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August 14, 2009

Iraq Briefing - 11 August 2009 - Breaking the Cycle of Sectarian Violence

This briefing is by Major General Robert Caslen, Commander of Multi-National Division-North. On Tuesday he spoke from Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Iraq via satellite with reporters at the Pentagon, providing an update on ongoing security operations in Iraq.

Most of Iraq is relatively calm, but insurgents remain in the northern provinces. If sectarian violence breaks out again, most likely it will either be in Baghdad or in the north. As such, it is important to pay attention to what goes on in this area.

From the website of Multi-National Force-Iraq, "MND-North is also known as Task Force Lightning. Responsible for an area including the cities of Balad, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Samarra, MND-N is headquartered by the 25th Infantry Division from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii." Maj. Gen. Caslen and the 25th ID started their current deployment in November of 2008.

Contingency Operating Base Speicher was named after Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher. He was killed when his plane was shot down, while flying a combat mission over western Iraq, January 17th, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm.

General Caslen reports to Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of Multi-National Corps - Iraq. Jacoby reports to General Odierno, commander of Multi-National Force - Iraq. Odierno reports to Gen. Petraeus, now commander of CENTCOM. Petreaus reports to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The latest Order of Battle can be found at The Institute for the Study of War.

This and other videos can be seen at DODvClips. More news and videos are at The Pentagon Channel.

The transcript is at Defenselink.

GEN. CASLEN: ...Our partnership has disrupted insurgent and extremist networks; it's degraded insurgent attack capabilities. The Iraqis are fully in the lead. And through the security agreement, Iraq continues to capitalize on these security gains...

This chart, current as of May 2009, seems to confirm these trends, though it looks like there have there have been a few spikes since then.

Iraq Security Incidents May 2009

In response to a question Gen. Caslen sais that "in Mosul the numbers that we're tracking is that before 30 June, the attacks per week were averaging 42. That was a six-month average before then, but it was pretty consistent during that time. And after 30 June, it's down to 29."

In a briefing last April, Col. Gary Volesky of MND-North used the term "mini-surge" then to describe how they were attacking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq): Iraq Briefing - 14 April 09 - Mini-Surge in Mosul. General Caslen uses this term too.

In this first exchange, note how General Caslen makes clear that the objective is not just to destroy the insurgents but to break the cycle of retaliatory violence between sects, tribes, and ethnic groups:

Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You mentioned at the end of your opening statement about the attacks yesterday. Can you talk a little bit about your assessment of al Qaeda's strengths in Nineveh province and in Mosul, if any military assessment has recently found that al Qaeda is spreading out away from Mosul or if that continues to be a center point of their strength in Iraq?

GEN. CASLEN: Thank you, Courtney. No, I think al Qaeda of Iraq, which also has teamed up with Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, as we call it, still remains centered with its leadership and its financial capability in northern Iraq, primarily in Mosul.

What we did is we went after them pretty aggressively when we first got here, with kind of a mini-surge, which started right around January and February. We brought a significant amount of combat power. And over the first five or six months, we had steady attack levels, and then right before 30 June, they dropped off significantly. And we were very encouraged by that. Plus the intel reports said that there were some significant issues that they had, particularly with regard to their financing.

And then after the 30 June transition, there were some spikes in some of their capabilities that you saw, and especially some of the VBIEDs and the S -- the suicide VBIEDs, and the one that you saw yesterday -- which means that they have the capacity and they still have the capability, and they remain a -- I would say a resilient force that has the capability to regenerate their combat power as necessary. So we put a lot of pressure on them. I think that's very evident. But like I said, now that the Iraqi security forces are inside the city, they do remain some sort of resilience and they do have capability of conducting some attacks, as you saw yesterday.

Q You mention they have the capability to conduct attacks. Do you think they also still have the capability to incite a new round of sectarian tension or violence in that area?

GEN. CASLEN: Well, that's an excellent question. The attacks that they had were primarily directed against sectarian sort of issues, like the Shi'a mosque, that you had on Friday, and then the Shi'a population, that you saw yesterday. And some of the attacks in Kirkuk were also on minorities as well.

What you found, though, is -- what's interesting is, what kind of sectarian reaction or retaliation that occurred or failed to occur. You know, what's significant about the surge that occurred in 2006 and 2007 was how the United States forces, working with the Iraqi leadership, broke the cycle of violence. And they broke the cycle of violence by going after leadership, and they convinced the sectarians, once they were attacked, that we can go after their leadership, as opposed to attacking massively against, you know, the -- a retaliatory-type attack.

So what we're doing right now is, when these attacks occur, we'll talk to the leadership and -- of who was attacked, and then we will put together the necessary plans, working with the Iraqi security forces, to go after who conducted that attack and the leadership of that attack, in order to continue to break that cycle of violence, so you don't get the retaliations that you saw a couple years ago.

So AQI is down but not out. They're trying to reignite sectarian violence but haven't succeeded. Yet, anyway. This is in keeping with what Bill Roggio said in April.

Despite the importance of stopping the cycle of retaliatory violence between Shia and Sunni Arabs, just as important are tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and keeping that from turning into sectarian violence.

Q General, hi. Anne Gearan from the Associated Press. Can you talk a little bit, please, about the tensions between Arab Iraq and the Kurdish areas, how close you see that -- -- that -- how close that tension is to actually becoming a shooting war, and tell us a bit about what the American forces do as intermediaries?

GEN. CASLEN: Okay, Anne. Thank you, because that -- (chuckles) -- we spend a lot of time and a lot of energy in that particular area, and that's one of the problems that exists right in MND-North that we address a lot.

I personally think that the Kurd-Arab issues and the tension that exists is probably one of the most dangerous courses of action for all of Iraq and could certainly resolve (sic) in an ethnic lethal-force engagement between Kurds and Arabs.

The issue, as you know, is the resolution of the land that exists between the Kurds and the Arabs, of which both claim to that. And in order to resolve that, there's an article in the constitution that maps the way to try to resolve that. It's called Article 140, and I assume many of you are familiar with that.

But our goal in working with this -- and we're working with it at the tactical level -- and that is to build transparency and also to try to bring both the peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army forces together. And we do that at various institutions, like checkpoints and at our command centers, and we even bring them into our own command centers, and we also bring them into the -- even the police stations, so that they're together. And by being together, they conduct combined checkpoints, combined operations, and what that does is, that builds trust and that builds confidence.

But none of this is going to get resolved unless it's going to get resolved at the senior-most levels within this country, and that's in Baghdad and in Erbil.

And I believe they have the capacity and the capability of resolving it. I think it's going to take leadership from -- the senior-most leadership from this country to get it resolved.

I've been encouraged over the last week when Prime Minister Maliki went to Kurdistan and met with President Barzani. That was very encouraging, has a tremendous rippling effect throughout the entire force, both the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. And so I'm encouraged by that. And I'm also very encouraged by my boss, General Odierno, and General Jacoby and their works to try to continue to bring this towards resolution.

Certainly if anyone can solve the problem it's General Odierno, the "Patton of Counterinsurgency" himself. Counterinsurgency warfare is about not just killing insurgents, but legitimizing the government and building civil society so as to give the people incentive to reject the insurgents. It's all about self-interest.

Q (Daphne Benoit - Agence France-PresseTo follow up, are you confident that the Iraqi security forces are able to face such a violence in Mosul, especially if it goes on at the rate we're seeing right now?

GEN. CASLEN: That's -- no, that's an excellent question. It's a fair question. It may be too early after 30 June to make an assessment or to make a call at this particular point.

If you look at the -- let me give you some statistics on the attacks that have occurred in Mosul. Prior to 30 June, the average number of attacks per week was around 40 to 42. And then if you look at each one of the six or so weeks past 30 June, the average attacks have dropped down to 29. So overall, believe it or not, the number of attacks in Mosul have decreased. We see that as very encouraging.

What has increased, however, is the capabilities to conduct the high-profile attacks, and the attacks are primarily focused on Iraqi security forces, like police. So the number of attacks against Iraqi security forces have increased, and the high-profile attacks, which are these VBIEDs or the suicide vests, especially the VBIEDs, they have increased.

And the VBIEDs are the ones that are really focused after the local nationals and are the high casualty producers. So you see an increase in numbers of casualties post 30 June, but you also have a decrease in the number of attacks.

What we need to do is get in there and break the networks of the SVBIEDs and -- primarily -- and some of the networks that actually do the high-profile attacks, similar to how we had done that prior to 30 June.

Concern about high-profile attacks is something I've heard time and again from commanders. They have been able to reduce the daily level of violence considerably, but stopping the one big attack is always difficult. See for example

Iraq Briefing - 08 May 09 - General Ray Odierno Reports
Iraq Briefing - 18 August 2008 - "al Qaeda is in disarray"

Next, Gen. Caslen discusses the "build" part of the counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold, and build," including the all-important issue of the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. He does so in the context of the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP), Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

GEN. CASLEN: ...When we first got here, our primary effort -- in the counterinsugency strategy of clear, hold and build -- in the build phase was to look at the essential service infrastructure....This is a very effective program. It's not only produced a significant number of jobs, but it's got the infrastructure in a lot of areas up and running. And what it does in the end is that it gives the provincial government legitimacy to the Iraqi people; because in order for a government to be legitimate, it's got to provide security and essential services and rule of law, and essential service is a critical component of that. So we're making a lot of progress, and I'm very glad to see it. It's very effective.

That it is critical for the government to be seen as legitimate by the people is straight out of Petraeus' U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24. Follow the link for a important quotes from the manual.

Finally, to the all important question, will the gains hold?

Q Yeah. General, considering that -- what you just said about al Qaeda and also what you said earlier, that -- I think you said that the potential for violence between the Arab and Kurd forces is maybe the greatest threat to stability in Iraq. And then you also said that the progress is fragile.

So my question is, how fragile is it? We've been hearing this word now for over a year, since things started to turn around in Iraq. So how fragile is it? How large or small do you think the potential is for either Arab-Kurd civil war or sectarian violence?

GEN. CASLEN: Well, those are -- a great question. They're two separate problem sets.

The problem set of the insurgency is significant. But what you're seeing is the pressure that we put on the insurgence -- United States and coalition forces -- that pressure now is being transitioned to Iraqi security forces, both their conventional forces, their special operating forces, as well. It's already been transferred in the city, and eventually it's going to be transferred, you know, a year from now, across -- when all combat forces come out -- across all of Iraq. And what we're finding is the Iraqi security forces, with some hiccups, are able to maintain the pressure on the networks.

I feel -- this is my personal opinion -- I feel that the networks have degenerated enough that with sustaining the pressure by the Iraqi security forces, they'll be able to maintain the lid on them, and you're not going to get this tremendous resurgence of sectarian counteractivity that you saw back in 2006 and 2007. That -- you know, that's just what I see.

If, however, the Iraqi security forces either degenerate or whatever, and you -- or they are focused on the wrong directions, and there is a capability of one of these networks to gain some energy, that may not be the case. But I'm more confident in what the security forces have been able to do, in what they will do in the future.

The problem set with the Kurd-Arab issues is another entirely different problem set, and that is, you know, the strategic question I always ask is, are the Iraqis -- once the United States leave, are they capable of resolving their ethnic differences peacefully, at the peace table? And when I first got here, I was -- you know, I was concerned about that. But based on some of -- because the answer is, they have the capability to do it. The question is whether their senior leadership will exert the leadership necessary to do that. And I'm very encouraged by the last couple weeks, when I've seen both the prime minister and the president, from President Barzani, get engaged and have -- has exerted some leadership to move this thing forward. I'm also very encouraged by the leadership that our embassy and General Odierno are exerting at this time as well.

So I'm -- so the answer to the second question is, I'm encouraged that we will get this resolved. If we do not get it resolved, then yes, it has potential to go towards lethal contacts, you know, in small separate areas.

Cautious optimism.

Posted by Tom at August 14, 2009 10:00 PM

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