TASH, ANBAR PROVINCE - When Marines leave a city, they do not leave neatly. They are not raptured up, riding ghostly Humvees and MRAPs to the next life, and leaving behind nothing but the imprints in the sand where their bases stood. The process is ugly, and it is what I have come to this base -- a small one, with not more than a few dozen Marines -- to see today.
The Status of Forces Agreement specifies that the US will be out of Iraqi cities by the end of this month, and will return only at the invitation of the Iraqi government. The draw-down here is perhaps even more pronounced than the SoFA requires. The most generous eye could not award Tash the status of a city, but the Marines are giving it up, too. Looking off into the distance from atop the one permanent structure in Camp Tash, Gunnery Sergeant Joaquin Gurrola points to the roofs of a few houses in one direction, and to a road that leads toward endless desert in the other. The insurgency once thrived here, and now it has receded, just as it has just about (but not quite) everywhere. (It's still somewhat risky. To go to the top of the building, Gurrola and I needed two armed escorts, who scanned the houses through rifle scopes while we looked around.) If the insurgency chooses to return, Tash's sole defense will be Iraqi security forces. The nearest base of Marines could be as much as two hours away.
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Military bases are built for function, not beauty. (This is one reason the converted Saddam-era palaces were, in the disastrous early years of the war, such a double-whammy of irony -- after being re-purposed into US bases, they combined spectacular functional and aesthetic failure, two forms of failure that rarely co-present.) The only thing uglier than a military base is a military base that is being torn down. Camp Tash is nearly gone, and it is already half landfill and all eyesore. While walking around I tallied the objects buried in the sand: a leather sandal, frayed coaxial cables, many plastic bags, scattered live 5.56mm rounds, plastic bottles galore.
And stacks of old wood are everywhere. The Marines' weapon of choice is the crowbar, with a claw-hammer for a sidearm. They crawl over SWA huts, ripping out plywood and wearing rifle vests if they rise above the berm and into the sights of potential snipers. In the middle of the afternoon, three Iraqis show up, one in a police uniform, with a truck. They scavenge as much wood as they can carry. One of them, Adnan Yusuf, is plump and huffs smoke through the gaps in his teeth. He is smiling, because there's money in that wreckage. "Business is good," he says. "I just spent three months tearing apart bases in Hit and Ramadi."
Adnan Yusuf, Iraqi junk dealer. Photo by Regimental Combat Team 6.
Within a few short weeks, says the base's commanding officer, Maj. Dann V. Angeloff, there will be nothing left here but footprints. What it was like to be the last man to leave an outpost for which Marine blood had spilled copiously over the last several years? Angeloff admits anxiety about what comes next, but he says the overwhelming sentiment is pride in the Iraqi police's willingness to resume control. He and his men have spent months working closely with Iraqi police: "We go on foot patrols, we do everything with the police, and so we don't have any incidents," he says. Gurrola, the sergeant, has worked with local butchers and other businesses. "We went from fighting them to eating their meat."
Maj. Dann Angeloff. Photo by Regimental Combat Team 6.
It's difficult to guess what will happen here, and whether the Iraqis' glee at seeing the Marines' backs is born out by actual ability to keep peace in Tash. It's still a place where I would be reluctant to go out for anything but heavily guarded stroll. Safe or no, it will soon have a small patch of new real estate, allegedly left as if no Marines had ever lived here at all. I suspect that despite Angeloff's best efforts, detritus will remain, and that some member of a future civilization will feel a chunk of metal underfoot, find it marked "Camp Pendleton," and wonder what improbable episode brought it out here, to a place with no water, no crops, nothing but sand in every direction.