Michael Totten

Builders of Nations

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“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.
“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”
“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.
While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.
Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.
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Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station, Jbail, Southern Fallujah
He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.
“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”
“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”
Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.
Most of a Marine officer’s training revolves around fighting, of course, but they do pick up some of the basics they need to build nations.
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“There was so much stuff to learn about,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “Generator power, water treatment plant filtration. One of our big tasks — besides security, which is number one — is keeping our pulse on the infrastructure here and getting an accurate picture of what Fallujah is actually like. Our training was good, and this is what it was like. They couldn’t mimic it to this scale, but this is what it was like. We also trained for kinetic warfare, of course — shooting and all that.”
Just down the street from Lieutenant Bibler’s station is a massive construction site. A local Iraqi contracting company is building a water treatment plant with American money.
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Water Plant Fallujah.jpg
Solar-powered street lights are being erected all over Fallujah to take strain off the failing electrical grid and keep the city well-lit during outages. Locals are hired to pick up trash that accumulated during the periods of heavy fighting, and new weekly garbage collection contracts are being awarded. The city government is being rebuilt from scratch. Micro loans are given to local shopkeepers to jumpstart the economy.
“We hire day laborers for twelve dollars a day to clean up certain areas,” Captain Steve Eastin said. The average monthly salary in Fallujah is around 300 dollars, so twelve dollars a day isn’t as stingy as it may sound. “We’re paying to have the mosques repaired. Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal helped convince the imams to trust us. He’s well-educated and speaks the language of justice and democracy.”
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Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal (left)
Every mosque in the city was anti-American during the peak of the insurgency, but every single one has flipped in the meantime. Every day the imams exhort the people of Fallujah to support the American effort. The Marines know this because they have Arabic-speakers who sit in and listen to what gets said.
“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen since you got here?” I asked Lieutenant Bibler.
“How the people interact with Marines,” he said. Almost everyone I spoke to in Fallujah said the friendliness of the local people amazed them. They expected unrelenting hostility, and for good reason. Fallujah used to be vicious.
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Iraqis painting a school
“What’s the most discouraging thing you’ve seen?” I said.
“Just the magnitude of what they need,” he said. “Health care. Jobs. That’s the biggest one for me, getting them long-term work. It’s not something I have much control over, or any control over, really. That’s the most frustrating part. I see these kids every day and I want them to have health care and income so they don’t have to be so worried. It’s very frustrating.”
“How long do you think you need to stick around?” I said. “Assuming everything goes well.”
“What do you mean by well?” he said.
“Assuming there isn’t another insurgency,” I said. “How much is there left to do before you can say, okay, we don’t need to be here anymore and we can go home, to Baghdad, to Afghanistan, or wherever.”
“The gauge is, is the security and infrastructure that has been established here in Fallujah strong enough to stand once we leave?” he said. “I can’t vouch for the rest of the city, but the police here have the security. The police know what’s going on.”
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Inside Lieutenant Bibler’s Joint Security Station
“What do you suppose would happen if you had to leave right away,” I said, “if Washington ordered you out right now?”
“I can’t vouch for what would happen in the rest of the country,” he said. “Because things have been so quiet here, no one in my platoon has fired a shot in anger. Normally you would expect a new unit to be less familiar with things and be an easier target. We haven’t been shot at once or had a single IED go off since I’ve been here. The last one was in July. So it’s hard to gauge what the insurgency — Al Qaeda in Iraq — is trying to do right now. So if we pulled out…ah, man, that’s a tough question. Right now I’m not sure.”
I suspect he hedged a bit because he feared I was asking him to talk “out of his lane.” American troops are told not to talk above their pay grade to journalists, so I reformulated the question.
“What do you suppose is the weakest point you need to work on and help them with most?” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Well, we’ve got the security piece pretty good. There haven’t been any shots fired. We just need to build up the governmental side and jump-start the system enough to make it so it can run on its own efficiently enough that it can last.”
“What’s the current state of the government?” I said. “If it still needs to be built up, what’s it like now?”
“All I can really speak about is the Fallujah government,” he said. “What they’re really trying to work with is getting the community leaders to buy in to the system. The money is there. We’re trying to distribute it as efficiently as possible.”
“How many people in the current government are old Baathists?” I said. Fallujah is an old Baath Party stronghold.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There is just speculation. Some of the community leaders were probably Baathists, but I’ve never had a conversation with one who I know is a former Baathist.”
“Do you guys even care at this point?” I said. There hasn’t been any Baathist violence in Fallujah for a long time, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal. Besides, many Iraqis joined the Baath Party out of necessity, not because they drank the Kool-Aid.
“Well,” he said, “it has to matter at least a little bit. It’s something I would consider if I knew it about someone. But instead of just sweeping everybody aside and building a community structure from the bottom up, they’ve used the one that existed already, the mukhtars. How many of them are former Baathists, I don’t know.”
“Maybe all of them,” I said.
“Perhaps,” he said. “But I can understand a survivalist mentality among them. We’re working with them to build faith in this system. Every day we try to push more and more of it onto them.”
I accompanied Captain Eastin to a town hall meeting where various mukhtars met with community leaders, including Fallujah’s chief of police. Several other Marine officers also attended, as did representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers. We sat on plastic chairs in a circle in a room mostly devoid of furniture.
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Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal showed up in a Western suit and tie to much pomp. Everyone stood, including me. He sat first, at a small table in the center of the room. Two Iraqi Police officers videotaped the meeting with hand-held camcorders.
The mukhtars looked like a shady and inscrutable bunch. All are rich. None are elected. The City Council appoints them. Fallujah tried to move away from the tribal political system some time ago and adopted the mukhtars to edge out the sheikhs.
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A mukhtar’s house
“Mukhtars are sort of like mayors of neighborhoods,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin explained to me earlier. “There are five in the Jolan sector. Three are good. Two not so much. They all come from powerful families. They enrich themselves with graft from various contracts. A few in the past got some big contract money, then fled to Jordan with their families.”
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The meeting was held at a rented house next to Captain Eastin’s Joint Security Station. The station was being dismantled rack by rack and sandbag by sandbag because a brand-new station was opening up down the street. Marines next door tossed sandbags onto the roof of the meeting house.
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Captain Steve Eastin
Combat operations are finished in Fallujah, but this was still a mission of war. If the Marines and city leaders cannot get Fallujah back on its feet, the city could fall again to the insurgency.
Most mukhtars gulped from cans of Pepsi and orange soda. Half smoked cigarettes.
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“You all smoke too much,” Captain Eastin said. Everyone laughed. No American in the room lit a cigarette, but many looked like they could use a beer. American military personnel aren’t allowed to drink while deployed overseas. There isn’t much drinking in Fallujah anyway. Alcohol isn’t banned like it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but there is only one bar in the city, and there is no sign out front.
The Marines and the mukktars discussed the electrical grid. Iraqis did most of the talking, which is what I was told to expect.
“The mukhtars used to talk and direct their comments toward us,” Captain Glenn had told me earlier. “Now they direct it toward each other and toward the sheikhs. They used to focus on asking the Marines to do this and do that. Now it’s the police talking to the mukhtars and the mukhtars talking to themselves. At this point we pretty much jot down the notes.”
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Iraq’s electrical grid is a world-famous piece of crap. The engineers who built it were incompetent. It has been sabotaged for years by insurgents. Even in areas like Fallujah, where there is no more insurgent sabotage, civilians inadvertently sabotage it themselves in a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. When transformers blow out, residents move their wires to another transformer where they can temporarily get more electricity. After a while that transformer gets overloaded and blows out. More residents then move their wires. And so on.
Major Kenneth Gudgel said he was concerned that much of the equipment given to Iraqis by Marines is not being installed.
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Major Kenneth Gudgel (left)
“I’ve seen Iraqis buying electrical transformers with money out of their own pocket,” he said. “Why are they doing this? We’ve given you money for all the transformers you need. It isn’t fair that people have to pay for these things when the United States government has already paid for them.”
“Yes,” said one of the mukhtars. “You are right. We will look into it.” From the look on Major Gudgel’s face, I don’t think he was convinced.
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An expensive-looking chandelier hung over our heads. Rooms were connected by arches. But the floor was made of uneven cracked concrete, like a sidewalk in need of repair. The floor was wet, too. The place leaked. Most windows were broken. Those facing west onto the street were sandbagged.
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Every fifteen seconds or so another sandbag landed with a loud THUMP on the roof as Marines next door took down the station and prepared to move. I don’t know why they tossed sandbags from one roof to another instead of into the yard. The house shook. Unbroken windows rattled. I half-expected the ceiling to come down on our heads.
This part of Fallujah reminded me of what Halabja looks like these days — the now-infamous Kurdish city up north that Saddam Hussein all but destroyed with chemical weapons, artillery, and air strikes. It’s not quite as bad as all that — the houses are bigger and at one time were nicer. But the decrepitude and cash-poor economy are similar.
Only two women showed up at the start of the meeting. Both were Marines. An Iraqi Army soldier sitting next to me stared at both. Most likely he didn’t realize that staring is considered more rude to Americans than it is to Arabs.
He offered me a sip from his water bottle. I declined because I was nursing a cold and did not want him to get sick. He asked my name, then asked the name of the more attractive of the two female Marines.
“I don’t know,” I whispered to him. “I haven’t met her.”
“Will you take my picture with her after the meeting?” he said.
“Uhhhh,” I said. “I don’t know. You will have to ask her if that’s okay.”
I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to embarrass the poor woman. I’m sure she gets too much unwanted attention from Iraqi men as it is. I hoped the soldier sitting next to me would lose interest or forget about the whole thing by the time the meeting was over.
A few minutes later, a local woman stopped by. Every Iraqi Police officer in the room with a cell phone took her picture with their built-in cameras. Women make up slightly more than fifty percent of the population in Fallujah, but they are perhaps only two percent of the visible population.
She wore a hijab — the modest Islamic headscarf that covers the hair of conservative women — and sat next to a female American Marine captain.
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She came from a school. Captain Eastin suggested she start a Parent Teacher Association, like the PTA in the United States. It’s highly unlikely that he was trained to say such a thing. He was just making it up as he went along, which is typically what Americans in nation-building roles do. Hardly any Marines have experience running cities in the United States. Very few, if any, served on their local city councils. Probably none have ever been mayor. But they live in the United States. They all know how a modern society is supposed to work simply from being immersed in one for most of their lives.
Americans in Iraq try to replicate what they know. Sometimes it doesn’t work. What they suggest sometimes can’t work. Their ideas often baffle the locals. Iraq will never become a distant suburb or colony of America with Arabic characteristics. No one is trying to turn it into one. They’re just bringing their American experience to Iraqis and saying “here’s how we do it, maybe something similar will work in your country.”
Iraqis aren’t stupid just because their society is dysfunctional. They may be confused by some American ideas, but Iraq likewise bewilders Americans. It takes a long time to learn how to navigate the alleyways of this complex and opaque society.
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Iraqis will often Iraqify, so to speak, ideas that Americans come up with. When Americans and Iraqis put their heads together they often resolve problems in ways that neither would have thought of on their own.
“Iraqi solutions are sometimes weird,” Captain Glenn said. “But it’s almost always more effective than the Western solution we would come up with.”
“Give me an example of a weird solution,” I said.
“Some of the day labor projects,” he said. “We give a little bit of money to unemployed guys for some work, like cleaning the streets, rubble removal, things like that. You and I might say, hey, let’s get some people and go out there and we’ll pay them. They’ll do that, but they just go about it in a really roundabout sort of way. They’ll hire a couple of people to pick up trash, but then they’ll just pick up a little trash and then go paint barriers or something. Meanwhile I’ll be thinking, let’s just go pick up rubble and trash. They are very non-linear. Also, like providing the trash cans. We purchased some trash cans. We wracked our brains about the accountability of the trash cans — we were thinking militaristically about accountability, the ten digit grid and where, exactly, these trash cans should go. The mukhtars said here’s what we’ll do. We’ll get these trash cans and we’ll talk to the senior man, the elder or the hajji in the area where the trash cans will go. We’ll have him sign for it, then it’s his trash can and he manages the trash can. That’s not something we would have thought of.”
I visited a school in the city of Karmah, between Fallujah and Baghdad, with Lieutenant Schroeder and Corporal Gasperetti. They needed to speak to the chief administrator about school supplies.
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Lieutenant Schroeder
“Please don’t take any picture of women in here,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “We tried taking their pictures during a census, but they asked us not to. So please don’t.”
“Ok,” I said. I knew already that most Iraqi women don’t like to be photographed. There are more women in public than you might think from looking at my pictures.
The school was squat with few windows. All the windows were barred. Trash was strewn in the yard. A sad-looking flag pole was all that decorated the courtyard.
The school had opened up again just recently after the insurgency was put down. Getting the place cleaned up and stocked was an on-going process that had barely begun. Corporal Gasperetti was in charge of the project. He barely outranks a private, but this was his job. Too much work needs to be done to leave it all to the high-ranking officers.
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He rapped on the door of the administrator’s office. She opened the door and said “Salam” a bit glumly. She was overweight, as many Iraqis are, and she did not wear a headscarf. A poster of a Bavarian mountain village hung on the wall behind her desk.
Corporal Gasperetti asked her which school supplies she needed most. After a few moments, he turned to Lieutenant Schroeder and said “You guys are making me nervous.”
“Why?” the lieutenant said with genuine surprise.
“Because you’re my boss,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “And because I’m not used to be around a reporter.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said and laughed. “I am not going to make you look stupid.”
I might make him look stupid if I thought he deserved to look stupid, if he were screwing up his job in some way. But nothing I heard him say or saw him do justified any bad press.
We left after a few minutes.
“She’s an old Baathist,” he said. “I’m trying to win her over by helping her out.”
“Have you made any progress?” I said.
“She’s loosened up a bit,” he said. “She used to be hostile.”
Gasperetti is “just” a corporal. And he’s in charge of building a school. He’s responsible for flipping a Baath Party functionary into the American column. And he’s younger than I was when I finished college.
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Corporal Gasperetti
Winning over Iraqis is hard. It takes time, but it can be done.
After the town hall meeting in Fallujah, Mukhtar Hamid Hussein approached Captain Eastin.
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Mukhtar Hamid Hussein
“We appreciate the security you provide to us,” he said. “And how you watch over us as we also protect you.” Mukhtar Hussein was the chief of Fallujah’s mukhtars. “For a long time we were enemies. But now we are friends.”
“It was a miscommunication,” Captain Eastin said. That was a serious and generous understatement.
“There were mistakes on both sides,” Mukhtar Hussein said. “But now we are brothers.”
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