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 Stryker convoy passed along the Tigris, through ash-brown, dome-shaped hills bordered by fields of melons and sunflowers. The water was divided and re-divided by islands and sandbars thick with reeds. The sharp contours gave every feature of the landscape an iconic quality. Here and there, I saw a signature detail of post–Saddam Hussein Iraq: a brick hovel with a new satellite dish on the roof.

Insurgents had made Hamman-al-Alil another no-go zone, destroying the town-council offices and killing the mayor's nephew, then cutting off his head and delivering it to the mayor. The mayor and the council went to ground. But continuous raids by the Americans and the newly stood-up Iraqi army and police, trained and equipped by the Americans, gradually put an end to the insurgents' operations. A clinic, a police station, and city offices were now nearing completion, and the mayor, Khalif Khader Mohammed Hussein al-Jabouri, was back. Norris now planned to build a badly needed bridge across the Tigris here.

Not that the town looked good: it presented a dismal pageant of muddy, garbage-strewn streets awaiting the first, meager fruits of a problematic new stability. The council members, adorned in traditional keffiyahs and gold-braided regalia, pleaded with Norris for more public-works projects. The town didn't just look awful through my eyes; it looked awful in theirs, too. Their offer was blunt: "We'll provide twenty-four-hour security and workers if you'll pay for the projects.” The offer of safety was backed up with the muscle of the dominant Jabouri tribe, which had decided to go with the Americans against the insurgents—but only after the American military had, month after month, demonstrated its resolve. The fact that the new police chief, Khaled Hussein al-Hamdani, was a Hamdani tribesman—related to the same Hamdani tribesmen who had been bodyguards for Uday and Qusai Hussein—made for a governing coalition in the town.

Forming such an alliance was easier done in a town than in a city. In the rural areas, everyone knew one another, and the tribes—a tangible form of authority you could get your hands around, unlike the new democratic governing bodies—were therefore a potential counterweight to the insurgents.

Mayor Khalif walked in. With his roughed-up hair, he looked the epitome of the rumpled, preoccupied politician, going through a checklist of points—a modern sort of fellow, it seemed. He began, "There was a bridge here in antiquity, but not under Saddam. [Rebuilding] the bridge would confirm the American commitment.” That was not the end of his list.

Norris said that help was coming in the form of PRTs (civilian-military provincial reconstruction teams). "The American military will continue, we will facilitate. We will not leave prematurely,” he said. "Inshallah,” the members of the town council replied: "God willing.”

Throughout the meeting, I sat between two council members. One of them, Mohamed Najim Shakara, had lost three brothers to insurgent violence. The other, Khamis Mohamed Jassim, had been attacked twice by insurgents, and he pulled up his robe, LBJ-style, to show me the bullet wounds on his hip and lower abdomen.

After the meeting, Norris offered a reflection on the Iraqis he deals with. "Some love us. Some hate us because we've accidentally killed their relatives. Others would rather we just leave. But whenever we kill a terror hideout and return an area to some semblance of normalcy, people come out and say thank you. A big problem is the daily, low-level kidnappings of professionals that don't make news but help provide a cash flow for the insurgents.

"On the other hand,” he went on, "we benefit because the international media doesn't want to leave the greater Baghdad area. With no international media in Mosul on a regular basis, there's been less of an incentive [for the insurgents] to do car bombings.”

The next morning—Thanksgiving Day, as it happened—Norris traveled east of the river to the Nimrud region. While Hamman-al-Alil had relative peace and some incipient development projects, Nimrud had only relative peace. That was because its relative peace was brand-new, resulting not just from the relentless aggression of the U.S. military and the new Iraqi army but from a political deal that Hamman-al-Alil's Mayor Khalif had brokered for Nimrud, with Norris's support. The deal involved an informal power-sharing agreement between Nimrud's Mayor Ahmed Obeed Isa, an ethnic Kurd, and the district police chief, Salim Salih Mishal Needa. Not that relations were good between the two men—they hated each other. Mayor Isa seemed to be a transparent, modern fledgling democrat. Chief Salim had the reputation of a thug. But re-establishing order in Nimrud following the insurgency's high-water mark here in 2004 meant allowing Chief Salim to wield the real power in the area. Only recently had Norris begun nudging him aside to allow Mayor Isa to govern.

Of course, this was classic political-science theory: sudden, wrenching transitions are generally bad. Russia tried to move abruptly from Communist authoritarianism to Western parliamentary democracy, and got chaos as a result. The Iberian Peninsula, following a more successful model earlier in the twentieth century, had gone from iron-fisted authoritarianism to successively milder versions of it in the later Franco, Salazar, and Caetano periods, so when democracy did arrive in Spain and Portugal, it did so competently. Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) has been voted one of the great political-science books of the twentieth century because, among other things, it lays out this principle: the real divide in political systems is not between those that are democratic and those that aren't but between those that have strong institutions and those that have weak ones.

Norris had not read Huntington's book, nor had he been following discussions in Washington about the imposition of democracy. He was simply using common sense. He had figured out on his own that Chief Salim might have been a bad guy, but for the moment he served a useful purpose. Chief Salim constituted a transitional figure, one who could set the stage for the emergence of the lawyerly Mayor Isa. The invasion of Iraq was cataclysmic for the country's politics, down to the village level. Stabilizing Iraq meant reversing the pre-war direction before you could move forward. It was what the Marines had learned in the Sunni Triangle in 2004, when I saw them going behind the backs of new democratic governing councils to make deals with the tribal sheikhs.

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).

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In