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

One evening in March of 2005, a captain acting on a tip from an Iraqi source—and seeking no permission from above—carried out six raids in Mosul over a few hours, netting fourteen out of twenty members of an insurgent cell, plus large numbers of weapons and several vehicles. In August, a tip that the insurgent leader Abu Zubayr was planning to assassinate a local police chief led a company captain to develop a plan to trap Abu Zubayr by using the tipster as bait. The captain had Abu Zubayr's movements tracked by means of an unmanned surveillance plane. Abu Zubayr was cornered and killed, along with two other key area insurgents.

In these very early stages, at least, ending anarchy is about, well, ending anarchy. A nation-state must monopolize the use of force. In Iraq, that means killing some people and apprehending others. "You're dealing with a gang mentality,” explained Captain Phillip Mann of Antioch, California, a thirty-two-year-old intelligence officer and graduate of Fresno State University. "There is a pool of young men in Mosul without jobs who sell drugs, and do kidnappings. With a high inflation rate and little economy, being an insurgent pays. You've got to make the insurgency a very unattractive profession to these people, who are not motivated by religious ideology.” One thing they sell is pornography, which is found by the new Stryker brigade in Mosul whenever insurgent hideouts are overrun. "We've adopted a gang-tackle approach,” Mann went on. "If we get shot at, like in Palestine [a retirement community for former regime generals in southeast Mosul, which supported the insurgents], we surround the area and go house to house, every time. We keep doing this till people get tired and start helping us. Our message: ‘We don't give in—we're not going away, so work with us.'

"It's a matter of suppression,” he continued. "You do kinetic ops [that is, combat operations] until you find that magical balance—an acceptable level of violence that allows you to shift resources to nation-building. Don't overdo the killing of bad guys. Ending the violence completely is a foolish goal, without development.”

And in a large, unconventional battlefield with relatively few combatants inside of it—a battlefield where killing the enemy is easy but finding him difficult—that means pushing power out to junior officers and noncoms, by giving them immediate access to vital intelligence and the authority to act on it. As Captain Mann observed, "I've got my own urban battlespace in a part of Mosul populated by 450,000 people, and I'm trying to find 100 insurgents, who can slip in and out of that battlespace. Rather than satellites and other strategic assets feeding information down to brigade, to battalion, and finally to me, I'm under pressure to get the stuff first by being a detective who pieces together crimes.”

It never fails: the closer you get to a frontline infantry unit, the greater the pride and intelligence, the more erect the bearing. At Baghdad International Airport, I consulted a nasty young enlistee who grumpily lifted her eyes from a paperback to tell me that she didn't know the flight times to Mosul, though knowing such information was the sole purpose of her being in Iraq. But in Mosul, I found myself in a tactical operations center, or TOC, staffed with noncoms and junior and middle-level officers like Captain Mann, whose whole identity—as revealed through the game-on clarity of their faces—seemed to be their jobs.

The TOC belonged to the 4th Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. The commander of 4-23 was Lieutenant Colonel John G. Norris, of Louisville, Kentucky, a short and stocky former Marine noncom. I spent my first days in Mosul alongside Norris, watching him facilitate relationships between local rulers who had once been hostile to each other. This had historically been an unconventional, Special Forces kind of job. But as combat gave way to politics in Mosul—as well as in other parts of Iraq—regular Army officers found themselves dealing increasingly with situations that would have been all too familiar to officials of the British and French nineteenth-century colonial services.

It began with a meeting of the notables of Hamman-al-Alil, a town of 20,000 south of Mosul. First we drove east across the Tigris River to pick up reporters from a reopened Iraqi television station, who would cover the event. Sitting in the roomy interior of the Stryker, I saw the Tigris through the thermal imagery and smelled the freshness of the river through the air hatch. Then came the smell of raw sewage as we entered a wilderness of automobile chop shops that had months before been a haven for insurgents. Kids waved and ran after the Strykers with "gimme-a-soccer-ball” pleas. The television station had a brand-new 500-foot tower. A second one was going up, paid for with Coalition funds.

We drove down a road that had been paved originally by the 101st Airborne Division, only to be "IEDed to shit by insurgents,” as one soldier told me, then repaved by Iraqi contractors hired by the American military. That was another tactic against chaos: be relentless, particularly in the face of bad trends. If foreign aid to Africa could still be justified, and even continue to inspire idealism despite decades of failure and corruption, how could it be otherwise for civil-affairs projects in Iraq in the face of a mere two years of difficulties?

Presented by

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

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In