Inside the House of Cards

Despite recent riots in Baghdad, Robert Kaplan, the author of "The Coming Normalcy?", credits one U.S. military brigade with restoring order to Iraq's second-largest city

On the morning of February 22, a pair of terrorists disguised as policemen entered a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, one of the four holy Islamic cities in Iraq. The explosives they detonated shattered the mosque's ornate walls and ignited riots throughout the fragile nation. Within hours, a Shi'ite mob had attacked a Sunni mosque in western Baghdad and gunmen from the two factions were fighting in the streets of Sadr City. By the end of February, at least 400 people had died in incidents sparked by the bombing.

It is at this unlikely moment that a cautiously optimistic piece of Iraq reportage makes its appearance in The Atlantic. Rather than presenting a nation on the verge of collapse, the article's author, Robert D. Kaplan, offers an unusually encouraging account, describing what one U.S. military brigade has accomplished in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. "Mosul is a success story,” he writes, "although the success is relative, partial, and tenuous."

When it comes to world trouble spots, Kaplan is by no means a natural optimist. Over the past three decades, he has reported from the ground on famine in Sudan, violent crime in Sierra Leone, and guerilla fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1989, two years before war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia, Kaplan visited the Balkans and predicted a long period of upcoming ethnic strife in his article "Europe's Third World" (July 1989). In the mid-1990s, Kaplan wrapped all of this and more into a sweeping forecast of global mayhem entitled "The Coming Anarchy" (February 1994), an article that reportedly circulated the Clinton White House as recommended reading.

The headline of Kaplan's latest piece, The Coming Normalcy?", is a nod to the bleak predictions of "The Coming Anarchy." Despite the title's note of hopefulness, the question mark at the end indicates that the author is still more Cassandra than Pollyanna. Throughout the article, he emphasizes that restoring order to Iraq will not be easy and that U.S. troops will not likely be able to return home for a long time to come. His prose, as usual, rings with a brutal realism:

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…. The next step would be to deploy snipers there for several days running, hoping to eliminate the culprits when they returned. "I hate to say it,” said [Lieutenant John] 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.

Kaplan came to Mosul having already seen the worst of the Iraq conflict: in 2004, he witnessed the takeover of Fallujah as an embedded journalist for this magazine (see "Five Days in Fallujah" (July/August 2005)). What he found in Mosul was a vast improvement over that earlier scene of all-out chaos. Since September 2004, mortar attacks in Mosul have declined from 300 a month to fewer than ten. The city's police force, which only recently numbered in the low hundreds, is now at 9,000. And in little over a year, soldiers have forged enough local alliances to bring in some 400 intelligence tips each month.

Kaplan credits all of this to the U.S. military brigade currently stationed in Mosul. His article follows the soldiers as they patrol the Tigris, supervise Iraqi troops, and share a "goat grab" with tribal elders. The picture that emerges is of innovative men doing everything it takes to forge alliances and inspire confidence in the Iraqi people. "Sir, I am willing to die for a country that is not my own,” one U.S. soldier tells a former Iraqi official while drinking tea in his bare cinder-block home. "So will you resume your position?... Trust me by the projects I bring, not by my words. Will you stand with me against the insurgents?”

Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of several books, most recently Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005. I spoke with him while he was at home in Massachusetts for a few days between long trips to Asia and Africa, where he continues to report on the U.S. military.

The title of your article suggests that Iraq may be moving toward normalcy. But hasn't the situation recently taken a turn for the worse?

Well, look at the subhead. The subhead says that whatever else the American occupation of Iraq may be, Iraq is a laboratory for ideas about how to wring normalcy from anarchy. And anarchy is one of the great foreign policy challenges of the twenty-first century.

This piece is a story about Mosul. In 2004, this city saw some of the worst violence in the country. By 2005, and continuing into 2006, there has been so little violence there that the international media—up until now, at least—has basically deserted the place.

So this is not a Washington story about whether we should pull out or stay in, or whether or not there will be civil war. It's very much a story about what the military calls TTP: tactics, techniques and procedures. What were the TTP that helped one army brigade wring a very tenuous normalcy out of anarchy?

Why did you decide to focus on Mosul when so much of the action is playing out in Baghdad? 

Mosul is the second largest city in the country—it's bigger than Basra. And yet there's no news from there. Why is there no news? If you look at media tendencies, you find that when violence recedes, the media rewards the place by ignoring it. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, but the fact that it was out of the news for so long indicated some kind of success.

What seems to have worked in Mosul was persistence: never, ever giving up. I cite one incident where a road was built. It was bombed, it was rebuilt again, it was bombed, it was rebuilt again—only on about the third iteration did the inhabitants realize that the U.S. military was serious. Once they were perceived to be serious, they started to develop intelligence sources, snitches. They got support from the population. There's no progress without creating the feeling that you're never going to leave, that you're never going to give up.

Of course, this is a very hard feeling to create in a media climate where you're always reading about whether America should pull out or not. But in Mosul this worked.

Based on that success, would you advise the Army to look at Mosul as a kind of model city, replicating the same tactics in Baghdad and elsewhere?

The U.S. military doesn't need advice from me. They're already doing this over their email networks. What I'm doing in this piece isn't teaching the military anything. I'm just reporting what they're learning and taking it to the general reader.

It's amazing how much and how fast first and second lieutenants and captains are learning on the ground. You have a generation of junior officers who are going to go back to staff colleges and enrich curricula like we've never seen before. Because they're going to go back knowing that most of what they were taught at war colleges was not useful in Iraq. Everything they needed to know in order to be successful, they had to learn by themselves.

Judging from your piece, the U.S. military has resorted to working within the tribal Iraqi system, at least for the time being.

Yes, it has. One thing about the U.S. military in Iraq is that it's non-ideological. Making statements in Washington about building democracy is one thing. But on the ground, officers are working with tribal leaders in Mosul and other places. They're going to democratic council meetings but then working behind their backs with the tribal leaders, because it's the only way to make progress. In a crucible of war, you toss out ideas that don't work. Everything is oriented toward what works.

Is it possible that some people are genuinely comfortable living under a hierarchical structure and really don't want democracy at all? One Sunni man you interviewed for this piece asked, "What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too?” That question has been coming up quite a lot in different forms since the Palestinians elected Hamas.

Everything I've seen in Iraq tells me that tribal sheiks have a lot more legitimacy than newly-elected democratic politicians. The tribal system is something we think of, with our cultural prejudice, as reactionary. But it's a long-standing, venerable tradition in Middle Eastern society. And it is not necessarily repressive. It's a form of order that may not be as enlightened as Western forms of order. But it's a form of order nevertheless, which is still better than chaos.

Tribes are natural to humanity. For most of history, they've been a stabilizing force, a socially organizing force. We shouldn't condemn tribes per se. Tribes form a much more natural means of political development than something like Western democracy, which is very new and has only succeeded in a relatively small geographic portion of the world. We've seen an explosion of democracy around the world since the 1990s. It's not clear yet how well it will succeed.

Bush remarked in his State of the Union address, "Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens.” Do you think democracy in Iraq might always have a tribal undercurrent?

It may be. I think the President would be better served if he talked about expanding the borders of civil society rather than expanding the borders of democracy per se. Saying "democracy” puts too much of a legalistic imprint on what we're trying to do around the world. I mean, we shouldn't care what kind of a system a country has as long as it's basically civil.

One advantage of Western democracy is that it allows power to transfer from one faction to another without violence. When Bush wins over Kerry, there isn't a riot in the streets the next day—at least, not a bloody one. How long will it be before that degree of stability takes hold in Iraq?

Remember, it took Europe hundreds of years to develop stable democratic institutions, which the Anglo-Saxons who settled America automatically inherited. So 230 years of American history were not about building institutions from scratch but about limiting despotic power. We've had no historical experience in building institutions from scratch. We already had them. But most of the world has had the opposite experience. They've had illegitimate institutions, and now they have to build new ones.

The idea that you can go from a despotic regime like Saddam Hussein or Soviet Russia to suddenly some kind of stable democracy within a few years is probably not correct. It takes many generations. But what I'm trying to grapple with here is bringing it down to one place. What did one brigade do to restore some semblance of normalcy, no matter how tenuous it may be? To me, the challenge of the twenty-first century is not so much bringing democracy but normalcy.

In "The Coming Anarchy,” you pointed out that Europe, too, had a more tribal way of life before 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia established the borders of nation-states. What would it take for a "Peace of Westphalia” to happen in the Middle East?

In terms of Iraq, the issue is not whether the country divides up. The issue is whether it divides up gradually, organically, over months and years in some sort of organized form with relatively little violence. That would be a good thing, and I don't think anyone would hold that against President Bush. But if it broke up violently and chaotically in a short space of time, igniting a civil war, then people would hold it against him.

Are the Shi'ites and Sunnis living in well-defined blocks that could easily be disentangled from one another?

Iraq doesn't divide up easily because the Sunni triangle is a misnomer. It has large numbers of Shi'ites living inside it. The only part of Iraq that divides easily is Kurdistan. But in the Sunni-Shi'ite areas, it would be very hard to draw a map. You would have massive relocations of population.

As someone who spent quite a bit of time in the Balkans during the 1990s, do you think there are any lessons that America can learn, or has learned, from that conflict that could be applied to Iraq?

It's a completely different situation because the U.S. military didn't go into Bosnia until 1995 when almost all of the killing was over. That was already four years into the war, and we were essentially invited in. So it's not a war you could learn lessons from.

But keep this in mind when we're talking about the prospect of civil war: we had civil war in the Balkans, ethnic war, and it took upwards of 200,000 lives. Iraq is a country of over 23 million people. Since this mosque was destroyed, we've seen a few hundred deaths. That's not a civil war. That can ignite one, but it's still a long way off.

The question now is, If there's a war, should we send in more troops, pull out completely, or do something in between? I can't answer that directly, but what I can say is that the specter of over 100,000 U.S. troops running away from a country that it had invaded would create a reputation of weakness for U.S. power that would take a long time to recover from. After the mosque was attacked, it was interesting to read that a lot of Iraqis were suddenly vocal about not wanting us to leave. So my sense is that if the violence persists, we're likely to send in more troops rather than pull them out.

You seem to be very impressed with the military's decision to emphasize small, custom-made brigades over large, bureaucratic divisions. Why is this such an important reform?

The U.S. army is putting more and more emphasis on brigades in order to cope with a more anarchic, unpredictable world. Divisions are large and hard to change. Brigades are smaller; their size and composition can be changed around at the flip of a switch. It's the kind of bureaucratic reform we'd like to see more of in the state department.

Does that smaller, more adaptable brigade structure make it easier for soldiers to immerse themselves in Iraqi culture and learn how to win the people's trust?

No, this is something even more basic. We've traditionally associated cultural and area and linguistic expertise with groups like the Green Berets or Special Forces. But today, such expertise has to become widespread throughout the regular army. The initial invasion of Iraq was successful because it was a purely military challenge. But the occupation of Iraq is a civil military challenge. Even artillery officers—the most conventional kind of army officers who are trained for major combat and nothing else—have found out that most of what they're doing in Iraq is cultural and political, not military.

You write in this piece that sergeants are less optimistic than officers are about the future of the Iraqi Army. Why do you think that's the case?

There has been a debate about the training of Iraqi army and police units. One side of the debate says training is going well. Another side says it's not. The recent disturbances in Iraq, following the blowing up of the Samarra Mosque, showed that the Iraqi army units have a mixed record. Some units performed well; some performed badly.

This story brings the debate down to ground level. While I was in Mosul, I actually went out with individual Iraqi Army units. And what I found was that the only people who really know how well the training is going are the U.S. sergeants who go out with them on a daily basis. As you go up the chain of command, knowledge of this issue gets more abstract and unreal. It's almost as if the higher up you go, the more pressure there is to be optimistic.

The basic impression I got was this: The Iraqi units have made tremendous progress. It's gratifying for us. We really see that we're accomplishing something. But these guys are not there yet. If we left tomorrow, they would desert. We're finally doing things right, but all that means is that now we have to wait a long time. It's kind of like watching the grass grow or the paint dry.

What signs should we be looking for to tell us that the situation has normalized enough for U.S. troops to leave Iraq?

I have a signpost in mind: when U.S. troops don't need to wear body armor anymore. Interestingly, I was in a number of villages in the Tigris River Valley, which had seen a lot of violence in 2004. When we went out this time, the troops didn't wear any body armor and neither did I. The situation could reverse itself at any point. But for the time being, this is a really positive sign. The problem is that it's only the case in a minority of areas. Even in Mosul, which is extremely quiet compared to Baghdad, you still need body armor. So for me, it's the body armor litmus test.

You know, if there's one sentence in my piece that sums up the current situation in Iraq, it's this one: "From a landscape of chaos in 2004, the U.S. military created a house of cards in 2005.” That house of cards is a significant achievement. But it's got to be fortified by wood and cement—meaning massive jobs creation programs and a whole bunch of other things. Otherwise, the house of cards is going to be swept away. That almost happened a couple of weeks ago and might still happen.

In this story, I'm giving the U.S. military in one city tremendous credit for really moving things forward. But that still doesn't mean that we have stability. We still have a long way to go.