Ramadi, Iraq — I was not told about our trip to Ramadi — provincial capital of Iraq’s Anbar province — until the night before. This was in order to preserve “operational security”: We were to meet U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and presidential envoy Meghan O’Sullivan, for a tour of what only a few months ago was the most feared insurgent stronghold in all of Iraq. No matter; no amount of warning could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.
Back home, the media has apparently gotten bored of pessimism about Iraq; optimism is now coming into vogue. The basic story (e.g., “A War We Might Just Win”) is by now familiar. At its center is the “Anbar Awakening,” in which Sunni tribes that were once bitterly opposed to the Coalition have turned in our favor and against al Qaeda.
That much I knew in advance. What I could not have imagined was the extent and tightness of the cooperation between the Americans and the local Anbaris — at every level. After four years of constant fighting, peace is unmistakably coming to Anbar province.
Helicopter Convoy to Ramadi We took off from Camp Fallujah, “divisional” headquarters of Coalition forces in Anbar, in a convoy of two Chinook helicopters, escorted by two Cobra attack helicopters. The mid-morning flight took about 30 minutes.
We passed over Lake Habbanyya, on the Euphrates, and I wondered how long that lake had been there, how many tens of thousands of years anatomically modern humans had found sustenance there. Here was the Fertile Crescent, as seen from 5,000 feet — the Cradle of Civilization. It seemed so peaceful and still from the air. If only it could be so on the ground.
Arrival of the Ambassador A few minutes after we touched down, U.S. Ambassador Roy Crocker’s party arrived from Baghdad in two Blackhawk helicopters. With the ambassador’s party was Meghan O’Sullivan. Marine General John Allen had just been explaining the importance of O’Sullivan’s visit to the governor of Anbar and the district representative for Ramadi, encouraging them to be specific and candid in expressing their views. It was obvious that he had gained both their friendship and their trust.
The official delegation greeted each other warmly, clambered into the convoy vehicles, and headed straight into downtown Ramadi.
Visit to the Market Our convoy was made up of Humvees and “Cougar” MRAPs, the new all-purpose IED-resistant transport vehicle in the Marine fleet — perhaps ten vehicles in all. In the lead vehicle as we drove through town, I was amazed to see Iraqi police everywhere on the streets, reinforced very sparsely by U.S. troops: sometimes a single soldier standing by himself at an intersection, totally exposed.
Later in the day General Allen told me that only last September, he couldn’t fight his way into the center of Ramadi unless he was “prepared to kill a whole lot of people.” Coalition forces on the move through Ramadi would have to brave a constant barrage of gunfire and RPGs. Forces ensconced in hardened positions in the city would take an aggregate of 30, 40, or 50 attacks per day. Three or four deaths were not unusual for a single day’s work.
But by April, daily attacks were falling precipitously, reaching single digits in May; and now, by all accounts, there virtually has not been an attack in weeks.
Just a few months ago, and four long years before that, these streets were the scene of bloody combat. And now here I was, walking through those same streets — loitering, actually, and out in the open — with the two most senior generals of the Marine divisional command in Anbar, a U.S. ambassador, a presidential envoy, and the governor of Anbar (who is reputed to have survived no less than 34 assassination attempts) — mingling freely with local Anbaris in a marketplace in the center of town!
Luckily, Ambassador Crocker speaks fluent Arabic. (Hat tip if someone can tell me what everyone in this clip is laughing about).
After a bit more diplomatic loitering we clambered back into our convoy and headed to our next stop. (Note to self: Next time you visit a market in a former terrorist stronghold, support the local economy and buy something.)
The Provincial Government Center The compound where the provincial government sits in Anbar — which now houses the governor’s compound, the provincial headquarters of the Iraqi national police, and the provincial council — was more sobering. It abuts a neighborhood that just a few months ago was one of the most violent in all of Iraq. The compound’s walls still bear the pockmarks of four years of constant incoming mortar, RPG, and small-arms fire. Not surprisingly, though it was shocking to behold nevertheless, much of the surrounding neighborhood stands shattered and empty where there is not simply rubble: silent testimony to having faced the withering firepower of the U.S. military. Still, even in this ruined neighborhood, there are signs of a city coming back to life: women walking from the market, young men on bicycles, “t-walls” installed by the Coalition, and freshly painted over in white, and with the flag of the new Iraq.
The provincial government center’s evolution over the past year is the blueprint for an orderly transition to peace and security — and a winning exit-strategy for the U.S. At this time last year, nearly a full battalion of the 1st Armored Division was stationed here, fighting for dear life to keep some semblance of provincial and city government together amidst constant firefights and assassinations.
But as the violence dwindled, so did the Coalition: As units of the 3rd Infantry Division came in to take over from the 1st AD, the force was drawn down to a company, and is now just a platoon, whose principal mission is to work with the Iraqi police. While the official party met privately in the governor’s office, I was lucky to stumble into a pair of fascinating interviews.
Here’s an excerpt from the first, a young Marine near the end of his four years, who explains that he intends to stay in the Corps, and in Iraq:
Here’s an excerpt from the second, an Iraqi police lieutenant who explains when and why the people of Ramadi took up arms against al Qaeda (he agreed to be interviewed as long as we didn’t show his face):
I was so focused on these interviews, that I totally missed the departure of the official delegation for our next scheduled stop — the meeting of the provincial council. Luckily, that was just next door.
Provincial-Council Meeting A few months ago, Anbaris elected to the provincial council could not come to Ramadi to meet without being murdered. Now they meet in peace. The council included almost a dozen “lineal sheiks” from the main Anbari tribes, with the U.S. ambassador at the head of the table as their official guest.
According to an Iraqi interpreter, the representatives thanked Ambassador Crocker for the Coalition’s help in restoring security and in fighting al Qaeda — and also complained of mundane things: the need for better services, more money, more protection. Here’s the scene:
I later asked the ambassador what the representatives had told him in terms of the Coalition presence in Anbar. This is what he said:
What I’ve heard at every level is that the Coalition forces are the reason the government’s even in existence. The tight partnership that General Gaskin and his forces have here with the people of Anbar, and especially with the tribes, is really the basis of all the good that we’re doing here.
Mundane Municipal Matters Matter No where was this more in evidence than at the final stop of our day-trip: the meeting with officials of the Ramadi municipal government. I spoke with several State Department officials, and their U.S. military colleagues, who helped bring me up to speed on some of the more thrilling aspects of “SWEAT”: sewage, water, electricity, and (of course) trash.
When it comes to counterinsurgency, SWEAT is no trifling matter. Last December’s revolutionary Counterinsurgency Manual, which was put together under the direction of the brilliant General David Petraeus, head of Central Command, shifts primary focus from killing insurgents to helping the civilian population, and correspondingly makes nonmilitary activities — in particular, the building of nonmilitary capacity — the central effort.
If the new manual is correct, then in Ramadi the Coalition is well on its way to victory. The State Department officials, part of the Ramadi “Embeded Provincial Reconstruction Team” (or “EPRT”), partner with the civil-affairs component of the local Brigade Combat Team — in this case, the 1st BCT of the 3rd Infantry Division — and, most important, with Iraqi “directors-general” of the various municipal departments. The Iraqi government — at all levels — is only slowly putting together the complex elements of something we take for granted in the United States: the concept of “operating budget.” In the meanwhile, through emergency acquisitions, Coalition military resources of all kinds fill the gaps that operating budgets would fill in more normal circumstances.
The officials beamed as they reported success across the board. Trash collection was basically up to targets, with most of the trash-collection vehicles fixed in recent months by U.S. military maintenance personnel. Water is distributed from a municipal water-treatment plant, through pipes that have been updated in recent months through a joint effort of U.S. military engineers and Iraqi civilian counterparts. The sewer system is perhaps worst-off, as Ramadi never had an extensive sewer system. But a project to install one is now underway. And crucially, electricity is now up to an average of nearly 16 hours per day, up from no power at all on the electricity grid from February to June of this year.
Not Staying the Course, But Staying to Help Towards the end of the day, General Allen had the perfect coda to the day’s sonata of uplifting themes:There is not a single person in this province who has lived a day under democracy. They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves. But we’re going to be standing right here with them.
His resoluteness is eminently understandable when you see what’s going one here. To see it at ground level, in Ramadi, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone in Washington would want to do what al Qaeda has tried and failed to do — disrupt the partnership of Americans and Iraqis that has brought peace to Iraq’s largest and once-deadliest province.
Alas, far from the reality of Iraq, the expediency of political survival in Washington may just impel the current congressional majority to ruin everything. Americans need to realize that we have friends in Iraq — and that those friends are worth defending and helping, for their future, and ours.