Monday, July 17, 2006

U.S. war commanders think some level of American forces will be needed in Iraq until 2016 and those forces will receive continued support from the vast majority of Iraqis.

At the tactical level, the U.S. is getting better at detecting deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially using unmanned spy planes. But the enemy is growing more sophisticated. A raid on an IED factory earlier this year netted two bomb-makers who hold master’s degrees in chemistry and physics — from U.S. colleges.

These were among the points made by Iraq war commanders at a closed-door conference last spring at Fort Carson, Colo., home to the 7th Infantry Division. Maj. Gen. Robert W. Mixon Jr., the division’s commander, invited scores of retired generals and admirals in the Fort Carson area to hear the commanders and give them feedback.

Lt. Col. David Johnson, division spokesman, said the session was the second held this year at Fort Carson. A third is planned for the fall.

“The whole point is to share knowledge of what is going on in the Army today and to share ideas in an open forum,” Col. Johnson said. The Fort Carson-area retired community has “a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and we wanted to tap into that,” he said.

The seminar is just one example of how the Army is constantly re-examining how it conducts the war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and worldwide.

Some say the military has a near-obsession with scrutinizing each and every mission and listing things that could have been done better. At Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the Center for Army Lessons Learned collects volumes of after-action reports and commanders’ insights and turns them into “lessons learned” reports distributed throughout the Army.

Out in the field, commanders learn lessons on the spot. When Brig. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, chief of staff for strategy at the U.S. Iraq command, was asked earlier this month by reporters how the security crackdown in Baghdad was going, he answered, “I will tell you that there’s an evaluation that is going on right now about the entire operation that has started, and those are the kinds of lessons learned that we hope to tease out of what has happened in order to improve it for the future.”

At Fort Carson, among the featured combat veterans was Col. H.R. McMaster, whose 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment gained fame by liberating the northern town of Tal Afar from foreign terrorists and Iraqi insurgents. The town’s mayor, Najim Abdullah Abid al-Jibouri, penned an open letter in February thanking the American troops for his people’s liberty. The mayor visited Fort Carson in May to personally thank the soldiers and their families.

One retired officer attendee made notes and e-mailed his minutes of the session to other officers. The notes say there was general agreement on one issue: the “mainstream media” largely ignores progress. A commander said an embedded reporter filed a generally positive story on the operation in Tal Afar, only to see his stateside editors gut it and apply a negative spin.

In fact, editors have grown increasingly resistant to embedding reporters with combat units, something they demanded be done before the invasion in March 2003. The purported reason: They think contact with U.S. service members hurts the reporters’ objectivity.

“They come to see the world through the eyes of the troops,” said the retired officer’s e-mail. Now, newspapers and magazine rely heavily on Iraqi stringers who telephone in reports from various combat scenes.

“We are clearly winning the fight against the insurgents, but we are losing the public relations battle, both in the war zone and in the States,” said the e-mail.

Insurgent infiltration of the Iraqi Security Forces is also a big problem. A Green Beret caught a police lieutenant directing by telephone the placement of an IED so it would damage a coalition convoy.

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