The Coming Normalcy?

Whatever else the American occupation of Iraq may be, it serves as a laboratory for ideas about how to wring stability out of chaos—the great foreign-policy challenge of the twenty-first century

The Iraqi city of Mosul is an age-old caravan crossroads whose history defies the concept of the twentieth-century nation-state—the kind of nation-state the U.S. military occupation of Iraq is trying to hold together (if not create), and to keep from imploding into full- scale civil war.

Historic trade routes have linked Mosul to cities in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, bringing cultural as well as commercial exchanges. The Arabic language in Mosul bears Kurdish and Syriac influences. There is a large community of Chaldaeans—descendants of Christians who were converted (eons ago) from Nestorianism to Catholicism. For a long time, this city was a seat of Catholic missionary activity. Seljuk Turks held Mosul in the Middle Ages and Ottomans held it in the modern era, with a Persian occupation in between. Mosul's degenerating old quarter, with its beetling Ottoman walls and elegantly stuccoed twelfth-century Seljuk minaret, is testimony to this cosmopolitan lineage.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the oil-rich Turkish vilyet of Mosul was incorporated into a newly created Iraq, ensuring that the mostly Arab polity of Sunnis and Shiites would include a large (one-quarter) share of non-Arab Kurds, Turcomans, and Assyrians. Mosul emblemizes the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have made modern Iraq so untenable, helping it to fall victim to the most suffocating of dictatorships.

I came to Mosul, a city of more than 2 million, after one set of national elections; I would leave just before another. The former had ratified the new Iraqi constitution; the latter would select political parties for parliament. In the Mosul region, the first election had seen a voter turnout of more than 80 percent. Mosul is a success story, although the success is relative, partial, and tenuous. The credit for what success there has been belongs to one of the U.S. Army's Stryker brigade combat teams that recently departed Iraq: the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington.

When the 1-25 "Lancers” arrived in Mosul, in September of 2004, the city and its environs were a violent no-go zone, having seen several thousand insurgent attacks, not to mention more than a thousand explosions from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The local police had largely deserted, dropping from an on-paper force of 10,000 to an irrelevance of 300. But by the time 1-25 left Mosul, a year later, mortar attacks alone had fallen from 300 a month to fewer than ten. Other forms of insurgent activity dropped to the point where international journalists no longer considered Mosul an important part of the ongoing Iraq story—a fact evidenced by their thin presence in the city. Meanwhile, the local police force was now back up to 9,000, and the number of police stations had expanded from five to twenty-four. More important, the number of intelligence tips called in by the local population had risen from essentially zero to some 400 per month.

The kind of chaos that 1-25 had alleviated in Mosul has been an abiding interest of mine. Twelve years ago in this magazine, I published an article, "The Coming Anarchy,” about the institutional collapse of Third World countries owing to ethnic and sectarian rivalries, demographic and environmental stresses, and the growing interrelationship between war and crime. Was it possible that Iraq, of all places, might offer some new ideas about how situations of widespread anarchy can be combated? It certainly was the case that, despite a continuing plague of suicide bombings, significant sections of the country were slowly recovering from large-scale violence, as well as from the effects of decades of brutal dictatorship. The very U.S. military that had helped to bring about the anarchy in Iraq was now worth studying as a way to end it, both here and elsewhere in the Third World.

The 1-25 Lancers' shaky achievement does credit to the brigade-level transformation of the U. S. Army, the institution known derisively to the Green Berets of the Special Forces as "Big Army” or "Mother Army.” And they are right: Big Army is still too much of a vertical, dinosaurian, Industrial Age organization. Yet that is changing, partly because of the new emphasis on brigades.

A brigade is only a third or half the size of a division. Its headquarters element is less bureaucratic and top-heavy with colonels than that of a division (to say nothing of a corps). The very size of a brigade can be custom-fitted to the situation. Putting brigades first represents an organizational means for dealing with a more chaotic, unconventional world. It is the kind of bureaucratic reform that the military is embracing faster than the financially starved State Department or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The credit for this radically changed emphasis belongs to successive Army chiefs of staff, particularly Eric Shinseki and Peter Schoomaker.

New hardware, such as the Stryker combat vehicle, also plays a big role, facilitating a change in the relationships between captains in the field and majors and lieutenant colonels back at battalion headquarters. The Stryker—with its added safety features that drastically reduce casualties from IEDs and suicide bombs, its ability to travel great distances without refueling, and a computer system that gives captains and noncommissioned officers situational awareness and the latest intelligence for many miles around—has helped liberate field units from dependence on headquarters.

Autonomy is further encouraged by the flat "intelligence architecture” of the Stryker brigades. Information now comes to captains less and less from battalion headquarters, and more and more from other junior officers in other battalions, via informal e-mail networks, as well as directly from Iraqi units. The lieutenant colonel who commands an infantry battalion, and the major who is the captain's executive officer, do not always have to be consulted. Given the results, the commanding officers like it that way.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005).

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