The Greatest Weapons in Iraq

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A growing number of U.S. military commanders have come to recognize that stabilizing the insurgent and sectarian violence in Iraq necessitates dealing with population stability and civil support. As the army’s new operations manual itself states, “Winning battles and engagements is important, but alone is not sufficient. Shaping the civil situation is just as important to success.” Battles are one thing. But how do you “win” the hearts and minds of local Iraqis?
Security in Iraq cannot be achieved solely by dominating military targets. A more effective approach would focus on addressing the emotional roots of violence and cultivating conditions for peace. Two of the most fundamental emotional concerns for parties in a conflict are autonomy, the freedom to make decisions without imposition, and affiliation, a sense of belonging and connection. Depending on the extent to which these concerns are addressed, people can be driven toward cooperative or adversarial behavior.

Consider the challenge of autonomy. Everyone likes it, but the more one group exercises their own autonomy, the greater the chance they will impinge on the autonomy of another. This comes at a high cost; a group whose autonomy feels threatened is likely to resist, or even revolt.

When the Iraqi conflict is viewed through the lens of autonomy, the well-intentioned actions of the U.S. can be seen as the imposing actions of an unwelcome foreigner. Even the most thoughtful and beneficial strategies for Iraqis are likely to be met with dislike and hostility, so long as the Iraqi leaders and people feel ignored on matters of their own governance and do not feel treated as equal negotiating partners in their own future. The Iraqi oil sharing law is a case in point. No matter how just, Iraqis will not accept the law if they are not involved in the decision making process.

The Iraqi population may be particularly sensitive to impinged autonomy given their history of oppression. And their continued sense of impinged autonomy can only increase support for anti-American insurgencies.

Conversely, enhancing the Iraqi population’s sense of autonomy has led to positive security results. In Ramadi, for example, Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, consulted sheiks and discovered that a major concern of potential police recruits was the safety of their families, whom al-Qaida frequently intimidated and threatened to murder. MacFarland’s brigade proposed that if tribal leaders encouraged locals to join the police force, the army could construct police stations in the locals’ neighborhoods. This active collaboration expanded the autonomy of tribal leaders and locals, giving both the freedom to maintain and control the security of their own neighborhoods while assuring the safety of their families. Subsequently, the number of new recruits sharply increased.

The concern for affiliation is another particularly sensitive issue for those in a conflict situation. Conflict tends to pull parties into “camps” and “tribes” that assume an us and a threatening other. This can lead to increased violence; it becomes much easier to injure or kill an adversary than a friend.

Fortunately, the ability to build emotional connections also can be used constructively. Equipping military officers with skills of affiliation has become just as important as equipping them with armored vehicles and machine guns. A single checkpoint guard who treats an important local Iraqi leader poorly may turn him from a friend of the U.S. to an enemy, thus instigating a chain of reduced support for an American presence.

Colonel H.R. McMaster, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, realized that successful stabilization is based largely on the ability of U.S. troops to build affiliation with the Iraqi people. He implemented a new training program in Colorado, where soldiers conducted house-search scenarios and only obtained desired information after sitting down with occupants, drinking tea together, and asking culturally respectful questions. McMaster credits his strong and productive relations with local leaders in Iraq to this appreciative mentality, which he urged his brigade to adopt.

McMaster’s regiment stayed in Tal Afar for nine months, long enough to build affiliations with the local people. This strategy proved much more successful than basing troops for short stints in cities where neither they nor the local people were familiar with each other. When McMaster’s regiment was designated to leave Tal Afar, the Mayor of Tal Afar wrote a letter requesting that the regiment stay another year. The mayor spoke highly of McMaster and his squadron commander, Lt. Colonel Chris Hickey, whom the mayor said knew the names of his children. These may be simple tokens, but they go a long way in enhancing strong and productive relationships.

Ultimately, U.S. military force is critical to advancing a stable Iraq, but it is important to remember that the greatest weapons for peace are human beings.

Daniel L. Shapiro, on the faculty at Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital, is the Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Initiative and co-author of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.

From The Harvard Crimson.

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