«Rien n'est plus facile que de dénoncer un malfaiteur; rien n'est plus difficile que de le comprendre» ---Fédor Dostoïevski

jeudi 28 février 2008

Lack of Incentives to Conduct a Counter-Insurgency

By Chris Kucharski*

Opinion. The United States’ problem in Iraq lies in the fact that our Army as an institution, and the infantry as an inner culture, does not create incentives for keeping the peace, nor does it emphasize training soldiers to keep the peace. I do agree that it is slowly changing due to our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit with some resistance.

Keeping the peace through military means is seen as an aberration to the fundamental job of the infantry, which is to actively seek out and “kill or capture the enemy”. An infantry unit is not rewarded valorous medals for keeping the calm, but for heroic acts in a time of danger. For example, the highest medal a soldier can achieve is only in wartime (the Congressional Medal of Honor) and that is only if he does something as honorable as martyring himself for the sake of protecting others. In peacetime there are only paltry achievement and commendation medals. If there are no times of danger, then how can there be heroic acts to fulfill? For many in commanding positions, Iraq gives them an opportunity to make their career and earn badges of valor. This directly translates into our counterinsurgency approach.

In 2003 through 2004, I was stationed near Mosul, assigned to the 101st Airborne. I was a Lieutenant Infantry Platoon Leader tasked with stopping the looting of a university and to impose peace on the local neighborhoods. During this time, I witnessed two different approaches to counter-insurgency, aggressive or passive, and took note on how our military culture would naturally accept the aggressive style over the passive style.

I was in Alpha Company, Bastogne Infantry Brigade (our namesake comes from our adventure in the Battle of the Bulge). We would rotate once a month with Charlie Company (a company consists of 130 Infantrymen) out of this university building that we used as our headquarters. As we did the exchange, the guys from Charlie Company would tell us how unruly the town was, that they were shot at nightly, and how they were constantly shot at while on day time patrols. It seemed like they enjoyed sharing their war-stories. They recommended many patrols and nightly raids because there were a lot of “bad guys”.

Chris Kucharski (on the right) with an Iraqi policeman and a fellow platoon leader in Kirkuk in October 2005.

Once we took responsibility of the patrols we were hardly shot at and rarely mortared, as compared to the nightly experience of Charlie Company. It took us a little while to figure out why this was happening. It turned out that the commander of Charlie Company was taking an offensive approach to solving the insurgency problem, which angered a lot of the locals. He also was disdainful towards the town leadership and townspeople. To stop the locals from shooting at his troops the Charlie Company commander increasing the foot patrols, and conduct more nightly raids—called Cordon and Searches—which infuriated the locals even more. However, on the American side of the fight, the Charlie Company Commander was seen as more productive because he was conducting more patrols and capturing more “bad guys.” Quantitatively, Charlie Company was producing more than Alpha Company.

My company, on the other hand, focused on keeping the peace, not to stir up the hornet’s nest. We met with local officials not to issue demands but to see what we could do to help. Again, this was not seen as productive when filling out the reports to the higher chain of command. Doing raid after raid, and capturing the “enemy” is what the infantry was made to do, that is its sole purpose for existing.

After a while the bipolar situation deepened. The local Iraqis could tell when Charlie Company was in charge because their commander had twice the amount of guards on the roof and conducted twice as many patrols, because there was twice as much activity. So the locals knowing that Charlie Company was in charge would attack them more often. Then when Alpha Company was in charge, we essentially did half the work because there were half the attacks.

During my second tour to Iraq, in Kirkuk 2005-2006, I noticed the same disincentive for passivity, where those units that conducted more Cordon and Searches and produced higher numbers in killing or capturing the “enemy” received more accolades, more medals, and more bragging rights. They got to play with the bigger toys—had air support and all the newer gadgets—because they needed them the most. Those who were interested in “keeping the peace” and talking to leaders and exercising patience were seen as less productive than the aggressive unit. This low productivity level was further highlighted at the weekly commanders briefing when each company’s weekly accomplishments were put side-by-side on a PowerPoint slide in front of their peers, superiors, and subordinates. The higher commanders would question the existence of a low producing company commander—what were they doing in Iraq?

It is not good to be seen as more passive or diplomatic in an infantry unit, there are no rewards for that. Basically, in the military there is an incentive to be aggressive. These aggressive feelings mount when people are trying to kill you. Then when you cannot find the enemy, the entire population is seen as the enemy.

This is where the difficulty rests: in counter-insurgency, an aggressive unit is actually counter-productive, and our military culture has yet to recognize that.

* Chris Kucharski was an infantry officer in the 101st Airborne from August 2003 to February 2007 where he completed two tours in Iraq. He now is pursuing an MA at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

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