Profiles in Valor: Heroes in Today’s Military

By Tim Holbert

In the summer of 2006, a Marine Corps intelligence report concluded that Anbar Province in western Iraq was “lost.” Home of the lawless cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the report concluded that while the U.S. Military had been victorious in every engagement in the province, the political situation was “beyond repair” with al-Qaeda the dominant indigenous political force.

Ironically, as this report was finding its way into the American press, a change was happening in Anbar. Sunni leaders, many of whom rejected the new government and cheered the insurgency, grew tired of the brutal reign of al-Qaeda, which was typified by murder and intimidation. As they turned against the terrorists, they found themselves joining with the force seen as being the most fair and even-handed operating in Anbar, and an unlikely ally – the United States military.

This change, known as the “Awakening”, slowly grew throughout late 2006. In December, Marine Corps Maj. Brian Russell arrived in Anbar, working as an American advisor with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Army Division. At the time, Anbar was still riddled with violence. On his first day on the job his Iraqi Army battalion was attacked on all four of its patrol bases, leaving four soldiers dead.

“When I arrived, the Awakening had just started to percolate, if you will,” he says. “The people were tired of al Qaeda, but it was still violent and rough. It stayed pretty active the first few months we were there.”

Despite early setbacks, Maj. Russell and his Iraqi counterparts persevered. He realized that the first order of business was to build confidence – confidence among the Iraqi soldiers that they could be effective and confidence among the population that the Iraqi Army and police could protect them from retribution by al Qaeda should they side with the coalition forces.

“We needed to let the Iraqis do the work by themselves,” he explains. “This battalion had been around about 2 ½ years. They were trained, and my team needed to let them do the legwork and start cutting back as advisors. (The Iraqis) expected us to do the heavy lifting, but instead, we actually stepped back and did not go on certain patrols with them, to let them see that they could do it themselves, without us. We best helped the situation by helping them to stand on their own.”

Maj. Russell built on the work done by those advisors who preceded him, not merely teaching the Iraqis how to be effective soldiers, but allowing them to put their skills to use in the field. He stepped in with assistance when needed, patrolled with units when he knew it would foster confidence in their own abilities, but always with the goal of continually reducing the U.S. presence in the area of operations.

A few months of Maj. Russell’s strategy began to show significant results. The battalion relocated, moving to operate among the people, allowing the Iraqi Army to better address their concerns. They gained the trust of the locals, which in turn made their targeted raids against al Qaeda terrorists and die-hard insurgents more effective. By March and April of 2007, the results of their efforts – and the Awakening – were visibly evident. Iraqi men began to come out of their homes, standing guard against terrorist intimidation in a sort of neighborhood watch program. With the population gaining trust in the Americans and Iraqi Army and confidence in themselves, Anbar was no longer “lost.”

In time, the Iraqi Army battalion became so effective that Maj. Russell was able to turn his attention to the police transition.

“Our battalion didn’t really need us as much, as they had really stepped up,” he says. “So we shifted priorities to the police, and reinforced the approach we had taken with the Army.”

That included building trust between the Army and the police, encouraging neighborhood watch programs, and getting the local population to be active in efforts to provide security.

The Iraqi Army proved a great help in the effort. “It was amazing, to see that my Iraqi battalion commander understood the concept, and aided the police stations as well. There was a lot of Iraqi to Iraqi support, giving the police fuel and food.”

By the end of his tour in December of 2007, the results were striking. Maj. Russell had transformed a battalion from one that could barely field half of its forces to a sharp, cohesive organization that could develop and operate advanced operations without U.S. guidance. For his work, Maj. Russell was awarded the Bronze Star.

The key, he says, is understanding the Iraqis, and letting them work within their own experience and knowledge to find solutions to their problems. Rather than treat them like Americans, and expect them to adhere to the same standards, he points out that by giving them the tools to defend themselves and the confidence to use those tools, there is a real opportunity for the Iraqis to stand up and take control of their country.

This confidence among many of the young Iraqi Army officers has bred a new sense of optimism. Maj. Russell observes that while the older generation of officers have often been jaded by the corruption that typified the government under Saddam, the new generation of Iraqi officers sees great promise for the future.

“They were very hopeful for the future of Iraq, their families, and their children, and showed up every day for work to try to build their country.”

The recent successes in Iraq are no accident – they are the result of good intentions combined with a smart strategy of building a sense of ownership of the new Iraq among its people. And while it is the new generation of Iraqis that are leading the way into their future, it is the new generation of American service member who is making it this possible. While Maj. Russell has been decorated for his work, he believes that the credit truly belongs to the men under him.

“This is a young man’s war,” he says. “Not young in the sense that you have to carry a huge pack in 120 degree heat, but that the young lieutenants and NCOs have to step up and lead while living among the people. In waging a counterinsurgency war, they are the ones who are counted on to come up with the ideas to get the job done. It’s the young guys who are on the ground, who live it, breathe it, and provide the information to the commanders to help them run the show, and I credit them for making it happen.”

Tim Holbert is program director of the American Veterans Center in Arlington, Virginia.

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