The Long War, Changing the Conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan

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.

Q: Talk about the differences between fighting an extremist ideology vs. a conventional war.

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.

Q: What’s your opinion of the media’s role in this war?

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].

Progress doesn’t resonate in the media as much as blood and guts. It’s kind of frustrating. I think the troops get frustrated.

Q: Sen. John McCain has called military actions in Iraq a “whack-a-mole” strategy. Can you comment?

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.

I think that the real key is not worrying about how many we kill or capture as a measure of success. Al-Qaida and the associated movements are a network. It’s an ideology.

Look at what happened after we killed [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi. That’s the network coming down. Other heads will pop up, but not with the strength and network that Zarqawi had.

Q: What are your measures for success in Iraq?

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.

Q: Bin Laden’s still on the loose, opium trade in Afghanistan’s at an all-time high and Iraqi violence surges. Would you define progress?

A: Let’s take it one step at a time. People voted, a constitution was presented and the Iraqis ratified a constitution in a year. Those are things that are important.

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.

The schools are important; the hospitals are important; the infrastructure is important. Those are some pretty impressive things. The Iraqis went into harm’s way, in many cases, to just vote.

As for Osama, he’s relevant and hasn’t fallen off our scope.

Q: What about the resurgence of violence in Afghanistan?

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.

We haven’t had another 9/11. We fight abroad so we don’t have to here.

Q: Why is the Horn of Africa, which includes eight nations in northeastern Africa, important?

A: Where [the extremists] lost in Afghanistan, they need to “squirt” to the Horn of Africa, a potentially unstable area where their ideology can get a foothold.

Most of our military objectives in HOA are in the form of civil affairs and training the indigenous forces.

It’s the Marshall Plan upfront as opposed to combat operations as the preferred way of fighting.

Q: Do you need more troops?

A: It depends on the conditions and it depends on the environment. It’s not an easy answer to say, “Yes, more means better.” Sometimes, more means worse.

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.

Q: How’s troop morale?

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.

My personal view is it won’t be the war itself; it won’t be a troop issue. It will be how we handle them when they come home.

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.

Q: Should there be a limit to deployments?

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.

You’ve got to have faith in the commanders. They know their capabilities and ask for what they need. I work for one of the best ones in this nation, Gen. Abizaid.

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.

Q: If the U.S. Treasury gave you $10 billion tomorrow, how would you spend it?

A: On intelligence. Most important thing is an investment in intelligence. That’s what you need to fight this war.

Q: What do you want to tell the public?

A: We can’t lose our will, our confidence to stay engaged. Forces will continue and be more of a partnership, but it will take a long time to win. The troops get it.

But it’s only as good as American confidence. I’ve been in 33 years, and none of it would be worth a damn without family. I’ve served under seven presidents, not all that I voted for.

When [troops] come home, embrace ’em , love ’em. They answered the call. They don’t decide the politics.

We’re sometimes a little naïve as Americans. We’re comfortable and happy and don’t recognize the threat.

MyLinh Shattan is a Tribune correspondent.

Sep 17, 2006

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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