Friday, October 19, 2007

Iraq's Anbar Province: The World's Next Top Model?

Hi. I'm still in Iraq. In Anbar province. At Al Asad airbase. With Regimental Combat Team 2 of the Marines.

At the dining facility today, I got into a discussion -- over pumpkin pie, of course -- about the direction this "war" is now taking. "Things are much calmer here now," said one Marine. Good. I'm glad to hear that the violence in Anbar is finally settling down despite all the White House occupants' intentional or unintentional efforts to keep chaos in Iraq stirred up.

"But do you think that the US should still pull out of Iraq even if the occupation is going well -- if for no other reason than because America simply can't afford to keep pumping Iraq full of Monopoly money instead of taking care of business at home?" I asked. "What do you think?"

Another Marine answered, "I can see your point. But still. I would really hate to leave Iraq while the infrastructure is still in such poor condition." Me too. Just look at this place. Everything in Iraq is either old and shabby or pre-fab or concrete-bunker-style Mussolini Modern or cobbled together out of junk. There's not much in between. This place is a mess. Martha Stewart would definitely give it a pass.

"But what if the Iraq government and the US start using less money here but start using it more efficiently by putting our dollars into education, jobs, infrastructure etc. instead of emphasizing military solutions? Would that help?"

"I'm sure that it would," said Marine number 2. And this would probably be a fabulous policy direction for the United States to take. "But even though things have settled down here a lot in the last six months," number 2 continued, "security is still Iraq's first priority."

What to do? I followed Tyra Banks' advice and looked at photos. "I have two photos here in my hand...."

But the photo that I was looking at now was a huge photo of Anbar province on the wall of Marine colonel Stacy Clardy's office. "What do YOU think is going on in Anbar province?" I asked. He told me.

"The mission we were tasked to do here revolves around support, security and stability. And to do this, we have recognized that the population is the center of gravity regarding successful completion of our mission. We put a considerable amount of effort toward the population here -- economic development, government, communications, rule of law. But you must understand that Iraqi systems here are much different from the ones we are used to and it's been hard work for us to get a handle on them. They are different from American paradigms. But we are making huge strides forward as we begin to understand more."

One of the Marines at the dining facility told me earlier that the Marine Corps had been sent to Anbar province at the start of the war because Baghdad was the "focus of effort" and Al Anbar was only supposed to represent "an economy-of-force". Maybe Bush and Cheney thought the Marines would be too efficient and muck all their "Disaster Capitalism" schemes up? But I digress. But you KNOW how much I love to diss Cheney and Bush.... Give me a minute here while I fight back the urge.

Anyway, the Marines fooled everybody and got Al Anbar province jump-started again and now everyone is all running around blathering, "The Anbar Model! The Anbar Model!" Semper fi!

"We have been working with municipal officials, tribal leaders, judges, police, etc." continued Col. Clardy. "And they are all coming to the table because they now feel that they can get their jobs done better with our help. The police are being trained in the latest law enforcement techniques. The judges are taking on more cases. And that they are seeing cases at all is a good example of how far we have come here. We are trying to take a holistic approach to getting things back on track."

The Marines here patrol 380 miles of Syria's border, 70 miles of border with Jordan and a small part of the border with Saudi Arabia. "500,000 Iraqis live in this area, primarily along the Euphrates River. Much of the rest of the area is desert but nomadic tribes live there. Bedouins. Towns centered on wells. And now the hard-core Al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] has moved out of the cities and are operating in the desert. So we too are out in the desert hunting them down."

"How do you locate them," I asked. The colonel's map showed the desert as a really big place.

"We make intelligence-based sweeps. The tribes that we work with in the cities originally came from the desert areas and they still know what is going on out there and are willing to help. They live in the cities now but they still think of themselves as Bedouin. But as the pressure is put on the AQI insurgents in the cities, they have retreated to the desert and they're not used to living out there." No more running water and Play Stations? Yikes!

'"So many of the insurgents are turning themselves in to tribal leaders, saying, 'I'm tired of living in the desert and I want to go home.' And the tribes take them back if they don't have blood on their hands."

"So you are having good luck with working with the tribal leaders?"
"Yes. The heads of the larger tribes see that the area is becoming safer with the Marines' help so they have already joined with us and now the smaller tribal leaders want to jump on board before they get left behind."

"How did you contact the tribal leaders?" Bribe a tribe member? Offer to marry into the tribe? What?

"Surprisingly enough, the tribal leaders came to us." Perhaps they were looking for a few good men? "The leaders were voting with their feet -- casting their lot in with the Marines, that the Marines would in the end prove more reliable than AQI and, more importantly, that the tribes would benefit from the stable environment that we help provide."

"But what about education and healthcare," I asked. 'What are the Marines doing to help in these all-important areas?" The colonel's answer wasn't exactly what I had expected.

"We are trying to build more school structures and there is a need for that but the schools themselves are operating. Students come to class. Teachers are getting paid. There is an incentive among the Iraqis to do this on their own because education is of primary importance here. And the same is true of the healthcare system. Iraqi initiative has gotten that up and running as well."

And the security aspects of the Anbar Model seem to be working as well. "In February we had 100 incidents a week and now it's down to 20 per week and those 20 have changed in nature. The incidents used to be IED attacks but now they mainly involve IEDs being found."

Why is that? "In many ways, war is a battle of wills; of who has the strongest will to win. And the Marines' will is stronger than the insurgents'. We are fully committed to winning the peace -- not just killing insurgents. We understand that this is how to win. Unlike in Vietnam, we don't even count enemy kills. It's irrelevant." Hearts and minds. Hear that George and Dick? Hearts and minds. If you've got them, use them. Ha!

So now that it appears to actually be working, the Anbar Model of winning hearts and minds is becoming more popular and is being tauted both in Washington and Baghdad. Bush and Cheney seem to be applauding its virtues. But make no mistake. The Anbar Model is doomed. "You must immediately pack your bags and leave." But why? If it is working so well, why won't Anbar be selected as the World's Next Top Model? I bet Tyra and Janice and Nigel and both Jays and Twiggy would vote for Anbar! So why not everyone else? The Anbar Model is fierce!

"Tell me again why the Anbar Model needs to pack her bags?"
"Sure. It's an economics thing. Let me explain. When I was in Afghanistan, I met someone who was familiar with the US-AID program for that country. They had painstakingly developed a beautiful plan to help stabilize the country. It included aid to every facet of economic, legal, cultural, social, agricultural, utility, medical and educational development -- geared to get Afghanistan back on track ASAP. A diplomat's dream."

"So what happened?"

"Washington refused to fund it."

"Why? Lack of money? Not enough local experts? Why?"
"As far as I can tell from what my source said, there was plenty of funds and resources available but the plan was vetoed in favor of spending more money on weapons and roads." Oh. The same old story. Cheney and Bush only get kickbacks from projects involving weapons and roads. And of course we all know the outcome. Afghanistan is now a total mess."

"And that is the reason, as all men know," that Anbar will never become the World's Next Top Model. To put it bluntly, not enough weapons and roads are involved. Sorry, Tyra. Bechtel, Halliburton, Boeing and General Electric will be the judges in this contest. And will they pick a model that supports education, rule of law, healthcare and jobs for the locals?

"That's not what the agencies are looking for this year."