Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

Iraq: Missed Steps

On the afternoon of April 10, 2003, the day after that statue came down in Baghdad's Paradise Square, I made my way to Saddam Hussein's main palace, on the other bank of the Tigris. There had been rumors that the Marines were preparing to blast it to rubble. Instead, I found a small group of Marines combing through the vast complex, looking for documents. A few hundred Iraqis had gathered at the main entrance. In the first flush of freedom from the tyrant, the Americans were heroes. A cheer went up every time a Marine emerged from the palace.

Inside Saddam's gilt- and chintz-filled office, I found a Marine taking down one of the Iraqi flags that hung next to the dictator's desk and asking his Kurdish interpreter to translate the green Arabic lettering that ran through the middle. I'll never know why the Kurd lied, replying, "It says, 'Saddam Hussein.'" (It actually read, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great.") Delighted, the Marine took the flag out to the main portico and brandished it at the crowd of Iraqis. Then he fired up a Zippo lighter and, with a triumphant look, announced, "This is what we'll do to Saddam!"

The Iraqis were aghast. None of them understood English, and all they could see was a lanky, blond American Marine about to burn their national flag. Some of them shouted at the Marine, but he mistook their anger for enthusiasm. "Yeah! We're gonna fry his ass!" he whooped, with an exaggerated, nasal Southern drawl.

My interpreter and I were able — only just — to stop the Marine from setting the flag alight. When we explained what the Arabic lettering really said, he turned pale. "Oh, s___, man, I didn't know," he said, looking nervously at the crowd, which was seething with resentment. "Can you explain that to them?" He thrust the flag into my hands and ran back indoors.

So I found myself holding Saddam's flag and facing an angry Iraqi mob. Luckily, my interpreter had a big voice and was able to make himself heard above the din. He explained that the Marine had not intended any insult and had been misinformed by his interpreter. The Iraqis were mollified. Some made wisecracks about Kurds. I handed the flag to an old man in the crowd. He was dressed like a tribal sheik and had a kindly, weathered face. To my surprise, he gave it back to me. "You saved the flag," he said. "So you should have it."

Know Your Enemy

For years, I've recalled that story as an allegory of ignorance: despite the months of planning for the war with Iraq, U.S. troops had astonishingly little knowledge of the enemy. Their political masters were scarcely better informed. When L. Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad as the Bush Administration's proconsul, many in his entourage had only a CliffsNotes view of the country. In that first year of the occupation, most of my interactions with officials in the Green Zone — the highly fortified bubble that included Saddam's palace, from which Bremer ruled Iraq — had an upside-down feel. My interviewees had more questions for me than I for them. Some were big-picture questions (What's the difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis?). Others were nuanced (Could people hate Saddam and also hate the Americans who had delivered them from him?).

Ignorance proved increasingly dangerous. At checkpoints, U.S. troops tried to stop cars by holding up an open palm and waving downward. Iraqi drivers interpreted that as "come," not "stop." When a car kept advancing, troops shot warning shots, displaying an unnecessary hostility. Sometimes they'd shoot directly at the car, killing drivers and passengers. It was months before the troops came up with an unambiguous alternative, the outstretched clenched fist — by which time some Iraqis had died for an elementary cultural misunderstanding.

Scarcely better informed, Bremer and his team — and their bosses in Washington — nonetheless presumed to know what was best for Iraq. This led to catastrophic decisions, like the one to dismantle the Iraqi military, which sent tens of thousands of angry, weapons-trained men into the arms of the insurgency. Other institutions were hollowed out when membership in the Baath Party was declared a firing offense. Never mind that many people had joined Saddam's party because it was the only way to get a job. And those young diplomats who didn't know the difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis? Some of them got to decide how those communities would share power.

Ignorance ran both ways. In the months before the war, Iraqis displayed a remarkable lack of understanding about the U.S., the country — and more specifically, the military — that had already inflicted one humiliating defeat on them, in 1991. Saddam's officials predicted that George W. Bush would never give his troops the command to attack. Or if he did, it would be for only a swift punitive expedition followed by an equally fleet withdrawal. After Saddam's fall, leaders of the new insurgency assured me that the Americans didn't have the stomach for a long fight; a few well-aimed blows would send the leviathan home.

Some of this was pure denial, of course. But Iraqis also misread U.S. history. There were facile comparisons with Vietnam and Somalia from people whose knowledge of those conflicts came, ironically, from American movies and TV shows. One insurgent leader, a former colonel in Saddam's army, told me the Iraq conflict was "three Black Hawks down": if he could shoot down three American helicopters and drag the bodies of their passengers through the streets of Baghdad, that would turn U.S. public opinion and force Bush to withdraw his forces. Another insurgent took comfort from a video of antiwar demonstrations in Washington — until I told him the clips were from a documentary about the 1970s.

Iraqis put too much stock in the stereotypes: Westerners were soft and indolent; they would not be able to tolerate the desert heat; they did not have the guts for close combat and relied too much on remote-controlled weapons; they would be spooked by a few civilian casualties. Also, many insurgents overestimated the strength of their allies, reckoning that al-Qaeda suicide bombers and technical advisers from Iran's Quds Force would level the playing field against American armor. An insurgent commander once boasted to me that al-Qaeda's suicide bombers "are like our cruise missiles," only cheaper.

The Learning Curve

Iraqis and Americans found out a great deal about each other in the years Baghdad was my home. The lessons came at great cost. Iraqi myths and misconceptions were shattered during the course of 2004, when U.S. forces fought two bloody battles for Fallujah and the one in Najaf. The Americans coped with the Mesopotamian summer. They fought in the streets as well as from the air. Insurgents who had described them as fat and soft were now complaining of the brutal efficiency of the Marines. That winter, a tribal chieftain in Anbar province described his adversaries to me as "the beasts from hell who drink the blood of children and cannot be killed by bullets or bombs." He meant it as a compliment.

Americans learned that Iraqis could fight too. Military victory over Saddam's forces came easily, but when some of those forces dispersed into the insurgency, they proved cunning and adaptive adversaries. Iraqis didn't invent the IED, but they refined it into the deadliest weapon an outgunned enemy can deploy against modern armor. The sheer persistence of the Sunni insurgency won it grudging praise. By the end of 2005, U.S. commanders were acknowledging that it would take more than arms to draw the Sunnis in from the cold. Shi'ite militias, less disciplined and often venal, never got the same respect.

Then came the carnage of the Shi'ite-Sunni war. With hundreds of Iraqis dying daily, American diplomats and commanders could no longer afford to remain unaware of Iraq's social and religious complexities. Soon, even a platoon leader in Baghdad could authoritatively describe not only the turf battles taking place in the neighborhood under his command but also their sociopolitical context. Different groups were identified by the manner in which they killed: Sunni jihadists favored beheadings, Shi'ite death squads liked to run drills into the skulls of their victims. American troops could even tell which IEDs came from Iran by just their shape.

The enemy, Americans now knew, was not a monolith but a mosaic. There were Shi'ites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, foreign and local jihadis — plus an assortment of spies and agents provocateurs from neighboring countries. And although they all hated the occupier, they also loathed one another. Former allies were turning on one another. The insurgent who once boasted to me about al-Qaeda's suicide bombers was now complaining that the jihadis were imposing their harsh worldview on his tribe. They had executed his brother for selling alcohol. In villages and towns west and north of Baghdad, Iraqis were turning their wrath on these jihadis.

By the beginning of 2007, Americans and Iraqi insurgents reached a final, game-changing conclusion: they could work with each other for mutual gain. Sunni tribes accepted U.S. money and guns to fight al-Qaeda under a program known as the Sahwa, or Awakening. Shi'ite groups, also seeking to eliminate the jihadis, suspended their anti-Sunni pogroms to let the new alliance do its work. The Awakening was the cornerstone of General David Petraeus' surge strategy, itself the product of four years of lessons learned.

When I returned to Iraq a few weeks ago, the fruits of this understanding were plain to see. Ordinary folks were taking advantage of the drop in violence to rebuild normal lives — enjoying picnics on the Tigris, visiting new shops and restaurants, repainting homes. Al-Qaeda's bombers remained at large, but without the support of the Sunni tribes, their ability to strike was severely constrained. Former Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia leaders were not reconciled, but many had taken to politics, and rather than shoot at one another in the street, they haggled over how to share power. Neither side was shooting at the Americans.

The old Green Zone, the scene of so much misunderstanding seven years ago, was now smaller and less disruptive to the ebb and flow of the city. Inside, checkpoints once manned by American troops are now controlled by Iraqis. I was driven around by a U.S. Army major, and we stopped at every checkpoint to show our IDs: there was no special treatment for the U.S. military. I told the major the story of how Saddam's flag came into my possession. He smiled and shook his head at the ignorance of the young Marine with the Zippo. "We've learned a lot since then, haven't we?" he said.