August 03, 2009

Endstate: Win or Lose? Was It Worth It?


That's the U.S. military's strategic term to describe their "commander's intent" --their goal -- before they leave Iraq in 2011.

For most Americans, the fancy word will help answer two key questions: 1) Did we win or lose? 2) Was it worth it?

Three tours in Iraq -- six weeks this year, six weeks last year, 100 hours in 1991 with "visa" provided by the sappers of Fort Bragg's 37th Engineer Battalion -- don't make an expert. But there are several reasons to try to answer, even with limited expertise, those questions.

Five reasons are the names inscribed in granite at Merced, California's Courthouse Park, the Mercedians who died in Iraq. Other reasons include the vets who came back whole, more or less, to live and work among us. They returned home with scars and wounds, mostly inside, that they never talk about but carry with them every day.

The Twitter Generation, the Thumb Tribe -- kids today in high school and below -- need answers because they'll be the next to go to the next war. Finally, there's you -- Mercedians and other Americans who are paying for this war and the one in Afghanistan. Paying money most of you can't afford. Money that could be spent well here. You'll pay it if you believe it has been spent to make you safer.

To answer the two questions, we need to look at Iraq now and over the next 28 months. At the end of 2011, U.S. troops must leave Iraq, under terms of last year's Status of Forces Agreement, unless the government of Iraq asks them to stay.

One important measuring stick, especially if you live in Iraq, is the level of violence. It's been falling for almost two years. Each week, 60 to 80 Iraqis are killed and a couple hundred wounded, but U.S. KIA/WIA have dropped to their lowest point since the 2003 U.S. invasion. (In June more Iraqi civilians were killed than in any month over the past year.)

The drop-off in dead and maimed has continued after the historic pullback of U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities on June 30. That bodes well for Iraqis and Americans alike, if it can be sustained.

The violence metric -- another military term of art -- suggests that the insurgency which brought Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007 is losing. But only if you look at the insurgents as a monolith, as were the Viet Cong. They are not. They are tribes still fighting centuries-old blood feuds. They are Shia, who see their chance to run a country surrounded by Sunni-led regimes (except Iran). They are Sunni, outsiders now after dominating Iraq under Saddam Hussein. And they are Kurds, the ancient Indo-European millions who live in a crescent encompassing Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and feel displaced wherever they are.

All of them have buried fire extinguishers filled with ammonium nitrate. All of them have forced their neighbors of a slightly different creed to leave their homes in the dark of night at the point of a gun. All of them have attacked and killed one another -- and Americans.

So is the insurgency losing? Parts of it are. Parts of it, such as al-Qaida in Iraq, are regrouping, biding their time, keeping their IEDs dry. They're waiting to see what the Iraqi security forces do. And what the Americans do, or don't do.

Shia gunmen are lying low. For them, things couldn't be better. They control the government, the security forces and the Americans are leaving. For Sunnis, there's a lingering fear that as Americans withdraw, Shia groups like Jaysh al Mahdi will return to sectarian violence. The Kurds fear their loss of autonomy.

Most Sunnis believe faith-based slaughter won't happen again because so many Iraqis are just plain tired of violence. But they also worry they'll be discriminated against by the government and security forces when the Americans pull out. The issue is whether they can tolerate this discrimination.

Some already have given their answer: No. There was an uptick in July in Sunni-related violence by Jaysh al Islami, the 1920s Revolutionary brigade and outsiders. On the ground, where the questions will be answered, it's clear that the government of Iraq is serious about the new "no Americans in cities" orders. Several U.S. patrols have been turned around, says a soldier who used to go out on them. Unless a patrol is with one of the new Transition Teams, which include Iraqi forces, or unless Iraq's Baghdad Operations Center greenlights them, Americans are confined to their perimeter bases. "Logpack" or supply convoys can move on their own from midnight to 4 or 5 a.m.

Some Americans, especially those who served earlier tours when they were the Jolly Tan Giants and could run passenger cars off the roads, don't like the new rules. "If some higher-ups are trying to get around them (the rules), it's because they are used to having their own way," says this soldier. "Arrogance, in my very, very quiet opinion."

Another American soldier in Baghdad says that "most combat units, where I am, are spending time training. No one is sitting idly by. No one wants to be caught with their pants down and are training to keep from getting too complacent." Hashim Ammar, a 31-year-old government employee, speaks for many Iraqis about the June 30 handover of security to Iraqi forces: "I feel the situation is a little bit better, but my hope is not to see them (Americans) in Ir aq at all." Most Iraqis want us gone.

For all the soccer balls handed out to Iraqi street kids by American grunts--the "soft power" the best analysts say is required for a successful counterinsurgency--nearly every Iraqi has been touched by American "hard power." Nearly every Iraqi knows someone who has been killed or wounded by an American. They see Americans as occupiers. They want the occupiers out.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the strongest leader since Saddam, must balance all these competing domestic interests, plus the U.S., plus Iran. So far, he's done better than most anybody would have predicted. One sheikh who's dealt with him described him as a man holding a pen with all eight fingers and two thumbs. "Can this pen ever write anything useful?" he asked.

But let's say, as author Tom Ricks does in his latest book, "The Gamble," that we're only about halfway through the Iraq adventure. That means men and forces we don't even know about today can influence or determine Iraq's destiny.

After eight years of Bush administration bluster about missions accomplished, and eight months of Obama's vaporous hope and change, it's best to remain skeptical about official pronouncements.

But it's clear that Iraq is now at a crossroads, a tipping point. Iraqis are in charge. Americans are leaving. Can tribal sheikhs control sectarian violence through the traditional blood-money compensation system? Can they reconcile past and present grievances before they spin out of control, as happened two years ago? Can Maliki's administration keep the Kurds from seceding in the north? Can it keep Iran's influence benign?

Historically, says one American army officer, "The hardest part in winning any battle is conducting a successful pursuit to exploit an unexpected victory. The first step is recognizing when is the time to begin the pursuit. Is it time to begin the pursuit?"

Some bright people are optimistic. Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaida'ie, said in June that he was. "Iraq will come out right," he told a conference sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. "The alternative is just too awful to contemplate -- a collapse, a failed state." Retired Gen. Jack Keane told the conference that Iraq "wants a relationship with the Iranians, to be sure -- but they want to be an ally of the United States of America." And however patchy elections in Iraq have been, the nation remains the only elected Arab Muslim government in the region. John Nagl, president of the center and a former infantry officer, believes the Iraqi army and federal police "are a good foundation on which to build."

Twelve weeks plus 100 hours in Iraq lead to this answer: Unless the military foundation laid by the U.S. become the framework for enough stability to jump-start Iraq's non-oil economy, the endstate will be too awful to contemplate. With 30-40 percent joblessness among young Iraqi men, burying a bomb for $300 looks like a good deal.

Sometime in 2007 one of McClatchy's Iraqi Baghdad reporters had to cross checkpoints at both ends of a bridge across the Tigris River. Guards at one end asked drivers and passengers if they were Sunni. If they were, they were killed or disappeared. At the checkpoint at the other end, the question was, are you Shia? If they were, the result was the same as at the other end of the bridge.

Sometimes the guards at each end were the same men.

They were killing for money.

So to answer the first two questions, a third one must be posed: "Is this what victory in a foreign counterinsurgency looks like?" asks the American officer in Baghdad. "We've been involved in this war for so long that for many people, it's simply hard to imagine what victory looks like." The last time the U.S. won a foreign counterinsurgency was in the Philippines in the early 1900s, so the officer adds, "Nobody is quite sure just what victory looks like in this type of war."

Will it look like Iraq under Saddam when he was defanged by sanctions and inspections, a threat to nobody outside his borders? Will it look like Lebanon, with religious factions running their own rigged games? Or Iran, with a nutty political figurehead, rising middle-class and boisterous young people still under the thumb of black-turbaned mullahs? Or Israel, another Middle Eastern political theocracy, except Iraq won't have Israel's nuclear weapons?

Somebody once said the commonest form of human stupidity is forgetting what we set out to do.

1) Did we win or lose?

2) Was it worth it?

Historians will answer both questions with far more information and perspective on which to base their judgments.

As of today, based on 12 weeks plus 100 hours, the answers are:

1) A draw.

2) No.

That's the endstate for both Iraq and America. 

                                                                                        --Mike Tharp

July 18, 2009

The Command Post of the Future

The Command Post of the Future isn’t. I

It’s already here, today. Up and running.

And it’s one of the main ways U.S. forces in Iraq are performing their “assist and support” role for their Iraqi counterparts since June 30. That’s when the new security agreement kicked in, and U.S. combat forces withdrew to perimeter bases from major Iraqi cities.

(The “combat forces” designation is curious at best, misleading at worst. In the six years of this war, cooks, drivers, clerks and medics have all been attacked—mostly by homemade bombs—and nearly everybody in uniform has had to be a trigger-puller at one point or another. “Major cities” raises another question mark, one answered so far by strategic ambiguity.)

In any case, the “Onstar option” is now policy, except those who answer the Iraqis’ radio calls are armed with M4 rifles, up-armored vehicles and missile-equipped helicopters. So far, though, the Iraqis haven’t felt much need to call Americans, preferring to rely on their own army, the newly named federal police and checkpoint cops. “They get the fight. They get the lead. We’re here to support,” one American officer acknowledged.

Exceptions: U.S. medevac helicopters can fly to help Americans in trouble anytime. And the double-secret-probation Special Forces can still run around the country on their Ninja ops without Iraqi clearance. Supply convoys travel at night with a green light from the Iraqis.

Other commanders and grunts may feel like Maytag repairmen, all dressed in up in battle-rattle and no place to go. It all seems part of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s effort to cast himself as a nationalist first, a Shiite second, in the run-up to January elections. In a televised speech the night before the new orders went into effect, for instance, he didn’t even mention American troops.

A few days later he told Vice President Joe Biden thanks but no thanks when Biden offered to intervene to help break the political logjam in parliament. In-fighting has stalled progress on such key issues as Kurdistan’s efforts at self-rule in the north, a bill on how to divvy up the petroleum pie and a national census to determine just who is an Iraqi, anyway.

Maliki’s stance comes during a spike in violence. In the week ended July16, 94 Iraqis, not counting insurgents, were killed in 31 “significant incidents”; 30 to 80 KIA constituted a typical week in recent months. Baghdad witnessed the highest number of bombings of any week this year.

Back in the Command Post of the Future, the now base-bound Americans continue to march. In front of their laptops, six or seven soldiers sit around a long three-sided wooden table, watching an array of video screens on the wall that any Hollywood producer would envy. Most of them show real-time images of earthbound and aerial surveillance of the outfit’s area of operations. A “battle captain,” who may be a noncommissioned officer, runs the show.

The commander sits at the right corner where two tables meet and reads a “story board” prepared by his staff. It lists in words, photos, graphs and charts all the incidents over the past several hours that have happened in the neighborhoods for which he’s responsible. During the night, for example, if an eye in the sky—a helicopter, blimp, unmanned aerial vehicle or satellite—saw suspicious activity, the soldiers in that room would alert the unit closest to the scene. That would be in the story board.

Maybe guys digging on or near a road. Maybe a rusted-out beater that looks abandoned. Maybe a fast-moving BMW, favored by suicide bombers. Maybe a group of gunmen loitering in a neighborhood where a family of a different faith has just resettled. Maybe an insurgent painting a wall with a death threat for “collaborators.”

Now Iraqis as well as Americans get to share in that intel. Since June 30, Joint Security Stations have surrendered to Joint Operations Centers. Americans and Iraqis don’t quite sit cheek to jowl, but only a doorway separates the Americans’ superior sigint--surveillance technology--from the Iraqis’ superior humint--human intelligence gleaned from knowing who lives in an area, who’s a stranger, who’s a pimp, who’s a tattle-tale.

One typical swap for a 24-hour period might go like this: eight searches; 11 weapons confiscated; one family resettled; no detentions. Iraqi operations officers from both the army and police would get glossy-paper pages in Arabic, most of them with color photographs of cars that might be used by insurgents.

Some of the Yankees’ data remain low-tech but useful: info from sniffer dogs and metal detectors.

Like the FBI with the mob, informants have become crucial to both sides. Say a guy tips off an Iraqi cop about another guy he thinks is assembling bomb-making materials. Good lead. But then a local militiaman threatens the tipster. The Americans and Iraqis have to figure out how to protect their informant so he can testify in front of an Iraqi judge so the judge will issue a warrant for the supposed bomb-maker and the Iraqi cops can arrest him.

Warrant-based prosecution is the flavor of the month to help prevent political arrests and brutal treatment of detainees.

This is a case when the Command Post of the Future can step in and use its hidden cameras to track both the suspect and the informant. In sharing the intel, the U.S. give the Iraqis “tear lines,” readouts that don’t show how the Americans got the info. Classic protection of sources and methods.

Two technical glitches slow the process. One is that Americans are digital, the Iraqis mostly still analog. Basic e-mails can be complicated. The other is that Iraqi units sometimes don’t communicate with one another. That means the Americans have to get on the horn and tell one Iraqi commander what another is doing. Even that gets confusing.  The Americans might call a road Route Irish, the Iraqis Shari al Matar--the highway to Baghdad International Airport.  A lot of streets don't have any names at all, and many neighborhoods lack address numbers.

Politics can also interfere with a righteous bust. Maybe an Iraqi cop, after weeks of meeting informants and getting surveillance pictures from the Americans, is ready to make his move on a bad guy. But when he goes to get the warrant, he learns that the target has “wasta,” influence, with somebody with clout in one of the parties or a high-ranking officer. “That will happen more when the Americans are out of Iraq,” predicts one noncommissioned police officer.

More Iraqi federal police headquarters and other stations are now equipped with CCTV cameras, like the closed-circuit monitors all over Britain. One recent afternoon, color flat screens showed the popular Mansour shopping district from a dozen angles.

On the day itself when the Iraqis took over, a U.S. captain on patrol in his Humvee looked around the corner into the new future. “Now that our time is running out,” he said, “we can focus on equipment and maintenance, as well as continuing our partnership (with the Iraqis). If we’re not going out and conducting missions, we’ll still stay sharp with training in classrooms. We’ve got a lot of good leaders who’ll make sure the soldiers stay vigilant.”

And there’s always the Command Post of the Future.

                                                                                            --Mike Tharp

The World's Largest Cemetery--and a Rice Farm

We drove 234 miles Thursday, round-trip from Baghdad to a village south of Najaf, to interview rice farmers. Along the way we passed the world’s largest cemetery.

Millions have been buried there for a thousand years. The cemetery takes up several square miles in Najaf. There’s a shrine dedicated to Imam Ali, the first of 12 imams revered by Shiite Muslims. Mohammed was orphaned and was brought up by his grandfather, Abd al-Mualib, who died two years later, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. He was then placed in the care of Abu Alib, Mohammed's uncle and the father of Ali, Mohammed's cousin. Later in life Mohammed would repay this kindness by taking Ali into his household, the reference book says. 

Ali was assassinated, according to Shiite theology, in the Kofa mosque in Najaf, the first capital of Muslims in the early years after Mohammed’s death. He was killed in a dispute over some of the earliest arguments about Islam.

Because of their belief in his martyrdom and teachings, millions of Shiites over the centuries have asked to be buried near the Gold Mosque, as it is now called. Behind waist-high tan and gray brick walls stretch mile after mile of graves. Most are topped with a simple brick or concrete structure the size of a dollhouse. Others stretch to the size of a small cabin. People leave flowers and candles and burn incense at the sites.

Outside the walls is a literal cottage industry, small home businesses that wash the bodies, drape them in white cloth and otherwise prepare them for burial. Many family members are buried together over the years. Each ceremony costs about $500.

As a Shiite stronghold, the area became a battleground two and three years ago when sectarian and other kinds of violence peaked. Sunni insurgents, for example, are suspected of bombing a Shiite mosque that killed 180 people in the province.

Today, thankfully, the burial business is slow, or at least normal, because of the decline in deaths and maiming countrywide. So says Assan, a man in his 20s wearing a gray dishdasha, the collar-to-ankle robe favored on hot days by Iraqi men. “A few years ago, it was always busy,” he recalls.

The whole route south, it seems, was once a killing field. In the first town south of Baghdad, Mahmoudiya, up to 15 car bombs slaughtered hundreds. Farther south at Latifiyah, many more Shiites were shot in front of their families, beheaded, their children smashed against walls.

(Shiites, of course, have conducted similar brutality against Sunnis over the last six years, which thrust Iraq into a civil war in 2006-07.)

Today, small-scale fenced-in soccer pitches with artificial turf sit empty as horse-drawn carts clomp on the highway’s shoulder. Orchards of dusty date palm trees are popular because they don’t die and their clusters of dates can be easily cut down. Small pickups hold beds filled with sheep or a single cow. Other cows graze on unfenced land, a lot of it reeds. Skinned lambs hang from outdoor hooks in shops. The Euphrates River snakes across the highway about 60 miles south of the capital.

 On the outskirts of Najaf, we have to detour a half-mile north, then drive back to a busy intersection. That’s so the tightest security inspection yet can be done on cars and IDs. A tin outhouse the size of an old-fashioned phone booth is gravity-powered.

Streaming the other way, south to north, are thousands of pilgrims. Many walk, most in sandals not facing the traffic, while carrying green and black flags. They’re headed to Khadimiya Shrine in northwest Baghdad. That’s the mosque honoring another imam sacred to Shiites, and two to three million people are expected to visit it on July 18. They’ve come from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and all over Iraq. After the ceremonies, they get to take buses and cars home.

About 20 miles southeast of Najaf, in a village flanking a channel of the Euphrates, we find our rice farmers. We spend two hours listening to conversations about agriculture that would be familiar in Merced or Modesto or Topeka—except these have been going on for 5,000 years.

Anthropologists and archaeologists believe humankind’s first efforts to grow crops started in these parts, Mesopotamia, the Land Between Two Rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris). Two older farmers, one 85, the other 67, complain about the government, the weather, the usual list of gripes when men and women who make their living from the land get a chance to vent to outsiders.

It’s reassuring and familiar to find that the human element transcends distances and differences. Laith, our reporter, interprets as we sit barefoot on carpet runners against the wall in a tiled room. They serve us bottled water, and everybody drinks from the same glass. I kiss the farmers on both cheeks as I shake their hands goodbye, just as they have done to me.

Lunch is lamb burgers and Pepsi at a place in Najaf with our two drivers and three local men who had helped us find the farmers. We each get a bottle of water labeled “Bash.” I’m bringing that home.

On the way back to Baghdad, we stop at a wooden stand selling handmade Iraqi baskets. I’m a basket freak (some of you would say “case”), so I buy a flat one the size of a medium pizza with red, green, purple, blue and straw colors for me and one for Laith’s mother.

Driving on, we pass two wild and crazy wedding caravans—cars draped in flowers and bunting, horns blaring, one dude standing in the sun roof taking video; more pilgrims; and 27 army or police checkpoints—seven fewer than on the trip down.

It’s good to get out of the big city. To see the world’s largest cemetery. And to visit with men who get their hands and feet draped in mud for their kids.

                                                                                                 --Mike Tharp

July 12, 2009

Enlisted Men Are the Same Everywhere

Got a chance to go inside the new U.S. embassy today.  It's been open several months, but it's still got that "new car" feel and smell to it.  Especially after waiting outside with the Peruvian private security guards for an embassy escort in 116 degrees and a sandstorm kicking up dust devils.

The two briefings were excellent, and a reporter's mental whiteboard was filled with useful information.  A couple liters of water and a couple peanut butter cookies from the canteen provided by the escort made the trip even more worthwhile.

Got there in a cab, after walking across the 14th of July Bridge, named for the 1958 coup led by a general against the monarch family that had been ruling Iraq.  Actually, under the bridge on a pathway where Iraqi Army guards checked IDs, did a sonar search and let Laith, our reporter, and me proceed.  Then we grabbed a taxi at the other end for the five-minute trip to one of the embassy gates.

Coming out, I was sent across the wide street running in front of the quarter-mile-long embassy campus by Peruvian guards, who said in Spanish that you couldn't get a taxi on that side.  So I crossed to an Iraqi Army camouflaged shelter.  There, three enlisted soldiers looked at my notebook where Laith had written the name of the bridge in Arabic.  Besides honorifics, my Arabic is nonexistent, but they understood "taxi."  They seemed to be telling me there were no taxis.

I called Laith, who told them where I wanted to go, so I could walk back across the bridge and be picked up by him and our drivers.  The biggest soldier--they were all in their early 20s--rattled off several Arabic sentences, saw he was dealing with a dummy and pulled me a few meters up the road and behind a tall blast wall.

"No camera," he said, pointing up.  I told him I didn't have a camera.  Then he said, "No captain."  It took a couple seconds, then the dinar dropped.  He'd moved us out of camera range so his superior wouldn't see what he was up to.  We both cracked up laughing.  He was pulling one of the oldest tricks in the military book--putting one over on an officer. "My friend," he repeated several times, still laughing.

Meanwhile, one of the other soldiers trotted to a parking lot nearby and drove back in a Toyota.  "Taxi," the big guy said.  He ushered me in to what clearly was a private car, saluted while laughing and I yelled "Shukran, shukran!" ("Thank you!") several times.

Five minutes later, his fellow enlisted man let me out at the walkway over the bridge.  I offered him money.  He shook his head.  He shook my hand.  I walked back across the Tigris River and met Laith.

No way those guys could've known they were dealing with another enlisted man, though one who did his time long before they were born.

Could they?

                                                                 --Mike Tharp

July 10, 2009

Silencers on Handguns--a Silver Lining?

After two straight days of mass bombings that have killed scores and wounded hundreds, it's hard to find a silver lining in all the violence.

But there may be one in a little-known but increasingly common part of the insurgent arsenal:  the use of silencers on handguns.

Since July 4, the Daily Violence Report compiled by the McClatchy Baghdad bureau from police and hospitals all over the county has contained no fewer than four cases of insurgents and others killing and wounding Iraqi army and national police officers with pistols fitted with silencers.  In June there were several others, including shootings at officers' homes, in northern Iraq.

This week two incidents occurred in Mosul and one in Kirkuk--both in northern Iraq--and one in Baghdad.  One of the incidents in Mosul was especially gruesome.  A father was killed and his son wounded at a police checkpoint by a gunman using a silencer.

With all the homemade bombs, adhesive bombs, hand-thrown bombs and other lethal weapons that've been used in recent weeks, why would the use of handguns with silencers be anything but one more downer?

Because, security experts suggest, it means that the bad guys are being forced to change their tactics.  Instead of directly targeting civilians for intimidation purposes, now they have to engage the police, who are becoming both more visible and more professional.  Police pressure is forcing militants to take more steps to hide their movements and preparations.

That's no consolation to the familes of police officers who must cope with the loss of their loved ones.  But it could offer some relief and respite to Iraqis, especially in cities.  With the Americans pulled back to perimeter bases, and now allowed to patrol only with Iraqis, the presence and capacity of Iraqi National Police (INP), local and traffic officers at urban checkpoints become much more important.

One sign of the officers' potentially improved competence: About 900 new Iraqi police officers graduated in a ceremony Thursday at Camp Dublin in Baghdad. It was the ninth course trained by the Italian Carabinieri since the start of their training in 2007 under NATO Training Mission-Iraq.

The specialized course was designed to provide further training for the Iraqi National Police to develop their skills. During the nine-week course, police officers studied operational planning, police procedures,
police intelligence, counter-insurgency skills, weapons, combat skills, first aid and basic logistics. The course paid special attention to police ethics and human rights, according to a release from the NATO Training Mission-Iraq.

The American military hopes the INP will become like the Carabineiri--a depoliticized, well-trained cadre of federal law enforcement officers.  For years, many Iraqis have viewed the INP as little more and little less than a Shiite militia.  U.S. military authorities have tried for some time to weed out the worst sectarian leaders in the INP and to upgrade its capabilities.  Late last month in an interview, INP Gen. Dhafir praised "joint training with the Americans, who spend a lot of energy and time on our forces.  When things change over (the June 30 withdrawal), that's what will benefit us the most."

Maybe perversely, the fact that more insurgents and just plain criminals are starting to use silencers on their handguns signals a desperate response to better policing.  Earlier, they could move around boldly in public without worrying about getting busted.  Now the cops are forcing their hand.

Tragic for the families of the dead and wounded officers.  Possibly a positive sign for law-abiding Iraqis.  And, over time, a morale-builder for the men and women at the front lines of guarding their fellow citizens.

                                                              --By Mike Tharp

July 06, 2009

Recommended Books on Iraq

Slimmer pickin's than last tour.  The economy and Afghanistan (and now Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin) are flavors of the year.  But with 130,000 troops still here, and thousands destined to stay at least two more years, we should keep up to speed.  More importantly, these books offer, in part, lessons learned and cautionary tales that we should know so we can try to avoid making the same mistakes somewhere else.  And more important than anything, we owe it to the 4,321 Americans who have died in Iraq (six from Merced County), the 31,000-plus wounded and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties to make informed choices next time somebody tells us we have to go to war.

In no special order:

'The Accidental Guerilla," David Kilcullen. An Australian counterinsurgency expert, he was Petraeus' consigiere in Baghdad during the 2007 surge.  This should be a primer at West Point, Annapolis, the Command and General Staff College and for any civilians who want to understand who we're fighting and why in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.  Kilcullen acts more as an anthropologist than a soldier (though he was a 20-year officer Down Under) in forensically explaning 21st century warfare.  One key point:  he uses the Arabic word "takfiri terrorist" to describe the enemy, a doctrine that "disobeys the Koranic inunction against compulsion in religion and instead holds that Muslims whose beliefs differ from the 'takfiri's' are infidels who must be killed."  Our generation's Bernard Fall.

"On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  The subtitle tells us why we should read it:  "The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society."  And the chapter headings make us keep turning the pages: "Killing and Physical Distance"; "An Anatomy of Killing"; "Killing and Atrocities"; "The Killing Response Stages"; "Killing in Vietnam: What Have We Done to Our Soldiers?"; "Killing in America:  What Are We Doing to Our Children?"  As a onetime Army basic trainee and a Vietnam vet, one sentence in the Nam chapter struck me cold and hard:  "Basically the soldier has rehearsed the process so many times that when he does kill in combat he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being." 

"My Life as an Explorer," Sven Hedin.  First published in 1925, this first-person account deals with Iraq only in a couple of chapters, so purists may want to exclude it.  But the young Swedish adventurer tells a tale a page, sometimes three or four, so the adventure is worth tagging along for, as he takes us with him mostly on the Silk Road through India and Tibet.  Incredibly, he traveled to Baghdad from Basra, in the south of Iraq, by boat.  On the Tigris River over four days.  And equally hard to envision, as the latest sandstorm cloaks the capital in a brown bowl, Hedin observes that "the mountains of Kurdistan were visible in the distance."  Old-fashioned adventure writing.

"The Gamble," Thomas E. Ricks.  The former Washington Post defense correspondent's followup to "Fiasco."  He's the fly on the desert tent and on the Pentagon wall as he chronicles in dramatic detail the personalities, issues, conflicts and tipping points of the war in Iraq 2006-07.  Besides what appears to be unfettered access, Ricks reports the hell out of the war and the times.  It's heavy with stars, both in the Hollywood sense and those on the epaulets of many of the main players.  But he also asks sergeants and specialists about the war and the surge and their thoughts as well.  The most stunning disclosure is just how close the United States came to losing the war in Iraq.  His account of how both the American and Iraqi combatants stepped up the abyss, looked in, and then the Iraqis stepped back makes for compelling history.  For all those who cheered the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. "combat forces from major Iraqi cities," Ricks' conclusion--whch he has justifies with more than 300 pages of first-rate reportage and analysis--will sober us all:  "No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only halfway through it....In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

                                                          --Mike Tharp

July 03, 2009

GI Humor

A year in a war zone requires a sense of humor.

Examples from 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, based in northwest Baghdad since last November:

--the army is famous/notorious for the names it gives to what it does.  This outfit has deployed on Operations Sniper, Flying Dutchman, Kantana, Tarheels and many others.  But somebody politically correct up the food chain thought they'd gone too far when they named one op "Napalm Rain."  Change it--might offend our Iraqi allies.  The new name:  "Operation Campfire Sing-Along."

--soldiers hate phony gung-ho guys.  Somebody created a fictitious new "Ribbon of the Day," called the Motto Language Medal.  Here's how you win it:  "Soldiers who never say your rank and name, but always call you Warrior, Killer, High Speed, Hard-Charger or Motivator.  They always end sentences with 'Roger!' or 'Hooah!' and are always Charlie Mikeing [CM--continue to march]."

--one American liaison officer with the Iraqi army and national police in the sector unleashed a steady stream of sardonic one-liners:  "The Iraqi economy is run by one giant DMV."  About how sloppy the upkeep was around the local Iraqi army base:  "It's like the 'Little Rascals' set up an army."  On the blue and white Humvees that the national police use:  "Chevy trucks with redneck armor." On how Iraqis feel about 130,000 American troops in their midst:  "If New England was occupied by Canadians, I'd still want 'em to leave." About the makeup of the present-day Iraqi army--composed of throwbacks regulars from the Saddam Hussein era, those who joined after the 2003 invasion and recent recruits:  "It's a Frankenstein army."  On the Shilka Russian-made self-propelled guns atop police Humvees:  "They can be rusty and never cleaned and they still work--the national police stop at company-level maintenance."

--An American officer leading a patrol became disgusted with the static and breakups on radio communications between Humvees and their base:  "The comm sounds like it has the ass today--maybe a bag of ass."

--When they see a pretty Iraqi woman not wearing an abaya or hijab--the long cloaks and veils worn by many Iraqi females--GIs call it "going topless."

And this story, which has made the rounds of some public affairs specialists, is probably apocryphal and certainly didn't happen with the 1st ID battalion.  A U.S. patrol, searching a house, found $300 in cash on on a man in the house.  A lieutenant, following protocol then in effect, put a hood over his head and questioned him. He then called up the line to report what they'd found--$300 and no weapons.  His superior told him to take the guy's picture and let him go.  "Sgt. Frye," the officer said.  "Take some pics of this guy and let him go."  A few minutes later Frye returned with a digital camera and gave it to the lieutenant.  As he scrolled through the images, the lieutenant frowned.  "Sgt. Frye, what did you do?"  "I took his picture and let him go, like you said, sir."  Apparently, the lieutenant would have preferred that Frye remove the hood before taking the photos.  The patrol's HQ later displayed a frontier-style poster of the hooded guy with "WANTED" across the top.

                                                              --Mike Tharp

July 02, 2009

The Guys Who Make the Army Work

'The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness bows down to wood an’ stone;
‘E don’t obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness must end where ‘e began,
But the backbone of the Army is the non-commissioned man! '
Rudyard Kipling, the grand old British imperialist, wrote that about NCOs.

"The guys who make the army work." That's what techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy called NCOs. They are noncommissioned officers, the soldiers and Marines in pay grades E-5 through E-9:  buck sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeants first class, master sergeants and sergeants major. 

Northwestern Baghdad is no exception.  In the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry (the "Vanguards"), 2nd Brigade ("Dagger" brigade) of the 1st Infantry Division ("The Big Red One"), noncoms make sure the vision and strategy of senior officers get translated into reality and tactics on the ground.

Sgt. 1st Class John Peterson, for example, took blueprints for a mobile command post--a vehicle that looks like a stretch version of a Ford 350 with desert camo, up-armor, radar and a mounted machine gun--and made sure the local Iraqi army unit got to make one of its own. He helped two Iraqis, Sgts. Salaam and Ayid, prepare a 21-page color handout on the "Badger," which the Iraqis wrote "will enchance the command's ability in performing their duties away from the office."  Peterson, who's been in Iraq since 2007, with just three 15-day leaves to see his family, often pulls all-nighters because that's when the action happens on the streets.  "Hey," he says grinning, "I love what I do."

Sgt. Maj. Jeff Smith, ramrod straight with a brush cut, looks as if he's been sent over by Central Casting to play an NCO like the one in "Full Metal Jacket."  And like nearly every sergeant major in the army and Marines, he knows where all the bodies are buried--and whether to dig them up or leave 'em under the ground.  During one brief encounter in the so-called Command Post of the Future, the sergeant major takes care of three or four problems in as many minutes.  His management style is aided by liberal use of a certain Anglo-Saxon word that he deploys as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb.  Then he stalks out to make sure the next mission gets done.

Noncoms pull the same kind of duty in the Iraqi National Police (INP) and army.

Four Iraqi INP NCOs hang out in a sixth-floor office across a dusty courtyard from the U.S. battalion.  The INP serve as the security arm of the Iraqi army in the northwest sector of Baghdad.  The Americans understand how important NCOs are in the command structure, so they helped start an academy two years ago that features courses like those taught in the U.S.

Someday, the INP are supposed to assume the whole internal security role for Iraq and let the army do what it's supposed to--protect Iraq's borders from outside attack.  Meantime, some 40,000 of them work the northwest sector, scene of a huge holy shrine, upscale shops and cafes, as well as garbage dumps, offal piles and slums that have spawned car bombings, IEDs and suicide attacks. Besides staffing checkpoints, the police officers do traffic control on Baghdad's sclerotic streets. 

Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster, Nashville, is a grunt who now liaises with the police to swap information, tell tall tales, hang out and build a bond of trust.  "We're all NCOs," Lancaster drawls.  "They do all the reports, interrogations, scout patrols and go after very important targets."

After seven months or so with his counterparts, the Tennessean feels right at home.  When he walks into their office, they greet one another the Iraqi way--a handshake and kisses on each cheek.  One big Iraqi sergeant tells Lancaster, "If you go to war in Afghanistan or Iran, you come and get me.  I will hang (Iranian prime minister) Ahmadinejad!"

Another American NCO drops by to leave bags of beef jerky and a chew bone for an Iraqi police officer's pet dog.  The chew toy, a foot-long tube of dry leather, immediately prompts a slew of ribald jokes and pantomines from the Iraqis, with Lancaster's interpreter translating it all.  They cut the BS only when a line of veiled women enters the office, female officers hired to search women at checkpoints.

Later, after three of the Iraqis eat a lunch of bread, rice and oranges sitting on a silver Mylar first-aid blanket on the floor--Lancaster declines, saying he's already had chow--the big Iraqi gets serious.  He describes the slow dance the cops must perform to recruit their sources---whether he asks for money, how much, will he hold "a package" for them.  Then they move to "tougher questions--if we send you off to mix with 'special groups' [insurgents], will you give us correct information?"  Finally, the police compare and correlate what their source has told them with other bits and pieces of data to see if they can trust their man.

Any American cop worth his or her salt follows the same drill in cultivating informants.

The Iraqi NCOs are worried about the U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from major Iraqi cities scheduled in two days (June 30).  But not because they fear for their own safety or that they can't do their job.  No, they're worried that people with "wasta," influence, will be able to avoid the warrants they need to make arrests.  "If a man belongs to a certain (political) party, when we go arrest him, he can use wasta to avoid it," says one rail-thin NCO.

Adds another Iraqi sergeant:  "It will be a hard six months after the Americans go.  Then we can show our ability to control the situation."

Lancaster rises to shove off.  He kisses each Iraqi noncom on the cheek, who return the farewell the same way.  "I'll still be here," he says.

Together, all the NCOs--members of an ancient and honorable brotherhood--say, "Inshallah."  If God wills.

Someday Lancaster hopes to write a novel about his two Iraq tours.  He's got, it seems, plenty of material.

                                                                 --By Mike Tharp

July 01, 2009

Three Iraqi Officers Will Help Shape Their Nation's Fate

Meet three Iraqis who will help determine whether this week's handoff of authority and sovereignty to Iraq from the U.S. will succeed.

Two army officers and one National Police general, they are among the hundreds of uniformed men the U.S. must rely on to make Iraqi cities safe.  How they do their jobs will signal, in small but telling ways, if six years of American occupation has helped Iraq more than it has harmed it.

They all work in northwest Baghdad.  With a major Shia shrine in the sector, it's a draw for pilgrims.  Nearly 3 million people live within Its 322 square miles  The Iraqi Army, combined with Iraqi National Police units for checkpoint and other security, totals around 106,000.  They outnumber Americans 3:1.  Insurgent attacks have dropped to around 1.7 a day from 2.5 a year ago, but residents still fear for their safety.  The Ministry of Interior is building a wall around much of the area that includes the shrine to further increase security.  These three officers have a lot to do.


Iraq Army Staff Brig. Gen.Ismail Hamid Hamas Tha'ir has headed the 22nd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division for less than a month.  A 20-year soldier, he commanded artillery units for seven years and more recently ran a base support battalion near Baghdad International Airport.

A few nights before the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities, the general talked animatedly for an hour.  As an aide served heavily sugared lemon-flavored tea, U.S. Lieut. Col. Steve Toohey listened, nodded and answered the general's questions.

The general, waving a two-page Arabic-language document, and sometimes holding a phone to each ear, was confused about whether U.S. combat forces would still be patrolling--on their own--without the Iraqis asking for help.

Toohey repeated the American mantra that they are in Iraq now to 'assist and support," always letting the Iraqis take the lead.  If they ask for help, they'll get what the Americans call "enablers"--from sniffer dogs to high-tech weaponry.

Brig Gen. Tha'ir said it was crucial that Americans hold up their end of the bargain.  "What do I tell a child if he asks me, 'Why are the Americans still patrolling?'  Or a woman?  He compared June 30 to 2007 when the Iraq soccer team won the Asia Cup championship.  "People celebrated for a week," he recalled.  "Maybe this time for a month!"

The general waxed philosophically when he observed that had Saddam Hussein aligned himself with one of two countries, Iraq's fate would have been much different, and better.  Those two countries:  "America or Japan."

His area of operations includes the famous Kadhim Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Islam.  Later this month, two million or more pilgrims--including hundreds of thousands of Shia from Iran--will make their annual visit to the shrine.  His soldiers and the National Police officers under him will be responsible for their safety.  Earlier this year, suicide bombers, including two women, slaughtered hundreds near the shrine.

The general's voice boomed around the ornate room from behind a highly polished wooden desk.  Two sabers hung over one wall, and waist-high vases of artificial flowers sat next to large comfortable chairs.  But his voice softened to a whisper when he leaned forward and said:  "The Iraqi people have suffered too much.  They need to be happy."

Someone had given him a bouquet of fresh yellow roses, real ones.  Before his promotion and a move, he grew flowers and other plants in the garden of his home.  But it's too dry where he lives now, and as for most Baghdadis, the electric power goes out too often to run a water pump. 

When peace comes to his country, he said, he will again grow flowers.


Capt. Haithum Haidr, operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 6th Division, already has three strikes against him for promotion:  1)he's a Kurd; 2)his wife is a Sunni Arab; 3)he was one of the first former Iraqi Army officers from the Saddam regime to sign up with the Americans in 2003.

In an army that favors Shia, the fact that he is one may not be enough to avoid the political landmines and please the right people that any officer in any army must do to win bars and stars.  All he's got going for him is performance.  Maj. Scott Nauman, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, thinks Haithum's battalion is the best of seven Iraqi Army units he works with. 

It was in charge of Haifa Street in northwest Baghdad, a breeding ground of insurgency, and cleaned it up.  Then it was moved to the Hurriyah district, the heart of sectarian violence in the area, and calmed it down.  "If every battalion in the Iraqi Army was like this one, we could have withdrawn a couple years ago," Nauman says.

Haithum graduated from university with a degree in Farsi, one of the six languages he speaks, including  guttural but clear English.  He entered the army in 1983 as an enlisted man and got out eight years later as a warrant officer.  Partly because of his language fluency, he worked in intelligence.  He signed on with the Americans after the 2003 invasion.

"I have learned that politics must also come with a rifle," he said over a lunch of rice and lamb in the battalion's new mess hall.  He showed a cell phone photo of his three children:  one daughter is 14, a son 12 and "the devil," another daughter, is 10.  He's still not sure he promised her the golden bracelet she now wears.

The captain advised Nauman, who was to brief all the battalions' operations officers about the withdrawal, to "simplify it when you're explaining the JOC (joint operations center) because a lot of the officers can't comprehend it."  But once they understand it, "they will do it."

He grabbed an AK-47 rifle off a shelf.  You know why we call this an Osama bin Laden, he asked a visitor.  Because in the first pictures of the al Qaeda leader taken after 9/11, the shorter version of the famous weapon rested against a wall in the background.

He told Nauman about a bad guy he's got his sights on--not an insurgent, but a pimp, thief, blackmailer.  Once he gets his man, he assured the major, he'll make sure all of his rights are protected.  Then with a thin smile, he added, "Of course, we'll follow procedures--he will have to be handcuffed and blindfoldeded." And if, for his own protection, the suspect has to be transported in the trunk of a car, the captain will make sure it finds the bumpiest roads to the jail.

He let out a sigh.  "I think after my daughter finishes university and marries"--in around 10 years--"then my country will be normal again."


    Gen. Dhafir of the Iraqi National Police keeps two small "love birds" in a cage underneath the aquarium in his office in northwest Baghdad  Neither the fish nor fowl disguise the man's aggressiveness. 

    Operating under the administrative umbrella of the Iraqi Army's 22nd Brigade, 6th Division, he and his men--and a growing number of women who complete the four-month police academy--are responsible for security in a critical part of Baghdad.  They man (and woman) the checkpoints, and the female officers are used to search women passing through.  (Two female suicide bombers killed at least 66 people and wounded 125 others in April near a mosque in the area.)

    Those checkpoints, despised by ordinary Iraqis for the slowdown in traffic, try to keep out the bombers and other insurgents who have targeted the northwest sector.  It includes Karkh, Beladiya, Ghazaliyah and Khadhimiyah--areas of holy shrines, the Tigris River, shops and markets and cafes aching to make a profit and tens of thousands of homes.

    A day before the historic transfer of control over military operations from the Americans to Iraqis, the general spoke of his gratitude to the Americans.  "It is a turning point for Iraq and Iraqi history," he said.  "For us it is like a serial that started in March 2003, and we will have a happy ending in the last episode.  I want to state to the American people that June 30 is a victory for both Americans and Iraqis.  The sacrifices that America gave to this country are a part of the American people as a whole.  You gave Iraqis freedom and control of our counry.  You should be especially proud of the men and women who came here to help us and gave their lives to liberate Iraq and make it a democratic country."

    He turned to his American liaison, Lieut. Col. Drake Jackson.  "I am ready," he said.  "This is our first important mission.  We are going to be in combat providing security.  That's why we are very ready.  You (gesturing to the officer with a silver retractable pointer) have helped us greatly with our training.  The new training will help us change over operations, and that's what benefits us the most."


Three military men.  Now they and their comrades are once again in charge of their own country, of its destiny. 

    The world--and their countrymen--will soon find out if they are ready.

                                                         --By Mike Tharp

June 29, 2009

A Night Patrol in Baghdad

    Lt. Col. Drake Jackson briefed the 10-man, two-interpeter patrol before it left the relative safety of Foward Operating Base Justice in northwest Baghdad.  A sandstorm had let up, and the evening sky was clearing.  Some sitting on a concrete bench and some standing, the soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1-18 Infantry, 1st Infantry Division checked their M4 rifles and M9 pistols.  Their body armor and Kevlar helmets were on tight.

    "I want to look at the (Tigris) river," the lean 6-foot- 3 Rhode Islander said.  "I want to look at Market Street--they're talking about reapportioning forces (at the checkpoints) there."  If there was "escalation of force" during the patrol--an attack--he told the soldiers to hunker down.  "Charlie Company is our QRF (quick reaction force), but it's easier just to stay down and throw lead."

    Their primary weapon, though, would be the flashlights attached to their rifles. "In all likelihood, there will be people in our formation.  The new RoE (rules of engagement) are that we try to keep the vehicles out.  Bloods and Crips--a tough guy team--could be there."

    Ham, one of the interpreters, reminded that a soccer game would be played in a nearby stadium.  Iraqis sometimes fire their weapons into the air in celebration.  "We always pull for ties," the officer said.

    Green and red lasers on their rifle sights would help them line up any target.  Two Iraqi National Police officers joined the patrol.  "It's good to show we play by the rules," Jackson explained, referring to the June 30 deadline that would mandate combined Coalition Forces and Iraqi operations, unless the brigade was in a "force protection" mode when the op could be only Americans. "They can tell people to do things that we don't get the same response," he said of the Iraqis.  "I like having them along."

    A deuce-and-a-half, a two-and-a-half-ton truck, carried the patrol to the base gates.  They dismounted the truck and, spaced three to five meters apart, ventured into Khadimiya district, site of a shrine that's one of the holiest in Islam.

      A dog howled as the patrol moved out, and the smell of charcoal, gasoline and dust hung in the darkening air.  Hundreds of Iraqi civilians--some women in black abaya, some in skirts and scarves (the GI's call that "going topless") mingled with men and children on the sidewalks, in the street, outside cafes and shops.

    The patrol walked slowly, Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster at point and Iraqi National Police Pvt. Mushary Bashem right behind.  Once the American shined his green laser on a BMW coming toward the patrol too fast.  "Slow down," he and Bashem both shouted in Arabic; it did.

    Several soldiers said "Salaam aleikum (Peace be unto you)," and put their palm on their chest as they passed Iraqi civilians.  Most returned the greeting.  Only one man yelled out, "Too bad you guys are leaving!" referring to the June 30 deadline.

    At the Tigris River, the patrol took up defensive positions along a wall paralelling the water.  Jackson checked out a pump house, which turned out to be empty.  As he and others looked in the structure, Lancaster told Bashem, "Face this way and stay facing this way."  Bashem asked if he could smoke.  The sergeant told him no.

    On the way back, a different route, Bashem moved more aggressively than on the way in to stop traffic so the patrol could cross streets.  A lemon-slice moon hung in the hazy sky. After about 90 minutes, and five miles in 92-degree heat, the patrol returned, without incident, to the gates of Justice.  "Shukran for coming with us," Jackson told the Iraqis. 

    After the truck deposited the sweating soldiers back near the base headquarters, he assessed the patrol's mission.  His take on the river was that because of blast walls and checkpoints, it now posed the only avenue for someone with a bomb to get close to the shrine.  He endorsed the Iraqi police plan to beef up the checkpoints"  "One guy on duty, that always gets me alert.  Three guys can come up to him, 'Here's $50--look the other way.'"

    The officer said what the patrol learned could be used as a training tool for the Iraqi police.  Although he conceded that he and some other members of the patrol had been "skylined" as they looked for possible sniper locations across the Tigris, he didn't see how they could have learned as much as they did had they stayed on the other side of the road.

    "For me, mission accomplished."

    The men gathered their gear and headed off for more water, air conditioning. and a shower.

                                                      --Mike Tharp


Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

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