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Embedded in Iraq

It was now time to leave, and to my disappointment the two captains got into a different vehicle. Before coming to Iraq, I had heard a great deal about the growing exodus of captains from the Army and the crisis this was causing in the military’s leadership ranks,2 and here I’d lost a chance to talk to two of them. When we arrived at FOB Falcon —a sprawling facility filled with barracks, firing ranges, volleyball fields, helipads, a mess hall, and Internet terminals for the thousands of soldiers stationed there—Captain Walker, who had noticed my encounter with the two captains, told me that he could get their cell phone numbers for me if I wanted. He went on to say that there were many other captains in the battalion who had been stop-lossed, and that staff sergeants and other senior noncommissioned officers were joining the exodus as well. “They’re burned out,” he said, explaining that the repeated deployments and extension of tours to fifteen months had placed an unbearable strain on many officers’ lives. To my surprise, Walker proceeded to introduce me to both a captain and a staff sergeant who were determined to leave the Army as soon as they could.

The sergeant, a military intelligence officer named Zachery Brown, told me how the repeated deployments were driving up divorce rates among noncommissioned officers. They were also hard on single men like himself, but this, he said, was not the reason he was leaving. “I don’t want to get too political,” he observed, “but the way it looks now—it’s almost as if we’re fighting a perpetual war.” He was quick to point out that he was “a patriotic guy” who had joined the military right after September 11. Sent to Afghanistan, he had felt that he had genuinely been able to help people. Back in the US, he had started taking classes, and that, he said, is when his “liberalization” had begun. It had continued in Iraq. “We’re helping people here,” the sergeant said.

If we weren’t here, there are a lot of people who’d be dead the next day. But we’re spinning our wheels. Al-Qaeda is defeated, but now we face Iraq’s internal problems. They have to be handled politically and socially. I wouldn’t say that I don’t believe in the mission here, but we’re not going about it in the right way.

Was there another way? “No, I don’t really think so,” Brown said. General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, with its stress on protecting the local population, had been very effective, but, he added, “it’s a thin veneer. Beneath it—no matter how we try to make it look—we’re ultimately occupiers. And I don’t think you can democratize a country by being occupiers. Though we’ve made a lot of progress, the core issues remain. And if we can’t find a political solution to them, we’ll never get out of here.” Most of his fellow intel officers, he noted, felt the same way.

Captain Walker came to escort me to the helipad for my flight back to the Green Zone. Struck by how candid Sergeant Brown had been, I thanked Walker for having introduced me to him. In the waiting room, I commented on the sudden turn my excursion had seemed to take. Acknowledging this, Walker told me that during my final interview with Lieutenant Colonel Watson, when he had seen the look of annoyance on my face, he had decided to set aside his usual spiel and be more straightforward. The visit to the flattened house, he told me, had not been on the original itinerary, but he had decided it was important for me to see it so as to understand that war is not “patty cake.” He had also wanted me to speak with captains and sergeants who were leaving the Army so that I could grasp the heavy toll the war was taking on the troops. In fact, he told me, he himself was planning to get out as soon as he could. He had recently married and wanted to start a family, and he didn’t think he could do so while still in uniform.

A few minutes later, I boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and was soon soaring over Baghdad at night. Back in the Green Zone, as I walked to the guesthouse where I was staying for the night, I reflected on my extraordinary day. As I’d expected, my embed had provided little opportunity to hear the Iraqi point of view. Rather, it offered a look at the war through the eyes of the US military, and in that respect it had been very revealing. On the one hand, it had left me with little doubt about the very real gains the surge had brought about, and about the effectiveness of the Petraeus-led counterinsurgency strategy. The situation in Dora had obviously improved, and the combination of aggressive raids, large-scale detentions, and mixing with the community (together with the Sunni Awakening) had had a big hand in achieving that.

At the same time, I’d gotten a look at the crushing effect the war is having on the troops. The breakdown in the Army has advanced so far that in a mere thirteen hours, I could see the rising dissatisfaction, anger, and rebellion within it. The message from the soldiers themselves was that keeping so large a force in the field over the long term seemed unsustainable.

But how to draw that force down? As Sergeant Brown had observed, the success in Dora and other neighborhoods has been largely tactical in nature. Only by joining it to a broader political strategy could the space created by the surge be fully exploited. What was the US doing in that regard? Did it have an exit strategy?


That was a question I explored with a senior US official who took me to lunch at a dining hall in Saddam’s former Republican Palace. It was a cavernous place, with hundreds of American diplomats, military officers, contractors, and bureaucrats filling their plates with burgers, burritos, sandwiches, and salads, all provided by KRB Corporation (formerly part of Halliburton) at $32 a head. “For all that’s happened over the last five years,” the official said, “we’ll be remembered more for what we do over the next five.” As a model, he cited the Balkans and Eastern Europe. This struck me as unrealistic. How often, I wondered, did he get out of the Green Zone to meet with Baghdad residents whose supply of electricity is down to two hours a day, or visit the pharmacies where basic medications like Tylenol are unavailable, or see the wretched tents and shacks where many of the two-million-plus internally displaced Iraqis have been forced to live?

In fact, this official told me, any trip he makes out of the Green Zone requires the deployment of thirty armed guards and two Black Hawk helicopters, all coordinated by the friendly young men at Blackwater. Cooped up in the Green Zone, embassy officials tend to be poorly informed about what’s going on outside it. Military officers, who have a much easier time getting around, tend to know much more. That helps to explain why journalists are drawn to them as sources. It also helps explain why the political aspects of the US presence get far less coverage than the military ones.

In pursuing those political aspects, I found it much more rewarding to talk with Iraq specialists at American and British universities and think tanks who, traveling into and out of the country, are less beholden to government dogma. It was from them that I learned that the Bush administration, in addition to launching the much-publicized military surge, had mounted a little-known political surge as well. Its main elements were spelled out in a classified “Joint Campaign Plan” completed in May 2007. Recognizing how singularly ineffective the Iraqi government has been in delivering services to the people, the plan proposed a huge state-building campaign, spearheaded by a sharp expansion in the US advisory effort.

The campaign got under way last summer. Specialists from Treasury and Justice, Commerce and Agriculture were assigned to government ministries to help draw up budgets and weed out sectarian elements. The Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers set up projects to boost nutrition and reinforce dams. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were stationed in Baghdad and elsewhere to help repair infrastructure, improve water and electrical systems, and stimulate the economy. One main goal was to use some of Iraq’s new oil wealth ($41 billion in 2007 alone) to create jobs that would help occupy the legions of aimless young men who might otherwise join the country’s many militias.

About a year has passed since the campaign began. And from talks with several Green Zone visitors who are familiar with it, I learned that, by and large, it has been an utter failure. “Dysfunctional” is how one visiting adviser described it, citing bitter interagency battles, micromanagement from Washington, and an acute mismatch between the skills of the advisers and the needs of the Iraqi government. “What we have,” he said, “are cattle calls—a bunch of random people sent over with widely varying skills who can’t speak the language, who’ve never worked in this type of environment, and whom the Iraqis didn’t even ask for.”

(Much more than mere disorganization and incompetence may be involved. According to a recent BBC investigation, as much as $23 billion in US aid allocated to contractors working in Iraq may have been lost, stolen, or not properly accounted for. “The money that’s gone into waste, fraud, and abuse under these contracts is just so outrageous,” Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, commented, adding that this “may well turn out to be the largest war profiteering in history.”)

Listening to the visiting adviser, I was reminded of the many stories I’d heard about the Coalition Provisional Authority and the mess it had created trying to remake Iraq to conform to neoconservative fantasies back in Washington. Could things still be as bad as that? Yes they were, this adviser said. “It’s been one of the most disillusioning surprises for me,” he explained.

I had read all the books and articles about the CPA and about how disastrous it had been. I assumed that competent people in the US government were reading the same things on the CPA and that they must have fixed it. So when I got to Iraq and found it was still disorganized and completely out of sync with what the Iraqis were doing, I was shocked.

The level of incoherence is amazing,” another specialist told me. “The US embassy is one profoundly incoherent organization advising another incoherent organization—the Iraqi government.” The State Department, this adviser went on, “is not set up for state-building.” But the problem went far beyond State, he said, with a profound lack of understanding apparent at “the highest levels of the US government.”

  1. 2

    See, for example, Andrew Tilghman, “The Army’s Other Crisis,” The Washington Monthly, December 2007.

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