Several weeks ago, journalist Michael Yon posted a series of dispatches from Iraq, entitled "The Ghosts of Anbar". I recently read through them and was struck by several passages. I'm offering them here as a teaser and as an advertisement for the full series.
Michael uses lots of pictures set the mood throughout the series. His captions are more than merely descriptive. They offer a wealth of information in their own right. He also intersperses quotes from the Army's counterinsurgency manual. These quotes illustrate the model that the Army and Marines strive daily to implement.
The overall tone of the series is both reflective and hopeful. Michael offers the tantalizing vision of a strong, free Iraq as a friend of the United States -- if only we will learn the lessons of Anbar. He paints a picture of an Iraq that wants to be free -- but desperately needs us to model both the military and civil side of a functional democracy.
Michael Yon : The Ghosts of Anbar, Part I of IV
Better Business Partners
Anbar was the special provenance for al Qaeda, the one place in Iraq they could establish and maintain a robust and largely unchallenged dominance. To achieve this, al Qaeda had used the stick of terrorism and the carrot of promises to gain allies. A lot of carrots, actually, in the form of promises that they would cast out the Americans, and reward the people of Anbar with ministries in the new government.
Ironically, in Anbar al Qaeda has become our best ally for killing al Qaeda. They've managed to do this directly, just by being al Qaeda. Despite the promised carrots, what al Qaeda consistently delivered here was mostly stick, and with a special kind of hypocritical contempt that no sensible person would believe possible. (Not unlike the notion of baking the children of resistant parents or ordering shepherds to diaper the corrupting genitals of goats.)
Al Qaeda has a management style--doing drugs, laying up sloppy drunk, raping women and boys, and cutting off heads, all while imposing strict morality laws on the locals--that makes it clear that they have one set of principles for themselves, and another for everyone else.
In that kind of scheme, it didn't take long before people in Anbar realized that any benefits from al Qaeda having control would not be distributed equally. Once that realization spread, the tribal sheiks--almost all Sunni--had to consider the alternatives.
The sheiks of Anbar turned against al Qaeda because the sheiks are businessmen, and al Qaeda is bad for business. But they didn't suddenly trust Americans just because they no longer trusted al Qaeda. They are not suddenly blood allies. This is business, and that's fine, because if there is one thing America is good at, it's business.
Reframed thus from a position of strength, this stage of the Anbar-war is more a sort of business transaction, where alliances beneficial to all sides--except al Qaeda--are formed. From this perspective, there is now a moment of genuine ground-floor opportunity in Anbar, if the people here can see that by doing business with the Coalition, everyone benefits--except al Qaeda, an exclusion that most can live with.
Michael Yon : The Ghosts of Anbar, Part II of IV
Many people know the old adage about restaurant kitchens: to know if the kitchen is clean, check the bathroom. The same holds true for Soldiers, only it calls for checking windows. If you are going on a combat mission and Soldiers have not cleaned all their windows to a sparkle (during times when it is possible to do so), do not go with them. Soldiers with dirty windows are not watching for tiny wires in the road, nor are they scanning rooftops. They are talking about women, football, and the car they will buy when they get home. I will not go into combat with Soldiers with dirty windows.
On the command level, there are other indicators. In counterinsurgency, as our Vietnam veterans will vouch, press has both strategic and tactical influence. Commanders who are afraid of the press or who cannot handle it cannot win this fight. They are often the same people who alienate Iraqis. I remember one captain who had allowed his men to ransack an Iraqi home, much later shouting in my face while his lip quivered with anger, "You are a piece of shit!" He could not handle having press around, and resented the very air they breathed, and he made sure they knew it. Of course anyone whose idea of winning is to bully Iraqis would not want media around. I watched him for months as a study in how not to do certain things. Tactically, he was competent and knew how to win the gun battles, but he was incompetent and inadequate for counterinsurgency.
Dealing with the press is just a reality, like the weather. We would never put a commander in the field who refused to make plans for fighting in the cold or heat. Although it's just a reality, cold weather, for example, could destroy a unit overnight if they had not prepared for it. As with the weather, the press also influences the enemy. Cold weather freezes everyone's toes; bad press stalls progress. In either instance, he who is better-suited and more adaptable has a supreme advantage. There was a time when many of our enemies in Iraq were beating us in the press, both their press and ours, but now that is changing.
Changing Enemies into Allies
In mid-May, 2007, days before I arrived, the Iraqi Army and Police had conducted a "Combined Medical Exercise" in the village of Falahat, wherein Iraqi doctors saw about 200 villagers. About two days after that, the Iraqi Police opened a police station at the Falahat train station. That was just about the same time I was driving out to stay with a small team of Marines who were assigned as "MiTT 8" (Military Training Team 8)
The men of MiTT 8 are living along with their Iraqi protégées in filthy shipping containers on a highway. Several months ago they were attacked by a car bomb. But at about 0900, while I was traveling to their location with Marines in a Humvee (with sparkling glass) some Falahat villagers went to the new police station to report the presence of a culprit they knew to emplace bombs on the road.
It happened that quickly.
Within mere days of opening the station, people spoke up. The Iraqi Police (some of whom freely admitted to having been recent insurgents) called the tip into the Iraqi Army who were living with the Marines of MiTT 8. The Iraqi Army in turn told Marine Captain Koury, whose Command Operations Center is conjoined with the Iraqi Army unit there. Finally, CPT Koury told Staff Sergeant Rakene Lee to take care of the developing situation.
Michael Yon : Ghosts of Anbar Part III of IV
Iraqis respond to a sense of justice. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated, and it is this sense of justice on an international scale that gets undermined when people are held in prisons without being charged with any crimes.
To many of the Iraqis I've spoken with, terrorists are fair game. Kill them. But if we kill justice while doing so, we will create terrorists out of farmers. Here the Marines are creating farmers, police officers, shepherds, and entrepreneurs out of insurgents. To do that, they have to be seen as men who respect and honor legitimate systems of government and justice.
The Value of Character
Iraqis in every province I have traveled all respond to strong leadership. It's a cultural touchstone. A man like SSG Rakene Lee is not someone they would overlook. Physically, the man is amazingly strong. But what is most amazing is the strength of his moral fiber. Whatever the man talked, he walked. After all of al Qaeda's false promises, the people here have learned a hard lesson about the true value of character.
Over the next several days, I saw how much the Iraqis respected Rakene Lee and the other Marines who were all courageous, tactically competent, measured, and collectively and constantly telling even the Iraqis to go easy on the Iraqis. It's people like Rakene Lee who are winning the moral high ground in Iraq. It is people like this who are devastating al Qaeda just by being themselves. Over those same several days, I would also see the Iraqi Lieutenant Hamid treat prisoners with respect and going out of his way to treat other Iraqis the way he saw Americans treating them. Lieutenant Hamid, in his young twenties, seemed to watch every move of the Marines and try to emulate them.
The Character of Our Enemy
In August, when people were groping for answers as to why about 400 Yazidis were murdered with bombs during an attack in Nineveh, the BBC and others asked me why I thought the Yazidis had been targeted.
Al Qaeda and related groups do not need reasons. They buy press with blood.
Michael Yon : Ghosts of Anbar, Part IV of IV
The Importance of Learning Lessons
Fortunately, everyone had gone in easy and not blown doors off with explosives. Those mistakes also happen sometimes. Sometimes our own guys blow down doors to the wrong homes. Back in the early days of the war, this might have seemed like an innocent "Oh well that's war" type mistake, but after spending all this time with Iraqis I now see that it was in part actions like that which also blew open the door in Iraq for al Qaeda to come in.
Counterinsurgency is all about perception. Perception is how reality gets interpreted by people. It can be shaped, cajoled, hardened or distorted by innumerable influences
Differences Between Americans and Iraqis
At one of the houses, Iraqi Soldiers said that there had been a lot of shooting on a recent night. What had all the shooting been about? Were insurgents trying to take over? No, the old man said, it was just a couple of brothers having a shootout over a small land dispute. "Okay," the Iraqi Soldiers shrugged it off. It was just a shootout between brothers. Nothing more to ask about.
There are many similarities between Iraq and home, but at the end of the day, a Cain and Abel shootout is not even something that warrants paperwork. Tribal law. This is not Kansas. Some things are very different.