February 1, 2006  

A vote for victory

A U.S. soldier’s view of election security in Iraq

This is the first installment in a regular series on the blogs — personal Web logs — maintained by U.S. servicemen and women fighting in the war on terrorism. The proliferation of these war blogs since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom has provided an unprecedented window into the daily lives of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the theater. The war blogs give a direct view on developments in theater and show what U.S. strategy looks like from the soldier’s-eye view.

If the emergence of democracy is the linchpin of American victory in Iraq, its survival depends upon the ability of Iraqi Army and police forces to defend against insurgents and terrorists. The three national elections held in Iraq in 2005 were crucial measures of U.S. success there because they focused the attention of all major actors on a single point in time. Not surprisingly, American war bloggers wrote extensively on the surge mobilizations that accompanied the 2005 elections, and their records provide insight into the progress made this last year.

Among the war bloggers to support and write on the Iraqi national elections, Capt. Danjel Bout stands out for his attention to detail, clear-headed analysis, and exceptional prose. Bout commands A Company, 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, of the California National Guard and writes 365 and a Wakeup (http://thunder6.typepad.com) from his area of operations in southern Baghdad.

The 1-184, serving with the 3rd Infantry Division, participated in the October and December election surge operations, and Bout’s coverage conveys the magnitude of the challenges they faced, especially as a major goal of their election operations was to give their Iraqi counterparts responsibility for election site security. His postings reveal the major obstacles to an effective Iraqi military — and with it American victory — as well as how they can be overcome through ingenuity and experience.

The basic operational challenges for Iraqi troops are significant, as they face the same threat of insurgent attacks as American troops but without the superior equipment and training. As a result, for example, when A Company escorted an Iraqi Public Order Brigade (POB) to the Dec. 15 election site, it did so in a massive convoy including “M1 tanks and the impregnable Buffalo IED [improvised explosive device] clearing vehicle,” as well as a swarm of armored Humvees forming the main column.

In contrast to the massed power of the American forces, the standard issue POB pickup trucks were a scene of bedlam: “Each cab was crammed with six to seven POB soldiers huddled together as tightly as a coiled spring. ? The vehicles were so overloaded with gear, all piled in one tottering mound, that the entire [4-foot high PRK machine gun] pedestal was buried. As if that yawning height weren’t enough several intrepid POB soldiers were clambering on the piles like strange mountaineers.”

Moving toward the polling station, the convoy formed “a single wall of armored vehicles with the vulnerable POB serving as the kernel seed.” Not surprisingly, the POB troops were unable to deploy immediately upon arrival at the site. As the Americans formed a protective cordon of checkpoints and overwatches, the Iraqi troops, most recent graduates of basic training, gathered in the school to plan for their positioning.

Despite these shortcomings, the POB lieutenant impressed Bout when they met to integrate their security positions. After the POB officer gave Bout a summary of his soldiers’ equipment and initial positioning of forces, the American captain waited for the “expected litany of supply requests.” After an extended, awkward pause, Bout asked what was wrong. His interpreter clarified with the Iraqi officer and responded that “the LT has several shortages, but before he asks he wants to ensure his security positions are in the right location.”

Bout “silently chastised” himself for assuming the worst about his Iraqi counterparts. He continued to “question some of my preconceptions about their tactical utility” as the Iraqi lieutenant pointed to two proposed holding positions: “The first location was tactically perfect. ? The second location was tactically sound. ? His choices showed he had a firm working knowledge of defense positions.” Bout worked with the Iraqi to adjust his troops’ positions to the best possible points and came away impressed by the exchange.

Another major sign of progress was the contrasting willingness of Iraqi troops to accept responsibility for their own security in the October and December elections. In October, Bout’s interpreter approached him with a message from the POB: “Sir, they are saying they will leave the site if you pull out tomorrow morning.” When appeals to their senses of duty and shame failed to inspire the Iraqis, he allowed them to explain how they had recently been saved from certain death in an insurgent ambush by Apache gunships.

When Bout reassured the men that Apaches would be circling on Election Day and that his own forces would be ready to pounce on any attackers, the Iraqis relented and served honorably. Indeed, the following day, the Iraqi men identified an election official who was lobbying voters and called in Bout to chastise the man: “It was only then, seeing these soldiers aflame with a desire to have a free and fair elections, that I truly understood how committed these men were to their fledging democracy.”

By the December elections, experience had trumped the need for last-second ingenuity, as the Iraqi POB lieutenant who had shown such care in establishing his checkpoints was ready to take over from A Company without incident. As the Americans finished the “last of our co-ordinations with Iraqi forces” and pulled out of the election site to their more distant overwatches, they watched as Iraqi citizens piled into the crowded polling site to participate in their first nationwide elections under their new constitution.

An Iraqi victory thus serves as a critical benchmark of American success.

Other war blogs with notable entries on the elections include America’s Son, They Call Us, “Doc”, One Marine’s View and A Mobilized Year.

The best sources for one-stop war-blog shopping are the Mudville Gazette and Blogs of War. They provide links to dozens of other blogs and collate the best lines from them each day.

Christopher Griffin is a researcher in the Asian studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.