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Around the country students are returning to school, and countless thousands will no doubt shortly be asked to pen an essay on ‘What I did with my summer vacation.’ However, I doubt that anyone of them is going to be able quite to compete with Wesley Morgan. He is a rising sophomore at Princeton University, where he participates in Army ROTC and writes for the school’s newspaper, the ‘Daily Princetonian.’ And Wesley spent his summer, at the invitation of David Petraeus, in Iraq. We’ve been tracking his progress throughout the summer on a remarkable blog that Wesley created called Notes from Downrange. So here are six questions for Wesley Morgan, fresh back from Iraq.
1. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up spending your summer in Iraq.
Last September, when I’d just started at Princeton, I interviewed then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus for the Daily Princetonian, since he is an alumnus of the Woodrow Wilson School. He liked the article and my questions, and when he found out that I’m also in Army ROTC, he kept in touch. I wrote a couple more articles about him in January, when he was nominated for his fourth star and the MNF-I [Multi-National Forces-Iraq] command, and in February or March, since we’d been exchanging emails, I asked him if he had any ideas for a good summer internship. He suggested that I come to Iraq, so I contacted Bill Roggio of Public Multimedia Inc. and asked if he would fund me. He agreed, and here I am.
2. Can you summarize the immediate results of General Petraeus’s use of surge troops, both within Baghdad and beyond?
There are three critically important points to keep in mind about the “surge.” The first is that while Gen. Petraeus is the overall commander of MNF-I in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of MNC-I, controls the operational level. Where the surge brigades go and what they do is his responsibility. Second, the surge of forces began in February, but the operations enabled by the extra brigades did not begin until around June 15, when all five brigades had arrived in Iraq. And third, the focus of the surge operations is not, and should not be, Baghdad proper: MNC-I concluded in the March-April timeframe that the more important objective in slowing the violence in Baghdad was to dislodge Al Qaeda, Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Abu Omar Brigade elements from the approaches to the capital, or the Baghdad Belts.
The first major phase of surge operations, Operation Phantom Thunder, targeted the Belts, and did so fairly effectively: Sunni extremists were dislodged simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion, something that no corps-level offensive in Iraq has done since 2003, from their strongholds in Baquba, Arab Jabour, and Karma. The follow-up to Operation Phantom Thunder is now beginning, in mid-August: this series of brigade- and division-level offensives, coordinated again at Lt. Gen. Odierno’s corps level, aims to exploit the displacement of Sunni extremist elements into more rural areas. That was the objective of Phantom Thunder and that is what it has accomplished; nightly activity on the part of what is called OCF-I, the special operations task force here, under Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is simultaneously taking down Al Qaeda leadership as it is forced to new areas by the main offensive and wearing down the command structure of Jaish al-Mahdi elements in Sadr City and elsewhere.
3. Judging from the current domestic political debate on Iraq, the patience of many Americans seems to be wearing thin. If Petraeus’s fall report asks for more time, will he be able to buy enough of it for the Iraqi government to achieve meaningful political reconciliation?
In my view, three major factors limit whether the surge operations will actually bring success in Iraq. The first, of course, is domestic politics; if Congress orders Gen. Petraeus to start bringing the 20 brigades back down to a 10- or 15-brigade level this fall, that’s that. Second is the state of the U.S. military. With 42 brigades in the active Army, six deployable regiments in the Marine Corps, and many of the National Guard’s 34 brigades at low states of readiness, the 20-brigade level that the surge has allowed cannot be sustained long; even if the five National Guard brigades that have been considered for 2008 deployments are in fact called up, the idea of maintaining the 20-brigade level beyond the late summer or early fall of 2008 is extremely far-fetched.
The third factor is the most worrisome one: whether the government of Iraq will actually be able to begin some kind of political reconciliation within the limited time window of the surge operations. If the surge ends because Congress shuts it off, the Iraqi government has only until this November or December; I simply cannot imagine the government making progress that quickly at its current near-stagnant rate. If the surge plays out until the Army can no longer sustain it, about a year from now, that gives the Iraqi government a bit more time, but if it does not reach an agreement by that point, then there’s nothing more that the surge operations can do.
4. Can you comment on your interactions with private military contractors–both your observations of their acts and their attitudes or statements about the presence of a massive contractor force in Iraq. Have any “PMF” employees mentioned issues about contractor accountability to you?
There are private security contractors of every kind here, and attitudes toward them vary. Most of the actual security contractors I have met, besides a few Americans running the Rhino shuttle between Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone, have been Peruvian ex-soldiers employed by the company Triple Canopy. They are extremely professional people, and I have heard several officers say that they prefer Peruvian security over the security provided by the Georgian military units that control parts of the Green Zone. There is also, however, particularly among younger soldiers and officers, a strong amount of resentment toward the contractors (not so much the Triple Canopy guys, who are not paid well by U.S. standards, as against the Blackwater and Aegis type contractors) because they make so much money for doing relatively easy and menial tasks–they do not conduct missions, but provide only static and convoy security.
5. Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack recently published a major op-ed piece in the New York Times concerning a recent trip to Iraq. They claimed that a number of positive developments in-country merit a more optimistic outlook on the prospects for US “victory” in Iraq. Have your travels and experiences confirmed or contradicted the O’Hanlon/Pollack assessment?
I think O’Hanlon and Pollack hit the nail on the head. The article was a little overly simplistic, as it had to be since it was in op-ed form, but besides that I don’t have much to add.
6. In your blog Notes from Downrange, you describe meeting a number of fascinating people in Iraq, from esteemed military lawyers to veteran counterinsurgency experts. Can you name two or three that have stood out to you, and what you think their presences mean for US efforts in Iraq?
Gen. Petraeus himself is an amazing leader and strategist, but I’ll focus on some other interesting people I’ve met. One was Lt. Col. Jeff Peterson, the commander of the 1-14 Cavalry, a Stryker unit in Baghdad; Peterson, a West Pointer and graduate of the Sloan School, is a stellar counterinsurgent, as well-read as anyone I’ve ever met, and also greatly admired by his soldiers. If every battalion and squadron commander had the knowledge and abilities of Lt. Col. Peterson, the generals above them and the soldiers below them would have much easier jobs.
Another person I found fascinating was a Spanish war correspondent named David Beriain. David is now in Dora, one of the worst neighborhoods in Baghdad, with the 1-4 Cav, on his fifth Iraq trip; he has also done five Afghanistan trips and a trip to Darfur. I have never met a reporter so keyed in to the experience of the soldiers and also the tactical and operational considerations of the colonels and generals. He is fair-minded and reports on the many ugly parts of the Army and the war, yet retains the loyalty of the soldiers who know him. I wish his work were published stateside.
Finally, the most interesting hours I’ve ever spent were on patrol with the company headquarters of C/5-20 Infantry, when I had a long conversation with a sergeant who looked as young as me but was actually on his second combat tour. This soldier (who did not want me to write about him by name because he does not trust the media, especially 19-year-old pseudo-reporters with no experience) was definitely among the smartest people I’ve ever met, and understood the many difficulties of the war at every level, from the Congressional debate down to platoon tactics. He understood counterinsurgency theory as well as anyone–and he rejected it outright. A sniper, he reveled in hardcore infantry combat and despised the kind of stability operations that have brought his unit significant successes in central Baghdad, and was not afraid to express his fury at the Army, the war, and the chain of command to anyone around, including me, and including officers. The anger on his face as he railed against the waste of his sniper skills in noncombat operations, even as he patrolled the alleys of Saddamiya and conducted those noncombat operations, was something I won’t forget anytime soon.
From a conversation with General Petraeus recorded in Wesley’s blog:
“Petraeus stopped me and said, ‘When you write about what you’ve seen here, do not try to paint a rosy picture, and when you write about me, you need to convey that I have an extremely cautious outlook about the situation. I am cautious about it, not just optimistic or pessimistic.’”
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”