By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Oct. 11, 2006 – "Winning hearts and minds" is more than a cliche; it's the critical factor that ultimately will determine victory or defeat in the global war on terror, Army leaders said yesterday at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual convention here. Commanders returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the importance of building relationships with and support from the local population.
"The center of gravity is the support of the people," said Army Lt. Col. Chris Cavoli, who commanded the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, in northeastern Afghanistan.
Cavoli cited the major difference between traditional warfare and the current operations under way in the Middle East. "In a regular, conventional war, military forces are committed to annihilating each other," he said. But as U.S. forces work alongside their coalition and host-nation counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, "everything we do is an arrangement designed to make people closer to the government ... (and) to connect the people to the government."
Accomplishing that requires that the local people believe the coalition is acting in their best interest and cares about them and their future, the officers agreed. That begins with creating a secure environment, they said.
Army Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, who commanded 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in Tal Afar, Iraq, called security critical, not just to building support for the new national government, but for helping the coalition. "Security has cascading effects," he said. "When people feel safe, they give you information."
When it comes to identifying and capturing or killing insurgents who hide among the local people, "Knowledge is often more important than firepower," Cavoli said.
Fighting insurgents and helping a new government get off the ground is a bit like walking a tightrope, the officers said. It requires force, but not too much force. "It's critical to avoid overreacting," Cavoli said. "You have to know to use one bullet when one bullet is needed."
Similarly, the officers said, it takes a balance between fighting the insurgency and taking on missions that build the country and its government.
Army Lt. Col. Willard Burleson, who commanded the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, in western Baghdad, cited the importance of infrastructure improvements that demonstrate the coalition's concern for the people's well-being. These projects can be as major as long-term electricity and sewage projects or as simple as sending U.S. troops to work alongside Iraqi soldiers to pick up trash in off the streets, he said.
"These are important parts of what we do," Burleson said. As troops conduct these missions, they come to recognize that victory "is not just about the attack," he said. "It's the effects."
Cavoli emphasized the importance of cultural sensitivity as troops build relationships with local people. "The way we do what we do is as important as what we do," he said. Defeating the insurgency requires "persistent contact with the population" and behavior that projects strength and inspires trust in the locals, he said.
"Relationships matter," agreed Hickey. "You have to build trust. Mutual respect is a combat multiplier."
Ultimately, success in the war on terror will boil down to how well U.S. and coalition forces build the relationships needed to weed out terrorists and build Iraq's and Afghanistan's new democracies, the officers said.
"Being able to treat a populous with dignity and respect is critical to getting things done," Burleson said.