Dispatch

Scenes from a Withdrawal

Scenes from a Withdrawal

Last week I listened to Maj. Ashley Burch, a Marine civil affairs officer in Ramadi, explain a raft of ambitious reconstruction aimed to smother the town of Karmah — a persistent center of insurgent activity — in American largess. I was duly impressed. Then, as I walked out of the office, I glanced at a wall map of eastern Anbar province. A bright stripe of yellow Post-its ran across the 104 km highway that connects Ramadi to Baghdad, each with the words "No-Go Zone" written across the top and a date, with the more recent dates closer to Baghdad.

Over the last weeks in Anbar, signs of the ongoing U.S. withdrawal have already been evident not only in the closing of bases (a messy process well underway) but in the daily attitudes of marines of all ranks. Senior officers guffawed at the idea that one might risk a trip into Falluja to gauge atmospherics, because the responsibility for that city has long since ended, and losing a single American life to assess an imminently Iraqi-controlled city makes no sense. And grunts everywhere were kicking stones, bored to tears because they joined the Marines to fight — not to deploy on what looks like, and is treated as, a mop-up mission.

A split personality is evident in the mission that remains. Two years ago, the "clear — hold — build" mantra sounded appealing, especially if you read one of those em dashes as "buy off Sunni sheikhs." Officers like Burch, as well as embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRTs) like the one I shadowed for a few days in Falluja, continue to toil away at "build," even as the irrevocable path toward drawdown cuts "hold" out from under them. Col. Matthew Lopez, the charismatic Chicagoan who is the senior U.S. marine in eastern Anbar, points out that the ePRT work has become the central focus of the Marines’ mission, and that making their work possible and secure is now a priority.

But there are two types of security marines can provide. One is the type offered by the caravans of steel and gun barrels that escort ePRTs today, and then roll back into bases when the day’s mission is over. The other is the near monopoly on violence that would allow the reconstruction effort to proceed truly unfettered, with freedom to walk around a city and its outskirts, to observe woebegone Iraqi farms and burbling sewage pits, and to be sensitive to how, and if, they should be fixed. The first type of security is available. The second has been missing for quite some time.

As the bases close and that No-Go Zone expands, I wonder whether programs like Burch’s, called "the Karmah Initiative," have any real future. Karmah itself did not feel especially safe, though it was unquestionably healthier than three years ago. And in Falluja, where a year ago some bragged that they could walk around freely, I was warned by the mayor himself that a visit to the town’s most famous restaurant would put my life in peril, though he did say the kebabs would be tastier as a result.

The Karmah Inititive involves building schools and other desperately needed facilities. And in Falluja, the Marines and ePRT are building a sewage treatment facility — a project that costs millions, and that is struggling to reach the 4,000-household minimum necessary to get the effluent to flow smoothly through the pipes. Going forward, the ePRT will have to manage these projects from afar, with the commitment of the Marines, perhaps, but not with the free hand that the pre-SOFA U.S. military footprint provided. This drawback puts the "build" portion of the counterinsurgency trinity at a great disadvantage. If it fails, and if its failure ushers in a new era of violence and carnage, it will be difficult to recover the position the United States recently enjoyed, and it will leave Iraqi security forces in an ugly situation — up Effluent Creek, as it were, without a paddle.