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The Big Picture

425th Civil Affairs Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy preparing to go outside the wire. (photo by John Goodman)

"Please continue living the legend until you reach the edge of the building," a straight-faced specialist said, handing me my ID badge as I was leaving Multi National Division - Baghdad (MND-B) headquarters one day. Since the US Army 4th Infantry Division ended its yearlong deployment on February 10, the job of running MND-B has belonged to the famed 1st Cavalry Division, commanded by Major General Daniel Bolger. The 1st Cav has many traditions to go along with the door guard's curious farewell, including the wearing of ceremonial cavalry hats and a life-sized plastic horse named Trigger who watches over the corridors of Division Headquarters. The day they took over, Camp Liberty was already rife with reminders of who the new sheriff in town was; miniature Triggers, special newspapers, and of course, the combat patch -- larger than most other units' -- that everyone is now required to wear upon their right shoulder were instantly ubiquitous.

The 425th Civil Affairs Battalion is not normally part of 1st Cav -- which is an active duty unit based out of Ft. Hood, Texas -- but in Iraq, the Santa Barbara-based reserve unit works in conjunction with the division-level civil affairs element to improve the civil-military capacity between Iraqi governmental institutions and Coalition forces. Organizations like the United Nations and US Agency for International Development (USAID) are becoming more involved in the reconstruction process as Iraq's security improves, but right now, it is a game largely played by military and State Department assets.

As the 425th's Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy manages several teams engaged in focused reconstruction projects, and sees civil-military operations from a big picture perspective. Recently, he has been trying to increase the role played by NGOs that were previously unable to work in Iraq due to the threat of violence. Last week he attended a conference at the swank Al Rasheed Hotel, in Baghdad's International zone, where NGOs had informational tables set up for Handy and other reconstruction specialists. Speaking with several groups at the conference -- each had a different focus; one for the environment, one for amputees, several for schools, others dedicated to pediatric health problems, and so on -- to see which ones could feasibly work with civil affairs teams in his area of responsibility.

At this point, details like which NGOs Handy picks to work with municipal governments are important. As the reconstruction effort grinds on, the need for organizations that work effectively has become crucial, showing that in the long run, war has changed. For the time being anyway, it is no longer waged on plains and in forests and jungles as two or more countries pit their military might against one another. Because of the incredibly complex tribal societies that exist in many of the countries the US is involved in militarily, the need has arisen for military elements securing an area to become directly involved with the local populace. The rationale is that unhappy people are prone to turn to the "bad guys" -- insurgencies or terrorist cells -- for support. In other words, the entity that can fix a broken water line is the one that will enjoy popular support.

The heavier emphasis on civil military operations adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years is also being utilized in East Africa and the Philippines -- the other two fronts in the global war on terror. According to commanders, it appears to be working. "This success can't be measured in gallons of water or watts of electricity." said Lieutenant Colonel Simon Gardiner, a Division civil affairs officer with MND-B. "It's measured in the Iraqis' capacity to improve when we're gone. We could spend a gazillion dollars in Baghdad, and if it's gone the day we leave, we might as well have spent nothing."

On an individual basis, the civil affairs teams going out into Baghdad's struggling neighborhoods on a daily basis to assess peoples' needs and coordinate efforts to improve conditions have had their hands full. Every expedition beyond the wire is a carefully planned and coordinated effort designed to maximize efficiency, but security demands such as traveling in convoys and checking every area visited for potential threats make the process cumbersome. "When you think about a civil affairs team and what they can realistically get done in a day, how much of that do you think you could get done in a place like Fresno?" asked Gardiner, noting that in the States, a two man team equipped with a government-owned Dodge Stratus could cover a larger area over a shorter time period. "Our civil affairs effort in Iraq has been slow. We've made mistakes, but I would counter that by saying it's just tough. There are seven million people in [Baghdad] and only a handful of civil affairs personnel."

Lt. Col Handy expanded upon the challenges faced by the military's civil affairs component, pointing out that duplication of efforts by various different agencies can sometimes lead to a lack of operational efficiency. Furthermore, he said, civil affairs soldiers are often put to work in roles that do not fully utilize their civilian skill sets and military training. "Civil affairs is a high demand, low density skill set," he said. "Civil affairs reservists and Special Forces are called upon more often than other branches. When you have a low number of people, you have to use all effectively." This is especially poignant for Handy, whose unit strength has shrunk from seven companies to only five, but with responsibility for the same battle space.

Despite the challenges they face, both Handy and Gardiner were optimistic about civil affairs units' slow progress in Iraq. "Overall, the 425th has done an exceptional job," said Handy, who said civil affairs is the "best job in the world." He did, however, express reservations about the draw down in troop strength -- planned for August 2010 -- recently announced by President Barack Obama. The number of troops will be reduced from its current 142,000 to somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000, the President said. Although security has improved dramatically over the last year, particularly over the past few months, Handy wondered aloud at the sustainability of the recent peace. "It's still a battle -- we're still in MRAPs," he said, but noted that the success of last month's nationwide provincial election was a significant sign of the security gains made. The world stood by with baited breath as election day played out, but no major incidents occurred.

Gardiner said that in the long run, putting an Iraqi face on work done by the Coalition wasn't good enough. "[Iraqis] need pride of ownership and have to find a way of doing things that works best for them; not necessarily how we think it should be done," he said, adding that understanding the operational environment is the best way to approach the situation. "People have a different sense of time here. This is not New York City."

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