Dispatch September 2007

The First Test of the Surge

We are about to find out what happens in Iraq after the U.S. troops leave

We drove on to a remote patrol base, where I talked with U.S. Sergeant Sam Severtsgaard from Northfield, Minnesota. His face had filled out since I had first seen him, in 2004 in Fallujah, where as a 19-year-old he had fought with courage that bordered on the reckless—on two occasions he rushed into close-quarters firefights with an armed grenade clutched in his hand, scaring the hell out of everyone around him. He ended up getting shot in the side and the leg, and was being rehabilitated in the States in 2005 when 3/1 was sent back to Iraq. He talked his way out of the hospital and rejoined his company. Now he was back for his third, and final, seven-month tour as a squad leader.

Another view of Combat Outpost Golden (Photo by Bing West)

“Three rotations to Iraq in four years is enough,” he said. “I just got married, and I’m getting out to be a firefighter. The Iraqi soldiers can handle this. There’s no real combat anymore. We’re putting this outpost in good hands. But in three deployments, I’ve seen no improvement for the people. They don’t even have water. It’s dry, hot. They have nothing.”

From there, we drove 28 kilometers to the next outpost, called Chicago. Calling it hell might be more appropriate. The temperature hovered at 115 degrees, and there were three air-conditioned rooms, 40 marines, and 20 Iraqi soldiers. A hunt was on to find wood to construct a few huts before the marines left the Iraqis on their own.

I met with seven marines who had fought with 3/1 in Fallujah in 2004 and were now on their third tour. I remembered that one, Sergeant Derek Fetterolf, had held the record for collapsing the most enemy-occupied houses—more than 50—with a rocket launcher called a  SMAW. Fetterolf and most of the others said they believed that the Iraqi soldiers, with whom they had worked for the past month, could stand on their own.

“I’ve seen outstanding progress in the jundi [Iraqi soldier] in four years,” Fetterolf said. “Like, they show up 10 minutes early when they stand post with us, and they have all their shit on.”

None of the marines believed that the Iraqis could hold the entire expanse that they now occupied. Instead, the Iraqis would have to consolidate along the main highways, which would accommodate their tendency toward defense and checkpoints. That, the marines believed, would be acceptable if the Iraqi soldiers could stay on good terms with the villagers, which had been the case for the past month. But it would be no easy task; at least 60 kilometers of main highway would have to be kept open by only 600 Iraqi soldiers.

President Bush came to al Assad to make a point—that there is military progress on the ground in Iraq, but political leadership is lagging. The president may not have known it, but the first test case of what will happen after the surge is about to occur right outside Assad, in Thar Thar. Colonel Mundy and his marines, many bone-tired after three deployments, are leaving. And no American unit will replace them.

“The IA [Iraqi army] works while we’re here with them,” Sergeant Joseph Daniels said, while the others nodded. “We give them their water and chow. We leave, and they have no support.”

Next week, the 2d Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division will be on its own in Apache country. A brigade cannot perform without food, water, arms, pay, and the belief that it is part of a system that will take care of it. So far, the ministries in Baghdad have failed to provide adequate support, much less show that they care.

Chicago and Golden are bleak and distant outposts in a long-hostile land. The Iraqi supply sergeants will no longer be able to run next door and ask their friendly Marine gunnery sergeant for a dollop of water, fuel, or Poupon mustard. There will be no faking it. Here, at Assad, is where we will first discover whether a government that has been weak and selfish will finally step up and take care of its own soldiers.

Presented by

A former marine and former assistant secretary of defense, Bing West is in Iraq on his 13th visit. He is writing his third book about the war.

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