Streetwise

Whether we ultimately stay or go, we need to contain the burgeoning forces of chaos now—and that requires fixing Iraq’s policing problems. An expert explains how.

When U.S. military manpower and technology work hand in hand with local Iraqi police, the combination can be effective. I have seen several successful joint efforts.

Every day, aerial cameras hover over Anbar; some are mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and others on helicopters; some are infrared, others stream down video in sharp, brilliant colors. I was in a company operations center in Haditha when Captain Bert Lewis, the air officer, pointed at a screen showing a video feed.

“Check that dude next to the white Nissan,” he said, speaking into a handset.

An operator several miles away zoomed in the UAV camera. On the screen, we watched a man in a white dishdasha hastily scooping dirt over a boxy package, while cars passed by without slowing down.

“FedEx delivery,” Lewis said, to general laughter. “I don’t believe this dude.” The Nissan drove away as the man finished packing dirt around the improvised explosive device, or IED.

“Follow the car or the man-dress?” Lewis asked.

“Nail that sucker,” Lieutenant Joshua Booth said. (Booth was shot and killed the following week, leading his platoon down a city street.)

The man looked up and down the street, and then ran south. The picture tilted, then zoomed in, holding him in the center of the frame. A series of black numbers scrolled along the right edge, updating the GPS coordinates. The target, solidly built and in his mid-thirties, had left the road and was now running along the riverbank.

At this point, a half-dozen marines had clustered around the screen to watch. The man was running hard, back rigid, chest out. “Look, he’s doubling back.” He kept looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He must have heard the UAV’s high-pitched whine—it’s like the drone of a monster mosquito—but he didn’t look up. He ran down a path between houses, across a field, and back to the riverbank. After fifteen minutes, he slowed to a walk, then stopped and stood with his hands on his knees.

“Sucking wind. Get the coordinates to the QRF.”

As a Quick Reaction Force patrol closed on the GPS coordinates, the fugitive sat down in the shade of a palm tree, beckoning to someone on the river. Just as a square-nosed wooden skiff punted up to the man, the QRF, mounted in two Humvees, converged on the riverbank. The man scrambled to his feet, saw he had no place to run, and half-raised his arms to show he had no weapon.

“A twofer! All right! Send a squad to pick those guys up and bring them here.”

The Iraqis on duty as liaisons in the op center watched the video, looked at the computer screens, and hopped into their tinny pickups to follow the heavily armored American Humvees roaring off to pick up the two prisoners.

The chase was an impressive demonstration of American gear. But technology alone cannot win the war; we need the police. “The cops match names and faces,” Kevin Austin, thirty-five, an International Police Liaison Officer who is a member of the California Highway Patrol, told me. “We could never do that. It’s based on local knowledge.”

I asked Austin how the police should go about using local knowledge to defeat an insurgency. “First,” he said, “develop sources on the streets. Understand the social networks, who lives where. Second, grill one insurgent until he betrays another. Then move fast to make the next arrest. Third, impose fines for criminal offenses. The foot soldiers are in this for money. One hundred bucks to emplace an IED is not worth having your car or house confiscated.”

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