Just Walk On By
Michael Totten has a remarkable article about a night out in Baghdad. Totten drove around with a unit visiting families in Baghdad. But these were house visits of an extraordinary kind. Or perhaps more extraordinarily, of an ordinary kind, because they had been going on for a long time. As Lieutenant Larry Pitts explained: (emphasisis mine)
“We’ll collect info on Shias in Sunni areas and Sunnis in Shia areas,” he told me. “We make the best of it by going out and meeting the local people. It works because we have a decent reputation around here that we’ve been cultivating for a long time. Reporters would get it more if they were with us from the beginning.”
In a society where survival is based on trust relationships, Lieutenant Pitts and his men were going the rounds of friends who were literally willing to trust them with their lives. The Americans were received as guests into the homes of their Iraqi friends where the conversation consisted of a mixture of bantar, a little shop-talk about community projects and then finally to the hard business of finding enemy agents who might be lurking in the neighborhood.
Pitts and his men respected the boundaries of loyalty which governed Iraqi society, careful never to pit one set of allegiances against an equally valued rival set of allegiances. And after the coffee was put away and the jokes had been cracked, the question the Americans had for the Sunnis was whether they knew of any Shi'ite death squads in the vicinity; and the correspondening question for the Shi'a was whether any Sunni killers were lurking about. In this circular fashion the Americans found out the killers of all stripes without crossing any red lines in the Iraqi code of honor. They were all honorable men, including the Americans who lived within the peculiar ethical niche they had carved out for themselves.
To Totten's mild surprise some of the American officers appeared to have a working knowledge of Arabic. Inquiring, he found they had learned it by immersion.
“How long did you study Arabic?” I said to him during a lull in the conversation.
“I haven’t studied it,” he told me.
He hadn’t? Most non-native speakers can’t hold down a conversation until they have studied Arabic formally for several years.
“I just listen very carefully before our interpreters translate,” he continued, “and I’ve been picking it up. I still need Nathan to help with the nuances and specifics, but I understand basically what they are saying. And they understand me even though I am not speaking correctly.”
The Army has come a long way since they first arrived in Iraq, and Lieutenant Pitts was shaping up to be a real American Arabist.
The entire evening that Michael Totten was describing was an operation of war, not only in that each house was secured by American soldiers hidden in the darkness, scanning each approach with their night vision equipment, but in that the Lieutenant and his men were embarked on political and intelligence warfare of the serious kind. Totten writes:
This was an intelligence gathering operation. It was, more or less, spying. The only difference is that the soldiers were up front about it, even though (and this is not contradictory) no one said anything about intelligence gathering yet. Nobody had to. Everyone knew what was up. The United States military has better things to do in Iraq than socialize just for the sake of socializing.
That doesn’t mean the food and gifts and chit chat were a sham. The friendship and affection between these Americans and Iraqis is real. Several soldiers and officers told me that what surprises them most about their time in Iraq is how emotionally attached they’ve become to Iraqis in general and to specific individuals in particular. They didn’t expect it, but that’s what happened. And it’s considered a waste of that friendship to talk strictly business. The business wouldn’t be possible anyway if the friendship and trust weren’t there first. ...
“We’ve been getting to know these people for months,” Lieutenant Pitts told me before we arrived at the house. “We thought if we got to know them as people and promised to protect them from violence that they would help us win the war against the insurgents. And it works.”
“In the four years you have been here,” our host said, “only lately have you finally come around and talked to us about what we want and need.”
Recently Barack Obama declared that there was no military solution in Iraq. And Obama is doubtless correct. But his statements imply a belief that politics and security are separate tracks. That security operations consist of shooting and that political work consists of diplomats sitting down with national officials, ambassadors and foreign ministry officials. "No military surge can succeed without political reconciliation and a surge of diplomacy in Iraq and the region. Iraq’s leaders are not reconciling. They are not achieving political benchmarks. The only thing they seem to have agreed on is to take a vacation."
What Obama might be missing is the idea that quantity -- such as the quantity of time spent understanding the language, culture and the people involved -- often creates a quality of its own. The activities that Michael Totten described belong to a limbo world that would have fallen between the doctrinal cracks of the armed forces and the state department. It is a world in which kinetic operations, counterinsurgency, political work, development and personal friendship form one continuum.
Later in the evening Michael Totten and Lieutenant Pitts move on to another meeting. It is with a Sunni in a Shi'ite area and the encounter is more furtive. Totten is witness to a conversation in which an Iraqi clearly puts his life in Pitt's hands. Totten is allowed to overhear the conversation -- and thereby hold the Iraqi's life in his hands -- because of a trust relationship. Totten is with Pitts and Totten is American.
Those [previous] men were Shias who lived among Sunnis. Next we would meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias. We drove for five minutes, parked the Humvees, and quietly, casually, walked to a different part of the neighborhood. I had no idea where we were going, and we seemed to take random turns to disguise our intent and direction in case anyone watched. Then, out of the blue, Lieutenant Pitts tried not to look obvious as he rang somebody’s doorbell. ...
The Iraqi man works for the Baghdad government at a ministry I will not identify in the Green Zone. He showed us his card. “I would never show this card outside the gate in this neighborhood,” he told me. ...
“Jaysh al Mahdi kidnapped eleven people from this area, killed them, and left their bodies in the dump,” the man said. “I can provide you with the names of the people who did this.” ...
Considering where the man worked, I believed his information was credible. So did Lieutenant Pitts. “Colonel [omitted] in the Iraqi Army works with intel files,” the man said. “He pulls files on individual Sunnis and has them assassinated one by one. I know someone who killed 25 people. I reported him to the Iraqi Army and they reported him to the U.S. Army. He was detained for two days and let go. What the hell is going on?”
Lieutenant Pitts shook his head. “I will take care of it,” he said.
“I told this to a different Iraqi Army Colonel,” the informant said, “a man who I thought could be trusted. He said he would help, but he didn’t do anything. You know, Iran is providing weapons to these people. The same guy who killed all these people wants to operate in the [omitted] area. I would give you chai [tea], but it’s the middle of the night.”
And here we come to the secret heart of counterinsurgency warfare; one not easily described in terms of "exit strategies" or "diplomatic engagement" or "effects-based operations". It is a place where the human terrain counts for as much as the topographical one; where a social Global Positioning System is as important as the one provided by satellites revolving in the heavens above. This is not the war the US armed forces knew how to fight. It is one they have learned to fight. And whether the scene of action is shifted to Afghanistan (as Obama wants) or to the Horn of Africa; whether the conversation is conducted in an Ethiopian tribal language or Pashtun they will be about the same things.
“Thank you, lieutenant,” the man said.
“And from now on we will only speak on the phone. For your protection. If I see you on the street I will just casually say Salam Aleikum and walk right on past.