In Iraq, troops balance fighting and lending a hand

Counterinsurgency efforts require US soldiers to shift from fighting to peacekeeping, but many feel ill-prepared to conduct investigations and interact with Iraqis.

Tom A. Peter
Keeping the peace: Captain Nick Piergallini talks to a soldier in his platoon at a temporary checkpoint in Baghdad.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

A few months ago, Sgt. First Class Robert Rollheiser and his platoon were locked in fierce battle in Sadr City with the Mahdi Army (JAM), a Shiite militia. Today, they're surrounded by a group of locals just a few miles from the city where a woman has accused some local boys of belonging to JAM.

Upon investigation, it appears she wanted to get the attention of US soldiers to seek their help in mitigating a family dispute that arose when her son refused an unattractive bride. The alleged JAM members were, in fact, the bride's brothers and had threatened the picky groom-to-be. Having determined this, Sergeant Rollheiser tells the group, "You need to call the police. We don't handle these types of problems. I am not Dr. Phil."

When major fighting ended almost overnight in Baghdad in late May, US soldiers had to make a sharp transition from fighters to peacekeepers. Counterinsurgency efforts have always required a careful balance between these two roles, but many soldiers say none have required such quick switches as Iraq. The US Army has taken major steps to ready soldiers for an environment in which they are asked both to fight and interact with locals. But many still feel underprepared.

"For just about any groundpounding-type soldier, you train to fight," says Cpt. Drew Lorentzen, Echo company commander for the 1-68 Combined Arms Battalion, who is from Newport Beach, Calif. "The difficulty isn't that we've gone from kinetic [major combat] to non-kinetic – the difficulty is that we've gone from kinetic to non-kinetic so fast."

Changing battlefields

Under Gen. David Petraeus, the US Army has become more focused on developing as a proficient counterinsurgency force, capable of dealing with the different conditions that many soldiers now face.

"There has been a significant change over the last year or two in the mentality ... as well as the skill set and the operating principles that the Army is using to prepare forces and that Army forces now have," says Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who worked on the Army's counterinsurgency manual in 2006.

"It's partly a function of people having been on several tours to Iraq, but it's in a large part a function of the way the institution itself has begun to accept Iraq and Afghanistan," she adds. "These are the wars they have to fight."

While the strategic principles behind the US Army's counterinsurgency doctrine have not strayed drastically from those used by special forces units for decades, Professor Sewall says the adoption of the doctrine by the entire Army is a radical change.

For troops who have come of age as soldiers in a military focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency operations are second nature.

In a full-blown war, soldiers would engage in combat and write up a patrol brief about any enemies killed or prisoners taken. But in Iraq, troops behave almost like city cops: they do biometric scans and turn in evidence bags with each detainee.

"Last time [in 2006], it was almost three or four times a week that we had to call in a platoon and re-look at the statements and ask them about the evidence," says Lieut. Col. John Digiambattista, the operations officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, who is from Colorado Springs, Colo. "Now they understand those things immediately."

Dealing with locals

Still, when fighting evaporates as it did in May, many soldiers find that interacting with locals on a day-to-day basis presents the most difficult challenge.

Investigating the assassination of a prominent Iraqi police officer, Captain Lorentzen becomes frustrated when people just a street over from the scene of the killing claim that they don't know anything about the incident.

A recent graduate of the Army's Captains' Career Course, which prepares junior captains to command a company, Lorentzen says the class had little, if any, focus on non-lethal operations.

For example, there was no training on how to gather information from a local population, something that Lorentzen does almost every day in Iraq.

"There's not a lot of non-kinetic training," he says. "It needs to change. Some of this non-kinetic [work] needs to start getting drummed in back at garrison instead of these three-week field problems where we go out and conduct nothing but kinetic operations."

Lorentzen's battalion commander says that before they deployed to Iraq, he designed at least one field exercise that started out with major combat and rapidly changed to quiet, nonlethal missions.

A veteran of three deployments to Iraq, Rollheiser, a platoon sergeant in Lorentzen's company, says that he has taught himself to switch between Iraq's extremes.

He has learned to remain vigilant while joking with Iraqis so they don't view him as just a "killing machine."

Others take a different approach, preferring not to engage Iraqis.

During a patrol in Baghdad, Cpt. Nick Piergallini decided to search a mall that has a window overlooking the site of at least two roadside bombings last month that injured two American soldiers.

The mall, however, was closed.

When the shopkeepers in an adjacent store said that they could not let Captain Piergallini into the mall and offered instead to call the owner, he accused them of lying and trying to hide something. His men then shot the lock of the door and broke two windows while entering the building.

Inside, they found what one of the soldiers describes as the "nicest place" he has seen in Iraq.

Within five minutes, the mall owner, a man who speaks perfect English and claims to have worked with Americans in Qatar, arrived. Piergallini gave him another lock and left.

In an area where US soldiers have been hit with roadside bombs, says Piergallini, "something fishy is going on and the Iraqi people are not helping us, I know they're not. "The Iraqi Security Forces are not helping us," he adds, "the civilian population is not helping us, so when I'm there I'm not going to be as friendly, I'm not going to be as courteous because I don't want them to take that as weakness."

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