generally ineffective attacks in any given week, and his troops joke that they serve in the "Triangle of Love." Colonel Caracillo's brigade is now busily engaged in turning over battle space to the a newly formed division of the Iraqi Army; his 4,000 soldiers will be replaced in November by a Transition Task Force of some one thousand Coalition troops whose primary responsibility will not be to conduct counterinsurgency themselves, but who will instead help the Iraqi Army fight its own counterinsurgency campaign.

The "Triangle of Love" offers an important lesson for the future of the American commitment to Iraq: the Iraqis are growing increasingly capable and confident, but they'll need our help for some years to come.

The Iraqi government and army are not yet capable of governing and maintaining security on their own, but the hard and smart work of the past eighteen months has made them more capable while simultaneously increasing security enough that they can bear most of the much-reduced burden themselves. (This is true in most of Iraq--there's still a running gun battle going on in Mosul against the last substantial presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, being conducted by the US Army; that fight will take at least another year).

The Iraqi Army will still need Special Forces teams to conduct counter-terrorism operations, and civilian and military American advisors, all protected by a far smaller number of American combat troops than are there today. We've cleared the enemy out of most of Iraq, and Iraqi forces are increasingly capable of holding those gains as long as they have our support. I can see some 50,000 US troops in Iraq two years from now, and perhaps 30,000 in 2012, continuing to focus on the training, advisory, and counterterrorism missions. That's a heavy burden, especially given the need for more troops in Afghanistan--but it's cheaper to pay the price to hold what we've gained than to have to clear the ground yet again. It took a lot of effort and blood to turn the "Triangle of Death" into the "Triangle of Love."

By washingtonpost.com |  September 10, 2008; 6:25 PM ET  | Category:  Al Qaeda , Army , Iraq
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So al-qaeda is being greatly diminished but what about the Sunni and Shia militias which will go after each other seemingly forever?

Posted by: Gary Goodwin | September 11, 2008 6:37 AM

Nice try, but getting back to the basics, this war was not necessary and it was based on lies. I don't like the idea that you expect a committment from the US for the next 5, 10 + years, but that is the reality and this is another reason I didn't want to go to war in Iraq for Iraq. It's a triangle all right, every angle points to OIL.

Posted by: Cookie | September 11, 2008 12:16 PM

The Iraqi "Government" (i.e US puppet regime) will never be capable of maintaining security as long as we stay in Iraq.

The invasion and occupation were and are NOTHING but a disgraceful CRIME.

And from day one until now Col. Nagl, I've been asking the same question of folks like you:


I have yet to hear anyone who was in favor of this idiocy state a coherent answer to that question, let alone anything that would represent a legitimate military objective. The truth is that the rape of Iraq was a just criminal act of aggression in the same sense that the Nazi invasion of Poland was -- the only real difference is that the Nazis were better at war-fighting than the fools responsible for this disgraceful fiasco in Iraq.

Posted by: Charles Gittings | September 11, 2008 6:20 PM

It isn't the job of military men to worry about the costs of the wars they fight. Someone else must impose on them the decision that military commitments we cannot afford must be ended.

That is the situation we face with respect to Iraq. It isn't John Nagl's fault that the long, wasting commitment there was begun, nor did he make the decisions that made it a bigger fiasco than perhaps it had to be. The course he is advocating now, however, would commit the United States to continue pouring men and money into one, mid-sized Arab country for the forseeable future.

Nagl says fewer men, less money, but he isn't forecasting this. He is guessing. Guesses about Iraq have been made before; they have proven wrong more often than not, and been followed by learned studies by military and former military scholars about why they were wrong and how we might do better next time. If Iraq were more important than all of America's other interests in the world put together -- which is the priority the American government has assigned it for well over five years now -- this would be defensible.

But Iraq is not that important. The Iraqis who lives we are spending our blood and our children's treasure to protect are not that important. And whether men like John Nagl have to look back on tangible evidence that the mission on which they spent a year or more of their lives and in which they lost dear friends and comrades was a failure is not that important either.

American resources are simply not unlimited. Commitments that we cannot afford must be liquidated, not managed as if they were some temporarily inconvenient credit card debt. Don't fight the problem, as Gen. Marshall said, solve it. I don't expect military officers with emotional commitments to the mission in Iraq to maintain a sense of proportion about that mission's relative importance to the interests of the United States around the world, or to reckon correctly whether its costs to us are worth whatever it is we wind up gaining there. Someone else will have to do these things for them.

Posted by: Zathras | September 12, 2008 4:25 PM

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