Scenes from a Withdrawal

What will happen to Iraqi reconstruction when all the marines are gone?

Last week I listened to Maj. Ashley Burch, a Marine civil affairs officer in Ramadi, explain a raft of ambitious reconstruction aimed to smother the town of Karmah -- a persistent center of insurgent activity -- in American largess. I was duly impressed. Then, as I walked out of the office, I glanced at a wall map of eastern Anbar province. A bright stripe of yellow Post-its ran across the 104 km highway that connects Ramadi to Baghdad, each with the words "No-Go Zone" written across the top and a date, with the more recent dates closer to Baghdad.

Over the last weeks in Anbar, signs of the ongoing U.S. withdrawal have already been evident not only in the closing of bases (a messy process well underway) but in the daily attitudes of marines of all ranks. Senior officers guffawed at the idea that one might risk a trip into Falluja to gauge atmospherics, because the responsibility for that city has long since ended, and losing a single American life to assess an imminently Iraqi-controlled city makes no sense. And grunts everywhere were kicking stones, bored to tears because they joined the Marines to fight -- not to deploy on what looks like, and is treated as, a mop-up mission.

A split personality is evident in the mission that remains. Two years ago, the "clear -- hold -- build" mantra sounded appealing, especially if you read one of those em dashes as "buy off Sunni sheikhs." Officers like Burch, as well as embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRTs) like the one I shadowed for a few days in Falluja, continue to toil away at "build," even as the irrevocable path toward drawdown cuts "hold" out from under them. Col. Matthew Lopez, the charismatic Chicagoan who is the senior U.S. marine in eastern Anbar, points out that the ePRT work has become the central focus of the Marines' mission, and that making their work possible and secure is now a priority.

But there are two types of security marines can provide. One is the type offered by the caravans of steel and gun barrels that escort ePRTs today, and then roll back into bases when the day's mission is over. The other is the near monopoly on violence that would allow the reconstruction effort to proceed truly unfettered, with freedom to walk around a city and its outskirts, to observe woebegone Iraqi farms and burbling sewage pits, and to be sensitive to how, and if, they should be fixed. The first type of security is available. The second has been missing for quite some time.

As the bases close and that No-Go Zone expands, I wonder whether programs like Burch's, called "the Karmah Initiative," have any real future. Karmah itself did not feel especially safe, though it was unquestionably healthier than three years ago. And in Falluja, where a year ago some bragged that they could walk around freely, I was warned by the mayor himself that a visit to the town's most famous restaurant would put my life in peril, though he did say the kebabs would be tastier as a result.

The Karmah Inititive involves building schools and other desperately needed facilities. And in Falluja, the Marines and ePRT are building a sewage treatment facility -- a project that costs millions, and that is struggling to reach the 4,000-household minimum necessary to get the effluent to flow smoothly through the pipes. Going forward, the ePRT will have to manage these projects from afar, with the commitment of the Marines, perhaps, but not with the free hand that the pre-SOFA U.S. military footprint provided. This drawback puts the "build" portion of the counterinsurgency trinity at a great disadvantage. If it fails, and if its failure ushers in a new era of violence and carnage, it will be difficult to recover the position the United States recently enjoyed, and it will leave Iraqi security forces in an ugly situation -- up Effluent Creek, as it were, without a paddle.



Iraq’s Mud Is Getting Wetter

As U.S. troops pull out, it's starting to look an awful lot like 2003.

It was the fall of 2003 in Iraq, autumn but still scorching. I had been there much of the year, growing more familiar with the place with each passing week and perhaps less insightful about what might be ahead. That sentiment probably made me a little more receptive to a proverb I often heard in those days, as I and legions of colleagues tried to make sense of a place where everything seemed to be in play. "The mud is getting wetter," people told me over and over, as the occupation lurched forward, violence of all kinds escalated, and more Iraqis were killed. Things are getting worse, it meant.  I would shake my head, as confused as anyone else.

The war that began that year -- Iraq's struggle for survival -- is over. The forces the U.S. invasion unleashed have run their course -- a Shiite revival, disenfranchisement of Sunnis, the import of a radical strain of Islam, and a hardening of identity. They culminated in a paroxysm of carnage that left virtually everyone in Baghdad with a friend or relative killed. Scores of journalists were there to cover it, and I suspect very few would say that anything authoritative over that period was written. Whatever courage or insight there was, it was almost impossible to tell that story.

Another struggle is under way these days. It is perhaps less dramatic, if we measure spectacle solely by the number of bodies that piled up in the Tigris River in 2006. But this struggle for power is no less important and potentially far more momentous for Iraq's identity a generation from now. And it is no less perilous. Like 2003, everything is in play, as the country's forces -- the men around Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sectarian Shiite parties, remnants of the Sunni Awakening, the Kurds, the street movement of Moqtada Sadr, and so on -- try to figure out the grand coalition that can make power stick as the Americans ostensibly leave.

For the first time in years, we can cover that struggle, fought on a landscape as confusing, complicated and nuanced as it was after the invasion. Sadly, there are far fewer journalists to do it, a fraction of the hundreds who arrived in 2003 with the Americans. As an administration, as journalists, as a public, we are disengaged from Iraq, and nothing short of another foreign invasion will probably change that. We are withdrawing, in more ways than one, even as the mud gets wetter.