The Iraqi city of Mosul is an age-old caravan crossroads whose history defies the concept of the twentieth-century nation-state—the kind of nation-state the U.S. military occupation of Iraq is trying to hold together (if not create), and to keep from imploding into full- scale civil war.
Historic trade routes have linked Mosul to cities in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, bringing cultural as well as commercial exchanges. The Arabic language in Mosul bears Kurdish and Syriac influences. There is a large community of Chaldaeans—descendants of Christians who were converted (eons ago) from Nestorianism to Catholicism. For a long time, this city was a seat of Catholic missionary activity. Seljuk Turks held Mosul in the Middle Ages and Ottomans held it in the modern era, with a Persian occupation in between. Mosul's degenerating old quarter, with its beetling Ottoman walls and elegantly stuccoed twelfth-century Seljuk minaret, is testimony to this cosmopolitan lineage.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the oil-rich Turkish vilyet of Mosul was incorporated into a newly created Iraq, ensuring that the mostly Arab polity of Sunnis and Shiites would include a large (one-quarter) share of non-Arab Kurds, Turcomans, and Assyrians. Mosul emblemizes the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have made modern Iraq so untenable, helping it to fall victim to the most suffocating of dictatorships.
I came to Mosul, a city of more than 2 million, after one set of national elections; I would leave just before another. The former had ratified the new Iraqi constitution; the latter would select political parties for parliament. In the Mosul region, the first election had seen a voter turnout of more than 80 percent. Mosul is a success story, although the success is relative, partial, and tenuous. The credit for what success there has been belongs to one of the U.S. Army's Stryker brigade combat teams that recently departed Iraq: the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington.
When the 1-25 "Lancers” arrived in Mosul, in September of 2004, the city and its environs were a violent no-go zone, having seen several thousand insurgent attacks, not to mention more than a thousand explosions from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The local police had largely deserted, dropping from an on-paper force of 10,000 to an irrelevance of 300. But by the time 1-25 left Mosul, a year later, mortar attacks alone had fallen from 300 a month to fewer than ten. Other forms of insurgent activity dropped to the point where international journalists no longer considered Mosul an important part of the ongoing Iraq story—a fact evidenced by their thin presence in the city. Meanwhile, the local police force was now back up to 9,000, and the number of police stations had expanded from five to twenty-four. More important, the number of intelligence tips called in by the local population had risen from essentially zero to some 400 per month.
The kind of chaos that 1-25 had alleviated in Mosul has been an abiding interest of mine. Twelve years ago in this magazine, I published an article, "The Coming Anarchy,” about the institutional collapse of Third World countries owing to ethnic and sectarian rivalries, demographic and environmental stresses, and the growing interrelationship between war and crime. Was it possible that Iraq, of all places, might offer some new ideas about how situations of widespread anarchy can be combated? It certainly was the case that, despite a continuing plague of suicide bombings, significant sections of the country were slowly recovering from large-scale violence, as well as from the effects of decades of brutal dictatorship. The very U.S. military that had helped to bring about the anarchy in Iraq was now worth studying as a way to end it, both here and elsewhere in the Third World.
The 1-25 Lancers' shaky achievement does credit to the brigade-level transformation of the U. S. Army, the institution known derisively to the Green Berets of the Special Forces as "Big Army” or "Mother Army.” And they are right: Big Army is still too much of a vertical, dinosaurian, Industrial Age organization. Yet that is changing, partly because of the new emphasis on brigades.
A brigade is only a third or half the size of a division. Its headquarters element is less bureaucratic and top-heavy with colonels than that of a division (to say nothing of a corps). The very size of a brigade can be custom-fitted to the situation. Putting brigades first represents an organizational means for dealing with a more chaotic, unconventional world. It is the kind of bureaucratic reform that the military is embracing faster than the financially starved State Department or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The credit for this radically changed emphasis belongs to successive Army chiefs of staff, particularly Eric Shinseki and Peter Schoomaker.
New hardware, such as the Stryker combat vehicle, also plays a big role, facilitating a change in the relationships between captains in the field and majors and lieutenant colonels back at battalion headquarters. The Stryker—with its added safety features that drastically reduce casualties from IEDs and suicide bombs, its ability to travel great distances without refueling, and a computer system that gives captains and noncommissioned officers situational awareness and the latest intelligence for many miles around—has helped liberate field units from dependence on headquarters.
Autonomy is further encouraged by the flat "intelligence architecture” of the Stryker brigades. Information now comes to captains less and less from battalion headquarters, and more and more from other junior officers in other battalions, via informal e-mail networks, as well as directly from Iraqi units. The lieutenant colonel who commands an infantry battalion, and the major who is the captain's executive officer, do not always have to be consulted. Given the results, the commanding officers like it that way.
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?
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.
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.
More confusing was that another shopkeeper recommended the opposite: that U.S. soldiers should always patrol with the Iraqi army. If you applied every recommendation you got talking to Iraqis on just one street, you'd wind up doing exactly what you were doing before.
When an infantryman on patrol encountered Iraqi civilians, the best thing he could do was take off his sunglasses and his helmet too, if possible, look people directly in the eye, give them a lot of deference (especially if they were older), ask them for advice, here and there interject an opinion so as to actively engage them, and plead his case without trying to lecture. That was the only way to build trust among a population that was taught for centuries how to be subjects rather than citizens.
But it is simply impossible for the soldiers to be wholly liked. There is no nice way to barge into people's houses, bristling with weapons, stomping your dusty boots on their Oriental rugs, and expect it to be a pleasant experience for them, even if you hand out candy to their kids and replace a lock you had to break with a new one. On most such occasions, only a woman and her children were present. The soldiers would find an assault weapon that had recently been fired and its magazine of 7.62mm bullets half empty: very suspicious. Did the woman know anything about it? No, she would tell the Americans, peering out below her kerchief, staring past them at the wall.
Great numbers of such seemingly ineffectual searches did work, to the extent that they kept terrorists on the run (or at least inconvenienced), forcing the insurgents to hide their guns and bomb-making paraphernalia outside their homes. But it was an inefficient way to make progress, and it bred hostility. If this keeps up, I thought, the Americans will end up being as hated in Iraq as the Israelis are in the West Bank. But it will be worse for the Americans, because they will be hated even as they are not feared.
The U.S. military was attempting to plug a dike holding back an ocean of potential unrest, and was deeply handicapped by the fact that it had no visible large-scale public-works projects to soak up crime and mass unemployment. Only such projects could show Sunni Arabs—politically weaker than ever in Iraq—the tangible benefits of democracy. Indeed, as I went out on at least one patrol a day for three weeks, riding air guard, my upper body sticking out of the top of the Stryker, the typical scenery was of bullet-marked and half-finished buildings, gray and rust-colored, a shot-to-hell cityscape in which every object—sign, streetlight, telephone pole—was bent or broken. Garbage filled every available lot. The only bustling commerce I saw, in the markets near the old city, was of the subsistence kind that does not create employment.
One local police chief told me that there were now Iraqi police and soldiers on streets where six months before there had been none, and that murders and kidnappings had been reduced substantially. Security was as good as it was going to get without a major jobs program, I thought.
"That's why I like Iraq: it's always a challenge,” said Lieutenant John Turner of Indianapolis, whom I accompanied on a patrol in Mosul. A big, fair-complexioned soldier with blond hair, Turner looked like a simple farm boy until you heard him speak with Iraqis. He talked about the promise of America, and about how he and his two sisters had grandparents who hadn't finished high school, and yet he and both his sisters had graduated from college, one from the Air Force Academy and he from Purdue.
"Sir, I am willing to die for a country that is not my own,” he told a former mukhtar, a local official, in one Mosul neighborhood, firmly but quietly. We were drinking tea with the onetime official in his home, sitting on machine-made carpets, leaning on bare cinder-block walls. "So will you resume your position as mukhtar?” Turner asked. "Brave men must stand forward. Iraq's wealth is not oil but its civilization. Trust me by the projects I bring, not by my words. Will you stand with me against the insurgents? The men who threatened you are just sixteen-year-old boys with guns but no jobs. These projects will bring jobs to your streets.”
The former mukhtar seemed to like the American lieutenant. But he said no. "I cannot resume my role as mukhtar,” he said. "They will kill me. The contractor down the street was threatened if he continued to repair the neighborhood. If you are so serious about security, then why did you Americans release prisoners from Abu Ghraib?”
Many of the detainees that had lately been released from Abu Ghraib were known to be hardened criminals from the Mosul area, and the release had undermined the credibility of American troops here. Turner replied that the decision was one taken by Iraq's own new government. The former mukhtar wasn't convinced. For Iraqis meeting with Americans in Mosul, the name "Abu Ghraib” had a different connotation than it did in the United States. Here it meant not brutality but American weakness and lack of resolve.
I thought of a conversation I'd had the previous summer in Algeria, while embedded with Green Berets who were training alongside an Algerian special-forces company. I asked one of the Algerians how his government had put down its Islamic insurgency in the 1990s. The Algerian insurgents had been arguably more brutal than those in Iraq, beheading bus passengers at roadblocks on a regular basis, making Algeria one of the most dangerous places in the world. Then the killing stopped, and the country promptly faded out of the world news, seemingly without explanation. The Algerian officer told me that suppression of the insurgents had been a simple military success story. Government forces, with the full support of a population devastated by constant terrorism—the psychological equivalent in Algeria of a 9/11 every week—had killed a lot of people (a portion of them innocent, I suspected), with no journalists in the vicinity to raise unwelcome questions. This was followed by internationally monitored elections and a steady trickle of European investors back to Algiers. The country was back on its feet. The United States, though it desired the same end result in Iraq, could not, would not, and should not apply the same means—or anything close to them. In Iraq, success would have to be accomplished through the most restricted of half-measures.
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.
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.