Friday, December 16, 2005

The Tenth Step

Received a good note the other day from an old friend and fellow Marine, who is now in Iraq as part of a military training team. I had asked him how things were going. In reply he said this: “We have been focused on the bn [battalion] staff more since arriving at our new home [they move frequently]. The IA [the Iraqi Army] have picked up the ball more and are doing more on their own.”

We’ll leave his name out, but if you look around this site you might be able to guess what unit he’s in. Coming from this Marine, a true cynic and a pretty demanding taskmaster, that one sentence is high praise indeed. If he says that the jundee are doing more on their own, they must have advanced light years ahead of where they were several months ago. It says to me that the companies and their sub-units can plan, execute and recover from missions at will. Naturally, there’s work to be done, as he says, with the battalion staff, but progress is progress.

That kind of solid deliberate progress in Iraq is what, ever since I was over there myself, I have called The Tenth Step. We often use the phrase, three steps forward and two steps back, to indicate painful but measurable improvement. In Iraq, it’s more like ten steps forward and nine back. But that tenth step is a big one.

Tenth Steps are being taken all over that country, despite what you frequently hear from the MSM, the professional naysayers. I don’t know why anyone expected the post-Saddam Iraqi military to stand up and function on its own, quickly. Yes, they had a pretty wide base of operational and organizational talent, but let’s face—there’s a lot of things they didn’t do well to begin with. Like, integrating air and land operations, or teaching your subordinates to use their initiative and think on their feet. And the things they did well, weren’t always good things: the capability to conduct multi-division operations, good; using that capability to invade Kuwait, bad. The capability to build and operate effective human intelligence networks, good; using that capability to squash internal dissent, bad.

The MSM often brings up the fact that there’s only one (1) Iraqi Army battalion able to run its own operations, as if to say that this is a failure of the American effort. Given all of the hurdles we have to face there in standing up an effective police and military, I’d say that’s a signal accomplishment. One stand-alone battalion and several (dozen) others just about ready to achieve that status is one big Tenth Step: lots of setbacks but even more advances. The average American doesn’t see how many incompetent and corrupt officers had to be sacked, and how much it took to build the capable non-commissioned officers to run those units. Every U.S. soldier and Marine who has served with those Iraqi units ought to get a medal.

(And may I point out, we’ve had our own experiences with incompetent armed forces. The Continental Army in the American Revolution really achieved a true operational capability only after people like von Steuben gave them the training and discipline to stand up in pitched battles. The colonial militia were notoriously shady, and of indifferent quality. Many militia units were so unreliable that in one of the greatest battles of the war, at the Cowpens in South Carolina, General Daniel Morgan beat the British by building his battle plan around the militia’s limitations, in effect turning them into capabilities.)

The real Tenth Step is the third successful election in Iraq, this time with what appears to be massive turnout by all ethnic and religious groups. (Americans should be ashamed of our election turnouts.) The political victory in a war is always the ultimate goal, and if the military capabilities of the Iraqi Army are good enough to score that political win and give the nation a chance to succeed, well good enough is good enough. There will surely be more successes and more reverses, but let’s give the Iraqis—and their American compatriots—the credit they’re due.