August 1, 2010  

Perspective: Two cheers for lethal operations

Money doesn’t always achieve what force can

One of the most frustrating experiences about two deployments to Iraq was the relentless focus on spending money. A sure way for battalion and brigade commanders to get into trouble in both 2006 and 2008 was to spend less money on projects and services compared to their peers. Commanders risked being labeled leaders who “don’t get” counterinsurgency doctrine if they didn’t spend as much as possible in Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds. However, the amount of money spent on economic development is a seductive and misleading statistic. It has become to Iraq what the body count was to Vietnam.

Our economic development programs did not play as significant a role as credited in the success that we witnessed in Iraq in 2008. Lethal operations were primarily responsible for the real economic development we observed. The Iraqis were usually capable of finding their own financing for business development once security was established.

Unfortunately, we do not have an accurate assessment of what our economic development efforts achieved in Iraq. Like a Combat Training Center mission without the after-action review, we executed the economic development line of operation without meaningful feedback. We spent as much money as possible on projects and services regardless of its effect, which was always assumed to be positive. We lack a thorough, objective assessment of what we accomplished with the more than $3 billion we’ve spent on CERP and the $35 billion spent on other economic development projects.

One important reason we seem to have so much faith in economic development is because we have largely misidentified the motivations of the enemy. He’s often described as a poor breadwinner forced by circumstance and manipulated by hard-core insurgents into attacking us to put food on his family’s table. That may be true in some cases, or in other operational environments at different times, but those were not the majority of bad guys we were fighting in 2006 in Salah-ad-Din province or in 2008 in Baghdad.

The terrorists attacking us were most often Sunni former regime members, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) bitter-enders or Shiite militia gangsters. They were not interested in earning a modest, livable wage in a bustling economy, so were not influenced by our economic development actions. They earned their livings through fear and intimidation, which were usually more powerful at cowing the local population than our economic enticements were at bringing them over to our side.

Successfully attacking the very small percentage of the population committing the violent acts had a disproportionately positive impact on the level of violence. Time and again successful lethal operations against these criminals boosted the confidence of our Iraqi Security Force (ISF) partners, emboldened locals to turn against the criminals, and led to a lower level of violence. The increase in security resulted in better business and more jobs.

Two examples from 2008 illustrate the effectiveness of the lethal line of operation, both to lower the level of violence and to increase economic development.


In 2007, the Sunni enclave of al Fahdel in East Baghdad’s Rusafa political district was an insurgent and al-Qaida haven. Attacks and retribution were common between al Fahdel and its adjacent Shiite ghetto of Abu Saifan. Sniper attacks and car bombs in the nearby markets kept residents in fear and the markets from thriving. Al Fahdel’s leader, Adil Mashhadani, was on Multi-National Division-Baghdad’s top 10 high-value individual list. In the summer of 2007, Mashhadani had a change of heart. He had had enough of fighting Iraqi Security Forces, coalition forces and now a fifth column of AQI in his midst. In the spirit of “The Awakening,” he approached the leaders of the local coalition forces unit about reconciliation. AQI learned about these discussions and, in October 2007, attempted to assassinate Mashhadani using a female suicide bomber. The attempt killed several of Mashhadani’s bodyguards but only wounded him.

Shortly afterward, Mashhadani solved his problem by systematically and ruthlessly clearing AQI and their supporters from al Fahdel in a series of gun battles supported by coalition forces. More than 100 insurgents were killed. Those AQI not killed or captured fled the area. Immediately afterward, there was literally dancing in the streets in what had been the no man’s land between the Sunni and Shiite communities. Local violence dropped dramatically, and the markets began to grow as a result.

Throughout 2008 local violence remained low while the markets continued to expand. During Ramadan in September 2008, the leaders of each community held a reconciliation feast to celebrate their decision to pull down the cement barriers dividing their neighborhoods along Kifa Street. By the time my unit redeployed in January 2009, the markets were spilling out of the concrete barriers that protected them. The formerly barren buildings outside the huge Shorja Market were filled with businesses, employing hundreds more Iraqis. Normally deserted Kifa Street was jammed with traffic. Instead of complaining about violence, the local Shiite Sons of Iraq leader complained about the rent for businesses, which went up fivefold after the barriers came down.

The major complaint from local businessmen was that there was too much competition. All of them noted the increase in customers and credited the dramatic improvement in security for their success. The remarkable improvement in economic development in the al Fahdel/Abu Saifan areas that we witnessed in 2008 was a direct result of the lethal actions taken in 2007. The handful of men who caused most of the problems were eliminated, allowing customers to shop safely, businesses to expand and jobs to be created.


The elimination of Sadr City as a Shiite militia haven was probably the most underreported event in Iraq in 2008. In my squadron’s operational environment, like others adjacent to Sadr City, insurgents and criminals would kidnap and extort locals or attack security forces in our neighborhoods, then flee into Sadr City, where they lived with almost complete impunity. At one point, nine of my squadron’s top 10 most-wanted insurgents were hiding out there. Talk of an effective drawdown in eastern Baghdad was unrealistic without first bringing the rule of law into Sadr City.

Everything changed in March 2008 after Shiite militias (primarily Jaish al Mahdi, Moqtada Sadr’s “Mahdi Army”) brazenly fired rockets and mortars into the International (Green) Zone directly from Sadr City. We could no longer afford to ignore the enemy sanctuary within indirect fire range of our embassy.

American and Iraqi forces responded by deliberately sealing off the portion of Sadr City closest to the Green Zone with a concrete wall while conducting lethal operations to kill or capture insurgents contesting the barrier emplacement. American and Iraqi forces killed hundreds of Shiite militia and captured hundreds more while relentlessly completing the concrete barrier. Realizing that they could not prevent the wall from being emplaced, Sadr City and militia leaders sued for peace through the Iraqi government. Surprising everyone, on May 20, 2008, Iraqi Security Forces entered Sadr City permissively and in force. Most of our high-value insurgents fled or went into hiding. Over time, the ISF found significant weapons caches and slowly emasculated the Shiite militias.

Immediately after the success in Sadr City, piles of bricks, gravel, sand and cement bags appeared in front of houses on every block in the adjacent northern Rusafa neighborhoods. At each site, homeowners hired dozens of young men, putting them to work to conduct long-deferred maintenance on their homes.

Our substantial economic development efforts in Sadr City between 2003 and 2007 didn’t prevent it from becoming an enemy haven in 2008. The most successful effort in Sadr City was conducted the old-fashioned way: by killing and capturing the enemy, taking and holding his territory, and credibly threatening to take more territory and make him suffer even more. Lethal operations ultimately provided the most effective solution that millions of dollars in projects and services could not.


We expended a lot of energy funding projects and paying micro-grants, but those efforts did not appear to improve the local economy or make Iraqis less inclined to support the insurgency. There are many examples of money we spent on projects that the Iraqis didn’t want, didn’t need and couldn’t support. They were our good ideas, and few of them provided the economic development we thought they would.

Corruption in business transactions was a way of life in Iraq. Accusations of corruption by contractors and Iraqi officials in all of the security forces and local government were persistent. Corruption was so pervasive that it was not a question of whether it was occurring but rather how much money were we losing in each transaction and how much of that went to the insurgency.

During 2006 in Salah-ad-Din province, we attempted to lower the level of violence through funding economic development projects, but the feedback we received throughout the province indicated that it wasn’t working, especially in Samarra. Far too often we ended up with expensive but poorly constructed projects that the Iraqi government could not support. Organized criminal clans fought over the contracts. AQI or garden-variety thugs extorted the contractors to get a piece of the action. Throwing money into volatile areas seemed to increase rather than decrease the level of violence.

Funding projects was also disappointing in 2008. We received little perceptible benefit from the micro-grants we paid out and from most of our projects. The major exception was Sons of Iraq payments, whose benefits went far beyond job creation to include security, reconciliation and transition.

Downtown Baghdad contained thousands of small businesses that appeared successful without any assistance from us. It was possible that through our micro-grants we were keeping failing businesses afloat or starting businesses that were doomed. We were surprised that several micro-grant recipients offered to give the money back. There was even discussion at the weekly division nonlethal effects meetings that we were short-circuiting the nascent Iraqi banking system by giving out so much free money.

Not all projects were ineffective. Although expensive, funding micro-power generators was at least partially successful, as much for expanding local government capacity as for providing the locals an essential service. The projects that worked tended to be small, discreet ones that the local Iraqi government agreed to support beforehand and the local American commander could properly monitor. There was an awful lot of pressure to spend money, but none to assess what effect we gained from the effort.

My squadron could have achieved the same effect by spending a fraction of what we did, somewhere around 25 percent of what we actually spent (not including Sons of Iraq payments). With less scrambling to find any Iraqi willing to accept a micro-grant or marginally useful project, we could have spent more time monitoring the ones we thought were worthwhile. In fact, when I look back at the projects that we got something out of, it’s precisely because we spent more time vetting and adequately monitoring them that they were successful. Even in most of those cases, the effect we achieved was not economic development but an increase in local Iraqi government capacity.

A major problem with monitoring a project’s results was the constant movement of American units, making an evaluation of our economic development efforts difficult. My squadron’s operational environment, for example, significantly expanded twice as surge units redeployed. The unit that took over our operational environment left Baghdad entirely a few months after our relief in place. Many of our projects were still in progress when we redeployed and a large number of micro-grant recipients had yet to do anything with the money we gave them.

Fortunately, there’s a reasonable chance that the information about what we did with the money is still available. For example, 3rd Brigade, 101st Infantry Division, handed over more than $18 million in 72 ongoing projects to 3rd Brigade, 82nd Infantry Division, in September 2006. Third Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, spent $8,728,179 on 87 projects and $396,500 on 144 micro-grants over the course of our deployment (December 2007-December 2008). In each case, we had records of who was paid for what, when and how much. We had contact information for all of the contractors and micro-grant recipients (usually cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses). Every battalion in Iraq kept similar records that were passed up the chain of command for approval and handed off to follow-on units. Unfortunately, we redeployed before we could adequately determine most projects’ effectiveness. What we did observe is not encouraging.

While we still have the resources in Iraq, we need to go back to conduct an assessment of what we really got from our economic development efforts. It is unrealistic to review every CERP project or micro-grant, but a detailed assessment in a few representative districts would prove invaluable. Guarantee the contractors and micro-grant recipients anonymity. Demand proof (e.g., show us the drill presses, sewing machines, new hires, receipts, etc.). Determine as much as possible how much went to extortion and how many jobs were actually created.


Before we deployed, a former Military Transition Team chief briefed us on his experiences in Iraq. On one slide, he used a collage of posters from the movies “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” to demonstrate what it often felt like when dealing with Iraqis. He used it to describe what it was like working with his ISF counterparts, but the analogy applies to the criminals and insurgents we faced as well.

Local Iraqi Security Forces of all flavors (Ministry of Interior, Iraqi Army, National Police, local police) all described the enemy they faced as “gangsters.” My ISF counterparts corrected me several times because I referred to the bad guys we were hunting as “insurgents.” They thought that term dignified the thieves we were facing. As one Iraqi Police colonel told me, the criminals were more interested in fancy cars, gold watches and loose women. Like Mafiosi, they were survivors first. They wanted a wiseguy lifestyle, but they also wanted to live to enjoy it.

In 2006 and 2008, we defined “success” in the economic development line of effort as the amount of money spent and number of projects completed. These two measures of performance were the only ones tracked. We did not track measures of effectiveness, such as whether the project was actually completed to standard, was used for its intended purpose, resulted in an increase in tips, a drop in violence or long-term job creation. We would not accept this lack of evidence of success for any lethal operation. We don’t claim that our lethal missions were successful based on the number of patrols sent out or the number of rounds fired.

“You can’t shoot your way out of an insurgency” has become the popular buzz phrase for current counterinsurgency doctrine. While that may be true, it’s also accurate that we can’t spend our way out of an insurgency either. Maybe the staggering amounts of money we’ve poured into economic development in Iraq actually worked as theorized (more than $38 billion spent as of June 30, 2009, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction in a July report). My experiences strongly suggest that our economic development efforts were largely ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive. However, it’s not too late to confirm or deny whether our economic development efforts were truly successful.

Without a detailed study of what our economic development efforts actually accomplished, we’re left with misleading statistics, anecdotal evidence and polling data. The lack of real evidence will lead us to the wrong lessons.

Lethal operations were not the only solution to Iraq’s many problems (hence two, not three cheers), but they were still decisive at both separating the insurgent from the population and setting the conditions for real economic development. Unfortunately, the economic development line of operation currently receives undeserved credit for what lethal effects accomplished. AFJ

COL. CRAIG A. COLLIER is the military assistant for Army Land Warfare Systems in the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.