Up Close With the Counterinsurgency

The most important thing the U.S military is doing in Iraq is complicated and largely uncovered

Editors’ Note: In the coming weeks, CJR’s Paul McLeary will be filing periodic reports from Iraq. This is his second trip there for the magazine.

Last week, the news from Iraq was grim. Five U.S. soldiers were killed near Mosul, two female suicide bombers killed scores of civilians in Baghdad, and leaders of the Concerned Local Civilians—Iraqis who are paid $300 a month by American forces to police their own neighborhoods—were targeted by Al Qaeda and indigenous insurgent groups.

But there was a lot more going on in Iraq that never registered on the U.S. press’s radar; stories of the efforts of small American units, spread out among the populace as part of General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency plan, trying to build some sort of political infrastructure from the ground up. And it’s precisely these stories of a nationwide rebuilding effort that constitute much of the American war effort these days. This isn’t to say that the Baghdad press corps is ignoring these stories, only that amid the continuing violence, political instability, and the problems inherent in the CLC program, there is a more complex political, social, sectarian, and military story to tell—one that rarely filters back to the states. It’s a war that many Americans might not fully recognize.

Out in the muddy winter farmland northwest of Baghdad, wedged between Baghdad, Abu Ghraib, and Anbar province, the 760 soldiers of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, attached to the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment are in the middle of the fight.

Take combat outpost Courage, for example. Manned by the 180 soldiers of Charlie Company, the base is little more than a ring of T-walls surrounding a two-story farmhouse and a smattering of tents. Like other combat outposts across Iraq, the men of Charlie company live a Spartan lifestyle, eating their meals on cardboard trays, showering in trailers, and using portable toilets. A small trailer with several telephones and computers with Internet access is their sole connection with the outside world.

The company arrived at the outpost on January 1, and will call this dot on the map of Iraq home for the next fifteen months. It’s all part of the counterinsurgency plan that began to show successes in late 2007, taking U.S. forces away from the big bases and scattering them around the country to swim like Mao’s fish in the sea of the people.

Here, company commander Captain Glen Helberg, an affable thirty-year-old Virginian, can walk down the road to a local sheik’s house for dinner to discuss politics, and Iraqi residents can walk up to the gates to share information or lodge complaints. Helberg, and other company-grade officers like him, is doing this with little help from the Iraqi government, which hardly exists in the area, and little input from an American diplomatic corps.

Being out here, the one thing that is most striking is how cut off you feel from the political fight over Iraq back home. While pundits, politicians, blogs, and op-ed pages argue endlessly about the relative success of the “surge” and whether to pull the troops out, to the soldiers out here, the situation is vastly more complex.

There is no clear definition of victory in a fight like this. This isn’t to say that we’re winning—or losing—just that we’re at a crucial juncture where things could quickly swing back toward chaos, or ahead toward increased security and stability. The choice at this point really does lie with the Iraqi people, and their government, or whatever branches of their government are actually functioning. Meanwhile, there is a great story to be told—at Camp Courage and throughout Iraq—of the efforts of American soldiers at a crossroads, who are serving simultaneously as fighters, diplomats, civil servants, and tribal consiglieri, while trying to build trust between Sunni and Shia sheiks, the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police, local Nahia and Qada councils (think city councils) and the Concerned Local Citizens movement, any of whom might be working at cross-purposes with each other at any given time. It’s a down-and-dirty study in the application of counterinsurgency doctrine.

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