Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq, the unraveling (XIV): a smart Marine says it ain’t so

The note below is from a reader of the blog who takes issue with the “unraveling” thread. I am quoting this with his permission and leaving out his name at his request. This is a guy who knows what he is talking about. His comments are especially interesting because the New York Times recently tagged ...


The note below is from a reader of the blog who takes issue with the “unraveling” thread. I am quoting this with his permission and leaving out his name at his request. This is a guy who knows what he is talking about. His comments are especially interesting because the New York Times recently tagged Fallujah, near where he is operating, as one of the places where things are unraveling. He disagrees.

This officer’s interesting bottom line: “we have taken it as far as Americans can.”

Here it is:    

24 June, 2009

We are now more than halfway through our stint here in eastern Al Anbar Province, just west of the greater Baghdad area. Things have been going well, all things considered, and the days are moving along quickly now. We are living at a relatively large base with all of the amenities of an occupying force: laundry, plenty of food, gym, internet, phones, and (unique to this base) a small man-made lake that was once Uday Hussein’s vacation retreat.  The base is called Camp Baharia…

My battalion currently operates in the Fallujah, Saqlawiyah, and Karmah regions, a space once occupied by a force about ten times ours.  We arrived as one of the first battalions to operate exclusively under the new guidelines set forth in the Status of Forces Agreement signed last fall. 

Early on our mission was to pair with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which includes the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, and the Provincial Security Forces (a national guard of sorts) to conduct counter-insurgency and capacity building. We soon found that our ability to influence enemy activity was severely restricted as we could no longer detain suspects and we could no longer immerse ourselves in the population through the use of combat outposts within the cities.

This forced us to work through the ISF. Instead of doing the work for them we came to think of ourselves as instructors, not concerned with the who-did-what-to-whom, and more concerned with how they conduct police and security operations.

This means we are less concerned with who the high value individuals are (the really bad guys; our obsession last year) and are more concerned with the ISF’s ability to conduct an investigation, obtain a warrant from the (albeit corrupt and feckless) local judge, handle evidence, handle detainees, conduct questioning, and develop a case to be heard at a higher court.

This has been halting and frustrating work. I have worked with our Battalion Staff Judge Advocate (lawyer), a very smart guy who speaks Arabic, to try to develop the ISF understanding of proper evidence and the judge’s understanding of warrants and trials.  It has been a bit like Law & Order: Iraq, but without the happy ending and closed case.  The greatest hurdles we have are out of our control at the District level in Fallujah and the Provincial level in Ramadi.  Even when we do everything right at the local level there are hundreds of stories of a tribal leader paying off judges and police to release his wayward son who promises never to commit a crime again. Many of the local ISF won’t know one of their detainees is released until they see him on the street the next week.

Another key part of our job has been to facilitate the transfer of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program (also known as the Iraqi Civilian Watch) to Iraqi control.  This US-founded program hired thousands of disenchanted, largely Sunni, male youths, gave them a weapon, and told them to stand post.  It worked spectacularly well, largely by giving a population of potential insurgents a better alternative.  But now the US is done paying for it, so it is left to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior to handle.  We helped with the security of these operations, though we have done our best to take the backseat.  Attached are some photos of the pay operations, which are at once chaotic, joyous, and hot (it’s averaging around 110 these days) affairs.

In addition to the capacity building and SOI payments, we have been a part of the gradual release of detainees from US custody.  The US prison in Bucca has been releasing its less-threatening inmates to Iraqi custody for the last year now.  Our job has been to smooth the transition and ensure that the local security forces are aware of the releases.

Capacity building, hands-off security, and detainee releases all means that the average infantry Marine has been pretty bored this deployment, which is, of course, a good thing.  The Marines, to a man, would rather be in Afghanistan a conflict they see as simpler than the legalistic, restrictive environment here.  But they have done a terrific job at staying busy, conducting training, and staying active.

Despite recent reporting, the area is stable, while still not completely safe.  The attacks mentioned in the article are not part of a mounting trend, but are normal and to be expected from time to time in this environment.  If we want Iraq to return to normal it will necessarily mean making itself more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.

But we have taken it as far as Americans can.  In my opinion, anything we do now may do more harm than good in delaying the inevitable and reinforcing their, at times, crippling malaise. The only enduring role for Americans is to provide the safety net to prevent complete collapse, chaos, and civil war; three things that I do not believe will happen in any event.”

It seems to me that he is saying that he doubts an unraveling will occur, but if it does, there isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent it at this point, so we might as well leave.

Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1