11 May, 2008

Live from Iraq: MG Rick Lynch

I’m convinced more than ever that the people of Iraq want what you and I want.

Last Thursday I spoke by phone with Major General Rick Lynch, Commanding General, 3rd Infantry Division (Multi-National Division - Central), currently in Iraq. He answered questions for about 35 minutes, discussing the current security situation, redevelopment efforts, the strains of long/repeated deployments and his attitude toward media outreach. I did not bring up the issue of Iranian influence in Iraq, as he recently spoke about that in great detail here. 3ID is headquarters for MND-C, with an area of operations beginning on the southern edge of Baghdad province and continuing south through Karbala and Najaf, stretching from Iraq's eastern to western border.

In the last year or so, no commanding general in Iraq--outside General Petraeus himself--has been more visible and accessible to American media of all stripes than MG Lynch. This is not by accident.

When interviewing senior leaders of 3ID, I have always prepared by scouring the Internet for information about the division's activities. Such information was usually available in copious quantities--through numerous radio and TV interviews with local stations, audio and written interviews with bloggers, and even a website devoted to chronicling 3ID's efforts. I did not realize how unusual this was... until I sought information on other U.S. Army division-level commands in Iraq last February and came up largely empty.

I asked MG Lynch what inspired such an obviously intentional program of local/alternative media engagement. His opening sentences surprised me with their carefully-considered conviction and intensity: "I do believe it’s imperative that the American public know how their national treasures are being committed--both people and money...It’s important that we tell the story." It was obviously not about "countering the mainstream media" or "balancing the reporting" so that good and bad news get equal time. For MG Lynch, it was about making sure that the American public be as informed as possible about the broad story of what their military is doing and what results from those efforts.

MG Lynch went on to explain that during his time as spokesman for Multi-National Forces - Iraq in 2006, he had been made acutely aware of the challenges in getting out that broad story. "I had a year of dealing with the media and I understood the complications of trying to get the story back to the American public. [But] the public deserves to know what is going on."

As spokesman he'd had a front-row seat to the pattern of a "bad" story such as a particularly bloody battle, or a mistake, or a soldier misdeed being almost instantly scooped up and reported in the national media, while positive news often went nowhere. The pattern continued when he took command of 3ID. He voiced his irritation to me with particular intensity. "I find myself so frustrated trying to get through the national media filter. Good news—which is generally what I have to tell these days—just doesn’t get through."

As an example, he relayed his experience with what his parents have been hearing about Iraq while he is deployed. "I’ve called my parents every Sunday, my entire adult life... One Sunday about 2/3rds of the way through the deployment, I called and my father asked, 'Are you still over there? Because there aren't any reports about you anymore.'"

He also reported his reaction to one day overhearing a news anchor state that, "The news from Iraq today is that there is no news."

"That’s not true. That's just not true," he recalled responding with vehemence. And so, the decision was made to focus on local and alternative media outlets to make sure Americans at home were informed about what was happening in 3ID's AO.

MG Lynch reports he has been pleased with the results so far. "I've been very happy with what we’ve done recently--lots of cards and letters from people who have heard of the progress we’re making, but didn’t hear it from major media...I don’t’ know how we as a society look at the bad news and not the good news...But there is so much good news over here. It is palpable, the progress being made.”

That progress can be seen and felt in both the numbers and activities associated with 3ID's work in Iraq. When 3ID arrived in the AO fourteen months ago, Coalition forces were dealing with 25 attacks per day, and significant combat operations continued through much of 2007. By January when I began interviewing the 3ID senior leadership, attacks in the AO had fallen to four per day, though proactive combat operations continued in carefully-targeted areas.

MG Lynch now reports that with less than two attacks per day against Coalition forces in his AO, current activity highlights a marked shift to stability-related operations. The most recent division-wide effort is Operation Marne Piledriver, which has a battle component aimed at isolated pockets of insurgents and al Qaeda, but is largely focused on improvements to infrastructure and economic development. Says MG Lynch, "Where there used to be major points of violence, now we’ve got people with their needs being met by the government of Iraq and by us... Conversation [when I talk to residents] is about jobs, not about security."

Coming up in Part II and Part III: greater detail about security, the challenge of the Iraqi police forces, economic development and governmental "capacity-building," sectarian relations, MG Lynch's thoughts on a "broken" army, and the imminent transfer of authority for MND-C to 10th Mountain Division.