"Boots on the city streets should be Iraqi, not foreign. Remove coalition forces from the inhabited areas, transferring them to the deserts (which are ample in Iraq)." That was my policy recommendation in November 2003 in an article titled "The case for ‘Iraqification'."
Thus it is with pleasure that I read an article titled "G.I.'s to Pull Back in Baghdad, Leaving Its Policing to Iraqis" in today's New York Times. It explains how the U.S. military is undertaking a sharp reduction of troops in Baghdad, from a peak of almost 60 operating locations in Baghdad, to 26 now, and 8 in mid-April (6 in the outskirts of Baghdad, and 2 inside the city, in the "green zone" where the coalition forces reside) As Iraqi forces increasingly police the capital, American troops are pulling back "to a ring of bases at the edge of the city." Good decision. (February 2, 2004)
Feb. 13, 2004 update: Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command and the man running the U.S. effort in Iraq, further articulated this change in outlook today, declaring that "We have to take risk to a certain extent, by taking our hands off the controls…. It's their country, it's their future. Our job is to help them help themselves." In a direct application of this approach, an Associated Press report explains,
Abizaid responded sharply when a battalion commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment described his frustration at getting the Iraqis to adopt a way to dispose of trash. "It's their problem, not your problem," Abizaid told the officer.
Feb. 13, 2004 update: Unfortunately, some Iraqis are getting the idea that they can sit back passively and wait for the coalition forces to fix things for them. This mentality is summed up in a startling statement on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. today, spoken by a Sunni leader named Mujad ash-Shamari: "America is the owner of this country right now. It is responsible."
April 24, 2004 update: L. Paul Bremer III read the Iraqis the riot act yesterday, bluntly telling them in a television address, "If you do not defend your beloved country, it will not be saved." About time, I say.
May 11, 2004 update: Recent developments – the Shi‘ite surge, the Sunni insurrection, the interrogation abuses – have changed the mood and the coaltion forces are back to taking responsibility for Iraq. Nothing symbolizes this so clearly as the news report today that the American commander in Fallujah, Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis,
told 14 sheiks and several other civic leaders about $40 million the marines had set aside for rebuilding the city, chunks of which have been destroyed in the fighting. He talked of "making Falluja a great city once again."
June 6, 2004 update: It's even worse now, with the rebuilding of Fallujah now an enticement to get good behavior from its residents. Here is an Associated Press account of what happened after three masked men today seized an interpreter working for the Marines, Hassan Abdul-Hadi, when he went to a restaurant to buy some tea:
U.S. Marines suspended assistance and reconstruction projects in a suburb of the restive city of Fallujah on Sunday. … A Marine quick response team cordoned the restaurant in Karma, about 40 miles west of the capital Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. A house-to-house search failed to find the translator.
Byrne demanded Abdul-Hadi's safe return in a meeting of local officials Sunday. "Hassan is a father of small children, he is not a member of the military but a civilian who is helping bridge the communication gap here," Byrne told the elders.
All assistance and rebuilding projects will be "suspended indefinitely until Hassan is found," Byrne said. He urged the elders to "use their influence" to get the interpreter back. "Those who kidnapped Hassan represent the worst of this society," Byrne told the elders. "I need you to find him."
Comment: This is the wrong way to approach Iraqis, treating them like children who get rewarded or punished according to their behavior. They are adults and should be treated as such, which means they are responsible for their own reconstruction and their own security.
June 10, 2004 update: The trend is getting worse all the time. A New York Times interview with Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the American commander of the First Cavalry Division and the person presently responsible for security and reconstruction in Baghdad, sends off all the wrong signals. The general worries about power blackouts as the summer temperature climbs, making plans to show Baghdad residents how to conduct free and fair elections, going over urban infrastructure projects, and fretting over who will pay the Iraqi security forces. Oh, and some of his other concerns involve water supplies, sewers, electrical grids, and landfills.
He says things like, "It's our belief that we should kick off the elections as early as we can, to push ahead with the whole concept of voter education, getting Iraqis to understand all about the electoral process."
At least he maintains a sense of humor about his task: "We had a great sewer opening the other day. I never thought I'd know so much about sewers. I had desires of leading tank formations, but that's not going to happen here." And he tries to maintain a martial quality to the work assignment: "Money is ammunition in this country, but it's got to be money spent in the right way," he said. "Where is the infrastructure worst? In Sadr City. Where are we doing the most fighting? In Sadr City."
But none of this changes the fact that U.S. troops should not be doing social work.
June 21, 2004 update: Well, at least they aren't using U.S. taxpayer monies to rebuild Iraq. In a surprising revelation by Steven R. Weisman in the New York Times today, we learn today that the $18 billion appropriated for Iraq is mostly mythical, and that what is being spend is $2.5 billion coming from Iraqi oil sales. "American occupation officials said the $2.5 billion had helped pay for security needs like police cars and uniforms, as well as repairs of schools, power grids, oil fields, state-owned factories and other sources of employment. Additional funds have been used for vocational training for young Iraqis."
Aug. 23, 2004 update: Even after the transfer of power, American soldiers continue literally to rebuild Iraq. Here is an account of a once-glamorous, now run-down Baghdad street, called Abu Nawas:
Soon after the occupation authority transferred power to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, the mayor of Baghdad, Alaa Mahmood Tamimi, decided that if he were going to heal his city, he would first have to heal Abu Nawas. At Tamimi's request, members of the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division have undertaken an ambitious $1 million project to renovate a two-mile stretch of street and park, creating a pedestrian mall with large grassy meadows, lively restaurants and fountains. Every day for the past month, soldiers have worked alongside Iraqi laborers hired for $5 a day, shoveling dirt, clearing trash and removing an outdated irrigation system. …
Col. Ken Cox, the chief engineer for the 1st Calvary Division, said the military recognizes that Iraqis are frustrated. But he said the key to winning them over is to make their lives normal again. And that, he said, is the goal behind the restoration of Abu Nawas. "Under the Saddam regime, Iraqis had nothing they could call their own," Cox said on a recent visit to the street. "Abu Nawas used to be a nightlife place, a place where lovers would come. I know it is only a small part of what all of the soldiers are doing here in Iraq, but if it ultimately helps a portion of Baghdad to return to a sense of normalcy, it increases security."
Cox said the 1st Calvary, which is also coordinating litter removal programs through the city and building water and waste treatment facilities, had not planned to fix Abu Nawas. But he said that when the soldiers met with the mayor last month and asked what they could do for him, Tamimi's first response was "Abu Nawas." …
As he walked the construction site one blazing hot afternoon, 1st Lt. Brian Mason, who is directing the restoration, pointed to stacks of tiles the soldiers and laborers had pulled up from around the statue of Abu Nawas, a tarnished likeness of the poet crouched with a jug of wine. The mayor has asked that the soldiers save the tiles for use elsewhere in the city. Tamimi and the municipality have also ordered the soldiers to remove the old tiled moats where fresh fish were kept for people to buy. …
Four Army engineering battalions are working on the project: the 239th from Arkansas, the 458th from Pennsylvania, the 411th from Hawaii and the 980th from Texas. Mason said the project is good for the soldiers whose National Guard and Army Reserve units specialize in construction. "For 3 ½ months, it's been a combat operation," he said. "Then we picked up a project like this. We're going to leave here feeling like we've done something for the Iraqi people."
Not to belabor the obvious, but American soldiers should not be doing this sort of manual reconstruction work in Iraq or anywhere else. They are not Iraq "do something for the Iraqi people" but to increase American security.
Aug. 25, 2004 update: It gets worse. American soldiers are straining to fix an Iraqi power plant in a town called Baiji, 125 miles to the north of Baghdad, as fast as they can, while "residents grow impatient." The Baiji station supplies over a third of the capital's electricity, so the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Army Corps of Engineers have invested more than $200 million into it. Oh, and an American team worked with Iraqi counterparts to restore postal service in the country, taking on such tasks as establishing postal codes and negotiating with the Universal Postal Union to get Iraq full voting-member status.
Sept. 5, 2004 update: Next, it's sewage. A New York Times article details the U.S. Army's having contracted to repair a cracked sewage line in Sadr City, a district of Baghdad. For the military, in Iraq, reporter Erik Eckholm explains, civil affairs programs "have become a near obsession." There are thousands of efforts "to repair services, build schools and clinics and soccer fields and, above all, give jobs to young men."