3rd Infantry Division Commander, Major General Rick Lynch on progress in Southern Iraq.
HH: Welcome to the program, Major General Rick Lynch of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, currently. General, welcome to the program, it’s good to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RL: It’s great to be here. Thanks for the opportunity, Hugh.
HH: General, let’s assume there are a lot of civilians like me listening, and they’re not really acquainted with the size in the current area of operations of the missions of the 3rd Infantry Division. Can you set this up by sort of giving us the overview of what you and your troops are up to right now?
RL: Yeah, sure. We came in fourteen months ago now, and formed what’s called Multinational Division Center. So it’s a formation of about 20,000 U.S. soldiers, and our area of operations are the southern belts of Baghdad. That’s the area just south of Baghdad proper, and the southern provinces. So the size of the area of operations is about the size of the state of West Virginia. I’ve got about 20,000 U.S. soldiers. Inside that same area is about 26,000 Iraqi army soldiers, and about 46,000 Iraqi police. So there’s lots of folks focusing on security in that area.
HH: And can you give us a sense of how the southern belts are now? Are they stable?
RL: Yeah, Hugh, when we got here fourteen months ago, we were being attacked 25 times a day. I mean, there was nothing but pure combat operations. The surge forces that came at me gave me the combat power to take the fight to the enemy. And what we’ve been able to do over the last fourteen months is kill or capture about 6,000 of the insurgents, and we’ve transitioned from 25 attacks a day to now less than two attacks a day, and the entire conversation has changed. The security now allows us to work on capacity building, to transition to stability. So I find myself spending the majority of my time thinking about jobs and services and schools and local governance. So the progress is amazing to me. This is my third tour in Iraq, and the security situation we enjoy today, less than two attacks a day, battle space the size of the state of West Virginia, is a tribute to all the great work we’ve done over the last fourteen months.
HH: And now General Lynch, obviously it’s not in your area of operations, but the news reports tell us that the major activity against the insurgents is in Mosul, and against the special militias is in Sadr City. Are you familiar with how those battles are going, General?
RL: Yeah, by all means. I mean, we all focus on Iraq at large, and then zoom in our own battle space. We’ve always said there are three parts of enemy over here. There’s the Sunni extremists, most of which are associated with al Qaeda, there’s Shia extremists, many of which are associated with the Mahdi militia, Jaish al Mahdi, and then there’s marked Iranian influence. And what’s happening up in Mosul now is a major fight against al Qaeda. The majority of Iraq, we found ourselves now with al Qaeda on the ropes. In my area, I think there’s only about 200 Sunni extremists left. But many of them migrated up to Mosul, and we see al Qaeda making its last stand in Mosul. So major operations against Sunni extremists in Mosul, and then there’s a fight against the Shia extremists as well, and that was a major piece in Basra towards the end of March, and a lot of that’s still going on inside of Baghdad in a place called Sadr City.
HH: Are you confident that those operations will conclude in relatively short order, and successfully, as they have in, say, the southern belts of Baghdad?
RL: Yeah, I am. We’re making great progress here for a variety of reasons, one of which is we now are working with a very competent and capable Iraqi security force. I mean, it’s not perfect, there are still blemishes, but it’s markedly improved over what I’ve seen in my three years in Iraq. So what they’re doing now is they’re taking the fight to the enemy. When we had the Shia extremist uprising just in the southern belts, the Iraqi Security Force took the fight to the enemy, and they killed or captured about 500 of them, and that’s what happened down in Basra. You know, the prime minister said hey, enough is enough, we’re not going to have any more militias inside of Iraq, so he mounted up his security forces, went to Basra. It wasn’t a perfect operation, but it was an effective operation, and kind of took control of that city away from the Shia extremists. And that’s happening up in Mosul right now with al Qaeda as well. Nothing ever happens as quick as you want it to happen over here. It takes deliberate operations, it takes time, but it’s all moving in the right direction.
HH: Of those 6,000 enemy killed or captured in your area of command, General Lynch, were they primarily Iraqis? Or were they primarily foreign fighters?
RL: No, they were almost all Iraqi.
HH: And how many foreign fighters do we still see, or do you still see coming into Iraq, into your region, and generally?
RL: You know, in my area, we’ve only encountered eight to ten individuals that we’d say were indeed foreign fighters. But there’s so much Iranian influence in my area and in the rest of Iraq. Now right now, I’ve got 25 people detained that we detained towards the end of March, who were either trained in Iran, trained by Iranians here in Iraq, or trained by Iraqi surrogates. So you don’t have to be a foreign fighter to be subject to foreign influence.
HH: Now a year and a half ago, General Abizaid was my guest, and he discussed the Quds force, and its projection into Iraq. Are those 25 actual part of the Quds force? Or have they simply been trained by Quda?
RL: No, they’ve just been trained by it. I mean, we do have, we do have throughout Iraq elements of the Quds force inside of Iraq. But the people that I have currently detained were trained by Iranians, or were trained in Iran themselves, but they’re not part of the Quds force.
HH: Now as part of your ongoing operations, General, do you debrief those, interrogate those people with an eye towards establishing where they’re training in Iran, or how they’re receiving this assistance?
RL: Oh, exactly. You see, what we’re trying to do, Hugh, is to trace the rat line back where it came from. See, I’ve lost 147 soldiers under my command since I’ve been here in the last fourteen months. Many of those soldiers were killed by explosive formed penetrators that are all traced back to Iran, or by Iranian rockets. So what we do, in everything that we do, for example, we found so many weapons caches over the course of the last month, and in those weapons caches we found Iranian rockets and Iranian mines. So we’ve got detailed biometrics. We check for fingerprints, and we traced those back to where they started. We’re following the money back to Iran, we’re following the munitions back to Iran, and then looking for those people that are trained in Iran as well. So it’s a major piece of our operations, to block that Iranian influence.
HH: Now General, I want to spend a couple of moments on that, because obviously, controversy surrounding the intelligence in the run up to the invasion of Iraq continue, and plague the information operations concerning the war to this day, because nobody believes anything about anything, although the military is believed. And so I’d like to expand on that a little bit. Are you very confident or somewhat confident or not that confident that these are Iranian weapons, this is Iranian training, this is in fact an Iranian operation that’s killing your soldiers?
RL: Oh, no, I’m very confident that what I’m coming across are Iranian munitions. I mean, those are traced back into Iran by machine markings and by lot numbers. I mean, we’re surrounded by experts here on this battlefield, and they’re experts looking at those munitions and saying yeah, they came to us from Iran. And then we do have significant intelligence that we watch all the time to see what kind of a tie there is in terms of training. It really comes down to two issues. It comes to training the Shia extremists, and supplying the Shia extremists with munitions, and oh, by the way, with money as well. We came across some IED in places just last week. They were in the process of setting up a major explosion against one of my large convoys. My great soldiers saw them emplacing them, we captured those guys, and they had about $60,000 dollars on them, and we’re not following the money to see where that money came from, to see if we can’t stop these rat lines of bad things coming into Iraq.
HH: General Lynch, what do you assume is the, what do you believe is the strategic purpose of Iran’s supplying the special militias with these material and money?
RL: Hugh, I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s from Iran itself, the government of Iran, I don’t know. I can just tell you from my tactical perspective, that we’re finding those munitions, and we’re finding people who cite that they’ve been trained in Iran. Why that’s happening I’m not sure, but it has to stop.
HH: Have you discussed, has it been authorized, hot pursuit of those rat lines back into Iran?
RL: No, of course not, no. But we do block the border. I’ve got an entire brigade from the country of Georgia, and part of my area of operations butts up against the Iranian border. And every vehicle that comes in from Iran into Iraq we stop, download and inspect. We do indeed catalogue the people as they come across, enter them into our databases. So I can do that to kind of block influence across the border right there in Wasit Province.
HH: General, you graduated from West Point in 1976, so you’ve been doing this for a long time, and at extraordinarily high levels of command. The old argument about Vietnam was that the strategic error there was not stopping the Ho Chi Minh trail sending supplies from the north to the south that killed Americans. Are we seeing a replay of that, General?
RL: No, I don’t think so, and you know, I have been doing this for 31 years. You know, this Iranian influence is indeed a piece of the dimensions of the problem here in Iraq, that what we’ve got to do is we’ve just got to…you know, there are 27 million Iraqis, and on any given day, there’s no more, in my opinion, no more than eight to ten thousand insurgents. And what I’m seeing now, again in my third tour in Iraq, is I’m seeing that the Iraqi people have now stood up and said enough is enough. We don’t want anymore violence, we don’t want anymore intimidation. Now in my area, I’ve got 40,000 concerned citizens. We call them the sons of Iraq. And they’re secure in their area. You know, we define sustainable security as locals under positive control of security their community, and that’s what’s happening now. So from a strategic perspective, all we’re down to at a tactical level, what you’re seeing is an improved security situation because the people of Iraq have said enough is enough.
HH: General Lynch, can you tell us a little more about sons of Iraq? I’ve seen that referenced, it’s on my question sheet here, how are they commanded and controlled? You just mentioned under good control. How does that exercise itself?
RL: You know what happened, Hugh? About six months into operations over this time, we started seeing the local communities come together, and come to us, and say how can we help? And you know, really, three things happened. The surge forces gave us the combat part to take the fight to the enemy. When I got here, I did an analysis I was taught at West Point, and I’ve used it over the last 31 years. Pick up the red pen first, analyze the enemy. So I found about four areas that the enemy controlled, that they controlled that entire area, and the surge forces game me the combat power to take the fight to the enemy. And then we changed our procedures. We no longer commute to work in Iraq. We live with the population. 75% of my soldiers live out on 57 patrol bases with the Iraqi people. And when the Iraqi people saw that, and they knew that we were staying, they came up to us and said how can we help, and that generated the sons of Iraq program. So in my area, it’s about 226 groups, 40,000 of them altogether, but 226 groups, and some of those groups are Sunni, and some of them are Shia, and some of them are mixed. But we deal with them on a daily basis, those groups. And in addition to that, they work with the Iraqi Security Forces. We pay them, the American government pays them now, you know, we pay them about $8 dollars a day to secure their communities, and to help us find IED’s and weapons caches, but they really work day to day for the Iraqi Security Forces.
HH: Now are they auxiliaries of the local police? Or are they auxiliaries of the army of Iraq?
RL: It’s really more of a policing function. They’re securing their local area.
RL: They’re blocking routes in and out, they’re security their markets, they’re security their schools, they’re securing the infrastructure. So it really is a police augmentation if you will. You know, we call it thickening the force. You’ve got Coalition forces and you’ve got Iraqi Security Forces, and where you need additional security forces, you generate these sons of Iraq. And then eventually, what you want is the sons of Iraq to actually grow into be Iraqi policemen, or members of the Iraqi army. And that’s all happening over time.
HH: Back to the border, General Lynch. That part which concerns you, is it 90% secure? Or is it like the Mexican-American border? What kind of level of control is there there?
RL: Well, I mean, Hugh, it’s a porous border over here. I mean, it’s a long stretch of border. There is indeed one established point of entry, and we have that one under 100% control. Nothing comes across that point of entry right there without being inspected. Having said that, you know, there’s about thirty border ports in my area that are watching for people coming across the borders at other than authorized crossing places, but that doesn’t mean that you’re stopping it. So it’s impossible to totally secure the border here, just like it’s impossible to totally secure our border back home.
HH: Those two attacks a day against your troops, General Lynch, are they motivated by Sunni nationalism, the desire to return the Baathists? Or are they Wahabist extremist? Is it ideology or nationalism?
RL: No, what I’m finding is that most of the attacks are criminally motivated. You know, that’s what I’m seeing over time. What the Sunni extremists, and the Shia extremists, what they’re doing is doing something for their own personal good. We’re way past the point where the people of Iraq consider us to be occupiers. Now, in my area, when I’m out and about, they’re always saying we’re glad you’re here, and can you help us with this and this and this. So you know, we’re not being considered occupiers anymore. I tell my folks a lot of times the best way to train for Iraq these days is to watch the 6th season of The Sopranos, because a lot of this is a pure Mafioso kind of activity. A lot of it is Shia on Shia violence. This idea that there’s some civil war taking place over here, that’s not true. There’s not Sunnis fighting Shias. A lot of the violence is Sunni on Sunni, or Shia on Shia.
HH: Now expand on that, General Lynch, in terms of quality of life. Is the average Iraqi able to go about their business now without fear of bombs going off near them, and able to get a productive sort of market-based economy up and going?
RL: Yeah, in my area, Hugh, the answer is resoundingly yes. You know, when I first got here, I’d fly out to patrol bases, we’d do planning for major combat operations. One operation we had we dropped 40,000 pounds of munitions in ten minutes. It was that level of combat operations. Now what I do is I fly to a patrol base, I get out and do a dismount of patrol, or a mount of patrol, and I talk to the people. You know, the German phrase is fingerspitzengefuehlen. I spent a lot of time on the East-West German border back when there was a Warsaw Pact. Fingerspitzengefuehlen is the feel of the battle, and I get that from talking to the people. And the people now no longer talk to me about security. They say security is good. Now they want to talk about services. They want to talk about electricity, they want to talk about water, they want to talk about jobs. You know, the primary thing I’m dealing with these days in my area is jobs. You’ve got to create employment opportunities so these people who want to take care of their families have options other than planting IED’s to get money for their families. So we’re trying to generate jobs, and we’re doing that in a variety of ways. A lot of ways are things I’ve never dealt with in the past, but we’re dealing with now. We’re trying to get fish farms working, we’re trying to get poultry farms working, we’ve got slaughterhouses, we’ve got shoe factories. But those are the kind of things we deal with now to increase employment opportunities for the people in my area.
HH: Now how is the central government of Iraq coordinating with your regional authorities and your local governments or sheiks? Are they cooperating in a way that you hadn’t seen the last time you were there?
RL: Well, it’s better, but it’s never as good as you’d like it to be. You know, there are elections taking place in Iraq every day at the local level. You know, everywhere I go, they’re developing local coordinating councils, and they’re trying to work together to meet the needs of people in their respective villages. That local council has to tie to the upper levels of government. In Iraq, the cities are called nahia, the counties are called kadas, then you’ve got provincial government and national government. And we work very hard to try to tie the local governments with the national government, and we’re making some progress. I mean, we’re getting some generation of services and needs being met of the people from the national level on down, and I am happy about that. You know, when we were first here, probably the majority of money spent inside of our area was U.S. government money. And now it’s less than half, and the other half is government of Iraq money to meet the needs of the people.
HH: Oh, that is significant. That’s a big turn. Going back to the Iraqi Security Forces, General Lynch, can you give us sort of a sense of where they are in terms of percentages of where you want them to be before the American military exits and leaves them on their own? Are they at 50% of where they need to be?
RL: That’s a great question. You know, you’ve got to…people that sit back home and think of Iraq as a hole, that’s incorrect. In my area, I’ve got 57 different areas, all kind of circled around these patrol bases I put out there. And what I look at in each of those areas, I look at the level of the insurgency, I look at the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the capacity of the government in that area. And there are some places where the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces are so good, I’ve actually turned that patrol base over to the Iraqi Security Forces, and that’s happening over time, so marked improvement. You know, there’s not enough of them, they’re generating more forces, we’re trying to help them with the transition teams and improve their planning capability. A major issue we’re having now is with their ability to re-supply themselves in logistics, and we’re working through that, maintenance of their vehicles, but we’re making great progress. It would be hard to put a number on it, but just know we are indeed moving in the right direction.
HH: Now I was happened to have been at a dinner on Saturday night for the 118 Cavalry California National Guard, and they talked a lot about the role of the non-commissioned officer as the backbone of the Army. And does Iraq have that kind of a culture developing, of an NCO culture, where these gentlemen are professionals who’d commit their lives to their groups and their regiment?
RL: You know, we’re getting there. I deal with two Iraqi army divisions, and I’ve got to tell you, those division commanders are competent, capable military professionals. And they’re not Shia or Sunni. They’re Iraqi. And a lot of their brigade and battalion commanders are indeed very effective. What we’ve got to do is generate the same backbone in the Iraqi army that we have in the U.S. Army, and that’s the non-commissioned officer corps. So what we’ve done in my area is we created a task force more in NCO academy, and we routinely bring in the junior leaders of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, and we teach them the same kind of skills that our junior leaders, and then they take those skill sets back to their formations, and their formations get better. So we’ve got to continue to work on junior leader development, and that’s the direction we’re going now.
HH: How is their equipment, General Lynch? Do they have what they need for the long term? Or are they learning how to produce it?
RL: Well, I mean, it’s getting better, Hugh. They have a lot of equipment, a lot of that equipment is equipment that we provided, or they purchased from the U.S. government. The issue is really maintenance of the vehicles, and getting their parts, and getting their fuel. Their supply system is totally different than our supply system. Their supply system is really allocations-based. So regardless of how much fuel you need, you only get this much each month. Regardless of how much ammunition you need, you only get this much each month. And we’re working through that, and we’re just trying to teach them better re-supply procedures and capabilities, but they’re getting better. The Arabic phrase is shwaya shwaya, slowly, slowly. And indeed, that’s what’s happened over here, is they’re getting better, but slowly, slowly.
HH: Do they have any airlift capacity, General Lynch?
RL: They do. You know, they’ve generated their own Iraqi Air Force now, and they’ve got Iraqi helicopters and C-130s. And when the major operations took place in Basra down in March, many of the military movement and the med-evac of casualties was done by the Iraqi Air Force.
HH: Now the gains that have been made against the enemy, a lot of that has to do according to accounts I read back here with increased effectiveness of intelligence gathering. Is that Americans gathering intelligence and giving it to the Iraqis? Or are the Iraqis getting their own intelligence and acting on it?
RL: Well you know, we have an amazing capability to gather intelligence as the U.S. forces over here. And we gather that intelligence, and as appropriately, we share it with the Iraqi Security Forces. But the most important intelligence we get now is human intelligence, and that’s generated on the streets of Iraq. And it normally comes to us by the Iraqi Security Forces. If they’re out with the people all the time, the people have trust and confidence in the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, you know, it’s amazing to me, Hugh, the number of weapons caches and a number of IED’s that have been turned in by the sons of Iraq and the people of Iraq. And that really is the primary source of intelligence now. It’s human intelligence, and it’s coming to us from the Iraqi Security Forces. They’re not relying on us to get that. They get it themselves.
HH: General, a couple of closing questions about general big picture stuff. Are you an optimist about Iraq?
RL: Yeah, I am. I’m an extreme optimist. I just was talking to my own soldiers today about this. I have never been more optimistic. We’re fourteen months into a fifteen month deployment, we’ve seen a lot of things happen over the course of the last fourteen months, but I’m extremely optimistic at the progress that’s being made. At the same time, I’m realistic. We always talk about the security situation being tenuous. You know, these sons of Iraq that we deal with on a daily basis, many of them used to be insurgents, and could be insurgents again. That’s why we’ve got to continue to work with them, to keep them on the right side of the fence, to keep them being productive members of society. So I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction, we’re making great progress, but realistic at the same time.
HH: And now let’s turn to the American troops under your command. How’s the morale and the readiness of the troops after thirteen of a fourteen month deployment?
RL: Well, Hugh, I’m humbled to be in their presence. You know, I commanded the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infanty Division, 90 years of service to our nation. This division’s been deployed to Iraq now three times. Many of my soldiers are on their third deployment. And in the 3rd Division, my 20,000 soldiers, we made our reenlistment objectives for Fiscal Year ’08 only five months into that 12 month period. That’s unheard of in the history of our Army, and that shows you an indication of the morale of my soldiers. And people say why is that? Why are they reenlisting in droves? How could you make your objectives only five months into the calendar year? And the answer is because these soldiers know that what they’re doing is important. I tell them all the time, the most important piece of furniture in their house is their mirror. When they look in the mirror, the reflection back is somebody who’s making a difference. Now you’ve got a choice in life between reading history and making history, and these soldiers are making history over here every day, and they’re proud to do that. And as a result of that, they’re staying in the Army. So the morale is very, very good. What we’re sensitive to as an Army is our families. I mean, these long deployments are tough. It’s tough on the General, it’s tough on the private. I’ve been away from my family four of the last six years. It’s a difficult time. So we’re very sensitive to the needs of the family, and how do we work the focus on the family. General Casey, the Chief of Staff of the Army, has declared the Army family covenant, where we continue to focus on meeting the needs of the family. But the morale of the soldiers is very, very good.
HH: How is the equipment after…I mean, that’s a lot of years in the field, General. Do you have what you need? Is it up to speed?
RL: Yeah, we’ve got exactly what we need, Hugh, and it’s getting better all the time. You know, we’re now fielding these MRAP vehicles. These are vehicles that are designed to be resistant to mines, and it’s saving my soldiers’ lives. There’s been many instances where my soldiers were in an MRAP vehicle, and they got hit by a deeply buried IED. If they’d been in any other vehicle, it’d been a catastrophic kill. But my soldiers walk away from that explosion, because they were in the MRAP vehicle. So we’ve got great equipment that’s getting better all the time. I’ve not had in fourteen months a supply constraint, I’ve never needed something I didn’t have for my soldiers. So our system of re-supplying our soldiers, getting them the right equipment, taking care of our soldiers, is perfect.
HH: Now General, I have two last questions. The first one comes from an L.A. Times article today about General Odierno’s coming over to replace General Petraeus as head of the command there, and how he had to change his philosophy of war fighting from big and heavy to counterinsurgency, and how this has sort of swept through the Army. Has that been internalized at every level of the 3rd Infantry Division, that there used to be a way to do it, but now we have a new way of doing it, so that every trooper has that attitude?
RL: Yes, we call it, Hugh, we call it full spectrum operations. You’ve got to be able to do both. You’ve got to be able to do major combat operations, pure kinetic operations, and at the same time, you’ve got to be able to build capacity. You’ve got to be focused on things like services and schools and electricity and water. And our soldiers can do it all. I mean, we just had a perfect example a few weeks back. I had soldiers, a company out doing counterinsurgency operations, and they were focused on roads and networks and schools, and they were needed in Sadr City, so they mounted up on their tanks and their Bradleys, and they moved to Sadr City. They did major combat operations for two weeks, and then they came back and resumed their counterinsurgency operations. So it’s called full spectrum operations, and we can indeed do it all, and we’ve done it all over the last fourteen months. On any given day, I’m worrying about fish farms and poultry farms. At the same time, I’m killing or capturing the insurgents. So we can do it all.
HH: That’s amazing. General, I want to thank you for your service. Thank your troops for their service. Last question, how do civilians support you and your troops and your mission?
RL: Well, I tell you, it means so much to us to know that America supports us. And we get evidence of that every day. Every day, we’re getting cards and letters and packages from grateful Americans saying thank you for your service. And when we go home and we’re in uniform, or we’re walking through the airports, and on the streets of our hometowns, people are stopping us and telling us thanks. And that’s the issue. I mean, you’ve just got to, I’d ask that we continue to reach out to our soldiers and their families, and tell them thanks for their sacrifices, because there’s lots of sacrifices. You know, I’ve changed my entire definition of a hero since I’ve been here this time. I’ve been to 147 memorial services. 147 times, I sat in a chapel, and I listened to my soldiers eulogize their buddies. And everybody in the chapel was crying, to include the Division commander. But at the end of that service, those same soldiers put their body armor back on and go out and do their mission again. So there’s sacrifices being made every day. The family separation is a sacrifice. So all I’d ask is that the American public continue to tell these soldiers and their families thanks. That’s really all they want, is they want to know they’re being supported by a grateful public.
HH: Major General Rick Lynch, I hope that message comes through. We appreciate your taking the time to talk to us today, and relay that to our audience. Commanding General of the 3rd Infantry Division, God speed home, General, and thanks for the time.
RL: Thank you, Hugh. God bless, take care.
End of interview.