Today is November the 18th, Friday, November 18th. We’re at West Point, and this is the second installment of our interview with General Lynch—of what we hope will be many installments— we’ll put it that way. So General Lynch, let’s pick up with the story of your participation in the War in Iraq.
Why don’t you begin with the invasion in 2003, and where you were and what role you played, and let’s just take it from there.
Sure. During the invasion, I was the Chief of Staff of the Kosovo force in Kosovo—600-man staff, twenty-nine different nations, a good portion of which were Americans—American soldiers. So we were there during the conduct of the invasion and watched that with great interest. It was interesting to me how the focus—
This is still 3rd ID, then—is that right? What was your—
No, I was—I had been the Assistant Division Commander of the 4th Division.
Got moved to Kosovo for a year—detailed to Kosovo to that NATO force, KFOR, in Kosovo. It was funny to me, it was interesting to watch how our nation’s focus shifted, because we were focused on the Balkans—Bosnia and Kosovo—and that’s why I was sent to Kosovo to be the Chief of Staff of that force to keep the Kosovo Albanians and the Kosovo Serbs from killing each other. And I was two-thirds of the way through that deployment during the invasion of Iraq. So we watched that with great interest.
And then, after that position in Kosovo, I was sent to be the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for Joint Force Command Naples, which is another command in Naples, Italy. And from that position, we worked to get NATO into Iraq. That was my first exposure into the theater. We developed this thing called the NATO Training Mission-Iraq, which was intended to get members of the NATO nations to send trainers into Iraq to facilitate the training of the Iraqi security forces. So when Admiral Mullen, who’s now the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], was the Commander of Joint Force Command Naples, I was his Operations Officer, and we took repetitive trips into Iraq, trying to establish a NATO presence as part of the mission.
And so what month we talking about here when you say this? The invasion happens in 2003.
Was it the first year, or the—
I went to—I was in Kosovo till July of 2003, and then I went straight to Naples, Italy. And over the course of the first year is when we started forming this NATO Training Mission—so it was late 2004-early 2005 when I was working from Naples to establish a NATO presence in Iraq.
I see. Now what does that mean—when you say, “working from Naples to establish a NATO presence in Iraq?”
How does that happen?
Yeah. If you look closely at the NATO organizational structure, they have operational commands—one in Brunssum for the northern portion of Europe, and one in Naples for the southern portion of Europe. So as the Operations Officer in Naples, I was responsible for the NATO missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and Macedonia.
There was indeed a move on the part of our government to get a NATO presence in Iraq so it wasn’t just a US issue, it was a multi-national issue. And as you can imagine, there was a lot of resistance with some of the NATO nations to do that. But what we were trying to do is, even if it was going to be a small NATO presence, at least the Commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, who was General Casey at the time, could say, “It’s not just a U.S., it’s a coalition, and oh, by the way, part of this coalition are members of the NATO nations.” So Admiral Mullen and I spent a lot of time working with the NATO leadership to convince member nations of NATO to send small groups of people into Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces.
Now, from the way you just described it, it sounds more like it’s a kind of political or a public posture more than it is operational— that there’s a need to sort of communicate to the world that this is not just the U.S.’s venture, that NATO, with its seal of approval, is there, too.
No, that’s exactly right. I mean, when you added it all up, the members of the NATO Training Mission were about 100 people, total. But that represented about seven of the NATO nations, so we, as a nation, could say, “Hey, we’re in Iraq not just unilaterally, but part of a coalition, and NATO’s here as well.”
But that would seem to me as though that’s a political decision for the individual member countries.
That’s exactly right.
And so that’s what you were working on.
Yeah, that’s why many—over two-thirds—of the member countries refused to send anybody into Iraq, based on opposition of the operations in Iraq. And we’re doing the same thing now in Afghanistan—there is a NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan that’s following a similar construct.
I would’ve thought that that task would’ve been assigned to the diplomatic corps—to try to convince the various national structures to join into the War in Iraq.
Yeah, and indeed it was. Remember, you have military representations to the NATO committee, and you have political representations to the NATO committee. So the U.S. permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council was actively pursuing with his counterparts—
Who was that at the time? That’s okay if you don’t remember.
The name escapes me. But there was a military piece and there was a political piece, as there is in everything we’re doing these days, and that was part of it.
But as the military piece, what is your role in forcing that issue?
Yeah. We formed a command structure for the NATO Training Mission in Iraq. We worked with the Dutch government to get a Major General to command the NATO Training Mission in Iraq. And then, from a military perspective, we worked with the military reps of NATO to get them to donate soldiers to the cause—that’s what we did. So I found myself spending a lot of time, with Admiral Mullen, trying to convince the military leadership to contribute, but they could only contribute if their political leadership said it’s okay. So it was indeed a complicated situation.
Give me a sense of how those conversations went. So you were—were there some countries that were more accommodating than others?
Oh, by all means. I mean, there were—
Who were they?
We could always rely on the British government to contribute. We could rely on the Dutch government to contribute. We knew there was going to be no French contribution. We knew that the Germans, given any particular day, may or may not contribute, depending on what was going on. We ended up having eight or nine nations making small contributions, and now I don’t remember precisely who they were.
Right. And were you instrumental with your counterparts in those various countries where it was still a question of actually affecting the decision?
Oh, by all means.
So the French general that is in charge of NATO forces for France—you would put pressure on him to try to see if he could convince the political leadership there to join?
Oh, exactly. It was a continual conversation. And remember, a lot of these relationships—for example, when I was in Kosovo, my boss—I was the Chief of Staff—the boss was a French three-star named Marcel Valentin. And he was a magnificent operational-level commander. So we had personal and professional connections that we played to. Having said that, the trump card was always the political dimension—whether or not their nation’s leadership wanted to be involved in operations in Iraq.
And in terms of that conversation, is it that your counterparts are asking what functional role their forces could contribute to the War in Iraq, or is it convincing them of the rightness of the American invasion?
What I found over my course of my career, specifically as a general officer, most of it is experiential learning. So I had three years total with NATO, so I learned to realize that within NATO, it was really a function of national caveats—what would the nation do or not do on any given situation? So, for example, when we had a major uprising in Kosovo, many of the member nations there, who professed to be part of an offensive posture, chose not to participate, with a national caveat.
So what we had to do with the military leadership is be conscious of those national caveats and continue to work to get the member nations to contribute, even if it was with a caveat—“Okay, we’ll go and do this, but we won’t do that.” And then, at least—as you mentioned—at least you could say, “Look, this nation is in Iraq,” regardless of the degree of contribution. It was indeed—from an experiential learning case—it was indeed important for me to understand how to structure and execute multi-national operations—and that was a piece of it.
It strikes me that also—it’s something that cadets can learn from this. The skill of persuasion is critical—and not one that you would necessarily think comes into play when you’re training here to join the U.S. Army.
I mean, a book that I require all my subordinates to read as a result of that experience is Getting to Yes: The Art of Building a Consensus.
That Harvard professor, right? That Harvard Law professor, I think.
Exactly. I mean, you can’t walk into a conversation and say, “It’s my way or it’s the highway.” It doesn’t work that way. What you have to do is reach a consensus, and being a general officer, candidly, is the art of compromise. But you’ve got to have red lines—you say, “I won’t go past this, but I’ll negotiate up to that red line.”
Which is counter to what, instinctively, most young soldiers must think a general officer really is. They may think he can make pronouncements and they’re all realized within minutes. But instead, it’s like—it has its political dimension, that—political with a small p.
People have to realize the power of the phrase, “soldier-statesman,” because that’s what you are. And candidly, you’re that way as a lieutenant. These young cadets, as they graduate, they’re going to be placed on a battlefield where there’s a significant coalition presence, and there’s going to be a requirement for compromise. It’s not always going to be their way.
Alright, so take me further now. You’re successful in this—even though you’re only getting a handful of soldiers in Iraq.
Yeah, we made progress—not nearly at the pace that we’d like to have made—and I worked that in Naples for a couple years.
And then in May of 2005, I got orders to deploy to Iraq to be part of General Casey’s staff. Casey was the Commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq. I went into Iraq to be the Deputy Chief of Staff for political, military, and economic affairs. My office was in the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Ambassador was Ambassador Khalilzad, and I spent a lot of time working with the country team to pursue interagency solution to the problems in Iraq.
And after two months of doing that, General Casey called me into his office and said, “In addition to those duties, you’re now the Spokesman for the Force”—because we had an Army mission, and we needed to have an Army face to the mission. Prior to that, the spokesman was an Air Force Brigadier General. We took the organization that I led, called Political, Military, and Economic Affairs, converted it to Strategic Effects, and a piece of that was Strategic Communication, and a portion of that was my role as the Spokesman for the Force. So for a ten-month period of time in Iraq, in addition to working with the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. country team, I was the guy dealing with the media to tell the story of operations in Iraq—and this was during a very difficult time, 2005-2006.
That’s what I want you to do next—tell me where we were in the war when you arrived, then? What stage was it in—what stage the insurgency was in?
Well, it was in a stage of escalation. This was in the spring of 2005 when I arrived. We were doing major combat operations across Iraq. We saw some light at the end of the tunnel. We thought that significant progress was being made, and as a result of that, we could draw down the forces in Iraq. And we had completed a plan for General Casey that would allow us to go from the 20-brigade set, which is what we were working with, to a 10-brigade set by the end of 2006. That was the plan.
One day I’m sitting next to General Casey in one of our post-battle update assessment briefings. He gets handed a three-by-five card by a member of the staff and was told that the Golden Mosque had just been destroyed. The Golden Mosque was, of all the shrines in Iraq, the most sacred of the Shia shrines, and that point in time inflamed all of Iraq. And we had thought we were going to be the 10 brigades by 2006, at the end of 2006—and as you know, it was into this year before we started actually drawing down forces to the level we’re at now.
This year being 2010.
Golden Mosque destroyed by whom?
Sunnis, I assume.
Well, maybe. See, people want to jump to conclusions when it comes to Iraq, and you can’t do that. And it was funny, ’cause when I went to the [Army] War College in 1995, General Chilcoat was the Commandant of the War College, and he taught us to be thinking through things in an era of VUCA, V-U-C-A—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This was 1995, and there was nothing VUCA then compared to what we were dealing with in Iraq in the times I was there—this being 2005-2006.
So when people say, “Well, it was clearly a Sunni extremist that blew that up,” I think that’s naive. You don’t know. When you deal in Iraq, you’re dealing with three groups of people, all of which you could label as bad people. You’re dealing with extremists and terrorists and criminals. The terrorists are doing things, in my mind, for purely philosophical reasons, the extremists are doing things for political reasons, and the criminals are doing things for personal gain. So whenever something bad happened, you always had to ask yourself, which of those three groups did that? Which of those three groups did that?
So it would appear on the surface that Sunni extremists blew up the Golden Mosque. As you study it, there had to be a period of time where the Golden Mosque was rigged for demolition, because it all fell down—it collapsed. So it wasn’t like somebody just drove a truck bomb up and blew it up—it had to be probably weeks’ worth of detailed fabrication of explosives to drop that Golden Mosque on command. The Shias controlled the mosque, so somehow there had to be access to whoever blew it up to set those demolition charges.
So even today, I don’t think anybody can say with certainty who blew up the Golden Mosque, but the effect was pronounced. And it caused—it inflamed the sectarian violence between the Shias and the Sunnis that lasted for the next five years.
Tell me what you witnessed—how would you characterize this tension between the Sunnis and the Shia? And as a bystanding force—nonetheless, a stakeholder and a player in this— how the U.S. forces reacted and how they were seen.
Yeah. Years, decades, centuries of hatred between the Sunni population and the Shia population—and, in recent history, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the Shias were intimidated, massacred, stopped from all growth. So that—
So let’s make this, parenthetically—Saddam, of course, was a Sunni—or a secularist, really, in many ways, the Baathist regime being not exactly a friend to the Sunnis either. But that the Sunnis were really in control as an ethnic force.
Yeah, and the Shias were dominated—during the period of time that Saddam was in charge, the Shias were dominated, the Sunnis were in charge.
I hearken back to my time in Kosovo. What we were trying to do is get the K Albanians to work friendly with the K Serbians. And from a naive perspective, you’d say, “Hey, if you guys would just work together, we could make this place flourish.” One day, one of the leaders of the Kosovar Albanians came to me, saying, “General, you don’t understand.” I said, “What don’t I understand?” He says, “The K Serbs killed three of my brothers and ten of my cousins, and if you think I’m going to forgive them any time soon, you’re mistaken.”
So you have that point of friction in places like Kosovo, and it’s more pronounced in places like Iraq. So there was indeed a problem between the Shia sects and the Sunni sects that was based on years of friction and development of hatred.
How hard is it for an American—and particularly for young Americans, soldiers working in a place like Iraq or a place like Kosovo—to understand this kind of ethnic identification? It’s foreign to us, right?
I mean, we have racial and ethnic identification here, but nothing compared to what we see in these parts of the world.
Yeah. I mean if you don’t become a student of culture before you deploy—regardless whether you’re deploying as a lieutenant or a lieutenant general—you’re going in hampered in the performance of your duties.
If you study the people of Iraq, their identity goes like this—they first identify themselves with their family, then they identify themselves with their tribe, then they identify themselves with their sect, and then they identify themselves as an Iraqi. See, we, as Americans, we’ll identify ourselves, when asked, as an American. That’s our focus. That’s not the way it is in places like Kosovo or Iraq. So you really had to study the influence of the tribes, because a lot of the activity was generated by the tribal elders directing activity.
And these tribes have history that it’s very hard for a foreigner to understand immediately, right? When you talk about some of these resentments, they can go back generations.
Yeah, you had to immerse yourself—yeah, generations is the right answer—you had to immerse yourself with the culture, and the way you did that, is spend a lot of time with the Iraqi people and get them to explain to you what their affinities are. What’s causing them to do whatever they’re doing? I mean, it’s naive just to go in and say, “Okay, we can solve these problems”—without understanding the complexity behind the problems.
How are we viewed by this kind of culture—arriving in there as naïve as we may be about these cultural echoes and resonances? How are we seen locally?
Yeah. We are viewed—we were viewed then and we’re viewed now—as occupiers. As occupiers. I mean, we just got to think from our perspective. If another nation were to be running the streets of America, regardless of what their purpose was, we’d be claiming that they were occupiers. So that’s in the mind of the Iraqi people, both Sunni and Shia alike, and people have to acknowledge that that’s there.
Having said that, during my tenure in Iraq on General Casey’s staff, I had the opportunity to deal with many of the Sunni extremists. It’s about the art of compromise. The solution might not be “kill them all.” And maybe in the course of negotiations, you can talk to them and see what’s causing the trouble, and resolve the problem without resorting to gunfire—maybe. So one of my opportunities was to negotiate with the Sunni extremists from Iraq. They would come into Baghdad, and I had the opportunity to talk to them and say, “Okay, what can we do here?”
Sitting across the table.
Sitting across the table.
Voice to voice.
Voice to voice.
Tell me about one of those encounters.
It was 15 or 16 leaders—as much as they can be called leaders—of Sunni extremists. These were factions—if you were to try to find who’s in charge of the Sunni extremists in Iraq, you couldn’t find him, ’cause there’s not one. There’s factions. So on any given event—and I did this four or five times—leaders of factions would be brought down to Baghdad so I could talk to them.
How did that happen, though? What prompted them to be willing to come sit with you?
The leadership of Iraq—the folks that were currently in power and had been in power, like the Prime Minister—was able to reach out to the folks, regardless of whether they were Sunnis or Shias, and say, “The Americans are willing to talk—just to talk, to see what the opportunities are.” And I was the guy doing that. I had a chance to talk to them. So it was me and a member of the State Department. Normally we did it at Allawi’s house, Prime Minister Allawi’s house, there in Baghdad, and these folks would come in from all around Iraq, and we’d have a conversation about what can we do to end the hostilities.
I told you one of the books that I make everybody read is a book that General Casey made me read when I was in the job, and that’s Getting to Yes. What’s the consensus we can reach here? What’s the compromise? But what they told me in the course of the conversation rings true today. They said, “General, we hate you. We hate the Americans. You’re occupiers. But we hate the Persians worse”—referring to the Shias as “Persians.” So they were willing to accept our presence, because on the tyranny of hatred, we weren’t the most hated—the Persians were. And us being there allowed them to have some latitude that they wouldn’t have had if we left and a Shia-dominated government could take control of the operations.
Now, in these meetings at Allawi’s house, you’re working through an interpreter?
And how difficult is that?
Oh, it’s extremely difficult. I mean, in an ideal world, all of our leaders from all levels would be linguists—in an ideal world. I studied Russian at the Military Academy—it served me well on a couple of occasions ’cause I had Russians working for me in Kosovo, and I had Georgians working for me when I was a division commander in Iraq. And even though they don’t want to speak Russian, they can speak Russian.
Ideally, before you deploy into a theater, you become a master of that language, because it facilitates, obviously, communication. And when you’re working through an interpreter, you have to make sure you’ve got the right interpreter—Number One. That he’s saying what you said, and he’s saying what they said. Because if you don’t have the right interpreter, you don’t know how the conversation went. So it’s a whole added dimension. Luckily, the guy from the State Department that was with me spoke Arabic, so he had some insights into how it comes—
Was he the interpreter, though, or he was—
No, he wasn’t the interpreter.
And so the interpreter—you have to decide, I guess, whether the interpreter’s going to be a Shia or a Sunni, too, right? I mean is that —already that’s going to hold up a suspicious level for the Sunni leadership of these factions, right, if he’s a Shia?
Most of our interpreters for senior leaders in Iraq were Americans. Not American soldiers, but rather Iraqis—Americans of Iraqi descent—who offered to come back to help interpret. So you were conscious in conversation whether their background was a Shia background or a Sunni background, and if you sensed some specific leaning, you had to be sensitive to that, no doubt about it.
But working through an interpreter is complicated. I mean, I still to this day don’t understand. I’m the Chief of Staff of Kosovo—29 nations, 600 people—I’m there as the guy in charge. I’ve got six general officers that are working for me from different nations, and those folks could speak four or five different languages—they could.
So you’re sitting around with these—let’s say with one faction’s leaders. One at a time, I guess, right, ’cause you can’t possibly bring all the factions in together?
Well, we didn’t even know then nor do we know today how many factions there were. All I do know is when we had these conversations, it was about 16 people having a conversation with me and this member of the State Department. And they were disheveled, they were clearly exhausted, and they were willing to talk about what we could do and what they could do. The problem was, in the absence of a central leader, you couldn’t solve all the problems. You could solve a local problem.
And what kind of problems are we talking about? We’re talking about problems of safety, and are we talking about problems of ownership, or all the above?
Well, it’s problems of all the above. See, what people have to understand—right now we’re talking about my time in Iraq as a member of General Casey’s staff. But I went away, eight months later, I came back as a division commander, and spent 15 more months on the battlefield. And what people have to understand is the solution in places like Iraq is not a military solution. It’s a solution of “all of the above.” I spent as much time in all my jobs in Iraq focused on capacity-building— building the government, building the economy, getting jobs, getting people employed, getting things working again, like the flow of water—as I did capturing and killing people.
So the modern soldier needs to be a multi-tasker, essentially— right? Needs to be able to be a politician, a police chief, garbage collector, engineer—as well as being a soldier?
Yeah, I mean, gone are the days where we need commissioned officers who have one skill set. I was an engineer officer, as we talked about earlier. For ten years, I was an armor officer. I commanded a tank battalion and a tank brigade. That’s simple—doing one thing—that’s simple. In today’s battlefield, you’re doing multiple things simultaneously, and you’ve got to be good at all of them.
When I went back as a division commander in a place called Arab Jabour—which is a very, very difficult place that we couldn’t touch before the surge, and the surge gave us the troops to touch it—we had six months of continuous combat operations, in which we killed or captured 6,000 members of the insurgency in that little area and turned that place around. But immediately, then, I had to turn my focus on capacity-building. How am I going to get the economy up? How am I going to get the government established? How am I going to get the road networks working? How am I going to get the clinics built, the schools going? And those are skill sets that I didn’t have, nor did any of my staff have, ’cause we weren’t trained on capacity-building—but that was the situation that we were in.
So how do you acquire those skills on the ready like that?
Well, we did it based on experiential learning, but that’s the wrong way to do it. I mean, I had all sorts of money—
Experiential learning essentially means trial and error, right?
Exactly. I had all sorts of money available to me as a division commander in Iraq. We called it CERP funds, Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds—CERP funds. So I would find myself routinely deciding to throw CERP funds at a problem, and not really sure whether or not it was going to address the essence of the problem.
So, for example, my battle space, in previous years, had been the breadbasket of Iraq. It was the land between the rivers. It’s where all the wheat was grown. And all that was happening there when I was there was nothing—just dirt and sand. So we’re figuring out, well, how do we get the agriculture going again? So we would buy seed, and we would buy fertilizer, and we’d try to get the irrigation systems working, with really no idea what we were doing. But we were just doing it because we knew it needed to be done.
We continued to work to get interagency involvement in what we were doing in Iraq. So, for example, having somebody from the Department of Agriculture, who really knew about growing things, on your team, was invaluable. And what I found over time is they would show up in drips and drabs. There’d be one guy or two guys from USAID, or from Department of Agriculture, or something, and they’d become an important member of your staff, giving advice and counsel. That’s what we did.
Same with building governments, we were building local governments in Iraq. We spent a lot of time focused on the national government, but the day-to-day operations were being handled by the local government. Now, who’s the mayor? Who’s the provincial council? Who are those people, and how do you get them to do what they need to do? I tell the story all the time of—here’s this guy from Texas who, given necessities, had become an expert chicken farmer and fish farmer. Because in my battle space, that was their source of livelihood prior to the war. There were a thousand fish farms, and there were probably that many chicken farms as well. So we had to figure out how to help the Iraqi people take these fish—these baby fish, these fingerlings—take them to their fish farm, grow them to some level of vibrancy, and transport them to market.
We were doing that—as a staff of a heavy division, that’s what we were doing. We actually designed a truck to allow them to transport fish to market. We actually figured out how we’d put the right stuff in their local farms, so these fish could grow. In the chicken farming business, we went to Holland and bought 50,000 fertilized eggs, brought them down into the battle space, set up these incubators. I learned more about growing chickens and growing fish than I ever wanted to know or thought I’d need to know, but that was what we were doing.
Because in Iraq, candidly, on any given day, you probably only had about 10,000 terrorists or extremists, but you had a whole bunch of people shooting at you. And they were shooting at you because that was their only source of livelihood, and they were being paid by the terrorists and extremists to go shoot at Americans or plant roadside bombs. So we figured out if we could get them a livelihood so they could take care of their family—remember, the essence of an Iraqi is their identity with their family, they’re men of honor—and if you could figure out how to pay them or help them with their livelihood so they can take care of the family, they didn’t need to shoot at you. That’s how you turn the tide, by building capacity.
And then we spent a lot of time with the Sons of Iraq program that a lot of folks have talked about. You take these people, who are really about the security of their area—that’s what they wanted, they wanted just like you and I want. They want their kids to be able to go to school. They want to have a job. They want to be able to flourish. They want to have health care. They’re no different than we are—they just speak a different language. So how do you get them to help you secure their local areas? How do you do that?
So we started the Sons of Iraq program, where we would pay the members of the village $8 a day to secure their environment. And indeed, we’d find ourselves in situations where 78-year-old men would be sitting on the edge of their village with a knife, controlling access into the village. Because they knew—they knew who the terrorists were, they knew who the extremists were. They wanted a secure environment, and if indeed you could give them a source of livelihood—like fish farming, poultry farming, or pay them as a member of Sons of Iraq—then they’re going to secure their own area.
Now, this is later—this is during the surge when this happened, isn’t that right?
Well, it started during my second tour.
Let’s stay for a moment with your first tour, though, because I still have more questions.
Tell me a little bit about—
But all these things we’re talking about carried over in both the tours.
Oh, I’m sure they did, yeah.
So General Casey—give me a sense of who he was, what it was like working with him, for him, what kind of challenges he faced, how he responded to them.
He is a magnificent human being. He is the ultimate war fighter. He is the perfect soldier-statesman. He’s a dedicated patriot. He spent 32 months of his life continuously in command of Multi-National Force-Iraq. There was not a job more complicated, more complex, more demanding. The very fact that he could do it for 32 continuous months, I still find to be amazing. He was very astute to what the issues were. He gave absolutely clear guidance—not just to the soldiers on the battlefield, but members of his staff, like me, as to what we needed to try to accomplish. He was always thinking three steps ahead—not today’s problem, but what’s the problem of the future. And he, indeed, was the person, in my mind, who turned Iraq around—but he doesn’t get any of the credit, and I have a problem with that.
How do you see that he turned Iraq around?
Well, it was constant, deliberate focus on operations, in all the lines of effort—on the security line of effort, on the communication line of effort, on the economic line of effort, on the government’s line of effort. It was relentless pursuit of accomplishment. And nothing happens in Iraq—or Afghanistan—at the pace that you want it to happen. It just doesn’t happen that quick. It takes a while, and he just had this continual passion to work his way through the issue.
Did you know him before you worked for him?
Yeah, when I was a battalion commander in the 1st Cavalry Division, for a period of time he was a brigade commander of a sister brigade, so we were in the same division at the same time, but I didn’t work for him. I didn’t really come in routine contact with him until I had that NATO mission in Naples and was trying to bring NATO into Iraq—and then when I came back to be a member of his staff.
Now, you were in charge of handling the press during this time.
Had you ever done anything like that before?
And what was the experiential learning that you underwent in that process?
Well, it went kinda like this. Two months into the job, General Casey calls me in and said, “You’re now the Spokesman for the Force.” I explained to him I didn’t want to be the Spokesman for the Force. He explained to me I didn’t have a choice. No media training. When you become a general officer, they run you through two or three hours’ worth of media training, where they set you down like this and you look at a camera, but there is really no learning taking place—you’re just checking a block.
And to be thrown in front of the camera—can you imagine—this was in 2005, things were going wrong in Iraq. The media were always looking for bad news stories. I still today declare the national media to be a national embarrassment. It bothers me.
We would bring reporters to the battlefield, and I’d take them out as a spokesman, and later as a division commander, to see good things and to see bad things, and all it would ever play was bad things. I had senior editors of major newspapers in my office in Baghdad, and I’d say, “Why is that? Why, if I show you good things and bad things, you only print the bad news?” He looked me in the eye and said, “Bad news sells newspapers.” Same with the televised media—it was an amazing thing to me that if I showed them clinics and schools and happy people, and they’d get it on tape, it would never show in the national media. But if it blew up, it would—and they’d tell me, “If it bleeds, it leads. That’s what we do.” And I still find that to be frustrating.
Anyway, on a daily basis, for ten months in Iraq as the spokesman for the force and the Director for Strategic Effects, I was engaged with the media. Every Thursday, there was a press conference where live TV, 30 members of the media grilling me with questions and answers—much like you see spokesmen do these days, but it was a very hostile environment. And I had not been trained for that, so it was—
Was that smart on the part of the leadership, to give you that kind of assignment when you had not any training?
Well, none of us had been trained. See, that’s the whole point. We’ve learned now, over time, that we’ve got to do more than the four-hour block of instruction for our General Officer Corps, because it’s not just the spokesman for the force carrying the message, but everybody’s got to carry the message. And you can’t be hesitant to engage with the media—you’ve got to be proactive with the media. So we’ve got better over time. But early, we weren’t as prepared as we should’ve been.
What did you learn in terms of lessons or advice that you would give to someone put in the position of dealing with the media in the future?
Yeah. I do this all the time. I teach classes on strategic communication and dealing with the media. There’s really three things. One is, you have to be very proactive with the media. You’ve got to take them places—you’ve got to get them out of the Green Zone in Baghdad, you’ve got to put them on a helicopter—you’ve got to take them places. You’ve got to be transparent with them, you’ve got to be open—when they call and want a interview, you’ve got to grant them the interview. You’ve got to establish personal relationships with members of the press. You’ve got to do that—regardless of whether you want to do it, you’ve got to do it.
In the course of the interview, it’s impossible to get in trouble with the media, as long as you don’t violate two things. One is, you can’t lie, ’cause if you lie, you’re going to get caught in the lie. Commissioned officers don’t lie anyway. I was taught here at West Point that you won’t lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those that do—so commissioned officers normally don’t lie. But if you lie at the media, it’s terminal, ’cause they’ll catch you in the lie. And the second thing is, you’ve got to stay in your lane. You’ve got to talk about things that you’re involved with, and if you get asked a question that’s outside your lane, don’t pontificate—just talk about the stuff you know.
And then you use the Colin Powell adage. Colin Powell taught us when you deal with the media, they get to ask the questions, you get to give the answers, and they don’t have to match. So what are your messages you’re trying to get out—what are those points that you want to keep hammering home. I mean, strategic communication is consistent themes and messages delivered at high frequency over multiple media. So what are those consistent themes and messages you want to get out. And every chance you get out, whether it’s a TV interview or print interview—in today’s world, whether it’s social media—consistently get those themes and messages out at high frequency, and use all the different media, and you might get your word out.
So this is the old “answer the question you want to be asked, not necessarily the question you were asked.”
No, that’s exactly right. I find many of my colleagues struggling in interviews because they haven’t prepared themselves with “what are these messages I’m trying to get out.” And they were in a reactive mode dealing with the reporter, who was trying to pull a string on something, and they found themselves in an awkward situation.
You ever have any blunders through this process?
Talk about some of those.
I’ve made multiple mistakes. As I think through the every Thursday event, I spent a lot of time preparing, a lot of time preparing. But it would seem that every Thursday morning prior to the interview, something bad would happen, and I’d be caught unawares. So rather than just say, “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you,” you try to feed them the information you do have, and if that’s not enough, they’ll call you on it, so. You cannot—and I made this mistake—keep saying, “It’s under investigation,” because they get tired of hearing that answer. At some point in time, you’ve got to give them what you know, and not just say, “It’s under investigation.”
So not only can you not lie, you shouldn’t stonewall, either, in a sense—right?
Yeah. You can’t stonewall. They know when they’re being— they, the media—know when they’re being stonewalled. You’ve got to be—you’ve got to give them as much as you can. Remember, they’re doing their job. They’re trying to tell the story, and they’re either going to tell your story, or they’re going to tell their story, and your technique has to be to get them to tell your story.
Did you form relationships with certain reporters that ended up being really important to you and important to conveying the story completely to the press?
Yeah, I found certain members of the media to be very easy to deal with, and certain members of the media that would routinely try to help me tell a story I wanted to get out, as long as I helped them shape their story, and I found that. So I developed personal relationships. What I do advocate is, in dealing with the media, you’re never off the record. People find themselves in awkward situations, and they’re being told, “Hey, this is off the record,” and then it comes back to bite them later. So what I’ve realized in the course of my career is, you’re never having a casual conversation with a member of the media.
Of course, even if you go off the record, they know that and incorporate that in their understanding of whatever is the next thing that they’re writing, right?
Well, that’s exactly right.
So nothing’s really off the record anyway, because it’s impossible—it’s like erasing part of their brain.
Well, that’s exactly right. So you’ve just got to—you’ve got to be cautious. They’re not evil people. See, there’s only a few people out there who I consider to be evil, and none of them are members of the media. They’re not evil people, but they got a job they’re trying to do, and you got a job you’re trying to do, and you’ve got to work that out.
So that ends your first appointment—is that right—to Iraq, was the—
Yeah, I was—we just talked about the STRATCOM piece of what I did with Strategic Effects, but I also did all the stuff with the U.S. Embassy and the country team, trying to make sure that we approached the issues in Iraq in a interagency perspective and not just the military perspective—and that was difficult.
Let’s continue with that a little bit. So when you’re saying that, you’re really talking about some of the things you mentioned before about expanding the range of tasks that you needed to conduct and manage, right, beyond just the military.
Remember, I just told you that I found myself doing lots of things in Iraq for which I was not prepared, but there were members of the interagency who were supposed to do that for a living. I mean, if you’re trying to get things growing, you got the Department of Agriculture. If you’re trying to establish international aid, you got the USAID chief for international aid—USAID. If you’re trying to build governance, you got the Department of State.
The reason the military found themselves doing it a lot is ’cause nobody else was there. You had a small presence of the State Department and the other members of the interagency there in Iraq, doing the best they can, but it was a small presence. I mean, they’ll tell you today, the Department of State, if you add everybody together, is smaller than one of our brigade combat teams. And in Iraq, we had 100,000 people or so—soldiers. We had a handful of members of the State Department.
We tried to create these things called Provisional Reconstruction Teams—PRTs. Ambassador Khalilzad had been in Afghanistan, where they had set up PRTs, and brought that idea into Iraq, and he called General Casey and I in his office and said, “Hey, we got this idea for PRTs in Iraq. Let’s make this happen.” So we designed these Provincial Reconstruction Teams. There’s 18 provinces in Iraq, and we’re going to put a PRT in each place, and it’d have a military component, have a State Department component, a USAID component—it was interagency at best.
But we could never get those resourced by anybody other than the military. So you found yourself as the military doing the work of the State Department, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Treasury, those kinds of things. And that continued to evolve—when I went back again as a division commander, the PRTs were better resourced, but still not adequately resourced, so that was a major piece of my first deployment, is deal with the interagency and try to solicit support for what we’re doing in Iraq.
We’ll come back to this at the end of the interview, of our last interview. But I’m just struck by the number of things that you learned that if you were drafting a plan for this invasion in the future, you would have changed or have different. I mean, it sounds like this is one of them.
Yeah, no doubt about it. I think we’ve all grown from this experience. And we understand, it’s not just about the initial phases of the operation. You’ve got to plan out in detail all aspects of the operation, to include when you’re evolving from combat operations to capacity-building and national reconstruction. You’ve got to think through all aspects of that.
You’re talking about capacity-building and national reconstruction, and all these different skills that you needed to get on the ready. It strikes me that one component of doing this is— It’s one thing if you’re doing this in the middle of western Texas. It’s another thing if you’re doing it in the middle of Iraq. And not only is it a strange place, but it’s a place that had to be rife with corruption, particularly in the chaos of the post-war period. Did you find that?
Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s a significant piece of what you’re dealing with over there. Somebody coined the idea of clear, hold, and build. I was in Iraq when that phrase was starting to gain some traction. It wasn’t anything we generated within Iraq, but it became the thing we were all talking about. And if you think about what we were doing, generally it mapped out what we were doing. You first did the major combat operations and cleared an area—cleared an area from the criminals, the insurgents, and the extremists—and that’s still very important. I’m not convinced that the people have captured the fact that it’s not all about insurgents. It’s about bad people doing a variety of bad things. So once you clear it, then you figure out how to hold it by a permanent presence. And then you can start building—and then you can start building.
You got to be thinking about the building piece before you start the clearing operation—you have to do it. Do I have the assets available? Do I have the resources? Do I have the people necessary to do the building piece? And don’t launch the clearing piece until you’ve got the building piece laid on. We haven’t—when we start talking about my operations as a division commander, I’ll talk about it in some level of detail— but you have to think through all aspects of it. You’ve got to be thinking about reconstruction before you’re thinking about launching artillery shells.
What sort of obstacles does the corruption pose to you, though?
Oh—you just accept the fact that the corruption is there. See, if you try to impose your will—I was having a major conversation with the National Security Advisor in Iraq when I was there the first time. And what had happened is he had told me something on one day, and the next day he said something totally different, and I confronted him. I said, “Hey, yesterday you said this. Today you’re saying this. Why’d you do that?” He says, “In Iraq, sometimes one man has to be two people.” That’s foreign to us, as Americans. This is what we do, this is what we say, this is what we’re going to continue to do. But he explained to me that sometimes in Iraq, one man has to be two people.
We knew for a fact that we were doing operations using money as a punition. A lot of that money was going to be filtered from the top for corruption, and a portion of the money would go to do what you’re trying to accomplish—that was there. You tried to work through that the best you could, but you just acknowledged that it was there. And you could confront them all day long, but it wasn’t going to change anything.
So there’s always somebody—you sort of calculate that into the equation, that you’re going to have some money skimmed off the top—somebody’s going to pull this string or that string to get their own self-interest taken care of.
You just have to accept the fact. That doesn’t mean that you think it’s right, but you can’t impose your culture on other people. That’s the way it is in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And we can talk about it all we want to talk about it, but if you’re trying to get something done, you’ve got to accept it, and then you’ve got to work around it. That’s where you are.
Did you find the civilian leadership—Bremer was still in control when you were there?
When I was working my way into Iraq as part of the NATO force, Bremer was there. When I came back for my first complete tour in Iraq, it was Ambassador Khalilzad.
I see. So—
And it was—yeah.
Did you find them to be in concert with what you wanted to do or needed to do, or did you find them to be an obstacle?
Well, when you talk about being culturally aware, it’s also inter-culture issues within the U.S. government. You’ve got to be aware of the State Department culture, you’ve got to be aware of the culture of USAID. And early in my tenure, I’m trying to think out, “Why can’t they do things the way we do things in the military?” And then you realize, they haven’t been trained to do that, and it’s not the way they normally do business.
For example, we are, in the military, master planners—now, acknowledging what I just said around doing a good job planning a reconstruction first—we’re getting better at that. But we spend a lot of time with the military decision-making process, doing mission analysis, developing a course of action, making the decision, writing a plan, and executing. The State Department doesn’t do that, and you have to acknowledge the fact that they don’t do it that way.
So there was a cultural awareness that I learned by dealing with the interagency process. None of them were evil. The problem that we had is that there wasn’t enough of them, and when they did come in, they had significant restrictions as to where they could go. You couldn’t run Iraq from the Green Zone—it didn’t work that way. You had to get out. You had to mount up on the helicopter, walk the streets, meet with the locals, to get things done. A lot of the members of the interagency were restricted to stay within the Green Zone.
So that made it much harder for you, I imagine, because from the Army’s point of view, you have knowledge that they don’t have.
Right—no, exactly. And it got better over time. We’re still talking about what was there in 2005 and 2006. I mean, the State Department—the Director, the Secretary of State acknowledged that they needed to get more people there. They were working to incentivize. See, in all my deployments, nobody ever came to me and said, “Would you like to go?” They say, “Go.” In the State Department, you had to say, “Would you like to go?” And they could say “Yes” or “No.” So I know they were working to incentivize deployments, I think they were working to try to be able to be more directive—but it’s part of the cultural issues.
All right, so let’s go to your second tour—We’re going to the division command period—tell me how that happened.
Yeah, so I’m in Iraq from May of 2005 till May of 2006. General Casey calls me in his office in the April time frame and says, “You’ve just been selected to command the 3rd Infantry Division—the Rock of the Marne—and you’re going to leave Iraq in May, and you’re going to take command of the division in June of 2006.” So I packed up out of Iraq, went to pick up my family, who was still in Texas, brought them to Fort Stewart, Georgia, and assumed command of the 3rd Infantry Division in June of 2006.
This must’ve been very exciting for you as a career soldier—this is a terrific assignment, right?
Yeah. I mean, it was—I had mentioned it earlier, that when I looked at my military career at the beginning, my aspiration was to be a battalion commander. And when I walked in the battalion command in 1993, I declared victory. That was what I wanted to do. So I commanded the 1st Battalion of the 8th Cavalry, Mustangs, my way, 1993 to 1995, and I just had a blast. As I look back on my career, the time I cherish most is my time as a battalion commander, ’cause you’re right there amongst the soldiers and their families. You can touch them everyday. You got about 800 people in an Armored Task Force, and it’s powerful.
Anyway, every day since then has been about service, so I never found myself aspiring to be a brigade commander or be a division commander or be a general officer. I never did that, but it was about service. So given the opportunity to command at the division level was indeed a great opportunity to serve—and to do it in a storied division like the 3rd Infantry Division. I had never been in the 3rd Infantry Division until I took command of the 3rd Infantry Division. I had never been on Fort Stewart until I took command of Fort Stewart. So it goes back to experiential learning. But in June of 2006, it was indeed a great big deal in my military career to assume command from Major General Glenn Webster and become Marne Six.
And what was the first—how did you greet the division—let me put it that way?
Yeah. The division had deployed under the command of General Webster, and I just recently—
Right from the beginning of the war, right?
Yeah, right. They were part of the march to Baghdad—a critical part of the march to Baghdad, yeah. So it was a storied division not just from the World War I days and the Marne River, but throughout, and they had made a significant contribution in Iraq in their first deployment. And I was going to lead them on their second deployment (and they just returned from their third deployment). But the focus was preparing for that next deployment, and I had a general idea of when we were going to go back to Iraq and where we were going to go when we went to Iraq, so as I greeted the division, I talked about accolades for what they had done, and talking about preparing for what we will do.
Because the essence of it was preparing for combat operations and redeployed in theater in a very difficult time. We thought we had about 12 months to prepare—until the surge was announced. And what we found ourselves was once the surge was announced, an element of the surge were the brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division and the division headquarters. So when I had scheduled a six-month training window to deploy the division headquarters to the north to take command of Multi-National Division-North, that was truncated from six months to six weeks. And I was going to create—not just assume command of—but create a Multi-National Division-Center, looking at the southern belts and the southern provinces of Iraq. So the focus from Day 1 was on combat operations, preparing for deployment. We had no idea that we were to deploy as quick as we did, and that was a issue of the Surge.
Now, when that happens, are you frustrated with your leadership, like, “I need my six months—I’m going in there unprepared now?” Or do you just accept the assignment? I know that “stiff upper lip” is the motto or whatever—you do what you have to do—but inside, are you saying your frustration is just boiling over at that point?
What you learn from deployments in the theater is the absolute need for flexibility. If you think you’re going to predict the future, it’s not going to happen. So when it was announced, I can’t say I was surprised. It was interesting how it played out. I took command in June of 2006, and in January of 2007, we were doing one of our early training exercises in preparation for deployment. And I just sent my leadership to Iraq, to northern Iraq, to do a reconnaissance and meet me at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas—and that was in January of 2007.
Then I get a phone call from Ray Odierno, who’s the corps commander in Iraq at that time, and he says, “Hey, Rick, don’t think about coming in six months—think about coming in in six weeks. Don’t think about going north—think about going south.” I had the leadership all together, and it was interesting how it played out, ’cause we were all there thinking about a deployment in six months and going north—and in the course of the conversation, that all changed. It all changed. But the power of the American Army is we have that level of flexibility. So to answer your question, I wasn’t frustrated. If it was what the nation needed us to do, that’s what we were going to do. I did find myself having to draw a red line in the sand, because there was this drumbeat to get in there early, get in there early, get in there early—and I refused to go there early and unprepared.
And I knew precisely what I needed to do to train the division headquarters and my brigades to deploy, based on my experience. So, for example, they say “Division headquarters have to be able to do these 137 tasks when they deploy to theater.” And if I had six months to train the division headquarters for those, I would’ve got it done, but I knew I couldn’t do that. So I said, “Of those 137, what are the most critical?” And I found 38 tasks that I knew I had to be able to do, and I focused on those during that six-week training period.
What are they? Give me an example of what you mean by that. Just give me a handful of those 38 tasks.
Well, first off, they’re critical command and control tasks. You’re going to go into theater—we, as an army, are now based—we’re modular, a modular army. I was going to go into theater and command and control brigades that weren’t part of the 3rd Infantry Division. So establishing command and control of unknown forces in an unknown area was job Number One—figure out how to do that. So I had a brigade from the 10th Mountain Division that worked for me, a brigade from the 25th Infantry Division that worked for me. Over time, I had a brigade from the 82nd, a brigade from the 101st—so you had to be able to do that, so you had to figure out what was the battle space, and how’re you going to establish those command and control linkages? That was Job 1.
You knew there were going to be critical tasks that you had to be able to do as division headquarters to allocate resources. See, in theater, what you’re doing to await the main effort, is you’re allocating resources. And those resources might be people, it might be time, it might be money—but you had to be skilled at that capability before you deployed. You had to be skilled on certain tasks, like downed aircraft recovery, ’cause you knew you probably would have to encounter that, and as a division headquarters, you’re going to control the assets to make that happen. So we focused on that—and oh, by the way, the first week after we got there, we were doing a downed aircraft mission.
Is that right.
So it was the right thing to focus on in training, and I’m glad that we did—so those kinds of things. You cull from that large list, what are those things you know you need to do. You dialogue with your commander—in this case, it was Ray Odierno. And I was Ray’s Assistant Division Commander in the 4th Division, when Ray was the 4th Division Commander—so we already had a personal relationship. And I said, “Okay, well, define for me precisely what you want my division headquarters to do in theater.” And he said, “You’ve got to block the accelerance of violence into Baghdad.” So we had to figure out what that meant while we were in training, and then focus on those tasks.
So six weeks later, you’re deploying.
Yep, and we went in March, and created—
Of ’07 now.
March of ’07, and created Multi-National Division, the Center, on the 1st of April of 2007.
Now, tell me, as you’re doing this—now, there had been a debate here at home as to whether the surge was necessary, and whether it was taking us deeper into a war that’s already unpopular. We also had, early on in the war, a feeling, I think shared across the Army, that there were not enough soldiers in Iraq deployed to be able to handle the tasks necessary. You also knew from your own personal experience there, that only the Army had enough people to handle the kinds of tasks that, when you were there, you were asked to do—that you’re actually doing State Department work, and AID work, and all. So how did you feel, personally, about the decision of the surge? Was it too little too late, was it the right moment, was it going to be effective, did you worry about its effectiveness?
Yeah. The phrase they taught me as a cadet at West Point applied. It was intuitively obvious to the casual observer that we needed more troops in Iraq. All the time I was there, it was clear. You could talk to the platoon leaders, to the division commanders—and the resounding theme was we didn’t have enough troops.
From the beginning of the war, straight through.
From the beginning of the war, straight through. What we had enough troops to do was to conduct operations and then leave. It doesn’t work that way in counterinsurgency operations. You can’t conduct an operation and then leave—’cause if you do that, you might’ve had limited success, but when you leave, everybody you left behind are going to be massacred, because they helped the Coalition. So you really had to do this clear, whole build—and you could only do that if you had adequate troops. And if you didn’t have adequate troops, it wasn’t going to happen.
Let me pause you here. Going back to the first days of the war, is this going to the top of the Pentagon leadership, a mistake in judgment as to what kind of war we were getting into?
Well, I think General Shinseki said it best. He said, “We think we’re going to need about this many troops to be able to accomplish the mission that we think is going to play out in Iraq.” And then we went in with less than that number, and I think that was a mistake.
And General Shinseki was punished for saying that.
Well, I’ve got five mentors in the United States Army—he’s one of the mentors. He was my division commander when I was a battalion commander. He’s a man of principle. He was asked a question, he answered the question based on his professional knowledge. And indeed, as you say—whether you call it punishment or not—he was listened to less as a result of that.
Alright, coming back to the question of the Surge, then—
A decision that was welcome then and should’ve been made earlier—is that what your feeling was, if you go with your sense of the lack of troops?
Oh, by all means. I mean, there was no doubt in our mind—where were those areas that we needed to reach out and touch. And we could if we had sufficient forces. So the area that I occupied—in the southern belts of Baghdad, in the southern provinces—was that area that all along we knew if we’d had more troops we could turn it around, and we didn’t have enough troops, so we could never turn it around. This place called Arab Jabour, which is southeast of Baghdad, was a den of iniquity of al-Qaeda—we knew that all along. We knew it all along.
Of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Yeah, al-Qaeda in Iraq. We could reach out and smack ’em, but then we would leave. And that’s the reason you couldn’t build this security. See, when we talk about the Sons of Iraq, it was clear to me what was happening. If you went to a place and conducted an operation, the locals would ask two questions. The first question was, “Are you going to stay?” And if you convinced them the answer was “Yes,” the next question was, “How can we help?” But if they weren’t convinced you were going to stay, they weren’t going to help you, because they were going to be retaliated against once you left.
So the troop surge gave us the forces we needed to take operations in Iraq. And I’m still amazed to this day people want to debate whether or not the surge was successful. I mean, we turned that place around. It was major combat operations at the beginning part of the Surge. We worked to build capacity after the combat operations, and that allowed us to get to the state of play we’re in today.
So when you could reach out and you could smack al-Qaeda in Iraq—until you had the Surge, we couldn’t—we wouldn’t—because we knew what the repercussions would be.
Yeah, exactly. And if we did it, we put everybody, all the locals, at risk. When I was talking to the Sunni insurgents in my previous tour, they would remind me of that—“Hey, if you guys will stay, we’ll help. But if you ain’t going to stay, all you’re going to do is ’cause a problem that we got to respond to once you leave.”
Was some of this the residue of the first Gulf War, too, with the impression that we left with was that we did not complete the task. We didn’t go to Baghdad. You know what I’m referring to.
Yeah, it could be. I mean, it could be. It’s hard to think for them, but they could’ve watched the pattern with the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo—how committed are you, how long are you going to stay?
The irony here, of course, is that part of their resentment is that we’re an occupying force. And yet, what they want us to do is to stay and be an occupying force.
Well, it’s the lesser of the evils, that’s what it is. I mean, if you’re there, you’re an occupier. If you leave, they’re going to be intimidated. Maybe you should stay. It’s the yin and the yang.
Well, it’s the fact that when you’re in these countries where these ethnic tensions are so rich, and where people are still having to live together—it’s like what happened when the iron hand leaves Yugoslavia. All those old ethnic tensions boil over— there’s nobody to keep control of it. So the occupying force plays that role, is that right?
See, there’s—when I give presentations these days, I highlight two of my concerns for our nation. One concern is we have a short-term memory. There’s a large number of the American people who’ve forgot all about 9/11. In fact, today, if you were to ask the American people what’s on their mind, what worries them, in a list of 1 to 10, the top would be the economy, the deficit. Number 10 would be the global war on terrorism, ’cause we forgot what happened.
Of course we forgot, because there hasn’t been another major terrorist attack since 9/11, which may have been because we attacked it like that.
Exactly. The second concern I have is our nation wants to rush to a conclusion. We went to Bosnia for a year— remember—about 20 years ago. This issue in Iraq and Afghanistan is not going to be solved any time soon. The Army leadership is very clear—“We think we’re at war for another decade. We’ve been at war for a decade. We think we’re at war for another decade, as we work our way through this global war on terrorism.” So this whole idea that it’s going to be solved sometime soon—nobody believes that, nobody in uniform believes that—because of the years of hatred, the difficulty in establishing a government, the difficulty in establishing an economy—and if you walk away prematurely, it goes back to the way it was.
There again, something I’d like to come back to later, but are you optimistic for Iraq, or are you pessimistic for Iraq, as we withdraw?
I’m realistic for Iraq, which tends toward pessimism. Sitting there in Iraq, 2006, Golden Mosque blows up, everything changes. There are still people in Iraq who don’t want us to leave. This whole idea that we’re going to leave is causing some people some concern, so they could do something that would cause us to have to stay longer, or make a decision to leave anyway.
The struggle with the government of Iraq in establishing their government—even though we helped them through establishing an infrastructure and conducting elections—I mean, you see where we are now? What, eight or nine months after the elections, we still haven’t formed a government? And when they do form a government, they’re talking about ostracizing the Sunni population —that’s a problem. So when you ask me if I’m optimistic or pessimistic, I’m realistic, based on years of experience—and candidly, that probably verges towards pessimism.
So back to—you went with the 3rd ID.
You arrived in-country—then what happens?
Interesting. There wasn’t even a division headquarters for us to occupy, because Multinational Division-Center did not exist. Multi-National Division-Baghdad had that entire area—not just Baghdad, but all the surrounding areas, to include the southern provinces of Karbala, Najaf, Wasit province—those are all General Joe Fil’s problem. Joe Fil commanded the 1st Cavalry Division, he is my best friend in the United States Army. But MND-B had too much of an area of responsibility, so General Odierno said, “We’ve got to bring in another division headquarters and create a new Multi-National Division. Let’s call it Multi-National Division-Center.” And he wanted our headquarters to be at Victory Base to facilitate coordination with the 1st Cavalry Division, so we actually occupied a barracks complex. We went from a barracks complex to division headquarters in the course of about three months, and you can imagine the complexity of that.
As I say, immediately we fell in and took control of battle space that had already been occupied by elements of 10th Mountain Division, 25th Infantry Division. So I had to establish myself as the commander for those brigades who’d been serving in combat for eight or ten months. So that was a complexity that we dealt with right away. It shows the strength of the modular Army because I knew what their capability were, because that’s what we trained. We trained to standard, so we worked through that.
It was never any feeling, in that instance, either from you or from those you’re leading that, “What does this guy know? How could he come in here now and take over when we’ve been doing this?”
Oh, that feeling’s always there. I mean, you’re naive if you believe that it’s not. So here’s a new guy coming in—even though I’ve been in Iraq before—and I’m now the division commander of this battle space that they’ve been occupying eight or ten months. And if I’d have went in and said, “Okay, here’s my plan, here’s what we’re going to do,” I’d have met with great resistance. So what I trained my staff to do, is they get there and listen more than we talk. For about the first six weeks, get a sense of what’s going on, what the complications are—and then impose our will as the division headquarters.
So what’d you learn from these guys as you got in there? What were the peculiarities to this part of Iraq?
Well, it became very clear to me, those voids that we had to fill with the elements of the Surge as they came in. Remember, the division headquarters went in as the headquarters, but the surge brigades didn’t come in at the same time I did. So I had to be figuring out where am I going to place the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Division, and the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Division—and then, ultimately, the 4th Brigade of the 3rd Division—as they arrived in as part of the Surge. And I had to spend a lot of time talking to the guys on the ground, saying, “Where are those voids? Where are those places where we all know the enemy’s been, and is hanging out, and nobody has been able to reach out and touch them?”
At the same time, this had to be very exciting, ’cause now you suddenly had the resources to do the job which you may not have felt you could’ve done if you had been assigned there before, right?
Oh yeah. All of us—I spent a lot of time with Joe Fil, Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, and he was in a situation where he was asked to do stuff for which he wasn’t having the resources. So when I came in, he could collapse and focus on Baghdad, because that became his battle space—Baghdad—and rely on me to worry about the southern belts and the southern provinces. So all of us were elated that we were in a situation— finally—where not only do we have the mission, but the resources with which to accomplish the mission.
So tell me how you executed this, then.
It was clear to me that the first period of time was going to be major combat operations to do the clear piece of clear, hold, and build. So we focused—we had ten named division operations, Marne Thunderbolt being the first named operation in this butt-ugly place called Arab Jabour. So we planned major combat operations, to include dropping 30,000 pounds of bombs in 13 seconds at specific targets within Arab Jabour. So it was a joint and combined operation, it was pure kinetics, and we had to take over that battle space.
What were the targets?
Well, these were known locations where the insurgency was living and thriving—that’s where they were. We knew that from a relationship with the locals. We knew that from elements of intelligence, wherever we got it from. But I could pinpoint 13 places where they were, and I needed to dislodge them. So we did a major prep of the battlefield, launched in major elements of ground forces, and then conducted our operations.
Now, these targets, I assume, are embedded in civilian areas— that’s what they would do, right?
Some of them. I mean, one of the clear complications in operations in a place like is collateral damage. So you’re very attuned—is this indeed an enemy target that you could service and not affect the local civilians, or was it indeed so engrained with the local civilian populace that you’re going to have collateral damage?
So you had to think through all that. Before you label it as a target, you had to think through that. And then certain targets I kept at my level for permission to execute.
And so you would sometimes make the decision, knowing there would be collateral damage, knowing that some of the civilians would be lost.
Well, we made it a point—as much as possible—to work to minimize collateral damage, but it was never pure. You could never think that, “Hey, this is nothing but enemy, so I can go whack all these people,” because indeed the enemy we’re fighting in Iraq, then and now, and in Afghanistan as well, tend to be relatively cowardly and find themselves hanging out with innocent civilians to preclude being attacked.
So there were indeed situations where I, as a division commander, or my subordinate commanders, had to look closely at a target and determine what the collateral damage would be, and make a conscious decision whether or not it was worth the collateral damage. We had to do that.
So then when that—
And you worked to minimize the collateral damage.
That’s the clear, right? And then, I assume that what you have to do then is go in and manage the results of that.
Tell me how that happened.
Before we did the clear, we ensured that we had what we needed to do the hold and then the build. If you’re going to establish a presence at a place—now, General Petraeus had us focus on securing the population. And to secure the population, you had to establish a permanent presence—and to do that, you had to build a patrol base. In the course of six months of operations there, we built 62 patrol bases. Major combat operations secured the area— got there with the right assets to build the patrol base, so you had that permanent presence—which caused it to be engineer-heavy.
I had ten years as an engineer officer. The book that’s on my bookshelf today is Where are the Damn Engineers, and I found myself having to pace operations based on shortage of engineers. I had all the instruments I needed, I had all the planes and tanks I needed, but if I didn’t have the engineers that could build—once we had destroyed—then I couldn’t do the operation. So we had to think through all that. That was the next piece.
I can tell many stories of times where we just dropped the bombs and did the major combat operations, and in the peripheral vision was the engineers coming in. And they weren’t coming in just to clear the routes—which was a major piece of their role—but to start building. So horizontal and vertical construction was the essence of what we were doing.
Now, if you’d done that two years before, it would’ve been the clear and then there would have been nothing following—is that right?
Yeah, there’d have been no hold, because we didn’t have the troops to stay there. You operate out of a big patrol base, you can mount up in helicopters or tanks or trucks, go do an operation. But if then you—at the end of the operation you come back to your patrol base, you didn’t hold anything—all you did was stirred up the hornet’s nest. You might’ve whacked a couple of insurgents, but at the same time, they’re now all mad, and they’re going to take it out on the local people. So now you’ve created more enemies.
We talk about fence-sitters in Iraq. On any given day, there’s a lot of people who are deciding, do they want to be part of the problem, or do they want to be part of the solution. And if you did that operation, and then came back to your patrol base, you just knocked them over to part of the problem, that’s where they are. You just created more terrorists, more extremists, more criminals.
Let’s stop here.