Command Chief Master Sgt. Curtis Brownhill is the senior enlisted leader and primary adviser to Gen. John Abizaid at U.S. Central Command. He oversees U.S. military interests and troops for 27 countries in the Middle Eastern theater of operations.
Meeting recently with The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board, Brownhill shared his experiences and thoughts on military strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, troop morale and criticism of the war. He discussed the dynamics of today’s battlefield.
A: When you’re in a conventional fight, you’re up against a nation-state, a force-on-force kind of attrition battle. In this war, it’s really about change – the need to change the conditions. Afghanistan and Iraq right now are fronts, but we look at this as a regional issue. The No. 1 threat is extremists getting their hands on WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. The U.S. and coalition forces are shields to allow the people to set up a stable government.
There are more Iraqis fighting right now than there are Americans. This is not the United States and the coalition squeezing all of that instability out of Baghdad; this is more Iraqis working with U.S. and coalition forces. So when somebody says, “Do we need more troops?” … preferably, they’ll come in the form of an Iraqi force or an army, not necessarily the United States. There are 164,000 Iraqis – a couple of divisions. They have the ability to assess, develop operations.
A: The insurgency in Iraq is not as large as some people would believe it to be. As masters of manipulation, the media present stories to be much, much bigger than they really are. So there’s a huge piece of news of a singular event, yet there are a thousand progress stories that aren’t interesting enough [to be covered].
A: I don’t think it fits. Fourteen out of the 18 provinces are pretty calm. Consider Fallujah a year ago: a big battle and hot zone. Now it’s stable. You’re not fighting a nation-state here, but an enemy that lives in the shadows amongst the people. [Squeeze them out and] they “squirt” to somewhere else.
A: There are lots of measures we use. One of those criteria is Iraqi security forces that can lead. They have innate knowledge of the area and threats when they’re going from place to place; they understand other Iraqis. And there are 264,000 trained Iraqi security forces.
This government, these institutions, this army is just barely three years old. We have incredible expectations in the United States of what should be done and when it should be done by. … We are helping to change conditions in this region so representative government institutions can come along. … The Iraqi army’s doing really well. The police have a ways to go.
Moderate countries have been watching and they have confidence to look at their own political reform. Look at the region as a whole. Women can vote in Kuwait. At one time, Syria pulled out its intel apparatus and its military forces with Hezbollah and Israel. Just for that to occur at one time, that was huge. You’ve got to measure progress about what’s going on in the region as a whole.
Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, all the progress that’s been made. Just a year or two ago, and now they have 260,000 trained Iraqis, a constitution that’s law. Consider our own history – it took 12 some years to do that.
A: We have really good reason to feel optimistic. There are 23 or 24 provincial reconstruction teams that work with Afghans to govern and set up infrastructure. Just putting in the ring road, one road that all could connect to – that was huge.
I can go on about the south right now, with the Taliban trying to emerge and a lot of fighting. A lot of work has to be done because that’s the border area and al-Qaida. But Afghanistan has a good leader in [President Hamid] Karzai, who was appealing enough to lead the tribes. In five years, we’ve come a long way.
One of the worst things we can do is to maintain an overly large presence in this region. We always want to think smaller and effective, more than larger. Our posture for the future is going be much, much smaller, but we will be there for years.
A: I look at morale in a different light. I don’t say, “Are you happy today?” If the work is worthy, the mission’s understood, the end state is clear to them; if they have the faith and confidence in their leaders, they’ll stay the course. Do some get out? Sure. Some serve 15 years and for some it’s their career.
We have a military that is operating at a pretty high tempo. Kids out there are 18, 19, 20 years old and they’re in their second, third deployments in this war, fighting hard. … They’re in tough situations in some of the crappiest places you could go.
A: We’re fighting a World War II-level kind of war against an enemy – shadowy, extremist ideology – requiring long-term commitment, change in conditions, generational change. No service has the total amount of folks to do it; so we reach out to other services.
The military’s not going to win this war. The military will put up a shield. It’s going to require instruments of national power, a state, a judicial system. It takes laws, access to their network. It requires funding.