The Command Post of the Future isn’t. I
It’s already here, today. Up and running.
And it’s one of the main ways U.S. forces in Iraq are performing their “assist and support” role for their Iraqi counterparts since June 30. That’s when the new security agreement kicked in, and U.S. combat forces withdrew to perimeter bases from major Iraqi cities.
(The “combat forces” designation is curious at best, misleading at worst. In the six years of this war, cooks, drivers, clerks and medics have all been attacked—mostly by homemade bombs—and nearly everybody in uniform has had to be a trigger-puller at one point or another. “Major cities” raises another question mark, one answered so far by strategic ambiguity.)
In any case, the “Onstar option” is now policy, except those who answer the Iraqis’ radio calls are armed with M4 rifles, up-armored vehicles and missile-equipped helicopters. So far, though, the Iraqis haven’t felt much need to call Americans, preferring to rely on their own army, the newly named federal police and checkpoint cops. “They get the fight. They get the lead. We’re here to support,” one American officer acknowledged.
Exceptions: U.S. medevac helicopters can fly to help Americans in trouble anytime. And the double-secret-probation Special Forces can still run around the country on their Ninja ops without Iraqi clearance. Supply convoys travel at night with a green light from the Iraqis.
Other commanders and grunts may feel like Maytag repairmen, all dressed in up in battle-rattle and no place to go. It all seems part of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s effort to cast himself as a nationalist first, a Shiite second, in the run-up to January elections. In a televised speech the night before the new orders went into effect, for instance, he didn’t even mention American troops.
A few days later he told Vice President Joe Biden thanks but no thanks when Biden offered to intervene to help break the political logjam in parliament. In-fighting has stalled progress on such key issues as Kurdistan’s efforts at self-rule in the north, a bill on how to divvy up the petroleum pie and a national census to determine just who is an Iraqi, anyway.
Maliki’s stance comes during a spike in violence. In the week ended July16, 94 Iraqis, not counting insurgents, were killed in 31 “significant incidents”; 30 to 80 KIA constituted a typical week in recent months. Baghdad witnessed the highest number of bombings of any week this year.
Back in the Command Post of the Future, the now base-bound Americans continue to march. In front of their laptops, six or seven soldiers sit around a long three-sided wooden table, watching an array of video screens on the wall that any Hollywood producer would envy. Most of them show real-time images of earthbound and aerial surveillance of the outfit’s area of operations. A “battle captain,” who may be a noncommissioned officer, runs the show.
The commander sits at the right corner where two tables meet and reads a “story board” prepared by his staff. It lists in words, photos, graphs and charts all the incidents over the past several hours that have happened in the neighborhoods for which he’s responsible. During the night, for example, if an eye in the sky—a helicopter, blimp, unmanned aerial vehicle or satellite—saw suspicious activity, the soldiers in that room would alert the unit closest to the scene. That would be in the story board.
Maybe guys digging on or near a road. Maybe a rusted-out beater that looks abandoned. Maybe a fast-moving BMW, favored by suicide bombers. Maybe a group of gunmen loitering in a neighborhood where a family of a different faith has just resettled. Maybe an insurgent painting a wall with a death threat for “collaborators.”
Now Iraqis as well as Americans get to share in that intel. Since June 30, Joint Security Stations have surrendered to Joint Operations Centers. Americans and Iraqis don’t quite sit cheek to jowl, but only a doorway separates the Americans’ superior sigint--surveillance technology--from the Iraqis’ superior humint--human intelligence gleaned from knowing who lives in an area, who’s a stranger, who’s a pimp, who’s a tattle-tale.
One typical swap for a 24-hour period might go like this: eight searches; 11 weapons confiscated; one family resettled; no detentions. Iraqi operations officers from both the army and police would get glossy-paper pages in Arabic, most of them with color photographs of cars that might be used by insurgents.
Some of the Yankees’ data remain low-tech but useful: info from sniffer dogs and metal detectors.
Like the FBI with the mob, informants have become crucial to both sides. Say a guy tips off an Iraqi cop about another guy he thinks is assembling bomb-making materials. Good lead. But then a local militiaman threatens the tipster. The Americans and Iraqis have to figure out how to protect their informant so he can testify in front of an Iraqi judge so the judge will issue a warrant for the supposed bomb-maker and the Iraqi cops can arrest him.
Warrant-based prosecution is the flavor of the month to help prevent political arrests and brutal treatment of detainees.
This is a case when the Command Post of the Future can step in and use its hidden cameras to track both the suspect and the informant. In sharing the intel, the U.S. give the Iraqis “tear lines,” readouts that don’t show how the Americans got the info. Classic protection of sources and methods.
Two technical glitches slow the process. One is that Americans are digital, the Iraqis mostly still analog. Basic e-mails can be complicated. The other is that Iraqi units sometimes don’t communicate with one another. That means the Americans have to get on the horn and tell one Iraqi commander what another is doing. Even that gets confusing. The Americans might call a road Route Irish, the Iraqis Shari al Matar--the highway to Baghdad International Airport. A lot of streets don't have any names at all, and many neighborhoods lack address numbers.
Politics can also interfere with a righteous bust. Maybe an Iraqi cop, after weeks of meeting informants and getting surveillance pictures from the Americans, is ready to make his move on a bad guy. But when he goes to get the warrant, he learns that the target has “wasta,” influence, with somebody with clout in one of the parties or a high-ranking officer. “That will happen more when the Americans are out of Iraq,” predicts one noncommissioned police officer.
More Iraqi federal police headquarters and other stations are now equipped with CCTV cameras, like the closed-circuit monitors all over Britain. One recent afternoon, color flat screens showed the popular Mansour shopping district from a dozen angles.
On the day itself when the Iraqis took over, a U.S. captain on patrol in his Humvee looked around the corner into the new future. “Now that our time is running out,” he said, “we can focus on equipment and maintenance, as well as continuing our partnership (with the Iraqis). If we’re not going out and conducting missions, we’ll still stay sharp with training in classrooms. We’ve got a lot of good leaders who’ll make sure the soldiers stay vigilant.”
And there’s always the Command Post of the Future.