Julian Barnes has a must-read in this week’s U.S. News, part of a cover package from Iraq.
How does a bad guy go from defiantly proclaiming “I kill Americans” to this–being useful?
As the clock approaches midnight, [U.S. Major] Fox’s gamble pays off. [Iraqi intel officer] Majeed calls. Nashwan ["I kill Americans' guy] has begun talking, giving his real name, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, and revealing the location of a cache of weapons. Within minutes, Fox arrives at Majeed’s base with four Strykers. Majeed outlines his plan. Three of the Strykers–equipped with thermal imaging gear that allows soldiers to see at night–will form an outer cordon. Then one of the Iraqi platoons will form an inner cordon, while the other searches for the suspect vehicle in a parking lot. Fox nods: The plan sounds good. Gently, he suggests that Majeed take a squad of Americans into the parking lot with him. Majeed agrees.
The Iraqis bring along Nashwan, his eyes blindfolded with blacked-out goggles and his hands bound. The parking lot, it turns out, is less than 200 yards from a polling site. It’s so close, in fact, that the raiding party passes a group of American engineers installing protective barriers around the voting area. With Nashwan’s help, the Iraqis quickly locate a van with weapons concealed in a roof compartment–three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, two sniper rifles, an antitank rocket launcher, and a stash of ammunition, grenades, and rockets. It is, Nashwan says, all of the cell’s weapons. Fox turns to Majeed. Both men grin broadly. “This is a major win for the IA [Iraqi Army],” Fox tells him. “This is the best combined operation we’ve had.” Fox is ecstatic. It is his greatest victory yet in his four months in Iraq. This is what the Americans ought to be doing, he thinks: helping the Iraqis help themselves.
Well, by getting around the rules. More:
There is a problem, though. The American military’s regulations say that an Army unit can hold and question a detainee for only three days before he must go to a regional detention center, since battalion jails are not meant to be long-term holding facilities. After 2 1/2 years of occupation, many insurgents know the policy–and so keep their mouths shut while getting the “three hots and a cot” provided by the Americans.
This time, however, Fox thinks he can get around the rule. A little after 8 p.m., Fox arrives at western Mosul’s main police detention facility, the One West police station, to pick up the two detainees. Some of the officers are reluctant to let the Americans take the prisoners, but Fox heads over to the jail to see Col. Abed Hamid Hassan, the Iraqi Police Department’s intelligence officer. A few minutes later, Fox returns with Nashwan and Adel. They look nervous as their wrists and ankles are cuffed together and they’re led off to one of the battalion’s Stryker armored vehicles.
But Fox has no intention of actually taking custody of the two detainees. Rather, his plan is to turn them over to a man waiting in the courtyard: Maj. Sabah Majeed, the intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army 2nd Division–and a former interrogator in Saddam Hussein’s army. Fox has been coy with the police about this because there is a good deal of bad blood between the police and the Iraqi Army in Mosul, as is the case throughout most of the country.
For the past year, Iraqi Army units have received intense training in Mosul. American Special Forces units have drilled Iraqi Army companies on tactics. Military training teams have focused on teaching Iraqi staff officers mission planning. And the infantry battalions in Mosul conduct joint operations daily. The strong interest and focus have made the Iraqi Army units in Mosul quite effective. On raids the Iraqi soldiers often still swarm the buildings, rather than moving deliberately like an American infantry squad, but they know how to hunt insurgents.
The police have received far less training. Many of the American patrol leaders in western Mosul believe the police commanders in their neighborhoods are corrupt. And both the Americans and the Iraqi Army fear the police force could collapse again if challenged by insurgents. For their part, the police complain that the Iraqi Army soldiers shoot at them without cause. The all-Sunni police force in western Mosul also regards the Kurdish battalion in that part of the city as an occupying force. The reason is that when the Americans created the new Iraqi Army, they allowed Kurdish militia units, known as peshmerga, to join en masse. Though the Kurdish force is technically part of the Army, the Kurds, the Iraqi police–everyone, it seems, but Fox–still call its members peshmerga. Fox views repairing the police-Army relationship as one of his most important missions. “If you look at history,” Fox says, “no counterinsurgency effort has been successful in any war without the police and army working toward a common goal.”
His bosses are none to happy with Major Fox, despite the success. But did he simply do what needed to be done? Certainly sounds like his approach may beat the “three hots and a cot” approach.Or some middle ground….regardless, it certainly has got to be discussed, as policy is made for these guys far away from the frontlines.
…Fox has a clear perception of the larger mission for his battalion–and that of all the American forces in Iraq: getting rid of insurgents by building the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army and police. The 1-17 battalion’s senior officers all share that vision. But they are divided on how best to achieve the goal. The battalion’s top leaders, the commander and the executive officer, are by-the-book soldiers who believe that bending the rules could cause the American Army to lose its way in Iraq. Fox, on the other hand, is a get-it-done guy. He began his career invading Grenada as an enlisted grunt. And today, he is the kind of officer who chafes at rules when they seem to stand in the way of taking down a terrorist cell. Although he believes America must teach Iraqis, he also believes in letting the Iraqis carry out missions in their own way.
It is an important debate about the way ahead in Iraq. How should America balance winning the war against the insurgency with maintaining its image and values? And how should American soldiers balance letting the indigenous police and Army do things their way while making sure they comply with western standards? These are questions the military has not faced since Vietnam. The arguments in the 1-17 battalion also show how the American mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison–and fear of another scandal–continue to loom over everything the military does, further complicating a mission rich in complication.
Read the whole piece here