Commentary: Handshakes to success

As two Marine Expeditionary Units sortie to the calamity in Haiti, another unit departs Iraq without great fanfare. The Marines are leaving Iraq with neither parade nor pageant; this is what victory looks like in a counterinsurgency.

Intelligence reports, pundits, and political hired guns all predicted failure in Anbar Province in 2006 — it was a time of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. Exploiting images of Abu Graib and carnage in Haditha, camera-phone videos of Al Qaida snipers echoed in the mass media and resonated with the international audience.

Emboldened, Al Qaida held a parade in downtown Ramadi and declared it the capitol of an Islamic Emirate. It was their high-water mark.

The battle was not for Anbar Province, it was for the will of the American people.

Al Qaida's violence campaign focused on opinion, specifically American commitment, and our impatient psyche. Al Qaida wagered that local Iraqis would never turn against fellow Muslims.

They were wrong. They bombed, embezzled, blackmailed, arranged marriages of local tribal women to foreign suicide bombers, and frayed the fabric of the society.

They gambled and lost.

Along the way we learned a powerful lesson; that the path to success was not marked by forcing our western norms, but rather by empowering Iraqi hopes, wants and aspirations. We had learned to listen.

The daily courage and commitment of the lance corporal and lieutenant on the ground with the tribesmen, over several years, demonstrated our dedication to the interests of the tribes and sped the decade-long time frame to wage the average counterinsurgency.

Interpersonal relationships were the best form of strategic communication. Daily handshakes between Marine and Sheik were the most effective information operation. The tribes awoke, and fortified by dedicated Marines, cleansed Al Qaida from their homeland.

With the hard fought road of Iraq nearly behind us and the twisting path of Afghanistan ahead, we know that it will take many handshakes to turn the corner in Afghanistan.

Though there are vast differences in circumstance between Iraq and Afghanistan, there are also powerful parallels.

Solid communication is a requirement for success, a success that won't be marked by a victory celebration, but by a thousand tokens of trust, partnership and shared interests as we again listen and learn to mesh an Afghan definition of success with our own. Inshallah.


Colonel Bryan Salas is the Director of U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs. He served as the Marine spokesman in Anbar Province in 2006. You can e-mail him here.

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