On the morning of February 22, a pair of terrorists disguised as policemen entered a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, one of the four holy Islamic cities in Iraq. The explosives they detonated shattered the mosque's ornate walls and ignited riots throughout the fragile nation. Within hours, a Shi'ite mob had attacked a Sunni mosque in western Baghdad and gunmen from the two factions were fighting in the streets of Sadr City. By the end of February, at least 400 people had died in incidents sparked by the bombing.
It is at this unlikely moment that a cautiously optimistic piece of Iraq reportage makes its appearance in The Atlantic. Rather than presenting a nation on the verge of collapse, the article's author, Robert D. Kaplan, offers an unusually encouraging account, describing what one U.S. military brigade has accomplished in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. "Mosul is a success story,” he writes, "although the success is relative, partial, and tenuous."
When it comes to world trouble spots, Kaplan is by no means a natural optimist. Over the past three decades, he has reported from the ground on famine in Sudan, violent crime in Sierra Leone, and guerilla fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1989, two years before war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia, Kaplan visited the Balkans and predicted a long period of upcoming ethnic strife in his article "Europe's Third World" (July 1989). In the mid-1990s, Kaplan wrapped all of this and more into a sweeping forecast of global mayhem entitled "The Coming Anarchy" (February 1994), an article that reportedly circulated the Clinton White House as recommended reading.
The headline of Kaplan's latest piece, The Coming Normalcy?", is a nod to the bleak predictions of "The Coming Anarchy." Despite the title's note of hopefulness, the question mark at the end indicates that the author is still more Cassandra than Pollyanna. Throughout the article, he emphasizes that restoring order to Iraq will not be easy and that U.S. troops will not likely be able to return home for a long time to come. His prose, as usual, rings with a brutal realism:
After dark, we went house to house in another neighborhood from which mortars had been fired at a new Iraqi police station. In the fifth house, someone finally cooperated and supplied information…. The next step would be to deploy snipers there for several days running, hoping to eliminate the culprits when they returned. "I hate to say it,” said [Lieutenant John] Turner, "but sometimes the best confidence-building measure is to kill certain people.” Another thing you could do was to pay people significantly for tips that turned out to be accurate. None of this was new, or noble. But these young soldiers were learning by trial and error that such tactics worked, assuming you had a lot of patience.
Kaplan came to Mosul having already seen the worst of the Iraq conflict: in 2004, he witnessed the takeover of Fallujah as an embedded journalist for this magazine (see "Five Days in Fallujah" (July/August 2005)). What he found in Mosul was a vast improvement over that earlier scene of all-out chaos. Since September 2004, mortar attacks in Mosul have declined from 300 a month to fewer than ten. The city's police force, which only recently numbered in the low hundreds, is now at 9,000. And in little over a year, soldiers have forged enough local alliances to bring in some 400 intelligence tips each month.
Kaplan credits all of this to the U.S. military brigade currently stationed in Mosul. His article follows the soldiers as they patrol the Tigris, supervise Iraqi troops, and share a "goat grab" with tribal elders. The picture that emerges is of innovative men doing everything it takes to forge alliances and inspire confidence in the Iraqi people. "Sir, I am willing to die for a country that is not my own,” one U.S. soldier tells a former Iraqi official while drinking tea in his bare cinder-block home. "So will you resume your position?... Trust me by the projects I bring, not by my words. Will you stand with me against the insurgents?”
Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of several books, most recently Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005. I spoke with him while he was at home in Massachusetts for a few days between long trips to Asia and Africa, where he continues to report on the U.S. military.
The title of your article suggests that Iraq may be moving toward normalcy. But hasn't the situation recently taken a turn for the worse?
Well, look at the subhead. The subhead says that whatever else the American occupation of Iraq may be, Iraq is a laboratory for ideas about how to wring normalcy from anarchy. And anarchy is one of the great foreign policy challenges of the twenty-first century.
This piece is a story about Mosul. In 2004, this city saw some of the worst violence in the country. By 2005, and continuing into 2006, there has been so little violence there that the international media—up until now, at least—has basically deserted the place.
So this is not a Washington story about whether we should pull out or stay in, or whether or not there will be civil war. It's very much a story about what the military calls TTP: tactics, techniques and procedures. What were the TTP that helped one army brigade wring a very tenuous normalcy out of anarchy?
Why did you decide to focus on Mosul when so much of the action is playing out in Baghdad?
Mosul is the second largest city in the country—it's bigger than Basra. And yet there's no news from there. Why is there no news? If you look at media tendencies, you find that when violence recedes, the media rewards the place by ignoring it. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, but the fact that it was out of the news for so long indicated some kind of success.
What seems to have worked in Mosul was persistence: never, ever giving up. I cite one incident where a road was built. It was bombed, it was rebuilt again, it was bombed, it was rebuilt again—only on about the third iteration did the inhabitants realize that the U.S. military was serious. Once they were perceived to be serious, they started to develop intelligence sources, snitches. They got support from the population. There's no progress without creating the feeling that you're never going to leave, that you're never going to give up.
Of course, this is a very hard feeling to create in a media climate where you're always reading about whether America should pull out or not. But in Mosul this worked.
Based on that success, would you advise the Army to look at Mosul as a kind of model city, replicating the same tactics in Baghdad and elsewhere?
The U.S. military doesn't need advice from me. They're already doing this over their email networks. What I'm doing in this piece isn't teaching the military anything. I'm just reporting what they're learning and taking it to the general reader.
It's amazing how much and how fast first and second lieutenants and captains are learning on the ground. You have a generation of junior officers who are going to go back to staff colleges and enrich curricula like we've never seen before. Because they're going to go back knowing that most of what they were taught at war colleges was not useful in Iraq. Everything they needed to know in order to be successful, they had to learn by themselves.