Find a Security Clearance Job!


ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part II

Transition to a New Campaign

Chapter 5
Intelligence and High-Value Target Operations


Language and Culture

Magnifying the obstacles in the intelligence gathering efforts at all levels were the barriers posed by the differences in language and culture. These barriers posed challenges for almost all types of operations in Iraq. On a very basic level, the American Soldier’s inability to speak with Iraqi citizens made building relationships difficult. With the help of a linguist or interpreter, the Soldier could converse with Iraqis, but the differences in culture remained powerful and prevented full comprehension or even caused offense and alienation. Throughout 2003 and 2004, language and culture played significant roles in shaping the Army’s new campaign.

US Army Regulation (AR) 350-20, Management of the Defense Foreign Language Program, charged the Army to serve as the executive agent for the Defense Foreign Language Program. The Army tasked the MI Corps to provide language support to Army operations and trained many of its HUMINT and SIGINT collectors as linguists. These Soldiers were spread throughout the MI battalions in the Active Component and found in HUMINT linguist battalions in the Reserve Component. Once the planning for OIF began, the Army prepared to include most of its Arabic linguists in the initial deployment, which later created a problem. Major General Fast noted, “We frontloaded our Arabic linguists for the invasion of Iraq, as you would expect. A great many of the Arabic linguists had reached the culminating point of their tours, so we began to get fewer and fewer who were fluent Arab speaking linguists.”130 However, even if the Army had been able to retrain all of its linguists to speak Arabic—an almost impossible task—it still would not have been able to meet the needs on the ground in Iraq. Understanding this, the Army contracted with Titan Corporation and other companies to provide native Arabic speakers living in the West who could provide a variety of linguist support services to troops in OIF.

The Death of One Iraqi Interpreter

On 20 September 2004, Sarah Latiff, an Iraqi translator for Company A, 3d Battalion, 153d Infantry Regiment, 39th Brigade Combat Team (Arkansas Army National Guard) was murdered. The Soldiers in the company had developed great respect for Sarah’s attitude and courage. Private First Class Jimmy Harris recalled, “Nothing ever seemed to really get her down too much. She would gladly go on any mission we asked her to.” Latiff’s death devastated the company.

By 2004, Iraqi interpreters had become key players in the Coalition’s full spectrum campaign. Understanding this, the insurgent network targeted those Iraqis who worked closely with US forces, helping them negotiate the new culture in which they found themselves.
Violence against translators and their families made the hiring of qualified interpreters far more difficult.

After Sarah’s death, the Soldiers of Company A, 3-153 IN, decided to take action. They began working with her relatives and friends to gather information about the people involved in the murder. Eventually, local sources provided enough intelligence to focus the Soldiers’ attention on a small group of houses close to the unit’s base. The company then mounted a nighttime cordon and search that led to the apprehension of five men and the capture of a small arms cache.

Sergeant First Class Floyd Herron, the company first sergeant, asserted at the time of the raid, “We’ll start questioning them and figure out exactly their involvement in Sarah’s death, maybe even find the trigger puller. So maybe we can bring some justice to Sarah’s family and make the neighborhood a little bit safer for its residents.”

Benjamin Cossel,
“One for Sarah: Tracking Down a Killer,”
Defend America News (4 November 2004): 1-2.

This action helped fill part of the gap, but the demand for linguists remained high. Just about all US Army units, including the MI Soldiers in the JIDC at Abu Ghraib, complained that they did not have enough interpreters and linguists throughout their tours in Iraq. Many units hired local Iraqis to serve as interpreters, but this did not always solve the problem. If units wanted to have their local interpreters provide support for sensitive missions on Coalition bases or elsewhere, they had to have these Iraqis vetted. The S2 of the 2d SBCT, 2d ID, a unit that had deployed to Iraq with Korean linguists, stated, “The number of linguists to support a BCT is significant. They are critical to the combat unit’s ability to communicate and interact with the local population. Obtaining [vetted] linguists to perform tasks alongside maneuver battalions and other actions on the FOB [forward operating base] was difficult and overall affected intelligence gathering.”131 There were worse problems than clearances. In the Mosul area in 2004, the 3d BCT, 2d ID could not hire enough Arabic speakers, stating in a report that linguists “quit because of threats to them or their family from Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF). Keeping interpreters employed and alive was a key issue with the brigade.”132 The lack of linguists not only affected combat operations and intelligence collection but reconstruction efforts as well. Sergeant Major Stephen Kammerdiener of the 326th Engineer Battalion, which supported the 101st ABN, stated that working with local contractors was a challenge, even if a unit had a linguist:

We did hire some translators and we generally tried to get a trusted translator to go out with a new translator for a while just to get an idea of how trustworthy they really were. We had the initial vetting process and then we would never send them out alone. Plus, our military people, we had a lieutenant that was an Arab linguist and a couple times we would catch a contractor speaking with a translator and they would be brokering a [unauthorized] deal.133

Major General Fast believed the attempts to increase linguist support were inadequate for the support of intelligence operations. She asserted, “During my tenure in Iraq . . . even with contracting local nationals, civilian linguists, and heritage speakers, we often could only support about a quarter of the requirements for linguists. In the case of intelligence, the need for cleared linguists exacerbated the shortages.”134 Major Kenneth Cary, the Brigade S2 for the 1st BCT, 1st CAV, pointed out the gap in understanding between Americans and Iraqis was large and summed up its importance on the overall campaign in the following way: “If all our Soldiers spoke Arabic we could have resolved Iraq in 2 years. My point is that language is obviously an obstacle to our success, much more so than cultural. Even a fundamental understanding of the language would have had a significant impact on our ability to operate.”135

Cary’s comments noted the cultural gap that divided Iraqis and American Soldiers. On the most basic level, the cultural gap prevented US Soldiers from comprehending the situation around them and especially hindered their ability to understand the insurgent enemy as it emerged in the summer of 2003. When left unaddressed, this divide had a larger impact, critically disabling the Army’s ability to engage Iraqis in the campaign to win support for the Coalition’s cause and in some cases, alienating those who were “sitting on the fence.”

Lieutenant General Sanchez believed that the US Army’s inability to understand Iraqi culture resided in its general unwillingness to prepare in a serious way for that understanding. Sanchez stated:

It was a very cursory effort that we applied to try and get cultural awareness. We did the country studies that we normally are accustomed to. There was no real extraordinary effort other than some young sergeant or some young officer or some guy that you got out of a higher headquarters S2 shop that came down and did the briefing as part of your individual training right before you deployed. But the effectiveness of that was marginal at best and I would say the impact that it had on our Soldiers on the ground was almost nonexistent.136

The experience of the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (1-506th IN), which deployed to Al Anbar province in 2004, serves to illustrate Sanchez’s point. In their predeployment training, the unit’s Soldiers received briefings and a booklet on Arab culture but, “Once we hit the ground in Iraq, we found that much of the information in the cultural briefings and booklets was misleading. In many cases, the information did not apply to the province we were operating in, or were characteristics or traits of Muslims in different countries.”137 In retrospect, the unit wished it had received more information about Al Anbar province, especially intelligence about the clan, tribal, and religious relationships in the region.138

Sanchez believed the negative aspects of this lack of cultural awareness became evident early in the campaign:

Very quickly, we started to learn that we had some major problems because during the cordon and searches we were starting to get the feedback, not just in the units at the tactical level but I started to get the feedback at the task force level from the Iraqis that we were interfacing with, that we did not understand what we were doing in terms of the way we were handling the Iraqis when we were either arresting them or isolating them or entering their homes.139

These problems went far beyond the level of the Iraqi street, as Sanchez contended: “All aspects of the conduct of our operations were being questioned by Iraqis at multiple levels and when the [Iraqi] governing council was put into place I had multiple discussions with them about this specific issue.”140 At the tactical level, unit leaders realized how the lack of cultural awareness affected their ability to achieve their goals. One company commander in the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry (1-503d IN), stated, “I believe we deployed unprepared to understand the very foreign culture of Iraq. It took the entire deployment for most of us to connect with the locals with any effect. Especially in an insurgency, understanding the people is absolutely essential.”141 He then asserted, “I am convinced that if we had understood even a small portion of the subtle [cultural] clues only perceptible to the highly experienced, we would have seen much more success.”142

CJTF-7 and many of its subordinate units did attempt to improve the Soldiers’ understanding of the Iraqi culture and how to treat Iraqis in various situations. Sanchez recalled:

Once we realized this huge gap in cultural understanding we immediately went about trying to fix it. First of all, we started by putting out some very basic guidance directing that every person deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. I will call it dignity and respect guidance because over the course of the year there are multiple memorandums that come out of the CJTF reiterating the standards for the treatment of all people not just detainees. We also rapidly start learning that some of the actions that we took as commonplace or second-nature to us were actually pretty insulting in the Iraqi culture. The sandbagging of a detainee and arresting them in front of their families was pretty insulting to the honor of an Iraqi and in our culture we just do it.143

Subordinate units and forces that deployed subsequently built on this foundation. One excellent example was the 1st CAV. In the months before deploying to Iraq in the spring of 2004, Major General Peter Chiarelli, the division commander, began preparing his leaders by flying many of them to Jordan to become acquainted with Arab culture.144 Chiarelli followed that trip with a training deployment to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where 1st CAV Soldiers began to work with Arab role players. Once his unit was in Iraq, Chiarelli then ensured his Soldiers continued to receive cultural awareness training.

Many units had more abrupt cultural training: they learned by making mistakes. One unit experienced the shock of breaking a cultural taboo and paid a high price for its lack of awareness of the status and proper treatment of women in Iraqi culture. The 1-503d IN, operating in the city of Ramadi in Al Anbar province, detained women on two occasions, actions that caused angry crowds of thousands to gather.145 The unit found that these detentions provoked even those Iraqis who had proven to be supporters of the Coalition. After the events, they concluded that the insurgent organizations had likely induced them to make the detentions to cause riots and decrease the support for US programs in the city. Whatever the root cause of the events, had the unit been better prepared to deal with sensitive cultural issues such as treatment of women, its Soldiers would have avoided alienating those whose support they were trying to win. Having received a painful lesson on cultural differences, the 1-503d IN warned other units, “Don’t touch the women! If women must be detained, use the senior Sheiks to discipline her (sic). If you must protect women, do so with men present at their homes. Do not bring women into the [Coalition Forces] perimeter.”146 Despite the best intentions of American Soldiers and the constant attempts to explain the beneficial aspects of the Coalition’s vision for Iraq, clashes like this one in Ramadi during the first 18 months of the new campaign likely eroded much of the hard-earned progress made by the US Army in places like Al Anbar province.

Chapter 5. Intelligence and High-Value Target Operations

Join the mailing list