February 2006

Friends and Family,

I’m writing this letter in my parent’s house in Peachtree City, having just returned safe and sound from Iraq. To all of you who sent me e-mails, letters and packages, I can’t thank you enough. I would have had to convert to an all-chocolate diet in order to eat all the goodies you sent my way, and the many books, magazines, cards and photos I received became my lifeline to a world very different from the one I was witnessing first-hand — for all of that, you have my sincere thanks.

I know I disappointed some of you by not sending out frequent dispatches from this, the first blogged war. Believe me when I say that I felt the pain of not being able to correspond more than you did; the thoughts I list below have been brewing in my head for the past 120 days, so forgive me if I get longwinded. What I can now tell you is that I spent the last four months attached to a joint counter-terrorism task force in the city of Ar Ramadi, which is about 70km west of Baghdad and in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle.

The reason I couldn’t talk about Iraq while I was there is that I was occupying a somewhat sensitive position outside the confines of the normal military structure. In practice, this meant I got to wear civilian clothes, grow a beard, and exercise more decision-making power than any 25-year old should legally be entitled to wield. My work consisted of research, analysis and targeting at the forefront of the U.S. intelligence community, and was somewhat akin to doing primary-source work for a paper, with the end result being a bad guy getting taken off the street in lieu of a graded response from a professor. My time in Ramadi was exhausting, terrifying, and immensely gratifying, the last of which I write here to mask the word I really want to use, which is fun. I feel a certain amount of guilt when I use the words fun and Iraq in the same sentence, but I use the former to connote the satisfaction I felt at being able to accomplish, for the first time in my short professional life, a job with the real meaning and purpose of keeping deployed Americans safe and hauling as many terrorists as possible off of Iraq’s fertile streets.

I had my scary moments in Ramadi. I lived in one of Iraq’s worst neighborhoods and was consistently shot at with mortars and rockets, some of which landed uncomfortably nearby to where I was standing at the time — if close counts with hand-grenades, it’s downright obscene with 122mm rockets. I didn’t, however, have to go out on patrols or travel often, which meant that I had a much safer tour than many of the soldiers and Marines I worked with who continue to die in Ramadi on a near daily basis.

A couple of folks asked me at various times to comment on the security and political situation in Iraq as I saw it. I wasn’t able to honor those requests at the time, so what follows is a feeble attempt to catalogue my observations and opinions based on what I witnessed in while in Ramadi. Now may be a good time to stop reading if you’re just interested to hear that I’m back home. Otherwise, allow me to waste a couple minutes of your time...

Several people have asked me if I think the situation in Iraq is getting any better and if the U.S. has any chance for outright success. I’ve mulled over this million (trillion?) dollar question in my mind for the previous four months, and over that time my opinion changed dramatically, from pessimism at the outset of my tour to guarded optimism and back to pessimism again. The more I learn about Iraq, its people, and our adversaries both Iraqi and foreign, the more I feel that the question of progress has no clear-cut answer. This is because there isn’t one war currently underway in Iraq, but tens if not hundreds — wars which pit the U.S. against disparate Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups of both domestic and foreign origin; those groups against each other; and subfactions within those groups against members of opposing tribes and even families. Often, progress, if defined in terms of a political, economic, and security situation amenable to U.S. interests, is mutually exclusive within and between these various levels of conflict; a step forward in one will inevitably lead to a step backward in another.

Having spent the majority of my time in Iraq in Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province and arguably the center of the post-"battle of Fallujah" resistance, my knowledge base is skewed heavily toward the U.S. fight against the Sunni insurgency, which encompasses everything from foreign born and trained Al Qaeda jihadis to the Ba’athist hardliners that used to comprise Saddam’s military and intelligence services, to the Sunni "sons of Al Anbar," who are united only by their dissatisfaction with the U.S. role in wrecking their once-secure perch atop Iraqi society. The idea that early U.S. diplomatic and military miscues brought these groups into collusion is by now so widely documented and accepted that I won’t go into detail on the saga here, though I believe that U.S. policies under the Coalition Provisional Authority exacerbated an already tenuous security situation, setting back the U.S. cause in Iraq by years, if not permanently.

Looking forward, I believe that U.S. policy is now on a better track, one that seeks to engage the Sunni population and undo much of the damage and distrust created in the first 30 months of the war. While in Ramadi, I witnessed a full 180° turnaround in the definition of an Iraqi ally as this new policy came to fruition, with blatantly pro-American Sunni politicians who lack any semblance of credibility with their constituents jettisoned in favor of leaders with true popular support, the latter of which are almost always former Ba'athists and current insurgent leaders. This dramatic turnaround is happening because both the Sunnis and the Americans are realizing that they’re wasting precious resources fighting each other, and are ceding ground to much more dangerous foes: Al Qaeda and Iran.

Al Qaeda doesn't enjoy the support amongst the Sunni population in Iraq that it once had. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s increasingly radical actions have alienated all but the most stalwart of his supporters, and I’d argue that there’s a growing rift between the “old” Al Qaeda based in Afghanistan, and the “new” Al Qaeda in Iraq, the latter of which draws a much more expansive view of the boundaries of legitimate jihad. The relatively secular-minded Iraqi Sunni population has little in common with Zarqawi’s ideologues, and is increasingly willing to turn against the terrorists as a precondition for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.

If progress is being made in Iraq, this is where it’s happening: the Sunni tribal sheikhs have realized that the best way to get the Americans to leave is not to harbor Al Qaeda, but to deny the group the safe haven it’s enjoyed for the last two and a half years. Sunni insurgent leaders in Ramadi have gone so far as to seek out and kill the Al Qaeda operatives in their midst, and Al Qaeda has responded in kind, refocusing their suicide attacks and assassinations away from U.S. forces and toward the local Sunni leadership. At first, the U.S. military and intel community thought this "red on red" violence was a great thing, but we soon realized that Al Qaeda’s ability to kill off and/or intimidate the Sunni leadership is so highly effective that our newfound and critical partners were quickly replaced by others more amenable to the status quo.

The Sunnis are caught between a rock and a hard place — they know the Americans won’t leave until Al Qaeda is brought under control, but they don’t have the power to tame the force they’ve harbored up to this point. Their inability to rein in Al Qaeda was most devastatingly demonstrated on the 5th of January, when a foreign suicide bomber blew himself up on the grounds of the Ramadi glass factory amidst a crown of 300 or so Sunni volunteers for the Iraqi Police, killing 30 of them and wounding another 80 (I was about 1,000m away, on the opposite bank of the Euphrates, when the blast went off — it still felt so powerful from that distance that I assumed my area was under mortar attack). The importance of that attack is almost impossible to overstate; up until the moment of the blast, the I.P. recruiting drive was hailed as a huge success, because it followed the large Sunni turnout in the elections of December 15th and marked the first time Sunnis had volunteered en masse to join an Iraqi security force under the banner of the new national government. It’s here that I’m going to change gears away from Al Qaeda and explain why, counter to the inspiring picture of a purple-stained index finger, increased Sunni involvement in the Iraqi government is likely a portent for increased violence to come.

The two big winners in the war in Iraq at this point are the northern Iraqi Kurds and the Shia religious leaders of Iran and their Iraqi counterparts. Both of these groups have well-organized political and military wings, a fact not lost on the Sunni leadership, who now realize that their low-boil insurgency against the U.S. has cost them time that would have been better spent organizing a response to the peshmerga and Badr Corps (that the U.S. would not have allowed a “Sunni army” in the beginning stages of the war is also worth bearing in mind). Sunni voter turnout and the drive to create a Sunni police and military force are not indicative of a newfound appreciation for civics, they’re a manifestation of the realization that the Sunnis are behind in the organizational run-up to an inevitable civil war. Continued U.S. presence in Iraq will postpone the conflict, but I don’t think we can prevent it—we’ll just be "waited out."

Furthermore, in what can only be described as first-rate irony, I’d venture to guess that the faction the U.S. will back in the upcoming conflict will be the same former regime elements and Sunni insurgent leaders we’re now fighting, against the Shia religious parties who seek to expand Tehran’s influence but were voted into office through democratic means. This outcome highlights the dilemma of "success" in Iraqi — if we stay long enough, the U.S. may manage to quell the Sunni insurgency, but only as the major players realign for round two.

So should the U.S. immediately begin to pull out of Iraq? I sincerely wish the answer were "no." Not a single U.S. military or government member in Iraq wants to be a part of a failure of U.S. policy there — I sure didn’t, and I’d go back tomorrow if I were asked. But I think the damage done is irreparable at this point, and I’m not sure that increased American lives and resources will stave off an outcome detrimental to our interests, no matter when we decide to exit. These words sound pessimistic as I type them, but I think they’re accurate.

Once again, thanks for all your love and support while I was away from home! I'll be coming back to the States at the end of the summer to attend graduate school, so I'm sure I'll be able to catch up with a lot of you. In the meantime, I've attached two pictures from my time in Ramadi. In the first one I'm hanging out with an Iraqi-American interpreter named Joe, and in the second I've got my "kit" on, and am about to take a cruise down the beautiful Euphrates.

Rob