Trying to Rebuild Iraq, While Watching Their Backs

The New York Times
May 11, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The news conference was held in splendid isolation. Splendid, that is, if you enjoy being walled off from the rest of Baghdad by tanks, armored Humvees, barbed wire and a small army of soldiers bearing M-16 assault rifles and .50-caliber machine guns.

The splendor of this barricaded variety was increased by the requisite identity checks, friskings and other searches at the multiple checkpoints on the way to the cavernous conference center in which Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of allied ground forces in Iraq, and Jay Garner, the retired American lieutenant general who heads the Pentagon-led reconstruction team, answered questions from reporters.

Security was required because Baghdad, like the rest of Iraq, remains an unsteady place without a functioning police force and without enough American troops to keep the streets safe. General McKiernan admitted, in one of the frankest comments yet by a senior American in Baghdad, that he did not have enough soldiers to secure the entire country. Fewer than 150,000 troops are in Iraq, which, he noted, is the size of California.

“Ask yourself if you could secure all of California with 150,000 troops,” he said. “The answer is no. The ultimate answer rests with Iraqis being in control of their country.”

Last week, much of the debate over building postwar Iraq focused on who would lead the effort. Would it be the Pentagon’s man, General Garner, or the State Department’s man, L. Paul Bremer? The answer, it emerged, is Mr. Bremer, a former counterterrorism official, who was named as a presidential envoy, a peg higher than General Garner. Connoisseurs of Washington infighting concluded that the State Department had triumphed.

But the effort to rebuild Iraq does not entirely pivot on whether a soldier or civilian is in charge. The first step toward putting Iraq back together is building stability, and that begins with bringing law and order, or in diplo-speak, peacekeeping. What matters more now is the number of boots on the ground–civilian as well as military–and the resources that they are given. But the Bush administration is planning to withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months, and it wants to establish a new military structure in which American troops would continue to secure Baghdad while a majority of the forces in Iraq would be from other nations.

The only institution on this planet with any recent experience in peacekeeping is the United Nations, and it has failed more often than it has succeeded. From Somalia to Rwanda to Bosnia to Sierra Leone, United Nations efforts to hold splintering nations together, or piece them together once they have fallen apart, have not achieved their noble goals, and sometimes the price of failure has been immense bloodshed.

If peacekeeping is to have a reasonable prospect of success, it needs to be guided by people who know what is happening on the ground. But without enough troops, how much on-the-ground work can be done? At the news conference, General McKiernan said that 45 percent of the police force had returned to work. Was he talking about Baghdad?

Some traffic cops are back at work–largely ineffectually, because traffic jams are large, especially at gas stations with lines measured in kilometers and days–but policemen are virtually absent. The statement was made by a man who appears to be ill-acquainted with the facts on the ground or, at the least, much too optimistic about them.

One underlying problem for the Americans, aside from the fact that there aren’t many of them here, is that the instability keeps them incredibly isolated. I was at the Oil Ministry on Thursday and noticed a convoy of a Bradley fighting vehicle and several armored Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns. They were escorting an S.U.V. with two civilians who work for KBR, an American oil-services company.

That’s how the Americans who are supposed to fix Iraq travel around–in cumbersome convoys insulating them from the people they are supposed to help. Yes, those civilians and troops working in Iraq need security to do their work. But the trade-off is that these security requirements keep them from having the close contact they need to succeed, especially because there are so few of them.

Nor is the situation an inducement to attract qualified people required for the job. Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon is awash in Arabic speakers. How many of them would wish to leave their suburban homes and families in the United States for a six-month or yearlong stint in such conditions? How many non-Arabic speakers who have useful skills would wish to to ply those skills in Iraq? It is quandary that the United Nations is familiar with–its field offices, though staffed by some well-qualified individuals, infrequently rise above mediocrity.

As I sat down to write this article, I heard a commotion outside. From the hotel balcony I noticed that a convoy had just parked on the street below me; there were two Army Humvees, two S.U.V.’s with bodyguards in civilian clothes and a black armored Mercedes-Benz. The occupants had come to my hotel for dinner. One of them was Barbara K. Modine, a top assistant to General Garner.

There was gunfire nearby; this is normal for my neighborhood, as it is for all neighborhoods. Perhaps someone is testing a new weapon acquired from a looted storehouse, perhaps someone is shooting at a looter, perhaps a looter is shooting a shop owner. The soldiers and bodyguards crouched into defensive positions but they didn’t investigate, because their job is to provide security for Ms. Modine, not for the people of Baghdad.

General McKiernan was right about the ultimate answer to Iraq’s woes: it will be up to the Iraqis to rebuild their nation or destroy it further. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, a little more security and a little more contact with the Iraqis would go a long way.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.