One story that went the rounds in the Philippine National Penitentiary concerned the Cockroach Men. To hear the Bat tell it, the guards were always listening for escape plans being tapped out on the walls. "If you started tapping on walls, the guards would figure out you were trying something." No one asked the Bat how he knew, though he unquestionably belonged in the Big House. But you forgot that part and listened to the story. "So these two guys were about three cells apart on the row and they had to communicate without the guards knowing. How do you figure they did it? By pacing the corridor they knew the distance and since the only other openings into the cells were small windows to the yard they eventually came up with the idea of cockroaches." The Bat was one of those guys who had tattoos up to the neckline and right down to the cuffs. Down to his socks, too, when he wore them. But with a white long-sleeved shirt on, he looked like the perfect applicant for a chauffeur's position, if you were willing to overlook the fact that he probably knifed half a dozen guys. "So the one pulled the wings off a roach and put him on the window sill, a thread tied on, leaving it with one way to crawl. The roach eventually draggled over to the other guy's cell window with the thread and it was all a matter of pulling rolled messages along a line of sewing thread by night when the lights were out. That's how they came up with the plan." The rest was done with part of a spoon, bread paste to cover the scraping and a lot of patience. I never did learn if the Roach Men got out. But the lesson, the universal lesson in every hoosegow from Billerica to Long Bay, is that if you stick to a plan long enough it usually works in the end. A con with an inch of hacksaw blade beats the bars every time.
Because the con learns. Against most expectations it's possible that MNF-Iraq is gradually getting on top sectarian violence in Baghdad. Since Operation Forward Together started on July 9 violence in Baghdad has declined 16%, according to Maj Gen William Caldwell. Bill Roggio at the Counterterrorism Blog describes the process. Tactics developed in earlier clearing operations in Tal Afar were applied to Baghdad. Problem neighborhoods were isolated and swept out, house by house. Like a con in the calaboose MNF filed away at the problem one bar at a time.
USA Today provides a simplified breakdown of the operation. "The offensive is planned in stages and is designed to avoid an all-out attack. In the first phase, launched July 9, Iraqi security forces positioned checkpoints throughout the city. In the second phase, launched last week, Iraqi forces supported by U.S. troops began isolating and clearing parts of the city block by block. Iraqi security forces will remain to provide security once areas are cleared. When areas are stable, the government will bring economic assistance into blighted neighborhoods." This strategy is essentially what the Marines call the "3 Block War." ...
Operation Forward Together is focusing on four of the most violent neighborhoods of Baghdad: Doura, Mansour, Shula and Azamiyah. These are neighborhoods where the sectarian violence has been at its worst. Coalition forces have begun operations in Doura and Ameriya. In both cases, the neighborhoods were cordoned off, and each building was searched. "Kilometer after kilometer of barriers emplaced, building what some may call the semblance of a gated community, affording them greater security with ingress and egress routes established and manned by Iraqi security forces with coalition forces in support," as the Multinational Forces - Iraq press release describes the operation in Doura.
At Doura, attacks dropped from more than 20 a day to virtually none, according to Maj Gen Caldwell. But this happy state of affairs is likely to last only until the enemy develops a response. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom's start on March 20, 2003, the US has always been confronted with a new problem for every old one solved. As the Republican Guard and Fedayeen faded into history they were replaced by the Sunni insurgency, an amalgam of different groups. Belatedly yet eventually, the US responded; regaining control of the Syrian borders, rebuilding the Iraqi Army, recreating a government; attacking insurgent cells. But by then the threat moved on. When Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed on June 7, 2006 the main security problem had already morphed into purposefully incited sectarian violence, growing since the Golden Mosque was bombed in February that year. And Baghdad was the epicenter of the sectarian conflict, with 80% of incidents occurring there. Again MNF-Iraq responded, a little too slowly for some but in earnest; now due to actions like Operation Forward Together the threat of sectarian militias and death squads may have already peaked. Robert Burns described how British Royal Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Fry, who is deputy to General Casey, characterized the state of play.
He said there is no mass migration out of Baghdad, where the sectarian violence is worst; the central government is functioning; and the country's security forces are answerable to the government. "So what I think we have is something which is, at the very best, civil war in miniature, at the very best. But I don't think it actually even meets that definition," Fry said. Murders and other acts of violence have declined substantially in Baghdad in recent weeks, Fry added, and most other parts of the country are relatively peaceful.
Until the next problem presents itself, that is, possibly from Iran itself. No one can pretend the problems in Iraq are over and the fact that no one can confidently predict when they will ever be solved lies at the bottom of the public dissatisfaction with the war. About all the Administration can convincingly argue is the awfulness of the alternative. For Marine Lt Gen James Mattis the endpoint has become fundamentally psychological.
"It is mostly a matter of wills. Whose will is going to break first? Ours or the enemy's?" ... Mattis, who led the Marines in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and led the 1st Marine Division in the invasion of Iraq and march to Baghdad in early 2003, said he was once asked by an Iraqi when he would leave that country. "I said I am never going to leave. I told him I had found a little piece of property down on the Euphrates River and I was going to have a retirement home built there. I did that because I wanted to disabuse him of any sense that he could wait me out. ... Wars like this are winnable but you have got to have a sophisticated approach and you've got to have very sturdy and spiritually sturdy Marines who can keep their balance in the face of an extremely complex fight. It's not a small issue to wave to kids after just seeing your buddies blown up, but that shows on the most pedestrian level the kind of sturdiness that is needed in what is just a morally bruising environment where the enemy hides among the people."
The fight in Iraq makes an interesting comparison to the Congo. The conflict in the Congo is one of those phenomena which defy description. Despite the presence of the UN and the EU missions, four million people have died so far in the Congo and as many as 1,200 more are added to the toll each day. If Iraq had its roots in the Anglo-French division of the Middle East, the Congo began as Belgian King Leopold II's "Heart of Darkness" and went downhill from there. The ethnic interests of 9 African nations, the shadowy influence of foreign politics and chaos combined to create a catastrophe that cannot even be dignified as signifying anything. It isn't part of an effort to roll back Islamic fundamentalism, fascism or any other stirring cause. The Congo is simply a tragedy with no end. The Washington Post describes a childhood in Kinshasa:
Sixteen-year-old Baruti Ilanga ran away from home four years ago and now lives in the rusty brown shell of a Toyota, discarded in a cemetery-turned-garbage dump in Kinshasa. Even though there's too many mosquitoes at night and he often goes hungry, he believes he's better off than most of his countryman. "Everyone in Kinshasa is poor and hungry. At least we are happy," the boy shrugged, a half-empty bottle of pale yellow French Pastis beside him. "It is good in the street. I am free. I do what I want, when I want."
No one knows how many children and teenagers call the streets their home in Congo. Aid workers estimate between 25,000 and 40,000 children are homeless in Kinshasa alone, and tens of thousands more are said to live in the vast Central African country's other cities. Next month, the U.N. Children's Fund is holding the first census of Kinshasa's street children since the end of Congo's 1998-2002 war, which killed nearly 4 million people and destroyed the country's infrastructure.
May the census do them good. After the UN spent $450 million to supervise the first elections held since 1961 in the Congo, open fighting between the rival candidates broke out after the results were announced. Virtually the entire diplomatic corps in Kinshasa was recently pinned down in Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba's house as it was besieged by men loyal to President Joseph Kabila. The Scotsman reported how "the seriousness of the crisis became apparent, on Monday, when almost the entire foreign diplomatic corps was trapped in Mr Bemba's house as 400 troops loyal to president Joseph Kabila fought a violent battle with 200 pro-Bemba militia members. ... In the interim, 120 German and 120 UN troops went on an aggressive patrol in the city center yesterday afternoon, in what one military source described as a 'last roll of the dice'. Their mission was to clear armed militia from the boulevard, where the fighting is concentrated, before nightfall." The EU rushed 500 more men in to supplement the 1,000 European troops already there to act as a "rapid reaction force" to backstop a 17,000 man UN Peacekeeping Force, the largest in the world, yet apparently not big enough.
One gets the sense that if another problem shows up in Iraq, the MNF will puzzle over it, and like the Cockroach Men start scraping away, a little wiser each time, until maybe they get somewhere. In the case of the Congo, the hacksaw never materializes from the UN's pocket. And even if it did, no one really knows if the barred door leads anywhere. Wikipedia notes: "The war has also raised questions about sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The increase in democratization and the end of apartheid in South Africa raised great hope for the region in the post Cold War world. Some saw the prospect of an 'African Renaissance.' The seemingly unending violence in the Congo has dashed many of these hopes and damaged the reputations of a number of statesmen who were once seen as reformers."
The early years of the 21st century have been cruel to those who promised an end to history. Perhaps all that is finally possible is to clean up such evils as we can and make it to another day. For Baruti Ilanga another bottle of Pastis and another day to sing and dance in Kinshasa. And taking the death rate in Doura down from 20 to 0 is just fine too. As for the Bat the last news of him was long ago from a medium security prison where he did a roaring trade in amateur surgical enhancements to the inmate's peckers -- with a razor blade, plastic pellets and suturing -- with which they hoped to surprise their wives on the day of release. The dream goes ever on. The Cockroach Men knew the other side of the wall was just another place. But what the hell. What the hell.