Sunday, October 05, 2008

Principle-based leadership in Iraq

Leadership is easy when the way ahead is clear. The goals are widely recognized and the path to victory is well-marked for all to see. The true test of leadership occurs when the opposite conditions prevail. Rallying your forces and guiding the way is most difficult when one is not even sure of what victory will look like, much less how to get there. America’s long and winding path through Operation Iraqi Freedom surely fits the second scenario more closely.

This being so, how is it that Iraq is increasingly secure today and moving steadily (albeit slowly) toward self-sufficiency? Even the staunchest critics of the war have been forced to acknowledge the success of the “surge” in Iraq over the last 18 months as violence levels have dropped and nearly every measure of stability has increased. While the increased troop strength of the surge has been beneficial in all areas (and critical in some), my core belief is that numbers alone have not been the key to victory. I assert that a moral foundation underlies the success built by the surge of troops.

This is most evident in Al Anbar Province. Iraq’s western-most province, this Sunni-dominated region the size of North Carolina has produced one third of all U.S. fatalities in the five and half year war. Despite this violent history, the province has been transformed into one of the most secure areas in the country and achieved “Provincial Iraqi Control” on September 1, 2008. How did Al Anbar go from a hotbed of radicalism and violence to a model of security and self-determination? I was fortunate to witness the beginnings of this transformation first hand as a Field Historian for the Marine Corps History Division. As I arrived in Iraq in November 2006, violence levels were the second highest of the entire war (only the intense combat to win back the city of Fallujah from insurgents in fall 2004 was worse). By the time I left in the spring of 2007, the seeds of progress had clearly been sown.

What caused this shift in fortunes in Al Anbar? While the increased forces provided by the surge were a plus, they served primarily to “reinforce success” that was already occurring. The key factor was the decision of local Iraqi leaders to partner with the United States to rid the area of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). This course of action was driven by their belief that the interests of their tribes was better served by collaboration with U.S. forces than with foreign fighters and radical jihadists. This culminating point was not reached quickly or easily but rather as the product of many months of principled actions and leadership by U.S. commanders and forces. While AQI relied increasingly on violence and terror to control the Iraqi population, U.S. efforts were consistently based on respect and restraint. I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand across Al Anbar province during the winter of 2006-7. Even in neighborhoods where violent attacks had occurred previously, Marines operated with compassion and professionalism. Even the most junior troops were ingrained with the mantra, “the Iraqi people are not our enemy.”

Their actions are a foremost example of principled leadership at its best. Even in the danger and uncertainty of war, these young Marines conducted themselves in a way that should make every American proud. I believe the actions I observed are a microcosm of the trend that will one day cause Operation Iraqi Freedom to be viewed as a strategic victory in the long war against Al Qaeda. An Associated Press report on September 16, 2008 quoted Dell Dailey, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, as describing Al Qaeda’s global support as “imploding.” Given the 9,500 civilians killed by extremists in Muslim countries during 2007, this assessment should not be surprising. Al Qaeda is killing far more Muslims than the “western infidels” they claim to be battling and moderate Muslims around the world have taken notice. Despite the very rare exceptions, the conduct of U.S. forces during the war on terror has been overwhelmingly based on the American principles of justice, decency and respect. This principle-based leadership by U.S. troops is the greatest ingredient in our success.