This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers.

The Rejected

“They’re gonna see us going out, and know that we have to come back this way,” Captain Glenn Helberg cautioned his men. We were walking out of combat outpost Courage, northwest of Baghdad, just before nightfall. The message was simple: the enemy studies habits, trends, and patterns just as any other military outfit does; so as the platoon left the base, Helberg wanted to make sure that his men were not complacent on the way back in.

It was a hell of a way to walk to a neighbor’s house for dinner, but that was just what we were doing on this cold, clear January night. Sheik Munder, a prominent Shia in the area, had invited the captain over for dinner, and despite the fact that his house was less than a mile from the patrol base, we would be walking across open road, with flat, open land on either side, so every precaution would be taken. This rural area had been an al Qaeda stronghold until just a few months ago, before the Sons of Iraq—groups of local men paid $300 a month to man checkpoints and keep security in their area—came out in force. Given that some of these men are the same ones who were planting IEDs last year, American commanders are taking nothing for granted.

There is still plenty of daily combat going on—especially in the major remaining al Qaeda strongholds up north near Mosul, in the central “breadbasket” of Diyala, and south of Baghdad in Arab Jabour—but peaceful meetings like this are just as common. Counterinsurgency strategy places a premium on what has been called the “strategic corporal,” soldiers who have to think like an infantryman, act like a diplomat, and be able to change from one to the other on the fly. This is how the game is being played in the new, relative quiet of Iraq—especially in areas where despite the lull in daily violence, the war is still far from over.

In 1999, Marine General Charles C. Krulak wrote of the “three-block war” where soldiers in irregular conflicts “will be confronted by the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and, potentially, within the space of three contiguous city blocks.” In regions like the area around Courage, where the Iraqi national government is little more than a rumor, Krulak’s words ring true: “The individual [American service member] will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy. His or her actions may not only influence the immediate tactical situation, but have operational and strategic implications as well.”

At heart, much of this work is done by cultivating relationships—trying to show the Iraqis that American soldiers are strong but fair, an honest broker in a country rife with corruption and double-dealing, and under a government seen by most Sunnis as being sectarian at best, a tool of Shia Iran bent on violently subjugating the Sunni minority at worst.

Part of this relationship-building is figuring out who the power players are in any given region. The term “sheik,” I discovered, has become one of the more overused terms in Iraq. Once the Awakening movement (the original name for the Sons of Iraq) started in Anbar in 2006, and then moved through different parts of the country in 2007, Iraqis began popping up, assuring the Americans that they were sheiks who wielded power in their respective regions. The soldiers at Courage, (Charlie company of the 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, part of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team) are new to the area, and “a lot of guys are coming out of the woodwork trying to assert themselves saying, ‘hey I’m a sheik, I’m in charge of this whole town,’ so you have to weigh that with what the old units told us about that guy operates,” Helberg told me as we walked to Munder’s house in the thickening darkness. Apparently, sheik Munder made the cut.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.