Passing the Torch

Iraqi Army soldiers and National Policeman receive certificates for civil-military operations training at FOB Taji. (photo by John Goodman)

As I've mentioned before, the name of the game in civil affairs is to improve the lives of ordinary citizens located in a country in which violence is a problem or could potentially be a problem. By using constructive means to solve problems rather than destructive combat force, the idea is that more people will want to be helped by our military. One of the tenets of the US Army's civil-military operations (CMO) program has been to enable Iraqi institutions -- the Army, the National Police, municipal governments, etc. -- to eventually operate without the level of assistance they currently receive from the Coalition Forces. For the past several months, the US Army has been training officers and noncommissioned officers from the Iraqi Army and National Police to conduct their own CMO missions -- of extreme importance in a country where the Army's hold on security is sometimes tenuous, and where many people simply do not trust the police. It is hoped that passing the CMO torch will bolster efforts by US forces to improve popular trust in the Iraqi government.

In his speech on Friday at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- the 2nd Marine Division's home base -- President Barack Obama outlined details for troop withdrawal in Iraq, pledging to withdraw combat troops by August of next year, and all troops by the end of 2011. Out of the 142,000 troops currently stationed in Iraq, 35,000 to 50,000 will remain, with the stated purpose of protecting American civilian and military personnel still working here. With US forces already taking somewhat of a backseat role and increasing pressure on Iraqi authorities to field their own problems, beefed-up CMO seems a prudent course of action. Based upon recent history, if Iraqis are not satisfied with the job their government is doing providing security and basic services for them, increases in sectarian violence are likely to be seen as peoples' allegiances drift into the camps of factions making promises of better living conditions.

This week's class of CMO trainees was also the first batch of Iraqi noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to have graduated from the course. Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy, commander of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion -- which will be working more closely with Iraqi Army and National Police units in a civil-military capacity once they are trained -- attended the graduation this week with a handful of other soldiers from the 301st Civil Affairs Brigade. The ceremony was held at Forward Operating Base Taji, where many of the Iraqi Army's troops are trained. Traveling by car on a normal freeway, Taji is probably about a 20 minute drive from Camp Liberty -- where the 425th is based. But factor in five MRAPs that aren't permitted speeds of more 35 miles per hour and are required to call an all clear message on the radio every time they pass under a bridge, and the trip stretches into an hour or more.

Since the convoy didn't end up leaving Liberty until well after dawn, the ride afforded good views of the roadside scenery. Just when I thought I'd seen the worst litter imaginable, the convoy lumbered past the most offensive, post-apocalyptic trash heap I had ever seen. Vast swaths of refuse dotted with plumes of smoke from abandoned burn piles stretched as far as the eye could see. Sheep and cattle grazed the in it, and there were actually houses -- cobbled together from mud bricks and other bits of old junk -- scattered amongst the gray and brown filth. At one point, the smoke from burning trash became so thick that visibility on the freeway was reduced to about 50 meters. "Ugh! It smells like chemical agent," a soldier's voice squawked over the intercom. "Better remember that when you fill out your post-deployment health assessment," quipped another.

Taji wasn't in a complete state of disrepair, but vines covered a lot of the buildings, and overall, the installation looked unkempt. According to one of the interpreters riding in our convoy, it used to be Iraq's largest army base, and was about as squared away as a base can get. He was drafted into the Iraqi Army in 1980 -- when he was 18 -- and kept in for 11 years, for what he said was his utter lack of interest in becoming involved with Saddam's Baath party. Life was miserable in Saddam's army, he said, but the bases and the country in general were in better repair. When we had passed the trash fields, he said that in the old days, local administrators faced imprisonment if trash were allowed to pile up. Then again, if you weren't interested in playing by the party's rules, you probably weren't going to enjoy many of the fruits of Saddam's leadership. Our interpreter's assessment seemed exemplify the big catch-22 of Iraqi society: which is better, brutal repression and order, or freedom of choice and utter chaos?

The week-long CMO course included 37 students -- Iraqi NCOs -- who had been instructed by a group of American officers and NCOs. The class was broken into modules that included power point presentations and practical application scenarios in which the students had a chance to make assessments of hypothetical situations they might encounter in the course of their regular duty. Squatters, internally displaced persons camps, disgruntled local leaders, and the presence of insurgents were some of the topics covered, and a departure from previously relied upon methods of dealing with some of these incidences was sought. "What we're looking for is developing a way of thinking and looking at things, and understanding the wider situation," said Major Mark Berman, one of the course instructors. "[The students] did very well. These guys were very teachable."

During a question and answer session held before completion certificates were handed out, students had a chance to rate the class and show off their newly acquired knowledge. Clad in the blue and black digital camouflage uniform of the Iraqi National Police, Sergeant Ahamed Hachmim noted that he has never received any training with how to deal with people during his three years as a police officer. "Now, when you go on a mission, you know how to talk to people -- when to raise your voice and when to be nice," he said. "The National Police is more qualified to interact with the civilian population [because] it is always inside the country. The military is supposed to [work outside]." Born and raised in the infamous Sadr City, the 23 year old Hachmim is National Police instructor, and will most likely pass on what he has learned to other National Policemen. He noted, however, that even though things are getting better in Baghdad, he still tells his neighbors in Sadr City that he's a teacher, as those who work with the US government in any capacity often receive death threats from insurgents.

A few weeks ago, Major Berman and his team were teaching CMO classes up north in Mosul, where security is not as assured as in Baghdad. "[Mosul] was tense. There was still far more concern about combatants and the strength of the insurgency," he said. "The day we left was the day we got hit by a suicide bomber and lost four people. The Iraqi Army 2nd Division is still trying to get Al Queda Iraq out of Mosul." Despite continuing security problems in Mosul and Diayala, Berman pointed out the formerly violent Al Anbar Province as a success story, and said that Baghdad is the most peaceful area of the country; a key area for others to model. "In the last year, Baghdad has improved about 1,000 percent."

Lieutenant Colonel Handy said that he and his company commanders have begun compiling a list of Iraqis who have received CMO training so that they can meet with them in the near future to discuss project planning. "The end state is increased capacity for civil-military operations," he said, explaining that a big part of civil-military operations is getting a better idea of the big picture to facilitate better planning.

Iraq's future outlook relies heavily upon the ability of Iraqi institutions to garner the faith and support of the populace, and only time will tell whether or not that will happen. In the meantime, training and programs designed to enable Iraqi municipalities to better function and support themselves has been a major focus for Coalition Forces in the Iraq Theater of Operations. After regularly going out on civil affairs missions for the past month, a line I've heard Civil Affairs Team leaders repeat to Iraqi government officials and military officers has been, "You guys need to figure out how to do that yourselves. We're stepping back."

As this class of Iraqi NCOs stepped up to receive their graduation certificates, their instructors sounded confident in their abilities to continue working to keep peoples' loyalty with the legitimate government and away from insurgents. "We can win more battles with caring and compassion than any amount of bullets," said Sergeant Gian Bonetti, one of the course instructors, to the freshly-graduated CMO trainees.

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