A Camp Divided
As U.S. tries to give Iraqi troops more responsibility,
clash of two American colonels shows tough road ahead.
Greg Jaffe/Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2006
Camp Taji, Iraq
This sprawling military base is divided down the middle by massive concrete barriers, a snaking fence and rifle-toting guards. On one side, about 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers live in air-conditioned trailers. There's a movie theater, a swimming pool, a Taco Bell, and a post exchange the size of a Wal-Mart, stocked with everything from deodorant to DVD players.
On the other side are a similar number of Iraqi soldiers whose success will determine when U.S. troops can go home. The Iraqi troops live in fetid barracks built by the British in the 1920s, ration the fuel they use to run their lights and sometimes eat spoiled food that makes them sick.
The only soldiers who pass regularly between the two worlds are about 130 U.S. Army advisers, who live, train and work with the Iraqis.
For many of these advisers, the past six months have been a disorienting experience, putting them at odds with their fellow U.S. soldiers and eroding their confidence in the U.S. government's ability to build an Iraqi force that can stabilize this increasingly violent country.
Army commanders back in the U.S. "told us this was going to be the most thankless and frustrating job we have ever held, and boy, were they right," says Lt. Col. Charles Payne, who until last month oversaw about 50 Army advisers.
He and fellow advisers say U.S. troops on the American side of the base saddle Iraqis with the least-desirable missions and often fail to provide them with the basics they need to protect themselves against insurgent attacks. "They treat the Iraqis with utter scorn and contempt," Col. Payne says. "The Iraqis may not be sophisticated, but they aren't stupid. They see it."
Col. James Pasquarette, who commands most of the soldiers on the U.S. side of Camp Taji, calls those claims "totally ridiculous." He says he's proud of what the Iraqi units have achieved in the region and has made supporting them his top priority, after ensuring his own troops have the protection they need. But he worries that if the Iraqis are given too much latitude to execute challenging missions too quickly, they will alienate Iraqi civilians with heavy-handed tactics.
He says Col. Payne and his fellow advisers have "gone native."
Though the divide here at Camp Taji is extreme, it reflects a growing friction throughout this war-torn country. No one on either side of the divide expects the Iraqi troops to be trained, equipped or housed to U.S. standards. But if U.S. troops are going to go home, U.S. commanders must allow Iraqis to take a far greater role in planning operations and taking the fight to the enemy, senior military officers say.
Right now, Iraqi commanders and some of their U.S. advisers say that isn't happening enough. Part of the reason, U.S. officials say, is that widespread Iraqi corruption has made it hard for the fledgling Iraqi government to supply their troops with basics like good food, batteries and fuel. But Iraqi soldiers and their U.S. advisers say the problem extends beyond basic supply issues. They complain that U.S. troops, bunkered down on large, fortified bases, treat Iraqi forces more like a problem than a partner. U.S. forces "don't talk to us," says Col. Saad, a senior Iraqi commander on Camp Taji. The Iraqi colonel, whose family has been threatened by insurgents, asked that his full name not be used.
U.S. commanders counter that there are huge risks to giving the Iraqi army too big a role right now. They worry some Iraqis will leak word of impending operations to the enemy or use military force to settle sectarian scores. Many U.S. commanders say Iraqi forces aren't as disciplined as U.S. troops and are too prone to abuse civilians and detainees.
The debate raises difficult questions for U.S. commanders, as they plot the way forward in Iraq: Should Iraqi units be held to the same standards as U.S. units? What happens when the Iraqis' solution is at odds with the American commander's strategy?
Earlier this spring, the tension between the two sides at Camp Taji reached the breaking point when the Iraqi army brigade that Col. Payne was advising leveled two dozen roadside kiosks. The Iraqi soldiers said insurgent snipers, who had killed and wounded Iraqi troops, used the kiosks for cover.
Col. Pasquarette thought destroying the kiosks would only enrage locals and drive them to support the insurgents. "This was a great day for the terrorists," he recalls telling Col. Payne on the day that the Iraqi army flattened the fruit and vegetable stands.
Col. Payne says the Iraqi army bulldozed the kiosks -- consisting mostly of palm fronds suspended by bamboo poles -- to protect Iraqi soldiers. "When I first heard what they had done, my initial response was, 'I am all for it,' " Col. Payne says. "This is not a law and order situation. This is a war."
Late last month, Col. Pasquarette asked that Col. Payne be dismissed from his position, just four months after the two men started working together. Col. Payne was then assigned to a desk job in Baghdad.
The unit Col. Payne headed is at the leading edge of a major shift in U.S. strategy. Until last summer, the U.S. military saw its primary mission as fighting insurgents. With pressure mounting to bring the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq home, President Bush decided the military's main effort should instead focus on training Iraqis to take its place.
To speed development of Iraqi army forces, about 3,000 U.S. soldiers were placed with Iraqi units throughout the country. The teams live and work with Iraqi soldiers in places such as Camp Taji.
In November 2005, Col. Payne came back from retirement to lead his team. The colonel had served 28 years in the Army, fought in the Grenada invasion and taught history at West Point. He retired in July 2001. A few weeks later, terrorists struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Col. Payne called the Army and volunteered to return. "There was a chuckle on the end of the phone," he says. The Army told him he wasn't needed.
Four years later, with the Army stretched thin by the war, the 50-year-old soldier, who was teaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, called again. This time, the Army was eager to send him to Iraq. In November, he was told he had 23 days to report to Fort Carson, Colo., and link up with his unit. His wife was "very unhappy," he says. Col. Payne says he was determined to go. "The nation is at war and all real soldiers want to be where the action is."
Col. Pasquarette, a former college basketball player, took command of his 6,000-soldier brigade in June 2005. Before that, the 45-year-old had attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon and served as an aide-de-camp to a four-star general.
The two men's troops arrived in Iraq in December 2005 and settled on opposite sides of Camp Taji, a sprawling former Iraqi army base, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. Col. Payne's group consisted of 50 U.S. soldiers, assigned to advise the Iraqi military. His team was one of the few at Camp Taji that didn't report to Col. Pasquarette.
The 2,500-soldier Iraqi brigade that Col. Payne was advising had formed 11 months earlier and had been fighting nonstop. The Iraqis had scrounged all of their tanks and armored personnel carriers -- most of which were at least 30 years old -- from a massive junkyard on the Iraqi side of Camp Taji. When something broke, Iraqi soldiers retreated to the scrapyard where they would pillage rusting hulks for spare parts. Of the $260 billion spent on the Iraq war since 2003, about $10 billion has gone to build Iraqi army and police forces.
The U.S. officers bonded quickly with their Iraqi counterparts. In January, Maj. Michael Jason, who leads one of the advisory teams, was on patrol with a 42-year-old Iraqi colonel when a terrified farmer told them he had found bodies in a field. He then led them to the corpses of 11 Iraqi army soldiers who had been headed home on leave. Each had been beaten, blindfolded and shot in the head. Their Iraqi army identification cards had been taken from their wallets and pinned to their shirts by insurgents who regularly target Iraqi forces.
Maj. Jason, a Roman Catholic, and his Iraqi counterpart, Col. Khalid, a Muslim, kneeled next to the bodies and prayed. The U.S. Army asked that Col. Khalid's full name be withheld for his safety. That night, Maj. Jason, a 33-year-old West Point grad, wrote an email home describing his Iraqi colleague's bravery and sacrifice.
"Col. Khalid's children have to move constantly for fear of their lives. When he goes home on leave, he cannot tell anyone for security reasons. He just disappears. He drives 90 mph with a pistol tucked in the small of his back and his ID hidden. I love these guys, no s-t," he wrote. A month later, Col. Khalid's brother, also an army officer, was kidnapped. Insurgents killed him and dumped his body on his parents' doorstep. Col. Khalid couldn't go to the funeral for fear that he would be assassinated. So Maj. Jason and soldiers in the unit mourned with him at Camp Taji.
In March, Col. Khalid left the battalion for a safer assignment, which doesn't require him to leave the base.
As the U.S. advisers grew closer to the Iraqis, they also grew more frustrated with U.S. soldiers on the other side of the base.
Shortly after Col. Pasquarette arrived at Camp Taji, he beefed up the number of guards and armored vehicles at the gates separating the U.S. and Iraqi sides of the base. "Securing my [base] is my No. 1 mission. I am risk averse here," he says. The U.S. advisers to the Iraqis thought the additional guards and guns were unnecessary and only served to make U.S. soldiers more suspicious of the Iraqis.
When the advisers asked if they could bring an Iraqi colleague to eat with them on the American side of the base, they say they were shocked at the response. They were told that the presence of an Iraqi officer in the dining hall might upset the U.S. soldiers.
"These kids go outside the gate and deal with a very hostile environment. They need a place where they can relax and let their guard down," says Lt. Col. Kevin Dixon, Col. Pasquarette's deputy commander. He says the policy was driven by the bombing of a dining facility in Mosul in 2004 by an Iraqi who had sneaked in.
The advisers felt differently. "We really believe there is a systemic contempt for Iraqi soldiers," says Master Sgt. John McFarlane, a senior enlisted adviser to the Iraqis at Camp Taji. The policy has since been amended to allow advisers to eat with Iraqi officers on the U.S. side if they file a letter in advance with the base's security office.
One of the Iraqi army's primary jobs in the Taji area is to guard water-purification substations that provide most of Baghdad's drinking water. Last summer, insurgents blew up one of the substations, cutting off water for two weeks. To ensure that didn't happen again, Iraqi army units were dispatched by the U.S. to guard the sites. Iraqi soldiers began to take regular sniper fire there.
In January, the U.S. advisers asked Col. Pasquarette for help installing barriers around one of the substations, to shield the Iraqis from snipers. Col. Pasquarette asked one of his units to help. Weeks passed, but help never came. American engineering units were too busy fortifying the U.S. side of Camp Taji and bases around it, says Maj. Martin Herem, who handled the request.
On Feb. 28, a sniper shot in the back one of the Iraqi soldiers at the water station. The soldier bled to death. Three weeks later, a sniper killed a second Iraqi soldier who was on patrol near the water station. Iraqi troops said that both times snipers used the small fruit and vegetable stands lining a nearby road for cover. The Iraqi army couldn't return fire without killing shopkeepers and customers.
When the Iraqi soldiers ran over to ask people who had been shooting at them, locals said they hadn't seen anything. It's dangerous for locals to be seen helping the U.S. Army or the Iraqi army.
The day after the second killing, Col. Saad, an Iraqi colonel in the unit Col. Payne was advising, ordered his men to tell the shopkeepers to empty the vegetable stands. The Iraqi soldiers then bulldozed the stands. Col. Saad says he destroyed the kiosks to protect his soldiers.
When Col. Pasquarette learned about the incident, he was furious. The Iraqis' actions ran completely counter to his strategy. He had told his soldiers to focus less on killing insurgents and more on reconstruction programs designed to win support of the people.
"When you go lethal or destroy property there may be a short-term gain, but there is a long-term loss," he says. He saw the move as a throwback to the Saddam Hussein era when the army was used to quell unrest and inflict mass punishment.
Because the Iraqi troops operate in his sector, Col. Pasquarette oversees them. He called Col. Payne into his office and demanded that he tell Col. Saad to have his soldiers apologize and pay reparations to the shop owners.
Col. Payne passed along the orders. But Col. Saad says he refused to follow them. "Here in Iraq if someone makes a mistake, you punish them," he says, referring to the shop owners' failure to give Iraqis information about the snipers. "If you give him money, he will repeat the mistake. And he will consider the person who gave him the gift an idiot."
The next day, Col. Pasquarette met with Col. Saad's Iraqi superior and told him about the dispute. The Iraqi general fired Col. Saad. Later that day, three low-ranking Iraqi soldiers, accompanied by about a dozen Americans, passed out the reimbursement forms.
The Iraqi officers in Col. Saad's brigade felt betrayed. On March 21, just before midnight, four senior officers stopped by Col. Payne's office and threatened to resign. "They were furious," says Col. Payne. Two days later, Col. Saad was quietly re-hired.
Col. Payne says he is still angry that neither Col. Pasquarette nor his subordinate commanders talked to Col. Saad to hear his side of the story. "This is a respect issue. These guys don't respect the Iraqis," Col. Payne says.
"Personally I don't think there was anything to discuss," Col. Pasquarette says.
In the days that followed, the relationship between Col. Payne and Col. Pasquarette grew more tense. In mid-March -- about the time the Iraqis flattened the vegetable stands -- insurgents attacked an Iraqi army patrol base in Tarmiyah, a city of about 50,000, a short drive from Camp Taji. One Iraqi soldier from Col. Saad's brigade was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade and another was shot in the head by a sniper. The next day, four of Col. Saad's soldiers died when their armored personnel carrier hit a roadside bomb. The blast threw the turret of the vehicle about 30 yards and lopped off the head of one of the Iraqi soldiers inside, U.S. and Iraqi officers say.
Senior Iraqi officials in the Ministry of Defense were convinced Tarmiyah was a hotbed of insurgent activity. Col. Pasquarette says he was told by his commander in Baghdad to clear the city of insurgents.
Col. Pasquarette and his team spent several days building a plan before he invited Col. Payne, Col. Saad and Col. Saad's commander to the U.S. side to explain it.
The two Iraqi officers were led through a 208-slide PowerPoint briefing, in which all the slides were written in English. The six areas the Iraqi troops were supposed to occupy were named for New England cities, such as Cranston, Bangor and Concord. The Iraqi officers, who spoke only Arabic, were dumbfounded. "I could see from their body language that both of them were not following what was going on," says Maj. Bill Taylor, Col. Payne's deputy.
Once the plan was explained to them through an interpreter, the Iraqis strongly disagreed with it. Col. Pasquarette planned to surround the city with razor wire and set up checkpoints to search all cars moving in and out of the city. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers would then begin regular foot patrols through the city to gain intelligence on insurgents. The centerpiece of the plan was $5 million in reconstruction projects.
Col. Pasquarette argued that the projects would help the U.S. win support of the city's powerful mayor, Sheik Sayid Jassem, who had been detained by U.S. forces in the early days of the occupation for supporting the insurgency. He also thought the projects would turn the people to the side of the new Iraqi government.
The Iraqis favored a harder-nosed approach. They wanted to conduct house-to-house searches and find a way to put pressure on the mayor, who they insisted was still supporting insurgents. They suggested shutting Tarmiyah's business district down for a week. Once the mayor had been cowed with the stick, they favored dangling the $5 million in reconstruction funds.
Col. Pasquarette says the Iraqi approach would have alienated the people in Tarmiyah. He rejected it and stuck to his plan. Although the operation hasn't netted any insurgents, he says people are out shopping and businesses that had been closed are bustling as a result of the checkpoints and foot patrols. The U.S. military is bankrolling a pipeline that will bring potable water into the city, building medical clinics and repairing the main road.
Attacks in the city are down substantially since March, though they have begun to climb of late, Col. Pasquarette says. Still, he says the operation was a success because residents feel safer. He doubts the city was ever really a major insurgent hotbed. "We were all wrong about Tarmiyah," he says.
Col. Saad and Col. Payne say the insurgents have simply moved outside the city's gates.
Gen. George Casey, the top military officer in Iraq, acknowledges it has often been hard for U.S. commanders to let Iraqis take over the fight. "We are so mission-oriented and so focused, we tend to want to do everything ourselves," he says. "It is a constant battle … . I would hope that when the Iraqis have ideas we try to help them execute them."
Iraqi troops "have never betrayed their U.S. advisory teams," adds Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is overseeing the effort to train and equip Iraqi forces.
In their four months together, Col. Payne and Col. Saad became close. Col. Payne teased him about a poster on his office wall of two fluffy white kittens, nuzzling next to a dozen roses. "What in the world is the deal with the cat and the flowers?" Col. Payne asked.
"It reminds me of softness and women," Col. Saad replied. He often referred to Col. Payne as "my brother."
Col. Saad confided his worries about his country and his army to Col. Payne. His unit was constantly short of supplies. His soldiers often didn't have enough fuel for their armored vehicles and generators. They also lacked AA batteries to run the night-vision goggles the Americans had given them. He blamed corruption in the Iraqi system for supply shortages. "If you don't have the basics to survive, you cannot be great. You cannot win," he said one evening. Col. Payne threw his arm around the Iraqi colonel's shoulder. "No, but you can survive," he said.
The U.S. says it is helping the Iraqis fix problems that have led to shortages of equipment. The Iraqi government recently replaced the contractor responsible for serving troops spoiled food. Supplying the army is the responsibility of the Iraqi government and "there have been a few cases of poor performance" among Iraqi contractors, says Lt. Col. Michael Negard, a senior spokesman in Iraq. "While the problems aren't huge, the issue's certainly of the highest priority," he says.
Col. Saad has also grown frustrated with the Americans on the other side of Camp Taji. Last month, Col. Pasquarette asked the Iraqis to provide a couple of dozen soldiers to man some checkpoints with U.S. soldiers. The U.S. soldiers showed up at the checkpoints for about a week. Then, without warning, they left the Iraqis to run them on their own, Col. Saad says. The Iraqis, who questioned the value of the checkpoints in the first place, were angry they had suddenly been abandoned.
"Why did they leave? Aren't they supposed to be helping us?" Col. Saad asked Col. Payne.
"I don't know what the hell they are doing," Col. Payne replied.
Col. Pasquarette says the Iraqis should have been informed that the U.S. soldiers were pulling out of those checkpoints.
In late May, Col. Payne began to push the Iraqi soldiers to get out on the offensive. "I am sick of sitting around and waiting to get attacked," Col. Payne told Col. Saad. He asked Col. Saad to cut loose 10 or 15 soldiers that he could pair up with three or four U.S. soldiers to venture out at night in search of the enemy. Col. Saad agreed.
On May 19, soldiers from Col. Payne's and Col. Saad's units set out on their second night patrol. After they stopped a car that was out in violation of curfew, the enemy opened fire on them from a surrounding palm grove. The soldiers fired back, killing three insurgents and dispersing the rest. When the shooting ended, a man stumbled out of a small shack deep in the palm grove. His hands were tied and a blindfold hung around his neck. "Come mister. I am problem," he sobbed in broken English.
The man said he worked as a legal adviser for Iraq's Ministry of Defense and had been kidnapped by men who told him they would slaughter him "like a sheep." The kidnappers were setting up a camera to film his execution, he said, when they heard the soldiers and left him. "God sent you to save me," the man said, as tears streamed down his face. (Read more about the mission.2)
Col. Payne was elated. "The Iraqi army saved a life. It also demonstrated that it will go into the field to find and destroy the enemy," he said.
His victory, however, quickly gave way to crushing defeat. The next day, he was summoned to meet with his immediate supervisor. Col. Payne was relieved of his command and told to move to a headquarters position in Baghdad.
He says he was told that he removed because he was "ineffective" and "lacked the skills necessary to lead [his] team in this challenging environment." An Army spokesman in Baghdad said Col. Payne wasn't relieved for any single incident. He declined to comment further.
A few days before Col. Payne was fired, Col. Pasquarette said in an interview that he thought Col. Payne and his men had grown too close to the Iraqis they were advising and his decisions were too often guided by emotion. "From my perspective, the move was warranted," Col. Pasquarette wrote in an email after Col. Payne was dismissed.
The morning after he was fired, Col. Payne spent the day saying goodbye to Col. Saad and the U.S. soldiers on his team. That evening, he boarded a helicopter for Camp Victory, a massive U.S. base on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"I'm now here in Victory -- an alien environment to me and one I never wanted to be a part of," he wrote in an email. He was able to hold his emotions in check until his helicopter lifted off from Camp Taji. Then, he says, he began to sob. "I simply cannot tell you how much I will miss my team."