A War Reporter's Last Stand?

After three embeds in Iraq, the last person I expected to talk strategy with was Colonel Bob Durkin.

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 6:52 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, almost three years to the day after my last embed with a US Marine infantry battalion in Iraq, I ran into the former commander of that unit in downtown San Francisco. Colonel Bob Durkin stood in front of the Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel in civilian clothes, luggage at his feet. I caught his square jaw and I-beam posture in my peripheral vision. Stereotype alert, I know, but the colonel really does radiate Marine.

Durkin is an intense, reserved man with thinning hair and a hard face. There are talkative and highly political military officers who love sparring with reporters; Durkin's not one of them.

"Durkin's respectful; he listens to the Iraqis more than he talks at them. But it's clear he's in charge," I wrote in January 2005 after a joint security meeting of US commanders and Iraqi police at Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah.

The colonel and I exchanged stunned greetings and how's-it-going pleasantries on the sidewalk. He was in town for a commanders' conference, he told me, and on his way out. I was fresh off the plane from New York—and freshly caffeinated from a blissful trip to Blue Bottle Coffee—just passing through on the way to a media fellowship at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Colonel Durkin mentioned the apparently successful provincial elections held across Iraq just hours earlier—reasonably smooth polling, no major violence, and decent turnout. "I'm guardedly optimistic," he said with a wry smile. One might not have expected the vote to go this way if one had been reading my stories about the surge, he added.

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I smiled. I have been witheringly critical of US policy and practice in Iraq in my work. Three embeds followed by nearly three years of additional reporting, research, and conversations with physically wounded and emotionally damaged Marines and soldiers have led me to the conclusion that the Iraq occupation has been a continuous and tragic improvisation. You could argue that I'm grinding a left-wing ideological axe. In my defense, I point to the only "metrics" of US performance that actually matter in the long run: real progress toward reconstruction, a decent quality of life for Iraqis, and genuine reconciliation among warring sectarian parties—the last being the stated, and unmet, goal of President Bush's surge.

And yet, I want to believe that something good might grow from the rubble. Maybe Iraq hit bottom and is clawing its way back. Perhaps the relative calm of the 2009 provincial elections was a harbinger of good things. Then there's President Obama: In spite of his less-than-bold campaign promises on Iraq, which rested almost entirely on a speedy withdrawal, he could institute a more humane and sensible policy there.

"I have hope," I told the colonel. I had more to say, but I couldn't quite articulate it, so I said goodbye. We shook hands and parted.

Later that night, I recalled watching TV news reports in the Marines' chow hall after the January 2005 election in Iraq. Pundits and ideologues tripped over themselves to congratulate President Bush—and themselves—for the successful democratic experiment. Of course, sectarian violence increased after the vote, and Iraqis continued to die and suffer. But we gave them democracy, came the reply.

"I think an important thing to remember is that the US likes to try to cast elections in Iraq as referendums on the legitimacy of the occupation," said independent journalist Rick Rowley, who was in Baghdad's Sadr City for this year's provincial elections. "But many Iraqis saw this—the votes they were casting in this election—as a way to end the American occupation."

I figured out what I wanted to say to Colonel Durkin: Short-term tactical achievements, like the suppression of violence and a day of polling, can't be confused with long-term stability—and they certainly don't reflect a coherent US policy. I knew Colonel Durkin wasn't engaging in cheap think-tank triumphalism in our conversation. Not his style. Commanders like Durkin had done their level best to bring stability and security to their areas of operation in the absence of a strategic vision from the Bush administration. I truly wanted to learn from the colonel, an officer I trust, what he thought the election actually meant. So I emailed him.

He began his reply with a caveat. "Any specific knowledge I have on Iraq is quite dated at this point. Even when it was relatively current it was specific to a particular locale and time. Everyone's fight over there was somewhat different."

Fair enough, I thought.

"Having said that," Colonel Durkin continued, "it is a little hard to argue with your overall thesis. You are quite correct that in campaign design you need a strategic vision that is attained through a series of well thought out operations whose success is predicated on tactical excellence. Tactical excellence alone will not get you to the desired end state."

He continued: "In talking to my friends who have returned from Anbar, they attribute the current state of affairs to two things. First, that the Iraqis came to realize that their caricature of Americans was wrong. We did not fold easily and would not run from a fight. The surge and President Bush's refusal to allow the uptick in violence to force his hand played a role in this, regardless of whatever else one thinks of him or his policies. Second, and equally important, was the unbelievably sadistic violence of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq]. The Iraqi people got fed up with it and turned on them. They are not stupid. They could see that while the Coalition Forces did kill innocent people on occasion they did not do it wantonly and certainly did not take pleasure in it."

"Overall I am guardedly optimistic about the future over there," Colonel Durkin wrote. "I believe that the longer they can go without serious violence, the harder it will be for AQI, Sadr, and other factions to restart it. That is my hope anyway."

There's plenty to agree with in there. Violence has in fact declined in many provinces of Iraq. In Anbar province, the decline is due in part to the surge. But that's just a slice of the truth: Sunni militias that had been shooting at US troops decided to partner with them in exchange for weapons, cash, and legitimacy vis-à-vis the Shia-led Baghdad government, our putative allies. That may be a wise move—or it may amount to little more than arming opposing blocs in a coming civil war. Moreover, the surge seems to have displaced and not vanquished AQI. According to the Defense Department, it simply picked up and moved north.

Targeted attacks continue up there. Kirkuk is one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. And while security situation in Ninewa is relatively stable, a February report by the International Organization for Migration calls Mosul "troubled." NGOs express particular concern about violence directed against women.

There are more than 2 million internally displaced people in Iraq and about 2 million refugees living in surrounding countries—Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran—which do not want them. Some Iraqis are returning home, but the number of returnees still amounts to a trickle.

"Improvements in security and stability don't mean it's safe to go back," Nathaniel Hurd of the International Rescue Committee told me in February upon his return from the region. "Even if a place on paper is factually much safer…if someone fled from a mixed neighborhood that is now totally homogeneous, they're not going to go home."

As for economy and quality-of-life issues, American projects have provided water to 8 million people, the US special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction reported in January. But according to a January UNICEF report, fewer than 60 percent of children aged 6 to 11 have attended school regularly in the past two school months in Anbar, Babil, and Basra provinces.

Some key legislation, most notably the provincial powers and election law, has passed. But, as Stanford's Abbas Milani noted recently, there has been little progress on major constitutional issues, including a "hydrocarbon" law that would determine how oil revenue is divvied up among regions of the country.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps more precisely, where can we go realistically? At best, our policy will help us identify and empower Iraqi stakeholders, alleviate suffering, and perhaps mitigate violence that will probably accompany a US withdrawal. At worst, Obama's administration will simply offer fig leaves to cover a rapid departure.

"The Agenda—Iraq," posted to the White House website just after the new president took office, promised a relatively speedy, though ill-defined, "withdrawal" from Iraq. A "residual force" would conduct counterterrorism missions and protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel, among them private contractors (many of whom are now rapidly being converted into government employees). President Obama also committed to providing $2 billion to expand services for Iraq's refugees and internally displaced and to launch "an aggressive diplomatic effort …with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria."

Then—poof! After the president's February 27 Iraq policy speech at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the above specifics evaporated from the White House website. They were replaced by a vague "three-part strategy" for Iraq: removing combat brigades over an 18-month stretch, "sustained diplomacy," and "comprehensive engagement across the region." Furthermore, in the Lejeune address the president spoke of leaving behind a force of some 35,000 to 50,000 troops after the August 2010 withdrawal of "combat" troops. That's a lot of boots on the ground.

Whether the president is backpedaling remains to be seen. Perhaps he's simply dialing back on specificity to give himself more political wiggle room to plow ahead quietly in Iraq. I am trying to hold onto my nascent hope that this is the case. If I were to dream big, President Obama would explicitly renounce the Bush doctrine of preventive/preemptive war. That's probably pie in the sky, but it's certainly a goal worth pushing for. To make amends for the damage we have unleashed in and inflicted on Iraq, he could take a page from Jeremy Scahill, who in 2007 recommended that the US withdraw and pay reparations to the Iraqi people.

Failing that, the president could keep his pre-Lejeune promises: Ramp up talks with regional powers like Iran and Syria, support refugees spread across the region, and withdraw US forces—including private military contractors, rather than simply putting them on the US government payroll. He might also follow recommendations submitted to him in a letter by 43 member organizations of InterAction, a coalition of US-based NGOs. Among them: Mandate civilian agencies, not the military, "to take the lead in formulating and implementing an effective humanitarian and development strategy." And then, there are the refugees.

"Traditionally, the US takes 50 percent of refugees that UNHCR refers worldwide for resettlement," says IRC's Nathaniel Hurd. Thus far, this has simply not been the case in Iraq. By September 30 of last year, the United States had accepted just 13,823 Iraqi refugees, according to the State Department. Sweden had accepted 34,000 Iraqi refugees as of March 31, 2008. Even with an additional six months to do our humanitarian duty, a nation of 9 million still kicked our American ass.

Our power "grows through its prudent use," President Obama said in his inaugural address, and "our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." Of course, in the same speech, he also said, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." I'll begrudge him the boilerplate, if he acts on the spirit of the former rather than the latter.

Brian Palmer is a NY-based freelance writer. He is making a documentary based on his three trips to Iraq with the US Marines.

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