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

Too, it was a matter of personalities and local situations, in which no guidance from books or from generalized policy discussions could help. Norris and others in the 172nd Stryker Brigade had made the call to temporarily favor Chief Salim based primarily on a reading of his character: thuggish, but capable and trustworthy. It was a reading backed up by Hamman-al-Alil's Mayor Khalif. This had nothing to do with giving too much power to middle-level officers. Rather, it was about trusting the experts on the ground—something Foreign Service officers had been recommending for decades. The same principle could apply to the military.

Mayor Khalif, Mayor Isa, Chief Salim, and others all gathered at a regional security meeting in Nimrud, held at a fifth-century Syrian Catholic monastery. Norris, wearing pixilated cammies and a Mohawk-style buzz cut, sat on a boxy red sofa between the two mayors. He opened the meeting by speaking for a minute or two about how honored he was to be present, how he believed in a free and democratic Iraq, and how the American military wanted nothing more than to help the Iraqi people achieve this. Power and authority flowed from him not merely because of his uniform but because he appeared to believe the things he said, without nuance, embarrassment, or a sense of irony. Only later would reducing chaos be about addressing the "root causes.” Initially, it was about the reassertion of authority.

Chief Salim had a fixed stare that never changed, no matter who was speaking; and yet he seemed to possess a sort of mournful intelligence about human affairs, a kind of intelligence that cannot be measured by standardized tests. The reopened local television network was covering the meeting. The media presence might mean less candor, but it would serve the larger purpose of committing these officials to what they actually said.

In the first round of speeches, everyone praised everyone else. In the second round, everyone attacked a recent release of insurgents from the Abu Ghraib prison that had been meant as a goodwill gesture. They argued that it could only worsen the security situation. Then Iraqis made demands on the Americans for more development projects. One notable said that if the Americans promised more aid, the Iraqis would be happy to vote on December 15. The money available for aid, however, had shrunk significantly when the 101st Airborne Division had left this part of Iraq in 2004 and been replaced by a Stryker brigade. This, in turn, was part of a bigger story: the lack of continuity in assistance when one unit replaced another. For the Department of Defense, Iraq was a grand conception never properly worked out in detail.

In the third round, one Iraqi official accused another of pocketing development money, and said that the real problem was corruption. Local television put it on the record. So much for the lack of candor. When another dispute arose, about a missing $10,000, Colonel Norris interrupted. "I observe three people with three different understandings of what happened to the money,” he said. "We will put them in a room to achieve one understanding. We will work this out, and then we will move on.” He flashed a steely smile.

Building on the conference in Nimrud was the first-ever regional "targeting meeting,” held the following day at the TOC. Under 4-23's supervision, Iraqi army officers and police detectives from throughout the area were brought together to exchange the latest information on particular suspects. Decisions were made about whom to ignore and whom to apprehend (or try to kill). Two of the translators working for the Americans wore masks, because they mistrusted some of the Iraqi officials who were present.

There were reports of "Elvis sightings—that is, local sightings of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (or "AMZ,” in military lingo), the leader of the insurgent group called "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. One intriguing thing about some of the reports, though: Zarqawi, a master of disguise, was not always in disguise. He still had the same clipped beard, and was at times viewed easily inside a vehicle. He was brazen, confident—suicidal, perhaps, or simply disdainful of the Americans' ability to catch him. The challenge wasn't so much sighting him as enabling informants to communicate the information in real time and reacting fast enough to the intelligence.

In a number of the cases discussed, the insurgency was a family business: a father, son, and uncle formed the core of a cell that also had a record of small-time criminal activity. The most interesting new suspect was a female suicide bomber, who would act soon if she wasn't apprehended first. She was the young, stylish second wife of Abu Zubayr, the insurgent leader killed by the previous Stryker brigade. Because the police chief of Hamman-al-Alil had provided some of the intelligence leading to Abu Zubayr's death, it was thought that Hamman-al-Alil would be her target. "I'll have a photo of her in a few days,” one of the Iraqi detectives promised.

This particular detective was very aggressive and always coming up with tips that panned out. Later, he would meet privately with the members of the battalion to provide more detailed information about things covered in a general way during the meeting. Norris wanted to encourage cooperation among the Iraqis, but he wasn't a fool—he simply didn't trust some of the people in the room. Moving forward in a straight line would be not progress but foolishness.

Another lesson of the meeting was that when you squash a network, you rarely kill it: elements of it disperse and are able to regroup at a lower level of activity. Progress rarely meant complete victory, but rather moderate suppression.

The next day, I went out on a seven-hour patrol with a three-vehicle platoon from Apache Company (Company A). Except for our getting shot at by someone with an automatic weapon, and catching someone else selling bootleg gasoline (perhaps in support of the insurgency), there were no dramatic incidents. A long line of cars waiting to be searched at the eastern entrance to the city showed that the Iraqi army was doing its job. "Outstanding,” said a lieutenant. Inside the Stryker vehicle, a specialist read a Louis L'Amour novel. The dullness of the day was a positive sign.

The platoon undertook a foot patrol with an Iraqi army counterpart. You could not but be impressed with these Iraqi troops. Their TOC was as neat and well organized as 4-23's, with flow charts on the walls and satellite maps under table glass. They had strong-looking noncoms with game faces who flooded out of their white pickups and covered corners and fields of fire almost as well as the Americans.

There was only one problem: these troops were all ethnic Kurds, who at their headquarters had pictures of the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani. Would this unit stay loyal to something called "Iraq” in the event of a weakening of the state following an American drawdown? Or were the Americans merely helping along the possibility of what some called "creeping Kurdistan”? And was the possibility of a creeping Kurdistan actually a means of pressuring Sunni Arabs to constructively participate in the political process?

I was surprised to learn that this Iraqi army platoon was rated near the bottom by American military training teams in terms of its fighting capability. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the unit was bureaucratically underdeveloped at the battalion level. Although fighting well as a platoon was more important than "battalion ops” (because counterinsurgency was about small-unit warfare and developing informants), no nationwide unity of military effort was possible without organized battalions and divisions. If this unit was a bad one, the Iraqi army, at least in terms of professional development, was doing a lot better than many supposed—or so I thought. Later, though, I heard of another platoon whose soldiers stole from the places they searched and, as one American captain told me, "shit in the side rooms.”

A Sunni Arab shopkeeper said to me: "When American troops patrol the streets with the Iraqi army, it is so awful and humiliating for us, because we know those Iraqi soldiers are really Kurds. Your occupation has strengthened our enemies.” This young man, the son of a former general in Saddam Hussein's army, engaged me in conversation for more than half an hour. I liked him. He turned out to be uncannily objective in his own way. He had just come back from Syria, upon which he heaped praise. "Syria now is so much better than Iraq,” he said. "It is under tight control, so people there feel safe and can go about their lives with dignity. You Americans think you have brought freedom; you have just allowed the thugs from the villages to kill and rob from the educated people whom Saddam had protected.”

"Your father liked Saddam?” I probed.

"My father hated Saddam,” he replied. "He spit on him—in the home, that is. As long as you obeyed the rules by not criticizing the regime outside of your home, you were fine. With Saddam, there were clear rules; now there are none. Now we are caught between the Americans and the insurgents. Everybody hates terrorism, but we're more vulnerable than you.”

"Should the Americans leave?” I asked.

"No,” he said. "That would only make things worse.” He told me that he was impressed with the American military, as long as it was alone and not with the Iraqi army. But he admitted that the Iraqi police had improved, and that Mosul was no longer the battle zone it had been the year before. "Your soldiers are disciplined. They don't scare people by shooting their guns in the air, like ours.”

"But that discipline,” I argued, "is an indirect effect of a free society, which allows the military to constantly criticize itself.”

"No, no,” he said. "What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too? Elections are useless without water, sewage, electricity, and safety.”

"So you won't vote on December 15?”

"Maybe I will vote. What else is there to do?”

He was a mass of understandable contradictions.

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).

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