View Full Version : The Final Mission

01-28-08, 08:10 AM
January 27, 2008
The Final Mission, Part I

FALLUJAH – At the end of 2006 there were 3,000 Marines in Fallujah. Despite what you might expect during a surge of troops to Iraq, that number has been reduced by 90 percent. All Iraqi Army soldiers have likewise redeployed from the city. A skeleton crew of a mere 250 Marines is all that remains as the United States wraps up its final mission in what was once Iraq's most violent city.

“The Iraqi Police could almost take over now,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin told me. “Most logistics problems are slowly being resolved. My platoon will probably be the last one out here in the Jolan neighborhood.”

“The Iraqi Police in Jolan are very good,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added. “Elsewhere in Fallujah they're not as far along yet. Theoretically we could leave the area now and they would be okay, except they would run out of money.”

There's more to the final mission than keeping the Iraqi Police solvent, however. The effort is focused on the Police Transition Teams. Their job is to train the Iraqi Police and bring them up to international standards so the locals can hold the city together after the last Americans leave.

A senior Marine officer whose name I didn't catch grilled some of his men during a talk in the Camp Fallujah chow hall after dinner.

“Do you trust the Iraqi Police?” he said to a Marine who works on one of the teams.

“No, sir,” the Marine said without hesitation. That was the only acceptable answer. This was a test, not an inquiry.

“Why not?” the officer said.

“Because they're not honest,” the Marine said.

“What do the Iraqi Police watch?” the officer said. “What are they looking at on a daily basis?”

“Us,” said several Marines in unison.

“They will emulate you, gents,” the officer said. “They. Will. Emulate you. Why? Because we came over here twice and kicked their ass. I do not trust the Iraqi Police today. Our job is to get them up to speed. They don't need to be up to the standard of Americans. But they do need to be better than they are right now.”

The Marine Corps runs the American mission in Fallujah, but some of the Police Transition Team members are Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. “We're like the red-headed stepchild of units,” one MP told me. “We're from different units from all over Texas, as well as from the Marine Corps.”

One Texas MP used to be a Marine. “I decided I would rather defend my state than my country,” he said jokingly. “But here I am, back in Iraq.”

After I adjusted my embed to focus specifically on Police Transition Teams, I was nearly surrounded by young men from Texas. Many seemed to instinctively understand Fallujah's infamous provincial “nationalism.”

“Fallujah pride is like Texas pride,” I heard from several MPs who, unlike Iraqis from Baghdad, didn't think that was a bad thing.

Training Iraqis to replace Marines is a lot less dangerous than fighting a war, but it's harder. Every single American who has an opinion one way or the other told me it's harder. Iraqis are not lumps of clay or blank slates that can be hand-molded or written on. They are human beings with their own complex history and culture. Most recently they were the brutally micromanaged subjects and enforcers of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If the Americans fail to field an effective local police force, Fallujah may go the way of Somalia and Gaza all over again – and next time there may be no one to save them.

Maybe it will work, and maybe it won't. The Iraqis lag more than a hundred years behind their teachers. “They're where the American police were in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” said Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a resident military expert in American Criminal Justice. You can see the broad outlines of what he means in old American movies that take place on the Western frontier in places with names like Dodge City. Corrupt lawmen sometimes sided with bad guys while decent, yet weak, lawmen cowered while gunslinging thugs terrorized entire communities.

Officially, on paper, the Americans don't trust the Iraqis. The real world, though, is more complex and…human.

“I trust them little by little,” one MP said as he summed up the majority's actual view. “I trust some of them, the ones we're directly involved with and have a real relationship with. Otherwise, no, not really. I don't. They act like a bunch of third graders, and there's no telling what they do behind closed doors. But when we're out there with them they're doing their job, what they're supposed to do.”

The Americans in Fallujah trust the Iraqi Police a lot more than the Iraqi Police trust the civilians. Many Iraqi Police officers still cover their faces when they go outside the station. They don't want to be recognized, and therefore possibly targeted, by any remnants of the insurgency. Some Iraqi Police won't let me take or publish their photographs.

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02-12-08, 09:35 AM
February 12, 2008
The Final Mission, Part III

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They're always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it's orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

“If we find Al Qaeda guys or weapons traffickers, we capture them,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin said. “Iraqi Police, though, are too rough with detainees, more than I think is morally acceptable. They are rough before anything has been proven. They aren't hitting them, necessarily, but they are pushing them and throwing them around. We report this to Captain Jamal in Jolan. He takes care of it.”

Many Iraqi government officials and police officers have a hard time adjusting to the standards expected of them, but a small number are real stand-up guys who want to do the right thing.

“Captain Jamal is very pro-active,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “That's not a typical trait among Iraqis, except, unfortunately, among the insurgents. He's pro-active in building up the community, not just in fighting insurgents. He throws parties. He holds town hall meetings. He rents a tent, chairs, loudspeakers, cameramen, everything that matters. He spends money out of his own pocket. Where he gets that money, I don't know.”

The regions of Iraq that suffered most from the insurgency are, perhaps not surprisingly, more strongly anti-terrorist than other parts of the country. Likewise, Iraqis from these regions who suffered the most tend to be more committed to responsible moderate politics.

“Captain Jamal's brother's house was blown up and he was killed,” Lieutenant Barefoot said. “He was targeted because his brother is an Iraqi Police captain. It was a highly motivating experience.”

I rode with four Marines in a Humvee to the Karmah station for the human rights class. On the way we heard gunshots.

“I'm hearing heavy gunfire,” our gunner said. He stood in the open-air turret on top of the vehicle and could hear better than we could. All I heard was the roar of the engine.

“Where's it coming from?” Lieutenant Montgomery said.

“From the south,” the gunner said. “It sounds like a heavy fire fight, sir. I think it might be at the sheikh's house.”

Well, I thought. I was just outside Fallujah and getting closer to Baghdad. Something dramatic was bound to happen sooner or later if I stayed in the area long enough. Right?

Not necessarily.

While trying to figure out what was going on, we pulled into the parking lot at the station and found the local sheikh in an argument with Anbar Provincial Security Force officers and Marines. He was trying to secure the release of several Al Qaeda ringleaders and IED makers who had just been captured and who were partly responsible for the vicious murder and intimidation campaign that had only recently ended.

“You have to let them go,” the sheikh said.

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