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Lessons From Stabilizing Fallujah

Lessons From Stabilizing Fallujah

Interview by Octavian Manea

SWJ discussion with Daniel R. Green and William F. Mullen III, the authors of Fallujah Redux: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda (Naval Institute Press, 2014).

Daniel R. Green is a Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served in Fallujah, Iraq with the U.S. Navy from April to October 2007 as a tribal and leadership engagement officer and deployed again to Iraq from October 2015 to May 2016 as a tribal and leadership engagement officer in Baghdad.  He is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, completed his Ph.D. in Political Science in 2012, and is the co-author with BGen William F. Mullen III of Fallujah Redux: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda.  His next book is titled In the Warlords’ Shadow: Special Operations Forces, the Afghans, and their Fight with the Taliban which will be published by the Naval Institute Press in July 2017.

Brig. Gen. William F. Mullen III (USMC) is a thirty year veteran infantry officer in the Marine Corps and has served on in various staff, training and combat assignments. His firsthand experience with Fallujah, Iraq, began with his service there as the operations officer for the Regimental Combat Team 8 from February 2005 to February 2006. He returned to Fallujah in 2007 as an infantry battalion commander in charge of the city from March to October 2007.  He then returned to Iraq again from June 2015 to June 2016 where he assisted the Iraqi government in turning back the ISIL tide and retaking several of their key cities and towns.

Tribal engagement and diplomacy, as well as COIN operations in general, require special skill-sets that are not usually associated with a conventional military approach. Let’s talk about the mindset that prepared you for the work required to stabilize Fallujah?

Daniel R. Green: You have to have an incredibly active curiosity about the local human terrain and be willing to not only aggressively collect that kind of information but make it operationally useful.  For example, when it comes to understanding Arab tribes, you need to understand not only the tribal names and their locations but their leaders, their politics, and their self-interests, as well as their grievances, how they make money, and their unique histories.  This kind of knowledge and mental framework is almost completely different from anything that is learned in the U.S. military. You really have to be open-minded and see the indigenous population (in this case Iraqis) as people trying to make the best of a difficult situation. Another aspect of this is understanding from a different cultural perspective that as Americans we tend to think of ourselves as individuals and in Iraq, people have a variety of identities and loyalties: they are loyal to their village, clan, family, tribe, ethnicity, and religion. Trying to understand these other identities from an American point of view is really important. The key is to make sure you don’t simply mirror image the local population and project upon them motivations that they simply don’t have. You need to understand the world from their perspective.

Bill Mullen: I think that a big part of this is the willingness to learn and adapt. It is understanding that you don’t get to pick and choose the type of military operations the U.S. military conducts. There are a lot of folks that don’t consider anything other than the big conventional wars as legitimate warfare and think that we should not be conducting the lesser forms of warfare because they cause conventional war-fighting skills to atrophy. That is not right. We cannot opt-out when faced with tasks that do not involve conventional war-fighting skills. We have to be able to do whatever we will be ordered to do and figure it out in a timely manner. It took way too long in Iraq as well as Vietnam (where we’ve seen some similar dynamics) to figure it out and the American people do not have enough patience for prolonged fights as we “figure it out”. The historian Michael Howard reminds us that there is one thing the military is good at and that is being wrong at predicting the next war. The best we can do is to be agile enough to adjust quickly to whatever fight we end up being directed to participate in.

Why did the engagement strategies fail before 2006 and what made them successful after that?

Daniel Green: There was a view early in the war that working with the tribes was a step-backwards and not a step forward to building an Iraqi state and that tribal strategies were anathema to the creation of a secular, modern, and democratic government. Many of our institutions – military, development as well as diplomatic – had a bias towards formal institutions and top down operations by, with, and through the central government.  The tribes were the exact opposite of that, they were rural, outside the capital, and they were traditional.  At the same time, we also had a very poor understanding of the human terrain and it took us a while to understand the importance of tribes and what was required to build local stability.

My impression is that if we had applied counterinsurgency early in the war, things would have been very different. But this is really asking too much of our institutions that were really designed to fight conventional wars, conduct traditional diplomacy, and perform long-term development among other nation-state focused work. They were not focused on the central issues of the conflict.  It was a learning process that we had to go through where we learned about counterinsurgency, about Iraqi culture, and the importance of tribes.  Additionally, the Sunni Arab population would not have been as receptive to a counter-insurgency approach following many of the decisions of the Coalition Provisional Authority which had deeply alienated them although a more enlightened COIN approach at the outset of the conflict might have avoided most of these initial tragic decisions.

Counterinsurgency is about winning a legitimacy competition. What did legitimacy mean in Fallujah? Who were the legitimate actors in Fallujah?

Daniel Green: For a long time the legitimate actors within the Sunni Arab community were the insurgent leaders in large part because they rejected the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority and sought to put their community back in power.  We were at a point in Anbar’s history in 2007 that many of those leaders were deciding to no longer fight the government but partner with it to go against Al-Qaeda.  Many Sunni Arabs were open to the possibility of reconciliation with the central government, looking to be active in the politics of the capital, and there was a brief window of opportunity for them to not be rejectionist but actively participate in the Iraqi political scene.  Tribal leadership based on extensive family and kinship ties was considered inherently legitimate. To me, legitimacy was a function of how these people behaved and how their actions benefited the broader community; were they in it for the interests of the community or for themselves? There was a group called the Fallujah Tribal Sheiks Council, for example, which was a sort of illegitimate group seeking to gain political power by exploiting our lack of local knowledge. So understanding which groups were representative of the community was an important consideration in putting together a counter-insurgency strategy.

In my experience, typically an Iraqi tribal leader who was a legitimate leader more often than not was more focused on the welfare of his tribe and community than on his own personal enrichment. For a long time, our intelligence was focused on finding the enemy rather than on figuring out the local human terrain. It took a long time for us to understand the importance of human terrain dynamics on defeating insurgencies. There were a lot of illegitimate sheiks interested only in gaining personal power that hoped to take advantage of our ignorance to increase their influence. We were definitely engaged in a learning process on our part to figure out these situations. We had to unlearn a lot of things in order to be open to other concepts like tribes, counter-insurgency, and enlisting local populations in their own defense.

The Fallujah you are talking about seems to have a myriad of strategic constituencies and stakeholders. How do you see the role of an expeditionary counterinsurgent in such a political ecosystem – to mediate, to bring together all these different parts?

Daniel Green: From an operational perspective the mayor and police chief, city council, and leaders of local Iraqi Army units formed key constituencies. But no one was just one thing. A lot of the police had been members of the insurgency at one point or another so they were political actors as much as local security actors. The tribal groups were the other key influential component including their paramount sheiks, sub-sheiks, and clan leaders.  Finally, there were the national leaders in Baghdad helping our civilian and military leaders understand that Fallujah city had flipped and was in this process of rejecting Al-Qaeda.

In many ways, the presence of the U.S. acted as a mediator between various groups because the central government was regarded as indifferent if not hostile to Sunni Arab interests.  In some respects, we approximated the functions of a government by serving as an honest broker, influencing the different constituencies to work together in order to help Iraqi society, and assisting local government so that it  operated as effectively as it could. We were the glue that kept Iraqi society together and we helped the government operate and interact with each other effectively.  When we finally departed it demonstrated how important our presence was to Iraq’s stability. This was one of several roles we played during Operation Iraqi Freedom to help knit Iraqi society together and to get its various stakeholders to work together better.

The big elephant in the room was the Awakening. What created the Awakening and what was its impact on the political ecosystem in Fallujah?

Daniel Green: I think the tribes turned against Al-Qaeda largely due to self-interest.  There was this view that AQI had started to cut into the lucrative revenue streams of various tribes whether it was smuggling, running businesses, etc that contributed to their alienation from al-Qaeda. Another reason was the brutality of AQI against Iraqis. The people were incredibly tired of it and had reached a point that they needed to fight. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was also forcing women to marry many of their members which disrespected local customs. Additionally, because AQI was largely led by foreigners, such as Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, etc, there was a sense among many Iraqis that AQI were not representative of the people and, consequently, aligned with their interests. At the same time, the U.S. military began to be perceived as an honest broker between not just various Arab Sunni groups in Anbar but also between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shia in Baghdad.  In fact, over time, we began to be seen as protectors of the Sunni Arabs against the predominantly Shia-led central government.  Many Sunni Arab tribes saw us as a valuable partner to crush AQI locally and then to pressure and persuade the central government to be more accommodating to their interests.

I think the Sunni Arab tribes saw that moment in time as an opportunity to improve their situation politically, economically, and militarily. This calculation of power and self-interest played a large role in their thinking. The Sunni Arab tribes understood that the opportunity to become legitimate local security forces (e.g. Provincial Security Forces, local police, etc) gave them more influence in local politics and, eventually, on the national political stage as well.

Let’s discuss a bit concerning the template and philosophy behind Operation Alljah. What were its key components?

Daniel Green: We were fortunate that by the time we arrived, the Sunni Arab community seemed ready to turn against Al-Qaeda. If we had applied Operation Alljah a year or two earlier it would not have worked as well because the Sunni Arab population was still rejectionist and not willing to partner with us. The timing of our arrival was ideal. We had a lot of population control measures around the city. The whole city was fenced and bermed off and there were just a few entry control points to access the city. Every Iraqi resident had an identity card, was fingerprinted and had had their retina scanned. But the people weren’t really enlisted in their own defense. The operation was an effort to get the community off the fence in order to be part of the solution. The essential element was a deliberate expansion of the police forces from the center of the city to each neighborhood and then each police force was supplemented by local neighborhood watch groups. It was a sequenced approach of applying population security to each of Fallujah’s ten neighborhoods. We would apply concrete barriers to a neighborhood early in the morning to separate it physically from the city in order for it to not be exposed to car bombs from outside. The minute the neighborhood was walled off the Iraqi police and Marines established a police precinct there. An Iraqi captain would be assigned there with 20-30 guys, would be partnered with a Marine unit, and would work together with the local community to hire only military age males from that area to protect their neighborhood.  The hope was that if they did a good job and brought security to their community they would eventually have an opportunity to be a full-time police officer. This would give them full-time employment and community respect. Increasingly, as security became the norm in the city the civilian authorities such as the mayor and city council assumed greater importance and increasing responsibility. Everything was synchronized and implemented with the Iraqis and as security increasingly became the norm local political structures assumed more responsibility.

Bill Mullen: The background behind the operation was that I spent a year in the Fallujah area previously and when I returned things had not improved. Looking at the situation through the first few weeks of my second deployment and observing the relatively stagnant pace of operations, we came to the conclusion that we must do something different. I sent my Battalion XO to Ramadi in order to understand what had changed there because things seemed to have calmed down in that perennial hot spot. My XO came back with a template of what they had done in Ramadi and we modified it to fit the situation in Fallujah and adopted it.  Essentially we broke the city into precincts to align with Iraqi police precincts.  One of the things we understood pretty clearly was that we needed to turn the neighborhoods over to the police. That was normal, having the police, not the military inside the city.  Essentially what we did was to swarm into a precinct – the Marines together with Iraqi police and Iraqi army – establish joint security stations, manned by all three forces, and then took steps to secure it and give the locals reasons not to tolerate insurgents anymore.  We also put barriers around each precinct to severely limit the flow of vehicle traffic to negate the enemy’s use of car bombs.  The essential ingredient to changing conditions was providing a sense of security to the inhabitants. The population didn’t feel like they had a stake previously because there was no real security force to protect the civilians until Operation Alljah.  The Iraqi Army was mostly Shia, so the people did not like them, and the Iraqi Police were under attack by the insurgents and barely holding their own.  Putting the police inside a protective envelope of Iraqi Army and Marines gave them breathing space to try and protect the people.  An additional measure we took to help them was that we hired folks to form neighborhood watch groups, under police supervision, in each precinct. All of a sudden, there were eyes everywhere and almost immediately they started to report things. Lastly, in conjunction with the security measures, we started implementing new or halted civil affairs measures to improve the living conditions in the precincts giving the other unpacified neighborhoods a reason to cooperate. Things started to snow-ball from there.  The insurgents could not deal with the eyes everywhere and the people started to see their lives improve and, in some cases, actively kick insurgents out of their neighborhoods.

In your book you emphasize that the overarching goal was to build a viable local government which was representative and responsive to the needs of people. How do you see the role of good governance in a stabilization campaign?

Daniel Green: The armed element of an insurgency only exists to serve the political strategy of the insurgents and so you have to craft a positive political program to combat the insurgency as much as a population-centric military strategy.  At the local level this meant building a city and provincial government that was legitimate, capable, and effective.  That being said, the strategic political situation also has to be favorable otherwise no amount of local effort to build governance will really work.  In the end you have to provide a positive political rationale for the Sunni Arab community to turn against the insurgency and our message was: “Let’s work together to clear up this AQI situation and then work together so you can get you a seat at the table of the national government so you can have influence, jobs, respect and justice.”

Bill Mullen: It was a chance to take their city back. It was a chance to return life to some semblance of normal. It was about giving things back to them and giving them a reason to participate in the governance of their city. As I told my troops, these folks have to live here. We are just deployed here and we’ll eventually leave.  For the people of the city taking a side is a matter of life and death. We had to get them to get off the fence and come down on the side of the Iraqi government.  We also benefitted from momentum because as the people saw things getting better, more and more people jumped on the bandwagon. When they see the momentum going they want to be part of it. We saw all this and recognized that we were at a tipping point in Fallujah. The pressure from the Al-Anbar Awakening was building to our west and was flowing east toward Fallujah.

When you think about the experience of Iraqis for the previous 30 years, they can be likened to abused children. The experience they had with the previous government was very negative – abusive, corrupt, exorbitant fees and bribes. Then you add the arbitrary violence of Saddam Hussein and AQI.  So when you give them an alternative model where you have a city council and a mayor that actually are trying to help people, trying to solve the basic needs-electricity, sewage, trash removal and clean water, you give them a hope for a better future.

The history of counterinsurgency provides many cases where investments in local governance and in building host nation institutions and infrastructure were perceived as key pillars of the exit strategy. These components are also very expensive. Can we avoid these?

Daniel Green: It doesn’t have to be so expensive. I think a lot of this is about U.S. bureaucracies doing what is comfortable for them to do, which is often more expensive than it has to be, versus adapting to the unique demands of the situation.  Additionally, an element of the way the U.S. conducts warfare seems to be a lot about spending money on the situation. We tend to throw money at problems, use high-technology solutions for low-tech problems, work by, with and through central governments when the problem set is largely decentralized. A lot of the problems we had in Iraq and Afghanistan were that we had a unitary state but a highly decentralized society. There was a mismatch between political structures and society so that in creating a highly centralized state in Afghanistan, for example, you eviscerated local legitimacy and created a democracy deficit. All the local decision-makers were appointed by the central government. We should have focused less on building physical infrastructure and more on building human capacity such as training civil servants at the local level as much as we were at the national level. I don’t think it would have been that expensive. A lot of this is about getting our institutions across the board not just the Military, but State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Intelligence to fight the war as it was not as they wished it to be according to their bureaucratic preferences. One of the lessons from all of this is that empowering local communities not only from a security perspective but also politically and giving them a stake in local institutions matters greatly as part of any successful counter-insurgency strategy.

Bill Mullen: No you can’t. People don’t like the term, but it’s actually nation-building. How do you responsibly get out of a conflict, especially if you started it, without doing some of the things associated with nation-building? General Powell used to say if you break it, you own it. That means you need to get things back to normal. When things quieted down in Iraq, we started hearing the same type of argument we’ve heard after Vietnam.  We will never do that again – until we do.  Insurgencies have been going on for a long time.  In many ways it is the tactic of the weak especially when you have a dominant military. Anyone who wants to oppose what you do is not going to stand toe-to-toe. It would be stupid to do so.  Insurgents are going to fight you asymmetrically. They are going to use their own strengths against your weaknesses. No matter what we think with regard to getting involved in insurgencies, I think the only real option is to not get involved at all, or if we do, be prepared to stay there a long time and that means that we conduct nation-building and fix the root causes of the insurgency. The only time that I think we did it right was with Germany and Japan after WW2.

You saw Fallujah in 2007 after years of vicious violence. You also saw a transformed Fallujah in a transformed Iraq making progress towards stabilization. What happened with Iraq? What explains the relapse of violence?

Daniel Green: I think we need to return back to basics. The Iraqi constitution was drafted in a time of war, when we knew the least about the country and when we were most susceptible to the influence of outside groups which didn’t necessarily have a view of being magnanimous when it came to the Sunni Arab community. You had Shia exiles and Kurdish political actors looking to settle scores and not building a new political foundation where Sunni Arabs were pat of the solution. We had this naive belief that the Iraqi Constitution should be designed in a certain way, which is to say highly centralized, when, in reality, the major political groups would have been better served by a decentralized government.  A consociational democracy, based, in part, on mechanisms that rotate power amongst different groups and institutionalize consensus-building, causes groups to behave very differently when they know that another group will eventually be in charge and so they tend to be magnanimous. But the constitutional system in Iraq created coalitions of conflict not a constitutional consensus. This is a component that is not often looked at by analysts who study Iraq. These constitutional weaknesses and flaws are not fully acknowledged or understood by us because through our sheer presence in Iraq we provided the institutional glue that made the Iraqi system work and operate better. Once we largely left Iraq in 2011 the weaknesses of the Iraqi political system were used by narrow-minded political leaders to settle scores and consolidate power versus governing wisely and humanely.

Bill Mullen: The problem with the Shia government in Baghdad is that it needs to behave like a government for the whole of Iraq, not just for the Shia.  The Sunni do not trust the Shia for good reasons and the Shia suffered mightily when the Sunni governed Iraq very harshly until 2003. I like to think that Iraq needed a Nelson Mandela and instead they got a Shia bully-boy. Until they get a national government that starts pulling everybody together the Sunni frankly will always be distrustful and ripe for another “Robin Hood” type Sunni extremist group to come rolling back in.  There must be a reconciliation process that enables the Sunni to have a say in the government. You need to give them a reason to participate in the political process instead of resorting to violence.  Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia should play an important role here.  It would have been good if we would have been able to keep troops there after 2011 to play the role of an honest broker. The opposing argument to this is that the longer we stayed there, the longer they would keep letting us doing things for them.

Let’s take your Fallujah experience and project and fast forward both to an operational environment where (mega)cities, urban slums and operating among populations is becoming the new normal. What are some of the personal lessons in terms of urban warfare that you see relevant for what is happening now in Iraq (retaking Ramadi and Mosul).

Daniel Green:  Any effort to provide enduring local security must approach the problem holistically and address not just its security aspects but its political, economic, developmental, and informational components as well.  A second consideration is that the strategy must be synchronized (e.g. shape, clear, hold, build, transition) and local residents must be part of the solution in a direct and meaningful manner.  A comprehensive security plan must also include both formal (e.g. army/police) and informal security forces (e.g. tribal/neighborhood members) and be highly integrated with respect to planning.

Bill Mullen:  It goes back to how we prepare to fight in the current and future operating environment.  We will never get it exactly right, but we must be prepared for any eventuality and keep close track of developments in potential hot spots.  If we get employed, we have to have the mental agility to adjust to whatever is required to win.  As Clausewitz said, and I paraphrase, the chief task of the military leadership is to determine to type of fight we are involved in, vice the one we prefer to be involved in, then develop a strategy to win that fight as quickly as possible.  We also need to be prepared to start the process of winning the peace that comes after the fighting stops.  All of this needs to be done before the American public runs out of patience.  We also need to improve our ability to explain what we are doing to the civilians in the country we are involved in (one culturally specific narrative) and to our own public at home (a different cultural narrative).  We need to be prepared to explain ourselves repeatedly and also adjust as conditions change.

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