Update 12-25-06

Tales of Counterinsurgency

She’s been coming in more and more often – a trend one of our local interpreters was teasingly quick to point out in his own Iraqi way. “So, Captain,” he says with a grin, “You have a visitor.”

She initially came to register a complaint about the constant raids in Arabs neighborhoods. She was articulate, educated and accustom to arguing. I listened patiently. She vented. Her eyes burned.

Devout. Intense. Young. Sunni. Arab.

Engagements like this are important. It enables me – and by extension the rest of the brigade – to understand the societal mindset. It is one function of civil affairs work – non-kinetic counterinsurgency. It’s a long hard slog, one customer at a time.

The raids were constant she continued from under covered hair in near perfect English. It was a violation of dignity, of honor and of pride. Of the most contentious of allegations: the raids target only Arab neighborhoods. Besides, what would I do if someone kicked in my door in the wee hours of the morning? Would I fight back?

And when she was through, I gently conceded that indeed the raids were targeted at Arab neighborhoods – but the important distinction is that the motivation wasn’t because those neighborhoods are Arab – but rather those are the neighborhoods that are a bevy of insurgent activity and they just happen to be Arab. To emphasize my point, I theorized if I were to take out a map of the city and put a mark where local media had recently reported significant activities – a bomb, a shooting, a murder – in what areas of town would my pen lay ink? Her eyes dropped.

But not all Arabs are involved she countered. I agreed full heartedly, it’s a shame a small percentage can adversely impact the lives of many more. However, there is a reason why those activities take place in those areas – it’s called support and it may be either active or tacit.

The American military lives by its supply chain. Logistical lines run sustenance, ammunition and supplies that allow me – and thousands of other soldiers – to perform. An insurgency doesn’t have supply lines. It’s the environment that allows it to live. We need the people – much like her – to help us kill it; only then will the raids stop.

Time and mission permitting, I open to any citizen that wishes to engage in a serious dialogue about operations or politics in Kirkuk. In my opinion, she represents the center of gravity we wish to influence in the some of the tougher neighborhoods. And in the characteristic complexity of Kirkuk – she’s tied to a Sunni-Kurd religious leader who is supportive of coalition forces. This only underscores a key difference about the violence in Kirkuk, which unlike Baghdad, tends to be ethnic, not sectarian.

A very western-minded provincial council member once remarked to me that violence in Iraq is contextual. Speaking of Baghdad, he said when Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs are together in Iraq, they kill each other, but when they flee the violence, the leave for Jordan together as brothers.

In Kirkuk the context is oil, land and the right of return. It also stems from a hatred forged by the former regime’s genocidal policies which are currently on trial.

Days of our Iraqi Lives

He was dressed to kill. In a never-seen-before suit and tie, Muhammad’s hair – or what’s left of his hair – was fresh cut. His mustache trimmed.

When I poked my head in the office to see if our team of local national translators had reported for work on time, Muhammad was hard to miss. In fact he was glowing.

I whistled. “What’s up with the snazzy dress today, Muhammad?”

His grin gave way to big white but his mouth was otherwise shut, or so to speak. I surveyed the room and everyone was watching with a knowing smile.

Muhammad is known to wear anything but a suit and tie – so a sudden change in behavior was an obvious tip.

“You got a date,” I asked? He reddened slightly. “You got a date,” I confirmed.

Now, Muhammad, is perhaps mid-forties and he’s already got a wife. However she lives in another Iraqi city and he only travels there only periodically, as he confided, for a conjugal visit. But he’d like to have another wife – one that lives with him here in Kirkuk. Polygamy, he noted is authorized under Islamic teachings.

Half-teasing, I asked him what his current wife would think about the date, let alone another wife. Oh, she would not approve, he noted. And, he added, please don’t tell her. As if I actually had a way to find and tell her.

Sometimes part of our struggle here is that Iraqis give Americans too much credit – they think we can do anything.

Many women in this society don’t have much of a say in who they marry. It’s often up to the parents – who are compensated with a dowry.

Over the course of the next several days, Muhammad marched out after work, wearing the same suit, just as proudly, each day. But as the week passed by, Muhammad’s glow ebbed. When he came down to our offices to sign his timesheet, I asked him how his romance was going. He looked at me dejectedly and explained his courtship’s parents said he was too old.

Just at that moment, Adel walked by. Adel is an Iraqi-version of a pretty-boy – maybe even too pretty. Adel’s presence made Muhammad start again, not only was he too old, but pretty-boy here told his pursuit’s parents about his false teeth – a charge Adel vehemently denies. Oh man, was Muhammad pissed!

Violence. Romance. Scandal. Hollywood’s got nothing!

Lost in Translation

KC is one of my favorite interpreters. A green-card holder who drives a taxi in San Diego, the only thing left between him and citizenship is taking the oath.

Street smart, tough and perceptive, before working for the Kirkuk Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), he spent lots of time in the trenches with the Marines in Anbar Province and for a while kicked around with the some of the ODA teams in northern Iraq. KC knows how to cut to the chase – which in Iraq – is a time saving benefit. But that benefit comes with a small flaw: KC doesn’t always translate with precision.

After exiting a meeting with a provincial council member, I noticed an office door open in part of the government building I had never entered. I took KC to investigate.

The office was occupied by three Iraqis behind a few desks, a mass of wires, and some odd telephones. This was the telephone switch room for the building. After greeting the men, I explained that I’d never been in the office and was just looking around out of curiosity.

“I never know what I’ll find behind these doors – I figure I might find a dead body behind this one because it’s always closed,” I said jokingly. KC translated and the room erupted in laughter.

Walking away I gave a sidelong glance to KC and noted what I said might have produced a smile, but certainly wasn’t worthy of the robust laughter.

“It wasn’t, but the way I translated it was,” KC said with a wink.

“What did you say,” I asked?

“I said you said it smells like such shit in that room that you though you’d find a dead body.”

Minor Notes

Dirty Santa: Christmas morning was dedicated exchanging gifts. Thirty-one PRT people participated – with a gift limit of $15. As the rules go, everyone draws a number from a hat labeled 1-30 and each person proceeds in that order. A participant may open a new gift from under the tree, or may “steal” a gift from a person who has already opened a gift; hence the “Dirty” Santa.

So for example, let’s say I go first and open a present to find an Air Force baseball hat inside – the next person in line may choose to “steal” my hat – or they may open a new gift. The further down the line you get, the more options for stealing. There are two rules: First, no gift may be stolen twice in the same round – that is until a new gift is opened. Second, no gift may be stolen more than three times.

Among the hottest gifts going a set of Iraqi tea cups; a “book” designed and written by a 1st grade class that included every soldier on the PRT in the story; and a machete looking knife. As a gag gift, I found a ring at a local bazaar that is molded in the shape two people in procreation form. The dealer wanted $15 American dollars for it; I got it for $12. As another gag gift, I indeed drew an Air Force baseball hat; small wonder that no one tried to steal that.

Christmas: It ain’t so bad. Having spent very little money while I’ve been in Iraq, I’ve unleashed the purse strings and spoiled my sister’s kids. If nothing else they can make a mess out of the plethora of Amazon.com boxes surely stacked up in their home. Grandma sent me some decorations I’ve hung up including a miniature Christmas tree with lights. Mom sent presents. Ting made me a scarf. Our interpreters prepared a huge traditional Iraqi meal to celebrate. The Patriots won on Sunday. If I have to be deployed to Iraq during Christmas, there’s no place else I’d rather be than with the team here.

Leave: Today marks the start of nine months in theatre. If all goes well, I’ll be back in town around the 21st or 22nd of January for two-weeks of leave. It’s all downhill after that. With any luck I’ll make a side-line appearance for UCONN’s flag-football team; playoffs must be approaching. Perhaps I’ll even get to see the Superbowl this year.