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

But as long as the U.S. military was still, to all intents and purposes, trying to save Iraq all by itself, staving off anarchy would mean, essentially, drinking a lot of chai—that is, thinking of any excuse to get out of your base to meet and talk with the locals. To wit, Wuestner, a conventional artillery officer, told me of a meal he had eaten with thirteen mukhtars. "When everyone lined up to wash their hands,” he said, "I gave them the towel,” a gesture of extreme politeness in Iraqi culture. As necessary and important as killing insurgents is, establishing relationships is more important still.

Soldiers can't possibly stabilize such a country except by getting outside the base perimeter, but it is doubtful that more than one in ten ever venture out. Of the 135,000 or so American troops serving in Iraq today, only a very small fraction have dealt with Iraqis in any substantial way.

Back in Mosul, I had lunch in the massive chow hall with Captain Brad Velotta of Alexandria, Louisiana. We figured that with all the support troops and private contractors who kept this base running, its total population was roughly 3,000. Out of this group, on any given day, no more than about 200 troops and civilian operatives ventured into Mosul. The visible results of all this support were amenities like heating and the Internet—plus crab, lobster, steak, and ice cream in the chow hall. Velotta, the commander of one of the battalion's three rifle companies, took no satisfaction from that. His whole purpose in Iraq was to be constantly away from his FOB, "outside the wire” and among Iraqis. He spoke about the Marine detachments sent to fight near the Syrian border. They slept in the dirt, and their force protection consisted of just themselves, fanning out into a 360-degree formation at night. "Zero support tail,” in other words. No ice cream. No Internet.

Of course, that assessment, he quickly admitted, wasn't wholly fair, since the Marines relied on fuel, ammo, equipment, and food that came from large bases like this one. But it did capture a truth: that there might be some leeway to reduce the American presence in Iraq without proportionately undermining the war effort. The need for crab, lobster, steak, and ice cream—the comforts of home—was part of an occupation mentality, as seen in West Germany during the Cold War. But the situation in Iraq, Velotta said, required a fighting mentality. Sparer bases would mean more people outside the perimeter, because the very comforts inside the base subtly reduce a commander's incentive to take troops outside for too long. There was an undeniable contradiction between the high living standard the Army felt it had to provide for the sake of soldiers' morale and the new warrior ethos it was trying to promote. When I was staying with the Marines in the Sunni Triangle and in sub-Saharan Africa in the spring and summer of 2004, living substantially on MREs, I learned that the worse the conditions, the better the mood of the troops. In the field, at least in the short term, troops live for the moment; at the base, eating good chow, they count the days.

The Army thought differently, though. It planned to reduce troop strength by consolidating FOBs into "super-FOBs,” to reduce its duplication of support services, even while maintaining the same high living standards. In an atmospheric sense, then, these enlarged FOBs would soon resemble the vast, Little America "Burger King bases” in Europe and Turkey. At the same time, by turning over command of various regions to Iraqi forces, the Army planned to reduce the American footprint and wean the Iraqis off American support.

In one sense, the Army was right. There aren't any great logistical efficiencies out there. You couldn't substantially reduce the total number of American troops in Iraq without also reducing the number who went outside the base perimeters. While you could save on support troops here and there with enlarged FOBs, most of the logistical element of the occupation was, in fact, already being handled by civilian contractors. The American face in Iraq in the early twenty-first century was as much the rough-and-tumble Kellogg, Brown & Root employee as the American soldier. It was KBR that provided items like lobster and ice cream, not some imagined long support tail of men and women in greenish cammies. Because so much had already been outsourced, it was hard to reduce the support tail that did exist without also undermining fighting elements like the Stryker brigade.

Thus, as my days in Iraq multiplied, I became increasingly leery of anything but the most gradual and calibrated of troop drawdowns. Our job was still not finished in Iraq—not by a long shot.

While the colonels I met were confident that the Iraqi army and police could bear the burden given to them in a reduction of American forces, the staff sergeants and other noncoms working every day with the new Iraqi security elements were not. "Trust me, sir,” one staff sergeant confided about an Iraqi army unit with which his platoon had just completed a three-hour patrol, "if we leave, they won't show up again in this neighborhood. They'll never leave their base.” On another occasion, while surveying a school slated to be a polling station, the local Iraqi army commander kept demanding that his men be able to camp out at the school overnight. The American captain kept telling him "no.” One of the noncoms quietly remarked, "It's the same old story: all they want to do is hunker down and play defense, but they will not be able to hold off this insurgency unless they play offense.” As for the Iraqi police, the noncoms expressed even less confidence.

Ultimately, one could anticipate a colonial-type situation that would never be referred to as such by name, in which maybe 10,000 American troops remained in Iraq, embedded in various ministries and throughout the military and police, propping up the security structure behind the scenes. It would be much like the arrangement in the Philippines in the early twentieth century, after the American invasion and our protracted counterinsurgency campaign there. Today, if you were to visit any number of places in the Balkans or the Caucasus, you would find quite a few American military officers working in this and that defense ministry or army unit, all very low-key, so that it never becomes a political issue. Iraq could one day become a much larger version of that principle. But things are not close to that point yet.

A final impression of Iraq: one day I had gone with a group of American soldiers to the sprawling ruins of Hatra, a city that was founded after the fall of Nineveh, at the end of the seventh century B.C., and reached its peak in the second and third centuries A.D. Hatra lay in the desert southwest of Mosul, empty of other visitors, without even a guardrail or derelict ticket stand, as though awaiting rediscovery by some Victorian-era explorers. Indeed, the only sign of the twentieth century were the initials of Saddam Hussein, carved into bricks throughout the complex and looking like the marks of just one more tyrant from antiquity.

Hatra had flourished as a Silk Road nexus of trade and ideas; its mix of Assyrian, Hellenistic, Parthian, and Roman styles set the stage for early Islamic architecture. The ruins encouraged me to think that Iraq's best available future was as a similar east-west crossroads, in a Middle East of weak, decentralized states—states that would replace the tyrannical perversions of the modern nation-state that now exist, and are crumbling. In decades ahead, cities like Mosul and Aleppo would be oriented, as they were in the past, as much toward each other and toward cities in Turkey and Iran as toward their respective capitals of Baghdad and Damascus. Borders would obviously matter less, as old caravan routes flourished in different form. Something comparable has already begun in the Balkans, a far more developed part of the Ottoman Empire than Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamia, this transition would be longer, costlier, and messier. We are in for a very long haul. Except for the collapse of Turkey's empire, the creation of the state of Israel, and the Iranian revolution, nothing and nobody in a century has so jolted the Middle East as has George W. Bush.

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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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