Features

Help the little guy

Iraq | Counterterrorism expert Eric Egland is fighting the Pentagon over a bottom-up strategy to win where it counts

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

For eight months, Air Force Major Eric Egland toured all over Iraq with combat units, hitting hair-raising spots such as Ramadi and Fallujah. The Pentagon counterterrorism advisor listened to what hundreds of troops had to say about their mission and found a common theme: They were not getting the right support to help fight a morphing, terrorist insurgency.

After his 2005 tour, Egland said, "I was surprised at how localized the war really is-it made me realize the war is not going to be run out of the palaces of Baghdad."

But that, he says, is precisely what has happened: Pentagon decision makers still use top-heavy Cold War patterns in Iraq, rather than listening to units about what they need to win over locals and beat insurgents. The result, he says, has been a series of seemingly small mistakes that have built to major losses in the war.

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Egland, 37, promised the troops he met that he would take their complaints to higher-ups. He went through the "Baghdad chain," he said, but "nobody was willing to change the top-down mindset." Other officials liked the ideas, but things moved too slowly for Egland's liking. Time was draining away, and the insurgency was pressing on.

So in 2006, Egland wrote an essay called "Six Steps to Victory," which outlined ways to win, such as giving battalion commanders more authority to decide what equipment they need. He took four months off and burned $50,000 to expand the steps into a self-published book, The Troops Need You, America! A publishing house offered to print it, but that would have taken a year-too long to wait, Egland said. In 2003, enemy attacks numbered 100 to 200 month, he said, but now that figure is over 1,000 a month.

Since then, Egland has appeared on news network shows and been recognized by President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

"You clearly have a good understanding of the complex, evolving nature of the situation here in Iraq," Petraeus told Egland after reading his book, adding, "Well done!" in a handwritten note. But whether Egland's recommendations are being widely incorporated into the new strategy for Iraq remains to be seen. So Egland, though he is still a full-time counterterrorism advisor, pulls all-nighters at his Sacramento home to get Americans involved in a World War II-style national effort.

Egland does that mainly through his nonprofit group, Troops Need You. It works differently than most volunteer programs to help soldiers. Care packages stack high in warehouses to meet soldiers' personal needs, Egland says, but he wants Americans also to send things that specifically help their mission. The troops "had enough resources for themselves, but they didn't have carrots-things to win over the locals," he told WORLD.

One example: Last month Troops Need You sent $5,000 in basic medical supplies to the 1st "Black Lions" Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, in southern Baghdad's Rashid District. Insurgent attacks meant locals in the neighborhood of Furat were suffering shrapnel wounds from exploding mortar, and with the hospital out of commission, many turned to the battalion for help. Having the supplies prompted one frustrated local doctor to begin practicing medicine again, and is bolstering the authority of neighborhood councils that deliver them.

"Providing medical supplies is helping, but it is helping Iraqis help Iraqis," battalion executive officer Maj. Erik Overby told WORLD. Troops Need You has also supplied thousands of dollars worth of soccer equipment and water purification systems to other units. They are the sort of projects that help build local trust, even leading to more tips on counterinsurgent activities for troops.

But while Americans can help in such small projects, Egland also wants the Pentagon to pay more attention to what troops say. To illustrate, he gives two examples of how military bureaucracy scuttled good ideas.

Two years ago, a unit based in East Baghdad was facing a fearsome concentration of apparently Iranian roadside weapons-EFPs, or Explosively Formed Projectiles, which have molten copper that shoots out and penetrates armored vehicles, ricochets, and kills soldiers inside. "The only thing that limits casualties in these attacks is the number of troops inside the vehicle," Egland said.

The tank company commander looked at enemy patterns and devised a plan to attack the insurgents, which required more troops and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to monitor things.

When the unit asked for the help, their commanding brigade refused. More troops were unavailable, and the UAV was bookmarked for a more important mission.

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