New Lessons From a War Zone

The Wall Street Journal

May 31, 2012

The Snake Eaters
By Owen West
(Free Press, 262 pages, $26)

Next summer, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is due to shift from fighting the Taliban to advising the Afghans on how to defend themselves. American commanders are already preparing to deploy advisory teams to mentor the Afghan forces. If the experience of Iraq is anything to go by, most of those teams are likely to be made of reservists and active-duty cast-offs—”odds and sods,” as the British say—with scant preparation for their critical mission.

Every deploying adviser, and every American interested in how we are fighting our wars, should read Owen West’s gripping and important book, “The Snake Eaters.” Mr. West was himself a reservist—a former Marine infantryman turned Goldman Sachs commodity trader—when in 2006 he received a call-up that would take him to Anbar Province to lead an advisory team known by the appropriate radio sign “Outcast.” It was teamed with

“The Snake Eaters”—the Third Battalion of the 3rd brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division—the so-called 3/3-1. Although Mr. West (whom I know slightly through his father, the war correspondent Bing West) would spend several months working alongside 500 or so jundis (Iraqi soldiers), he has chosen to focus most of his narrative on his Outcast predecessors, writing less a memoir than a history of a military unit’s recent combat experience.

“The Snake Eaters” opens in September 2005, when al Qaeda in Iraq had nearly free run of the area around Lake Habbaniyah, a one-time resort spot located midway between Ramadi and Fallujah. Task Force Panther, a reinforced U.S. Army National Guard battalion, was stationed with the 3/3-1 at a large base known as Camp Habbaniyah, but it struggled simply keeping the main highway free of bombs. Neither American nor Iraqi soldiers spent much time in the nearby city of Khalidiya, where insurgent snipers and bomb makers lurked among the 25,000 residents.

Sent to improve the 3/3-1’s effectiveness was an advisory team of 10 Army reservists whose members included a flooring manager from California, a cop from Virginia and a plumber from Iowa. They arrived, Mr. West notes, “with little understanding of the situation, no doctrine or training on advising to lean on, and zero combat experience to provide rules for staying alive.” The team had received all of 90 days’ training in Indiana, mostly from instructors who had never been to Iraq or served as advisers themselves. That much of what they were taught turned out to be wrong will not be a surprise.

Stateside, they had received the impression that they would be lecturing Iraqi soldiers from the confines of a safe American base. When they arrived, they discovered that such isolation was a formula for failure. Mr. West writes: “Only an advisor’s aggressive willingness to share risk—his performance under fire—with local troops gives him credibility with and influence over them.”

T.E. Lawrence had grasped this as early as 1917, but it still hasn’t penetrated Washington, where President Barack Obama, among others, keeps claiming that the advisory work of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will not be a “combat mission.” “The Snake Eaters” shows that if U.S. advisers in Afghanistan are kept from going into action, they will be hard-pressed to improve the performance of their charges. Advisers are most effective when they operate as Team Outcast did in 2005-06 under the inspired leadership of Lt. Col. Michael Troster, a DEA agent in civilian life.

Lt. Col. Troster first moved his team, along with the 3/3-1, off cushy Camp Habbaniyah onto a makeshift base closer to Khalidiya, leaving behind such amenities as Internet access and mess halls. Then he pressed the Iraqi officers to run regular patrols into the city. Task Force Panther refused to accompany the Iraqis, so Lt. Col. Troster offered to have his own, undermanned team do it.

From then on, two advisers would go along on every Iraqi patrol, providing a radio link to American backup in case anything went wrong. Team Outcast men went out as often as four times a day on grueling missions. By the time their deployment was done, three advisers had logged more than 450 patrols each—”an astonishing number,” Mr. West notes, “considering how many enemy attacks in their zone awaited them.”

Of the 10 original members of Team Outcast, one (the executive officer, who goes unnamed by Mr. West) was transferred for his unwillingness to go “outside the wire.” Another, Staff Sgt. Richard Blakley, a medic, was shot and killed by a sniper. Six other advisers were wounded, the most severe case being Staff Sgt. Christopher Watson, who barely survived being blown out of his Humvee by two antitank mines. (It was as a casualty replacement that Mr. West joined Team Outcast in October 2006.)

But the risks that Team Outcast took paid off. Patrolling together, Iraqis and Americans were gradually able to win over the local population and persuade them to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. A key role was played, it should be noted, by gung-ho Marine battalions, who replaced Task Force Panther at Camp Habbaniyah in June 2006 and who provided more support to the Snake Eaters. Advisers cannot get the job done by themselves.

By the time Team Outcast left Habbaniyah in February 2007, violence had fallen dramatically and the Snake Eaters had become one of the best battalions in the entire Iraqi army. In 2009, back on Wall Street, Mr. West was amazed to hear that Habbaniyah, once a death zone, had again become a popular vacation spot.

It is too soon to know whether this success will last and whether it will be possible to replicate it in Afghanistan. But if Afghanistan does become more stable, it will be due in no small part to the efforts of American advisers working with American combat units to improve the professionalism of local security forces as Michael Troster, Owen West and others did so heroically in Iraq.