14 May, 2008

MG Lynch, Part III: Growth & Transitions

[Final installment of my interview with Major General Rick Lynch, Commanding General, 3rd Infantry Division (MND-C, Iraq). Part I and Part II.]

In January when I interviewed the 3ID Chief of Staff, he was obviously concerned about getting help with rebuilding the economy and infrastructure. COL McKnight said, "we are very good at security operations, but other enablers can help us with the economy." He expressed the need for private investment and expertise, and help with building infrastructure. However, he said he expected to see more of that soon, as things continued to calm down.

So, last week I asked MG Lynch to what extent COL McKnight's expectations had been met--what was succeeding, and what was falling short in redevelopment? In response, Lynch proudly rattled off a staggering list of rebuilding and reconstruction projects, ranging from the typical schools and hospitals to things such as fish hatcheries/farms, poultry farms and markets. The focus has been on what he calls "sustainable employment," jobs that help build lasting industrial and economic systems.

During the 14 months that 3ID has been deployed, MG Lynch reports that the Iskandariyah Industrial Complex has gone from employing "a couple hundred" to 4,000-5,000 people, with the local Provincial Reconstruction team "facilitating" the contracts that created the increased need for workers. And to fill that need, the Iskandariyah vocational/tech school "has gone from 32 students to 1500. They are each paid a stipend to go to school and will graduate having learned a trade."

Economic development work centers on the local level. MG Lynch referenced community-based projects such as the newly-reopened Yusufiyah wholesale market, which employs 500 people and gives the recovering farmers and artisans a place to sell their goods. There has also been a concurrent effort to make sure that security and infrastructure support economic development, while offering micro-grants to help merchants and farmers with either "seed money" or investments that will improve an important aspect of their businesses. "No one has complained in my area that they can’t get their goods to market…or that they can’t get goods [they want] to sell," said Lynch.

MG Lynch spent a lot of time talking about the fish and poultry farms that have been reborn through micro-grants and the assistance Provincial Reconstruction Teams. He described the 90,000 fertilized eggs that had just arrived from Holland, and the effort to design transport tanks that individual fish farmers could use to get their "fingerlings" (baby fish) to their farms. He then talked about how long it would take for before the fish and poultry would be marketable, and how that market would play out in the region.

At times such as this in the interview, it seemed more that I was talking to a business-minded mayor or the professor of an agricultural college than to the commanding general of a lethal U.S. Army infantry division. I asked MG Lynch if he had envisioned himself being so involved in this kind of work. He pointed out that they had planned for this going in, "We were prepared to do COIN." The division started out with what ended up being about eight months of major combat operations but, "We knew coming in that there was [going to be] the rest of the story--Okay, now you’ve got to meet the needs of the people." They had prepared ahead of time for this eventuality, but MG Lynch admitted he'd gained much more familiarity with raising chickens and fish than he'd ever expected.

All of this redevelopment work going on leads to the obvious question of whether 3ID's operations are now including more PRTs and non-military support than they had been earlier this year. This is clearly a touchy subject, as it goes back to the long-running Iraq-related feuds between DoD and State/CIA. In earlier interviews, members of 3ID expressed great appreciation for the PRTs, but politely made it clear they weren't getting enough.

MG Lynch reports that while the number of PRTs has increased, staffing is not at 100% in his AO. In general, they are manned at the 80% level, though the newest teams are only at 60%. He seemed happy to be able to note that Karbala and Najaf were finally getting their own PRTs on the very day we spoke, and added that the State Department is, "soliciting for people to come in and fill those positions." This struck me as a case of stepping lightly around the feud, since the State Department has refused to force its employees to take these unpopular postings and instead has relied on volunteers to fill the billets.

In closing, I asked MG Lynch if there was anything I hadn't mentioned that he feels is not being heard back home. He replied with intensity, "I continue to find myself frustrated by the idea that the American army is at the breaking point!" He referenced 3ID's record-breaking rate of reenlistment, with fiscal year goals met in March despite having deployed 3 times since 2003 and currently finishing up a 15-month deployment. "But [they are] reenlisting because they believe that what they are doing is important--protecting our freedoms and way of life--in their souls. They believe in the mission, as I do."

"The idea that the Army is broken is blatantly false," he continued. It is not the military personnel themselves who concern him nearly as much as their families. "It's the strain on families more than anything...Fifteen [months] isn’t 12 + 3,” he pointed out. "You miss two of something when it's fifteen... We've also gotta spend more time at home between deployments."

He repeatedly emphasized that it is the families who are much more of a worry for him than the soldiers. "It’s important the American public knows their army is not at the breaking point," he reiterated, "That they’re re-enlisting and believe in the mission."

With that in mind, MG Lynch was happy to report that the 3ID Headquarters will be formally transferring authority to the 10th Mountain Division on June 1. I asked him what he thinks are the biggest issues 10th MTN will be facing. He expects the major work to be on the Sons of Iraq program, "[ensuring] they remain part of the solution." Lynch said he believes about 60% of them were involved in insurgent-related activity at some point but, "Today they are part of the solution."

This transfer of SOI participants from their temporary employment as a kind of neighborhood watch into careers such as military, police, and various trades has been a constant challenge for a number of reasons. According to MG Lynch, most SOI want to join the Iraqi Army, but only about 1/3 of those applying meet the recruit criteria for physical condition, aptitude, age and literacy.

Instead of military service, many SOI are encouraged to join local police forces or attend trade schools, an effort which is "making some progress." MG Lynch said that in the Jurfa sector where recently there had been no police presence, the newly-reconstituted police force is composed entirely of former SOI members, and there is also an effort to employ some SOI as a kind of civilian service corps for cleaning up and repairing streets and structures.

Even among the SOI qualified to join the Iraqi Army, there are challenges. Potential recruits still "encounter sectarian resistance at the national level, something we have a difficult time understanding," says MG Lynch. "The concern is that these SOI are nothing more than a Sunni militia that will overthrow the government at some point. It is difficult because there is resistance to embracing the idea of getting Sunni to be functioning members of society."

But MG Lynch is not without optimism on this subject. "Slowly, slowly," he says, using a common Arabic phrase. "Everything here in Iraq is hard, and everything in Iraq takes time... It’s going the right direction, just happens to going very slowly."

On the other hand, the transition from 3ID heading up MND-C to the 10th MTN taking over is going very smoothly and quickly. "We are an experience-based army," says MG Lynch. "I find myself worrying zero percent of the time about transitioning... Constant transitions, but it works well." He expects no lapse in momentum when 10th MTN takes over. "I don’t have any concerns."

And so MG Lynch and the rest of 3ID HQ will be home by about June 3, after 15 long months at "war..." Or at something that no longer resembles war for most of them, so much as it resembles a cross between the later stages of a disaster recovery operation and the typical Peace Corps project.