Iraqi Five-O, standing tall. Photo (and Oakleys) courtesy of Buck Sargent
The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.
There exists an underreported but ever-present crossover between war and crime that has taken hold in the past year throughout the large metropolitan areas of Iraq. It may always have been a factor, but it has become even more apparent over time. A deadly mix of organized criminality and jihadist savagery has increasingly come to blur the distinctions between the acts of violent terrorists and that of common thugs.
In some cases, the spoils of crime are used to fund terrorist activity. In others, attacks against Iraqi authorities and community leaders bear closer resemblance to gangland turf wars than any of the various ideological or religious themes propagated by the Al Qaeda-driven news cycle.
The typical cell structure of the insurgency can in many cases be likened to a series of disconnected Arab mafias. A tribal omerta of fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles may constitute the core of an insurgent cell and survive on criminal activity in between sporadic cash payments from committed jihadist leaders in return for attacking targets of opportunity. Whereas this opportunity once spelled U.S. and coalition forces, the bulls-eye later shifted to the indigenous army and police. This has been merely Darwinism at work, as all the brave-but-stupid arhabbi have since been reunited with their Prophet at 2,400 ft./sec. And those who remain are more savvy and less willing to stick their necks out. What good is easy money if you’re not around to spend it?
As the Iraqi Security Forces have improved, gaining in confidence, technical and tactical proficiency, and especially in numbers over the past year, the bulls-eye has jumped yet again. Civilians have become the new quarry, just as they have always been to any criminal element that preys on the weakest, most vulnerable, and least likely to fight back. Kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis (or their children) for ransom, as well as protection rackets -- mafia-like extortion of businesses under threat of harm -- have also become all too common.
This turn away from organized resistance and toward random violence for violence’s sake serves the interests of all the various groups who oppose a free Iraq. For the Saddamists who long to return to power and who will never recognize a freely elected government, it is a chance to make these officials appear weak and impotent. With a brutalized and fearful populace demanding protection from officials in Baghdad, one truck bomb outside a crowded mosque is all that’s necessary to shatter public confidence in representative democracy.
For Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, it has finally sunk in that breaking the vise grip of the American military requires breaking the fickle will of the American people. To do this, the whole of Iraq need not be thrown into chaos, it only need appear to be so. In the AQ playbook, the war will be won or lost on CNN’s Headline News. The targets need not have any strategic value, they need only to bleed, explode, or catch fire.
As the violence recedes across the majority of the provinces in Iraq, so do the media goalposts for victory get pushed farther and further away. When the NY Times no longer finds Iraq newsworthy, you will know which side has won.
Our current enemies are following a script that is not .original. Following the surrender of Nazi Germany, die-hard Nazi guerrilla units terrorized and assassinated both local officials and civilians who cooperated with Allied occupation forces. We stayed the course then. We would be wise to do so now.
Accordingly, neither is violent instability a necessarily novel phenomenon unique to post-invasion Iraq. It may be a newly reported one, but ethnic and sectarian bloodletting came in a close second to soccer as the national pastime under the Baathist regime. The Nazis’ natural German efficiency had led them to catalog their horrific crimes with astounding precision. It remains to be seen whether the reams of captured Iraqi documents will reveal the same once they are eventually translated. Until then, we can only count the unearthed skulls and bear witness to those whose grief predates the recent American interest in their native land.
Mass graves stand as the ultimate “get tough on crime” position, with a recidivism rate that would shame even Saudi Arabia. Repressive tyrants like Saddam maintained power with the policy of “kill ‘em all and let Allah sort them out.” In any other context it would have been deemed genocide. In the since discarded “realist” approach to the Middle East, it was rationalized away as the necessary evil of a regional strongman, ruling with an iron fist over an unruly populace.
On the eve of the American incursion Saddam was said to have emptied his jails of up to 100,000 inmates, providing a lot of idle hands to suddenly unleash upon a devastated Third World economy (And in case you were wondering, Iraqis aren’t exactly big on midnight basketball.) In the Hobbesian Middle East, idle hands are the jihadi’s workshop.
For a new Iraq emerging from the darkness, this coalescence of violent insurgency and base criminality is a double-edged sword. Fighting it without destroying everyone and everything around it requires an increasing reliance on law enforcement tactics and all the restrictions that come with them, yet the criminals are utilizing terrorist weapons of war that make routine police work a militarily lethal business. With law enforcement comes legal protections, and with legal protections come judicial decisions that often err on the side of terrorists over troops and victimizers over victims.
No war can be adequately fought using law enforcement methods -- having to rely on admissible evidence and chain of custody and protections from coercive interrogation techniques. That we now find ourselves in this strange middle ground between war and peace is precisely the problem.
The respect for and protection of civil liberties is clearly important within a free society, especially such a fragile one on the brink of civilized adolescence like Iraq. Yet as Justice Robert Jackson once observed, a constitution is not a suicide pact. You won’t have a civilization to protect if anarchy is allowed to run rampant.
There are times when it appears we may have exported to the Iraqis some of the more onerous aspects of our system as well as the more enlightened ones; specifically the coddling of criminals. When initially briefed on all the necessary red tape that came with detaining and processing the bad guys before we deployed, the running joke of the company was “take no prisoners -- there’s less paperwork.”*
*(Relax, moonbats. This didn't involve the SecDef or an Executive Order. It was only a joke.)
But the humor recedes when you come to find you're often dealing with a 50/50 chance of conviction in Iraqi courtrooms (at best). Not only do you have to worry about being shot at or blown up again next week, you have to worry about the exact same guy behind the trigger. Same time... same place... same guy.
This revolving door of catch and release is a common frustration among soldiers and Iraqi citizens alike. Nothing is more demoralizing than making a righteous snare of a known terrorist than the knowledge that he was promptly released by a Baghdad magistrate due to “lack of evidence” or an administrative snafu. Three weeks later he’s back on the streets planting bombs. The absurdity of it all forces troops in combat to often have to think and act more like Eliot Ness than Audie Murphy. (Has anyone thought to look into Zarqawi’s back taxes? I'm just putting that out there...)
Our unit had steeled itself for a brutal year-long experience; something along the lines of Tour of Duty. Yet the reality of what we experienced was closer to a bizarre mix of CSI, CHiPs, and Dragnet, with a nod to Iraqi Vice and Magnum, P.R. thrown in for good measure.
Sure, there were the midnight raids and hit & run attacks, the intermittent IEDs and too-close-for-comfort sniper fire. Over the previous nine months across the north of Iraq our brigade has suffered over 230 wounded and lost 14 soldiers -- 10 to hostile fire. But despite what you see on television, the following actions were far more commonplace:
Explosive residue testing. Crime scene photography. Eyewitness sworn statements. Evidence collection. Forensics "cleanup" (of Kentucky Fried Terrorists). Onsite lineups. Stake-outs, snitches, and sting operations. Electronic surveillance. Prisoner transport. Route overwatch. Counter-propaganda distribution. Get-out-the-vote drives. Vehicle checkpoints. Dismounted foot patrols. Curfew enforcement. Traffic direction. Ballot integrity escorts. Bootleg gasoline interdiction. If we could have found one, we may have even “raided” a speakeasy or two.
Technically, it's still a war. Troops are still in contact, and the enemy is still out there. But one can't help but feel at times like a cop with just a really bad beat.
A few months back, my platoon made a routine stop to one of the numerous Iraqi police stations in Mosul. Our mission: Retrieve a suspect accused of sniping American soldiers. As is custom in Iraq, several men appeared and began the “meet and greet” process with our LT and his entourage. They began glad-handing all the men present, ending with one nonchalantly standing beside them who our platoon leader didn’t recognize or pay much attention to. “Okay, now where’s my detainee?” he asked, not realizing that he had just shook hands with the terrorist they had come to collect.
Once we step back and allow the Iraqis to take the reins, the kid gloves that come packaged with our queasy western culture are going to have to come off if they are to be even remotely serious about stamping out the criminal underworld committed to destroying their country from within. They can‘t afford to play nice like Mr. Rogers; they’re going to have to think like Dirty Harry. Because anything less and they’ll all end up like Sonny Corleone.
Therein lies the rub: being able to defeat one’s enemies without becoming them. In the wake of Saddam Hussein, such an about face in the societal legal code from the foregone conclusion of guilt to the presumption of innocence is bound to have blowback. But the Faustian bargain made in every free society balances between the benefit of order and the benefit of the doubt.
It took over four years to bring Zacarias Moussaoui to justice through our own convoluted legal system, and considering the magnitude of the “criminal” plot he was convicted of being party to, significant doubt remains whether justice was truly done. Would it have been overly prejudicial to have screened United 93 for the jurors during the sentencing phase of the trial? Perhaps it would have reminded them that a “troubled childhood” cannot by itself come close to explaining away the very real presence of pure evil in the world. The question should not be Why do they hate us?, but What can be done -- what must be done -- to stop them?
As good a place to start as any would be to occasionally allow ourselves the benefit of the doubt. To let national secrets remain secret and refuse to succumb to conspiracy theory hysteria over hyperbolic security measures. To permit the military to adjudicate its own and refraining from pre-convicting them in the court of public opinion. And to allow our own elections and the very policies validated by them to stand, rather than consistently undermining them at every turn.
“America, you lose,” spat Moussaoui upon being denied his state sanctioned martyrdom injection. Due to our dumb luck, his role on that fateful day was averted; due to our legal intransigence, the overall cause he served was not. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer terrorists tell it to the J-DAM than the judge.
But if we allow ourselves to revert to the pre-9/11 mentality of combating terrorism with indictments and subpoenas; if we fall back into feeble reaction over bold preemption; if we grant a trial to every illegal combatant held at Guantanamo Bay, secretly hoping they die of old age before our federal courts inevitably sentence them to time served and community service…
Then we have already lost.
COPYRIGHT 2006 BUCK SARGENT