HUMMING THE HAIFA STREET BLUES
Searching curfew violators with the "assistance" of Iraqi police in Baghdad.
All parties would have rather been sleeping.
photo by Buck Sargent
Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.
-George W. Bush, June 2005
What does it really mean to "win in Iraq?"
Am I the only one who's lost all patience for this jaded question? Especially when posed time and time again by people who've never even set boot there yet seem almost perturbed their views were snubbed by the Blue Ribbon panoply of the Iraq For Dummies study guide? (Granted, barely a dime's worth of difference between the two, but still...)
Perhaps the underlying concerns they're really trying to express with such offhanded effrontery are as follows: Are the Iraqi security forces honestly making any progress at all, or are they (and thus, we) right back where we started? Are they truly standing up or are we merely propping them up a la Weekend at Bernies 2? What happens after we finally remove the training wheels; will they fall flat on their faces? Or can we expect I.A. Joe to still be riding a Big Wheel when he's 30? The answer to all this is a resounding... kinda/sorta/maybe/not really.
The fact is none of this can be answered in an easily quotable one-sentence affirmation of optimism because it's completely dependent on which area of the country you're spotlighting. In the Kurdish north or Shiite-dominated south: Signs point to heck yeah. In the center-west of the country (i.e., Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, et al.): Reply hazy, ask again later, I know nothing, please go away before someone sees us talking.
The Iraqi army as a whole is probably never going to be mistaken for The Unit, but they are for the most part capable and willing to carry out what is asked of them. It's encouraging to see them finally transition to uparmored Humvees from underarmoured Toyotas; (less so when you factor in that the enemy has since mastered converting our H1s into CO2).
But like all professional soldiers it has in recent years become a hard won point of pride for them to never again be seen as having run from a fight, especially one in which their personal honor is on the line. It cannot be understated that honor -- or what is perceived as honor -- is extremely important in Iraqi culture. The trouble has been in convincing them that allowing a tiny percentage of their society to hold the remainder in a semi-permanent state of mortal fear is (and should be considered) a fully permanent affront to their concept of manhood. Older generations of Iraqis are more used to serving as tools of a power-wielding minority than as instruments of, for, and by the people. Firing the Old Guard and starting from scratch didn't help matters. But keeping them on only would have made things worse. ("Ladies and gentlemen, this is Junta No. 5!")
That being said, what has cost us precious time and lives in the last two wasted years of the war has been the state of near total disarray that is the Iraqi police force -- where the rubber meets the road and trouble meets the rubble in this sectarian banana split.
Admittedly, there have always been some good Iraqi flatfoots on the job -- Mosul's Major Fallah (whose exploits I last recounted here) could have given Chuck Norris a run for his money. But to Ali Baba's good fortune and our continued bad fortunes, men like him on the force have to this point been few and far between. Many have no concept whatsoever of their duty to society as officers of the law. Many in positions of authority are politically or tribally appointed hacks that are so incompetent they require assistance even to read their own wall-mounted maps of their precinct checkpoints. And the number of Iraqi National Police who are not also still moonlighting as death-dealing militia members in their off time is completely up to speculation (although in the capital it often felt as if among blue-shirted Shiites it was nearly all of them).
As is now stands, many IPs haven't been out there on the streets catching bad guys because they've been too busy being the bad guys. Frankly, with all the bad juju embedded within the Iraqi po-po I don't see how they could find the energy to do much of anything else. Even with all the cars that choke the streets of Baghdad, no one's likely to get a parking ticket there any time soon. But it's still Driving While Iraqi that tends to ruin one's day.
This broken piece of the puzzle is the master key to solving this media-painted "hubristic state of fiasco" that everyone seems to agree we're now in but no one seems to agree how to solve. In Baghdad at least, the majority of the sectarian violence is tied directly to the fact that the Iraqi police forces have not been held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. They haven't been patrolling the streets or investigating crimes; they haven't been visiting neighborhoods on foot and talking with the people; they haven't even been responsive to routine emergencies much less the far-from-routine insurgency. 1-8-7? B & E? Fuggettaboutit. Dialing 9-1-1 in Baghdad only gets you Ali's Shia Kabobs: "We Deliver For Allah (NO SUNNIS, NO DOGS, NO ROUTE IRISH)".
From my vantage point during our year-plus tour, I couldn't help but notice that sans our poking, prodding, cajoling and extreme sport handholding, the bulk of the Iraqi five-o really hadn't been doing much of anything except guard their own police stations, man a few token checkpoints, and occasionally kidnap, torture, and dump the bodies of the average civilians they’re supposed to be protecting in trash piles that litter nearly every road.
You see, our dilemma from day one has been with quality control: the coalition fixation with increasing the quantity of the indigenous Iraqi forces without much regard to their quality. They have been rushed into production since 2004 in a nod to our own domestic politics to an extent that fast forwarded to 2007 we now find ourselves faced with a devastatingly huge and potential Dell-like power supply recall of a shamefully defective detective force. This was never as evident in the northern provinces, but in the capital city (the linchpin on which all our efforts hinge) it was as painfully explicit as amateur porn on HDTV.
Note to Gen. Petraeus: Completely restructure the police from the ground up and the top down -- one Baghdadi in Blue at a time if need be -- and you will see a dramatic shift in the overall balance of Iraqi society. The police are the first and last line of defense for any society. The only people they are currently defending, however, are themselves. (And if you read the papers, you'll see they're not even doing a great job of that.) Purge the ranks of the Iraqi police so they cannot simultaneously undermine our efforts, and then wield the hammer of the Iraqi army bolstered with our own forces to not just dismantle but smash the Shia militias and what remains of the Sunni gangs. The U.S. Army already has a Braveheart. What we've been hurting for is a Maximus. Unleashed? Hell!
This all may sound très simplisme, but only because the Army so often insists on taking the scenic route. But there are more options at our disposal than the either/or of "my way or the chai way." Building rapport with Iraqis is important; building hundreds of precincts by instilling a framework of lasting institutional values, however, is crucial. It is the difference between the NYPD of 2001 and the NOPD of 2005. (Or to be slightly more ecumenical, the difference between the Army's 172nd of 2006 and 372nd of 2003).
Begin the hard work of fixing this one problem above all else, and you'll see immediate results. I say this because Iraq's elected leaders will finally have the monopoly on force that defines any civil government, the Iraqi people will have won their freedom of movement back, and the imperial grunts in the American military can stop spending 21st birthdays in a dry country 7,000 miles from the closest Outback Steakhouse. I'm betting the man who said "war is heck" never sampled an MRE beef patty marinated in near beer. And believe me, it's not pretty.
President Bush is our first Harvard MBA Chief Exec. He should understand the pitfalls of placing quantity over quality. But with his Decider House Rules, we're not only getting what we pay for, we're getting what we've been failing to pay for as well.