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."
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