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 former mukhtar told Lieutenant Turner not to return, because he was afraid for his life. The tribe could protect the former mukhtar in the countryside, but not in the city. Turner pleaded further, probing what specific security and political actions could get the man to change his mind. Finally, the old sheikh said: "If the elections go well, everything will be better afterwards. We will see then.”

Turner departed, saying, "I will be back. I will not quit.” The afternoon hadn't been altogether wasted. Just getting anyone in the area to tell the platoon where the former mukhtar lived had taken three months of pleading, and after several false leads that day, the soldiers had found him.

The patrol wasn't over. 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 about the make of the car, the men inside it, and where they had set up the mortar. The next step would be to deploy snipers there for several days running, hoping to eliminate the culprits when they returned. If that happened, the people in the other four houses might start cooperating. "I hate to say it,” said 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. It was like the old clichés about watching the grass grow, or the paint dry. "The media says there's no strategy to win this war,” Turner observed. "There is; we're doing it. But it's slow, and it doesn't make headlines like Abu Ghraib.”

The Blackhawk helicopter flight south to the Qayyarah-West Forward Operating Base took fifteen minutes and was marked by small-arms fire, directed at the helicopter and answered by one of the side gunners with a short burst. Upon landing, I signed in with the 4th Battalion of the 11th Field Artillery Regiment, another part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. My first destination with the soldiers of 4-11 "Arctic Thunder” was the town of Om al-Mahir, an area under the command of thirty-one-year-old Captain Jeff Ferguson of Columbus, Mississippi. In the town, construction projects were everywhere, along with brand-new plastic café chairs and satellite dishes. Crowds of children gave the Americans the thumbs-up symbol. Streets were cleaner than in Mosul, owing to a trash-removal program, started by Ferguson, that employed some of the area's teenagers. Scattered Iraqi army and police roadblocks gave a sense of safety. The searches at these roadblocks were not necessarily arbitrary. Because Saddam had provided certain types of cars to certain areas, some strangers announced themselves merely by the make of their car.

At Om al-Mahir, on a patch of grass amid faded oleanders, a few American soldiers and a large crowd of tribal elders and young men and boys sprawled over Oriental rugs for what the troops called a "goat grab”—grilled meat on a bed of unleavened bread, a meal that you ate with your hands. Iraqi soldiers stood watch along the perimeter and Iraqi General Ali Attalah Malloh al-Jabouri, the commander of one of the battalions under 4-11's tutelage, spoke to the gathering. The Americans had left their helmets and body armor in their Humvees a few hundred yards away, and their weapons against a wall, entrusting their safety to the Iraqi soldiers.

"The hands of men who are without work will end up cooperating with the devil,” said General Ali, addressing the Americans and Captain Ferguson in particular. He followed with details of this young man and that one who were unemployed, and who had drifted north to Mosul to take part in the insurgency. He was working up to a familiar theme.

"Where is the investment money, now that our area has been safe for months?” The American soldiers had no answer. They were as frustrated as the Iraqis. Even the safe areas showed no sign of civilian relief work or major rebuilding other than what I had seen en route. The soldiers admitted that while they had the money to lay gravel on a particular road, they lacked the funds to pave it, even though all agreed that graveled roads offered easy concealment for IEDs.

It was surreal. The stability of Iraq will likely determine history's judgment on President George W. Bush. And yet even in a newly secured area like this one, the administration has provided little money for the one factor essential to that stability: jobs. On a landscape flattened by anarchy in 2004, the American military has constructed a house of cards. Fortifying this fragile structure with wood and cement now will require more aid—in massive amounts, and of a type that even America's increasingly civil affairs–oriented military cannot provide. This house of cards, flimsy as it is, constitutes a substantial achievement. But because Washington's deeds do not match its rhetoric, even this fragile achievement might go for naught.

That night I accompanied 4-11's battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Wuestner of Philadelphia—and a former tight end on the West Point football team—to the home of another sheikh. The town that this sheikh controlled had recently become unfriendly, with fewer cheers from the kids and an increasing number of stink stares” from the grown-ups whenever American soldiers passed by. The sheikh had prepared an extravagant dinner for us. He smilingly denied that anyone he knew had become unfriendly. Then he excused himself for a moment, and one of his subordinates casually mentioned to Wuestner that people were becoming impatient. They wanted loans for a cotton gin, they wanted chicken farms, and so forth, yet nothing was happening. Wuestner wrote it all down in one of those green-cloth-covered field books that American soldiers and Marines carry, but said he wasn't sure he could find the money. The Bush administration's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” released with great fanfare in November, was merely a document; the difficulty of finding ground-level money for necessary projects was, in contrast, quite real.

"We can race around the battlefield and fix little problems,” one Army major complained to me, "but where is the State Department and USAID to solve the big problems?” Whereas commentators in Washington tend to blame the machinations of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon for keeping the State Department out of Iraq, all of the mid-level military officers I spoke with—each of whom desperately wanted to see civilian aid and reconstruction workers here—said that if the State Department got the requisite funding, it could be as bureaucratically dynamic as their own battalions, and infrastructure-rebuilding would not be where it appeared to be: at the zero point.

Meanwhile, the battalion commanders could only encourage Iraqis to seek help from their own barely functioning government ministries. The Americans sought genuinely to transfer power and responsibility to the Iraqis. But history has taught the Iraqis to think of power not in any formal or legalistic sense but crudely, in terms of who actually wields the authority to help and the power to punish severely.

Yet the American military might still do more, I thought. For example, I hadn't noticed the Army carrying out a Medical Civic Action Program for the local population, as I had seen it do in Mongolia, the Philippines, Kenya, Djibouti, and other places. No activity develops relationships (and hence intelligence assets) like treating people for disease and illness.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Shifting Our Moral Compass?

"The experience of taking another human life becomes much more trivial."


Elsewhere on the web

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

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In