15 December 2008


We’ve reached kind of a confusing point in our involvement here. And by our I mean not only the Civil Affairs effort, but the Army in general. The Status of Forces Agreement is scheduled to go into effect 1 January. More changes will follow.

All of this basically boils down to the fact that the Iraqis are taking over running their own show in this area. Which is good. They’re pretty close to being ready, and there’s no way to find the flaws and limits of their systems without taking the training wheels off and giving it a spin.

So we find ourselves wondering…what do we do now? This has been a little confusing for us as CA since we arrived for this tour. Last time I was here, we were still at a point where the regular Army maneuver units (the infantry and armor guys who own battlespace) were killing people and breaking stuff. They were kept reasonably busy with that, and so there was a lot of room and need for people who specialize in the civil populace. We were busy, and it was the rare maneuver officer or soldier who had the time, experience or interest to get deeply involved with the “non-lethal” side of the fight.

Now, however, we’ve been in Iraq for closing in on six years. Most of the captains and majors are on their second, third or fourth tours here. They are fully engaged in the non-lethal fight (which is good, since we’re pretty much set with the large-scale killing of people and breaking of stuff). They understand the basics of relating to the local civilian populace, and of working with local leadership.

Which is, of course, a large part of what we (we as in CA) are out here to do. The days are behind us when we did humanitarian aid – we’re not dropping water and food, or bringing in medical aid. We’re not moving populations out of the path of advancing armor columns, and we’re not developing and maintaining protected target lists.

So we’re left with monitoring the tail end of the ICERP programs and engaging the persons designated as Spheres of Influence. Except that the projects only need so much monitoring, and really, all anyone has left to do at this point is engage the Spheres of Influence. Of whom there are only so many.

And, really, if the Iraqis are running Iraq, and we’re no longer empowered to go threaten people to make things happen (“start talking to the Ministry of Power representative about this issue or we’ll shoot you”), and we don’t have any money to run around handing out (“you need a road paved and can’t make your government do it? We’ll pay for it if you agree to tell people not to blow us up!”)…we’re slowly running out of things to engage people about.

There is an Iraqi way of doing things. Quite often, it is not the way we Americans would choose to do things. There is an Iraqi pace for getting things done. That pace often seems unacceptable to American military personnel. But the fact remains that the Iraqis are going to be here in three, eight, 25 years. And, as the plan currently stands, we are not.

So we’re slowly trying to figure out how to back off and let go. We have checklists for grading their local government meetings. But if they’re holding meetings, and nobody is getting shot…then who cares if they distribute minutes from the last meeting days in advance or if they print them and hand them out the day of? Or hang them on the wall? It’s a block on our checklists, but that’s really about all it is.
Since 2003, the US Army has been the Solution Fairy. Need water? We’ll get you water. Need medical attention? We gotcha. Sheik from the next tribe over picking on you? We’ll have him in to the FOB to talk about working and playing well with others.

That’s behind us now. And that’s hard for Americans, particularly Americans in uniform. Soldiers see problems and immediately look for solutions. But our solutions aren’t worth a whole lot at this point. We need the Iraqi solutions, and quite often they’re not the ones we’d have chosen.

Sometimes, the writing on the wall isn’t as nice as we’d like it to be. We’re surrounded by barely-above-subsistence-level farmers in the desert. There are lots of nice theories and bits of technology out there that would enable them to produce more, but it doesn’t seem to be a high priority for their higher levels of government, and not a lot of the farmers themselves are particularly interested either. So we have to let our American fixation with progress go by the wayside. The people don’t want to change everything about their lives and their world to become Iowa. They would like for the US government (or any government) to come by and hand them large stacks of cash. Absent that, they’d really rather just sit around and be barely-above-subsistence-level farmers in a country with a sufficient social safety net that they won’t starve in bad years.

And, at the end of the day, that’s probably about all they’re going to get. Not everybody gets to live in Iowa. Not everybody wants to. And even if you’d like to live in Iowa, you won’t get to if you don’t pack up and move your ass to Iowa. Metaphorically, of course.

It’s a hard thing to realize. Americans, at least most Americans in uniform, really dig America. We think America is super, and that everyone else in the world should be exactly like us. Then they’d be super, too. And doesn’t everybody want to be super?

Apparently not. And, as we’ve learned, it ain’t easy to become awesome. We didn’t start out half as screwed-up as Iraq, and we didn’t decide to stop being jerks about letting black folks vote until 1965 – 177 years after we ratified our Constitution.

The American drive to make this place as much like the US as we can isn’t, I don’t think, a reflection of hatred for other, different cultures. We’ve probably all read or seen interviews with Soldiers where they’ve talked about Iraqi children, how those children made them miss their own, how they came home and hugged their children and thanked God they were born in a land of endless, boundless opportunity. Well, the American soldier is softhearted, and the urge to make this country like our own comes partly from affection. You see an Iraqi kid, and he’s not starving, not sick, just hanging out in the road begging for a soccer ball, looking at a lifetime of chasing sheep around or standing at a checkpoint on a road, or guarding an oil tower. Or she’s looking at a life under a headscarf, lucky to finish sixth grade if she’s a farm girl.

And you wish everybody on earth could have been born in Afton, Wyoming or Middleville, Michigan or Tyler, Texas. You wish every town ran like Stillwater, Minnesota, with somebody happy to make a living driving a garbage truck. You wish there were systems to encourage entrepreneurs, so that one of these small cities would be the home of the Iraqi equivalent of Steelcase.

American soldiers look at Iraq and see a nation that we wish could have all the benefits and freedoms we’re accustomed to. We’re fast approaching the point, however, where we need to back off and let the people of Iraq take their nation as far as they can in the direction they want to take it.

And so we sit on the FOB, slowing down our missions, waiting on guidance from Higher about what life after the SOFA is going to look like. We know there’s more mentoring of governments and processes, and we know there are NGOs to pull into towns and situations. But we also know the end is getting closer, and that the vast majority of what the US military can and will do for Iraq has been done.