June 14, 2011 | The Weekly Standard
In Anbar, the Marines do what they've always done.
In Iraq's Anbar province most of the U.S. military has moved beyond counterinsurgency and into “stability operations” — but not Company K, 3/3 of the Marines 6th Regimental Combat Team. Not entirely. This flat, grassy, and serenely rural farm country a few miles northeast of Fallujah, near the town of Kharma, is one of the few areas of Anbar province that still has some insurgency left to counter.
In the three days before I arrived for my stay with 3/3, the company had found seven IEDs on the roads within a mile of their tiny base. The various platoons on patrol, billeted in local houses, were still taking small-arms and mortar fire nightly.
Captain Jaisun Hanson, the company's sober and soft-spoken commanding officer, invited me to join him on a visit to several new checkpoints of the local Iraqi Civilian Watch–the informal neighborhood guards that have been springing up in many parts of Iraq. A small convoy took us to collect “Colonel” Salam, a former officer in the Iraqi Army, nephew of a sheik who was recently murdered by al Qaeda, and now a rising leader in the area. Salam has taken the lead in organizing the ICW in this little corner of Iraq.
Salam seems to have little idea how crucial his efforts are to the Coalition. The Marines here are “pushing out” from the area around Fallujah towards the operational “seam” between their jurisdiction and the Coalition forces of the Baghdad military region to the north and west. In a methodical application of “clear, hold, and build,” the Marines are advancing a “clearing” line and backfilling it for the “hold and build” with Iraqi Security Forces and an array of civil affairs and reconstruction activities–including, crucially, the ICW.
When the major tribes of western Iraq pledged to join forces against the al Qaeda scourge, many sheiks pledged the young men of their families to organize for local protection. The commanders of the Marine Expeditionary Force have used the example of these leading sheiks to convince others to do the same. In particular, they have methodically courted each of the tribes around Anbar's two most important cities–Ramadi and Fallujah. This has been vital to establishing a “defense-in-depth” of the hard-won peace that now reigns in both cities — formerly the redoubts of the Sunni insurgency.
It's a great start. But as with any great endeavor, the road ahead is mostly obscured by daunting challenges. During my visits, I observed three immediate problems: first, how to credential the participating individuals so that they are in some minimal sense “official”; second, how to make sure they are armed well-enough to be effective; and third, how to keep a force meant to retard civil strife from becoming an accelerants of it.
The first night out we ran straight into the first of these problems at the newest of the checkpoints. Several of the ICW were armed but were missing some critical piece of identification.
The most basic kind of neighborhood watch is now operating in Anbar, requiring just a rudimentary credentialing of willing participants: their personal information and biometrics (fingerprints and retina-scans) are collected and entered into a central Coalition database for record-keeping and basic vetting. They are then given an official ICW identity card and a fluorescent yellow reflective belt.
These reflective belts, the same ones used by U.S. military personnel when they go jogging, were a clever solution, but the credentialed ICW have been passing them off their un-credentialed buddies. As a result we found armed men with weapons and ID cards but no belt (looks and smells like an insurgent); armed men with belts but no ID card (could actually be an insurgent); and armed men with neither (ditto + ditto).
The captain gently pointed out that if they want to stand around with their weapons, they had to have proper ICW identification–otherwise they would be detained, or worse. They appeared very apologetic; but one turned to me and said, grinning, “Arabs don't like rules.”
Arming the good guys
The following morning we picked up processed ID cards and belts for several dozen more ICW and went to a local school (not yet in session) to process the new “recruits.” As soon as we got there, the second of the major problems I mentioned–that of arming the ICW adequately–manifested in stark simplicity. Several of the new recruits showed up without the weapons they were supposed to bring along, and a local sheik, who had promised more men, was now asking the Marines to help him get weapons for them.
U.S. policy is to assist the emerging ICW in every way–but not with weapons. The effort to establish law and order in a country is not normally served by arming irregular forces, least of all a land that is already drowning in assault rifles; and in any case there is the question of Shiite sensitivities. Many of the Anbaris we now seek to enfranchise are former Sunni insurgents (and in some cases former al Qaeda) and some have surely committed atrocities against Shiites. They must not be armed without a thorough vetting. In any case, each household is permitted one AK-47, so in theory most recruits should have access to a weapon.
The minor villain in this comedy of the weaponless watchmen was the local sheik, a somewhat corpulent Arab who had recently returned from safety to press his title. While congenial enough, he not only strikes one as a carpetbagger, but in addition seems embarrassed about it, a demeanor which, besides being rather queer, can't be good for someone with aspirations of tribal authority. He is also reputed to have run guns for the insurgents before the Marines wiped them out.
In any case, the usually affable Captain Hanson was severe in his reaction to the sheik's entreaties and excuses: “There are certain things I can't give you. I can't you give you time and I can't give you weapons. We're running out of time. And it's time for you to get weapons.” By the next day, the watchmen were armed–or so we were told.
Staying out of trouble
Later the same day, we visited another checkpoint, where the third and potentially most serious of the problems I mentioned had already reached the stage of contention. This last checkpoint was the easternmost of those established under Captain Hanson's watch in the Albu Khalifa tribal area. It fell near the border of the next tribe to the east–the Halibusi, which is next on the list for clear, hold, and build, but is still mostly sitting on the fence, waiting to see how things turn out here.
The Khalifa men at this checkpoint had received incoming small-arms fire from east and north of their position several times during the day. They feared that worse was in store and wanted permission to move in patrols away from their checkpoints and into the Halibusa area, pressing residents either to join them or have their weapons seized.
Now here was the potential for a flare-up that could jeopardize or at least retard the prospects for a quick clearing out of what may be the only remaining insurgent pocket in all of Anbar province. Captain Hanson handled it deftly, pulling out the one card the Marines have that always calms people's nerves in this part of Iraq–namely, the Marines themselves.
He explained that the Marines were here to provide a buffer while the outlying region comes under control and the current state of nonviolence turns into real stability. He urged them to think about why they joined the force; how just as they had been motivated by the example of others, others would be inspired by theirs. “Once you show yourselves to be a legitimate force, others will want to join you–from all the tribes around here.”
Legitimacy is the exit strategy
Beyond the immediate challenges I saw, even larger and more daunting ones loom. How are these new local security institutions going to be stitched together? How are tribal authority structures going to be strengthened without weakening the constitutional scheme of local, provincial, and central government? How is lasting political reconciliation going to be achieved among people who sometime seem to trust each other less and less?
These are difficult questions–and for all of them, the Marines have studies, theories, plans, and answers. It has been inspiring to watch them implement their commanders' thinking with such a clear sense of what that thinking is. The counterinsurgency strategy advanced by General David Petraeus states that “legitimacy is the main objective.” And it is legitimacy that these Marines have really been fighting for.
For all their firepower, what may have won the battle of Anbar for the Marines was the effort they put into understanding the tribes–their customs, their history, their priorities, their way of thinking and way of life. They have learned their protocols, they have learned to share meals with them like brothers, they have learned what to say when, and what to avoid doing. As Marine General John Allen, deputy commander of Coalition forces in western Iraq, likes to tell the troops, “You can't read enough about the tribes of Anbar.”
One afternoon I had a chance to reflect with Captain Hanson on the work the Marines and their fellow soldiers do here. I told him, “you know it's amazing, but you Marines–the ones who are actually implementing all this guidance on the ground, interacting with Iraqis daily–you have such a huge responsibility. You have to understand the generals well enough to do what they would do. You even have to understand the ambassador well enough to know what he would do.” He thought about that for a moment, and said quietly, “Well, the Marines have always done that.”
Last night, Marine Lieutenant Nick Smith came back to this tiny base from an afternoon spent processing and vetting some 22 new recruits for the neighborhood watch. He was in a jubilant mood. He kept telling me–and everyone else who would listen–how great it was to see the people here standing up to protect themselves, smiling and waving and thanking the Marines. “It makes you glad to be here. It's days like today, when you feel like you getting something great done, that it's cool to be in the Marine Corps.”
Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is currently embedded with the Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq.