Dealing with the Iraqi Populace: An Arab-American
Editor's Note: The author recently completed
an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq where he served with Special Forces
Operational Detachment Alpha, with a maneuver battalion, and as
a personal translator and cultural advisor to the commander of Task
Force Freedom (a two-star command). This variety of jobs was possible
because of his fluency in Arabic and familiarity with Arab culture.
He wrote this article to help units deploying to or already in Iraq.
It is one Soldier's perspective on what we are doing right and what
we can do better.
Although coalition forces have been in Iraq
for over three years, some commanders still do not fully understand
how important cultural and human factors are to the success of the
counterinsurgency. Commanders need to realize that the unconventional
fight primarily revolves around the Iraqis, not the insurgents,
since the Iraqis are the center of gravity in this war. As long
as coalition forces continue to measure their daily progress solely
on the number of terrorists killed and the number of suspects in
custody, real progress will be delayed. If coalition forces react
only to the insurgency and fail to mobilize the Iraqi people, then
the insurgency potentially will be a long one.
How can we get the Iraqis to support us in
the counterinsurgency fight? The answer is very simple-improve the
quality and increase the quantity of our cultural training prior
to deployment, so that soldiers and commanders will be able to understand
and respond to the needs of the Iraqi people.
We cannot expect the troops to understand Iraqi
culture simply by viewing a one- or two-hour powerpoint(r) presentation.
Cultural training should represent a large portion of the troops'
predeployment training, especially for maneuver and civil affairs
units. During this phase, the troops should learn basic Arabic words,
gain some understanding of Islam, and focus on becoming familiar
with the terrain, history, ethnicities, level of cooperation, And
prior coalition activities in their area of operations (AO).
In a perfect world, the redeploying unit would
provide this information to the deploying unit so that it would
be readily available to the troops and their leaders. But units
preparing to redeploy rarely have the resources or the time to prepare
an extensive briefing for the relieving unit, so another option
would be to create an Iraq-Afghanistan center that debriefs, collects,
and prepares such information and other lessons learned from returning
troops and commanders. This center could brief deploying units on
cultural issues, needs of the local people, And significant events
in their specific AO, as well as provide overall lessons learned
from other AOs.
Cultural knowledge accrued during predeployment
training will serve the troops well when they conduct dismounted
patrols and raids, man checkpoints, or otherwise interact with the
locals. It will allow troops, commanders, and the civil affairs
staff To draw a fair picture of what to expect once they are on
the ground, and it will aid planning.
On the Ground in Iraq
Once in theater, with a solid understanding
of The culture, commanders can better relate to the people. Commanders
should spend time engaging local leaders and interfacing with the
public to understand the community's needs and expectations; political,
religious, and social relationships; and greatest concerns.
During these engagements, the commanders and
their staffs need to assess the influence, qualifications, and capabilities
of Iraqi Government officials and military leaders in the area.
During my deployment, I witnessed several appointments of Iraqi
officials as vice-governors, mayors, and chiefs of police based
on family and political affiliations rather than qualifications.
I met numerous commanders from both the Iraqi army and the Iraqi
Police who were promoted for political purposes from lieutenant
to lieutenant colonel or from major to brigadier general and assigned
to command battalions or brigades. Such appointments and promotions
never sat well with the local Iraqis. With a greater understanding
of the societal relationships in their AOs, commanders would be
more likely to recognize, and could perhaps prevent, situations
that would destabilize a community.
Armed with cultural knowledge, commanders will
also understand that they have to pay close attention to how they
interact with mukhtars, sheiks, mayors, and other influential Iraqi
leaders. A commander should take pains not to visit too often or
spend too much time with any one leader; otherwise, they will be
open to charges of favoritism toward certain individuals, tribes,
Such social engagements are time consuming,
require a lot of patience, and may even interfere with daily operations,
but they are essential to keep the channels of communication open;
in fact, These engagements are key to the stability of the AO. Commanders
should meet with local officials on a weekly basis to share information,
discuss the area's critical issues, and determine how they can solve
Main Iraqi Concerns
As they engage with their Iraqi counterparts,
commanders will learn about the community's primary concerns. These
may include issues such as the need for better security or the need
to eliminate corrupt government officials in the area, but, throughout
Iraq, the most critical concerns are fuel, electricity, employment,
and heath care.
Fuel shortages. Because the Iraqi government
continues to struggle with fuel shortages and demand for fuel is
increasing, each AO requires a fuel control plan. Commanders should
use Iraqi security forces and local officials to create a fuel distribution
plan for gas stations in their AOs. One very effective plan was
executed in the Tigris River Valley, in an area about 40 miles south
of Mosul. Squads from either the local police or the army were sent
to all gas stations to establish order, ensure a fair distribution
of gasoline, and, most important, To eliminate price gouging and
black market fuel sales. This approach let Iraqi citizens pump their
share of fuel for the same price at any gas station. It also kept
them from waiting all day in line only to find out that no fuel
was left because the gas station owner had sold most of it to the
black market Merchant.
Electricity. Distribution of electricity in
Iraq is unreliable and unfairly apportioned. For example, in Mosul
some neighborhoods had electricity flowing through their lines for
over 20 hours a day, while neighborhoods on the other side of the
city received only 4 to 6 hours of electricity a day. The electricity
in both areas came from the same power plant, so why the unbalanced
distribution? The answer: either the insurgents or abusive local
Iraqi government officials controlled the distribution of electricity.
Insurgents often destroy the lines that supply
electricity to certain districts because they use those districts
as safe havens. No electricity means no light at night-a distinct
disadvantage to coalition forces conducting night raids. Insurgents
also shut down electricity to signal when coalition forces are present
in an area.
The second reason for irregular distribution
of electricity is that some Iraqi Government officials pressure
engineers in charge of power plants to provide continuous service
throughout the day to their towns or neighborhoods. They have no
regard for shortages in other areas.
In either case, coalition commanders should
get involved in fixing the problem. They should recommend that their
Iraqi security force counterparts increase the number of patrols
around power plants or even put a platoon or squad in each plant.
If a local Iraqi official's selfishness is the reason for the unfair
distribution, the commander should try to resolve this issue with
the local official. At the same time, the commander should push
the issue up through the chain of command, even though it may take
months and sometimes years for the Iraqi Government to take corrective
Employment. Because Iraqis always get their
hopes up for better employment opportunities when a new unit arrives
in their area, commanders should plan their civil affairs missions
before they enter the theater. A large part of the planning should
be based on information from the unit they are relieving; they should
have a good idea which projects have priority. This will also keep
the incoming civil affairs staff from assuming that every village
needs new schools, new roads, water projects, and the like. The
reality is that Iraqi infrastructure needs vary from one village
or city to another. An effective civil affairs plan should be based
on the needs of different sectors and take into account what coalition
forces have already accomplished. It should also include any long-term
projects previously discussed with the residents, so that both the
departing and incoming civil affairs teams will be on the same page.
After one month in country, it is time to start
discussing the projects list for the area with local sheiks, mayors,
and mukhtars. The civil affairs officer should explain to the residents
that the projects list is the result of coordination with the departing
unit commander and feedback received from the local community. In
this way, the civil affairs officer demonstrates that Iraqi input
is important to the coalition and incorporated in the coalition
plan. This will minimize the distrust locals have for the new civil
affairs staff during the transition period. Unfortunately, departing
units sometimes promise a village a project that never gets off
the ground because the incoming unit decides that it is Not a priority
or because the leaders don't want to get involved in any civil affairs
The civil affairs staff should put in place
a fair and equal bidding process. This process should give priority
to local contractors, but if an outsider wins the contract, he should
be required to hire locals to work on the project. This approach
will serve both the locals and the coalition by creating jobs in
the area. It will also allow the civil affairs section to keep a
close eye on the contractor by talking with the local workers. The
civil affairs staff should also pay close attention to the contractor
who ends up winning project bids all the time, because the Iraqis
may interpret it as favoritism.
Units should track the history of past and
current contractors, particularly the quality of their work. There
have been incidents in which contractors started a project but never
finished it and, in some cases, even took the project funds and
disappeared until new units arrived in the area. Then they reappeared
and bid successfully on new projects, because the new civil affairs
section wasn't aware of the contractors' history.
Civil affairs should also do a better job assessing
a project's cost before placing it on the list for bidding. According
to Iraqi civilians, the coalition has overpaid on numerous projects.
Health care. Public health in Iraq is in free
fall, and health care is often triage care at best. Because Iraqi
health care services lack medical infrastructure, equipment, and
staff, the coalition should seize the opportunity to strengthen
bonds with the locals by creating a medical assistance program that
satisfies Iraqis' basic medical needs. The program should consist
of frequent visits by coalition medics to clinics, hospitals, and
villages to conduct medical screening and provide basic health care.
Such a program benefits the locals and provides training for Iraqi
doctors and nurses. Coalition medical programs should not become
the primary care in the region, but they can strengthen ties with
the local community.
Building Ties to the Community
During my time in Iraq, I was able to observe
various American, coalition, and Iraqi units. The most effective
were always the ones with close ties to the local community. The
average Iraqi does not want chaos. He wants a chance to raise his
children and provide a better life for them. If we show him how
to do so, he will support us-not the terrorists.
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