FORT STEWART, Ga. — It was just another day for the U.S. Army in war-weary northern Iraq: insurgents in Mosul, political turf battles in Kirkuk, an attack on the Beiji oil refinery in Salahuddin.
All needed to be dealt with immediately. And all by an infantry unit that wasn't even in Iraq.
The recent war-gaming took place half a world away as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division wound down a two-week exercise to prepare to go to Iraq this fall. The first Army combat unit to invade Baghdad in 2003, the division will be among the last military units to leave as the U.S. withdraws its troops, overseeing the transition from combat to departure in northern Iraq.
Redefining the mission
The military mission in Iraq has changed a lot over six years. No longer are most daily U.S. troop operations deadly. Soldiers are as consumed with helping local governments build sewer systems and train Iraqi security forces as they are with shutting down insurgents.
That has required an equally big shift in how the Army trains its troops — not just to help stabilize Iraq, but to hand off the job and leave as planned at the end of 2011.
The 3rd Infantry Division, headed by Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, will lead all U.S. military operations in Iraq's volatile north. Since January, the Georgia-based division has been training at Fort Stewart to defuse potential conflicts before they flare up — largely with the help of Iraqi forces or through diplomacy.
"Our initial reaction was, `Here's a problem, we're the Army, let's go in and solve it,'" said Lt. Col. Fritz Little, the division's top civil affairs adviser. "Now, it's, 'How can we encourage the Iraqis to solve it?'"
"That's been one of the hardest things to deal with," he said.
Strategy vs. firepower
U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraqi cities this past Tuesday. Fewer than half the 131,000 soldiers there now will remain by September 2010 — and then only to train and assist Iraqi security forces when called upon.
The 3rd Infantry's training culminated two weeks ago at Fort Stewart. Active-duty and retired Army officers, State Department and economic advisers, and contractors guided the division's senior staffers through a series of hypothetical but real-life scenarios solved more often by strategy than firepower.
In a tent-shaped plywood building set up on a guarded parking lot, Cucolo and his soldiers hustled from meeting to meeting, peering at endless PowerPoint presentations and listening to hours' worth of briefings piped in from other U.S. bases by officers pretending to be spread throughout Iraq.
Each day brought a stream of crisis scenarios that had to be solved.
From Mosul came a report of early morning improvised explosive devices. In Beiji there was a possible al-Qaida attack on the oil refinery, which is capable of pumping out $10 million worth of fuel a day. Iraqi TV crews carried a questionable story from Baqouba about U.S. troops firing on a vehicle of children headed to a soccer game.
One brigade commander called in a chlorine truck spill. Another reported that a contractor's truck hit and injured a sheik's two children. Across the north, cloudy, low-visibility weather threatened to ground flights and curb travel.
"The provincial governor in Kirkuk's cousin has been shot," Cucolo said wearily, midway through one afternoon briefing in a small, steamy room crammed with more than 50 soldiers. "The provincial governor is wondering where's all that security I provided?"
Which to deal with first?
"We can't tell them right or wrong," said Col. Mike McGuire after watching the infantry's leaders muddle through options. "We just have to tell them what we see, then it's, 'Over to you, what do you think?'"
He helped plan the division exercise over the past year from the Army's Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
History of the training
Immersing soldiers in political and cultural problems is not new for the Army. The Fort Leavenworth training program was created in 1986, and the military has held exercises like the one at Fort Stewart since U.S. troops readied to intervene in the Balkans in the early 1990s.
Training to leave a war, however, is a delicate mission.
Retired Gen. John Hendrix, who used to command the 3rd Infantry Division and the Army's Forces Command, said military planners probably did not have a good idea of what would happen when U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in April 1975, months before the North Vietnamese takeover.
Military historians say the Army's overall strategy during the Vietnam War failed precisely because it did not understand the nature of the society. It's not a lesson the Army wants to repeat in Iraq, with its rich oil fields and strategic location in the Mideast that will be an important U.S. interest for years to come.
"We never got at the strategic problem in Vietnam. We were not nearly as prepared then as we are now," Hendrix said in an interview. "When that decision was made, we didn't have nearly as good a plan as how we were going to come out. These guys do have a little bit more of a challenge — they'll do the last handshake and the Iraqis will look around and there'll be no one there."
Could the U.S. withdrawal make Iraq more vulnerable to civil war or an insurgent takeover? "I don't know what the outcome will be," Hendrix said.
'We are the closers'
Cucolo cited the uncertainty in northern Iraq, where security easily could stabilize or collapse at a moment's notice, as an energizing factor for his troops as they prepare to deploy.
Wrapping up a meeting with his senior staffers, Cucolo flashed a photo on his briefing screen of Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. Then he showed photos of current star reliever Mariano Rivera and other top bullpen pitchers.
At first, the soldiers looked confused. Finally, it dawned on one baseball fan that the pitchers all were closers — sent in to shut down the game. Which essentially is the 3rd Infantry Division's assignment.
"To secure a victory, you send in your closers," Cucolo said. "I said, 'Gentlemen, ladies, we are the closers. We're going there, and we're going to leave it all on the field because this is the decisive moment.'"
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