Lieutenant Colonel Chris Starling served in Iraq from February 2005 to February 2006 as a member of the 2nd Marine Regiment. The Review caught up with him last quarter for a brief interview.
“The key ingredient for success in Iraq lies in Baghdad,” Starling told the Review. He added: “Baghdad’s importance stems from its size as the largest city and the capital of Iraq. […] The ethnic tensions we see playing out between Sunni and Shia on a national scale can also be seen occurring within the localized confines of Baghdad.”
While many would use Iraq as a kind of model for the war on terror, Starling cautioned that Iraq is a unique situation from which we cannot easily extract applicable lessons for the global war against Islamic extremism. He also described modern Iraq as a “fledgling venture in democracy,” adding that “no one can guarantee success. The best we can do is create the environment that gives the Iraqis the opportunity to establish democratic institutions and govern in accordance with democratic principles.”
Starling’s unit was deployed to the al-Anbar province, which was regarded in 2005 as Iraq’s most dangerous province. Today, the region is safe enough for Marines to operate in some areas without body armor, and the success of the “Anbar Awakening”—the alliance reached between the US military, Iraqi government, and Sunni militias—against the radical Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist group has been hailed as a sign of significant progress. On the impact of his own unit’s actions in Anbar on the recent progress,
Starling said: “Dealing with the tribal elements is not a new concept; we were doing this since late 2005 on a local level. What is encouraging now is the expansion of these alliances to the point where they are proving effective at the provincial and national level.”
Still there is much work to do. “The difficulty in fighting a counter-insurgency,” Starling explained, “is two-fold.” First, “time is on the terrorists’ side.” Second, “they will go where you are not. A determined insurgent can seek refuge and hide out indefinitely while plotting his next move. His mission is simple: disrupt everyday life and discredit the government.” When his unit arrived in Anbar, it was a “Wild West.” Only after the number of US forces was doubled in Western Al Anbar Province and after two brigades of the Iraqi Army were added to the equation, were the Marines able to make real progress in establishing local security. Regaining control of the western Euphrates river valley involved focusing on the urban centers of the province one by one. “The key to success in this effort was establishing combined (US and Iraqi military) persistent presence in each of these critical areas,” he told the Review. At the same time, “Al Qaeda overplayed its hand. The willingness of certain tribes to deal with Coalition Forces was in response to widespread abuses committed by Al Qaeda and its contingent of foreign fighters in 2005. The alliances forged with the tribes became central to recruiting local police forces throughout Al Anbar Province.”
Two success stories he cited were the US Army’s efforts in Tal Afar, a city in Anbar pacified in large measure by Hoover fellow Colonel H.R. McMaster (then Commander of the US Army 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment), and the current situation in Al Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi. According to Starling, the biggest concerns of military leaders in Ramadi currently revolve around establishing and maintaining essential public services such as fresh water, electricity, sewage, and trash removal. The number of roadside bomb and sniper attacks has decreased dramatically.
When asked how Stanford students can learn about the war–given the often inaccurate or biased coverage in the mainstream media–Starling recommended reading The Long War Journal [longwarjournal.org] blog run by veteran correspondent Bill Roggio.
Starling’s military career extends beyond Iraq. In early 2007, he was deployed to Africa and the Middle East, where he led a battalion of Marines in support of bilateral training exercises and civil affairs projects. He worked with allied forces in Djibouti, Kenya, Qatar, and Jordan before returning in July and beginning a one year Hoover Fellowship in August.