Editor’s Note: Over the past two years, a favorite piece of Washington’s conventional wisdom was the myth of the “successful surge,” President George W. Bush’s supposedly “courageous” decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq and thus to bring down levels of violence.

But a far more important factor was the pre-surge strategy of paying Iraq’s Sunni insurgents not to shoot at U.S. troops and to maintain some order in formerly turbulent areas, as Carol Burke writes in this guest essay from afterdowningstreet.org:

The most impressive contracting effort of the Iraq War to date is not the shoveling of treasure to Halliburton, but rather the low-profile hiring of over 100,000 Sons of Iraq over the last two years to guard the towns, neighborhoods and highways of Iraq.

The future of Iraq rests on what happens to these insurgents we turned into peacekeepers. 

The Pentagon and most in the U.S. media give full credit to “the surge,” the addition of 30,000 American forces (including support staff), for the dramatic decrease in violence in Iraq since 2007. Consider the relative effects. The majority of the 30,000 American troops who came as a result of the surge spend their time on base. On many bases in Iraq no more than 5 percent of the U.S. personnel goes “outside the wire” on a given day.

This protracted war of counterinsurgency has even given rise to a new slang term in military speech. The soldier who rarely gets off the FOB (Forward Operating Base) is called a “Fobbit.” He eats five meals a day, grows round in the middle and even, as legend has it, starts growing hair between his toes. 

In contrast, the Sons of Iraq make their armed presence known 24 hours a day. Although the Americans refer to the “Sons of Iraq” or “SOI,” the Iraqis call them “Sahwa,” a word that translates as “Awakening.”

In a rural area in northwestern Iraq known as “the Arab West,” a region west of Kirkuk and south of Mosul, these young armed men work for 24 hours at a stretch checking every car and truck that passes their way. They are not new to weapons.

Like their predecessors, members of the League of Islamic Awakening, who formed in 1919 to oppose the British-installed interim Iraqi government and to eliminate British rule all together, many Sons of Iraq are former insurgents who fought against the occupying forces.

Many said they had become fed up with the violence that killed and wounded the innocent of their villages. A neighbor driving to the next village might inadvertently set off an IED intended for the Americans. American retaliation might take out bystanders as well as insurgents.

These Sunni men were desperate to protect their families and to feed them. The Americans made an offer they couldn’t refuse: a modest but steady monthly salary to secure their villages.

“We out-hired the enemy,” said Lt Col David Snodgrass, 3-25 infantry commander previously stationed at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk, now stationed in Mosul.

Major Employer

In many parts of Iraq the paramilitary SOI organization now serves as the major employer. In Kirkuk Province alone, the United States military has funded 9,000 Sons of Iraq. The local contractors, the tribal leaders, who until recently doled out the monthly cash, sweetened their own salaries as well.

One Army captain, who requested that his name not be used, alleged widespread corruption in the system, “You ask any SOI what they are paid a month, and he’ll tell you $190. They’re supposed to be paid $240, so where does the other $50 go — to the contractor.”

The American forces, in cooperation with the Iraqi Army, recently eliminated these middlemen. As of April 1, the government in Baghdad formally assumed responsibility for the program, administering the payments and absorbing its cost.

In preparation for that turnover, the Americans, in collaboration with the Iraqis, waged an extensive effort to collect fingerprints and iris scans from all SOI members. It was a condition of their continued employment, and it gave to the Government of Iraq vital information that could, in the future, be used to track these Sunni men should they return to armed resistance.

The Shia-dominated government’s recent detentions of SOI in Baghdad and Baqubah suggest that it may view these former insurgents less as a security force and more as a threat. The failure to pay some Sons of Iraq in the south of the country suggests either an inefficient bureaucracy or the Government of Iraq’s reluctance to take over what the Americans started.

Many American commanders trust that the Government of Iraq (GOI) will deliver on its promise to absorb 20 percent of these predominantly Sunni men into the Iraqi Security Forces, but recent incidents of Iraqi police turning their weapons on American soldiers can only raise questions about this plan.

Some American commanders doubt that the Government of Iraq will support the remaining 80 percent for more than a short period. Responding to questions about the faltering transition and the reemergence of insurgency, Lt Col Snodgrass said, “In the event that anything does goes wrong, the U.S. is prepared to pay for a period during the transition while things get worked out.” 

If the Shia dominated government does fulfill its promise to find positions in the army and police force for 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq, 1,800 SOI in Kirkuk Province will receive jobs. 

If the government fails to support the remaining 80 percent of these former insurgents, roughly 7,000 SOI in Kirkuk Province alone will find themselves unemployed at a time when the civilian unemployment rate among males in their age group is already a whopping 28 percent. 

The revived oil fields might offer a glimmer of hope for the jobless. The dramatic increase in oil production in the fields near Kirkuk (from 48.6 million barrels in 2007 to 133.6 million barrels in 2008) may open a few hundred more security jobs, but in volatile times, who wants former insurgents guarding Iraqi oil fields?

The Government of Iraq has promised training programs, but after the decline in oil prices in the last year, the country’s available reserves had plummeted by the end of 2008 from an estimated $80 billion to $39 billion. And a training program is not the same thing as a steady job. 
 
In this sparsely populated northern region, the war closed down what employment opportunities there were. A once thriving poultry slaughtering house, one of the chief employers in the area, stands vacant today. Much of the seed stock for this farming region is so depleted and old that the crops it produces are of poor quality, the wheat mostly chaff.

A long drought, clogged irrigation ditches, and shallow wells produce water with high salinity. Children suffer from dehydration and dysentery.

Near Danger

It wasn’t very long ago when every soldier on FOB McHenry, a base 35 miles southwest of Kirkuk, knew that even the area immediately adjacent to the base promised certain danger.

Maj. Joe West, who was until recently stationed at McHenry, explains, “As soon as you drove out of the FOB you would get IED’d.” 

But now security has dramatically improved.  A withdrawal of support for the Sons of Iraq, however, could rapidly destabilize the region turning insurgents-turned-peacekeepers back into insurgents. 

Any commander in this rural area of Iraq knows that the pullout of American forces must be accompanied by the careful transition of the Sons of Iraq from military contractors to civilian jobs. The programs designed to train SOI in carpentry, concrete, plumbing and the building of water towers have attracted disappointing numbers.

According to the recent commander at McHenry, Lt. Col. Kenneth Casey, the programs run by locals offer the notable exceptions.

To find out what might work, Maj. West, the head officer in charge of operations at McHenry, recruited the help of a human terrain team. The Army began embedding civilian contractors called “human terrain teams” with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006.

These five to nine person teams, comprised of at least one social scientist and at least one person fluent in the local language, conduct what one former team member called “combat ethnography.” 

Before deploying, they enrolled in a four-month training program at Fort Leavenworth that trained them to collect perceptions of the local population through interview and observation, to analyze those perceptions in relation to research available from both open source and classified material, and to present their findings to a military commander.

West instructed the McHenry human terrain team to gather data to answer the question: “Where should we be investing money?” 

Outside the Wire

Clipboards in hand, the five-person human terrain team and a platoon from a tank company that calls itself “The Assassins,” leave their base 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk in search of the Sons of Iraq.

Why the Assassins, the brigade’s alpha company?  Because anyone on base will tell you that Capt Larry Brown, the commander of the Assassins and the guy with “Bossman” written on the stock of his rifle, “owns” the territory whose security he maintains.

In a war zone, the army divvies up the Area of Operation (AO) to captains or “the landowners” as they are called.  The human terrain team came to stake out their claims on the AO by mapping its culture. In the intricate division of duties in the brigade of 4,000, the human terrain team owns culture.

The Assassins belong to 1-67th armor group which, until recently, was stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry. The soldiers of the regiment refer to themselves as “Death Dealers” and proudly display their slogan on black baseball caps worn on base.

Even their chaplain sports a Death Dealer cap. Each cold January morning the Assassins rev up their MRAPS, the $800,000 “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected” vehicles whose designers sacrificed the maneuverability of the $140,000 up-armored Humvees for strength and a v-shaped hull resistant to IED’s, and ferry the members of the human terrain team outside the wire to track down the Sons of Iraq.

Throughout January, the human terrain team members survey the SOI. Although the team collects no names, they solicit information about age, marital status, level of education, and tribal affiliation. They ask the SOI what kinds of work they consider honorable and solicit responses to three questions designed to elicit remarks about the importance of weapons.

They are trying to find out why the SOI have not taken advantage of the training programs designed to transition them from militia members dependent on U.S. funding into tradesmen employed in the private sector.

For most in the brigade, the answer to that question is simple: these poorly educated lazy guys simply want to look cool standing beside the road toting a weapon. This is a region of Iraq, after all, known as “The Arab West.”

Even Lt. Col. Casey shares the popular view of this “cowboy culture”: “People would rather stand on the street corner with guns,” he said, than opt for “the nobility of work.”

The responses that the team collects challenge the received opinions in the brigade. The Sons of Iraq, they find, have a more mature perception of what they do than the Americans give them credit for. It is easy for the Americans soldiers, who speed by in their convoys, to regard these ragtag locals as childlike, as if they were playing at war.

It’s one of the oldest prejudices of an occupying force. Without uniforms, without body armor, without heat other than a wood fire to take the chill off winter nights that can get down into the 20’s, the SOI sometimes look like bystanders in the war.

As the team has learned, however, the SOI don’t just stand around looking like poster boys for a revolution gone bad; they perform community service for their local area.

Since the highways are dangerous places, ill villagers have come to rely on the SOI to drive them to the hospital in the nearby city.

An Iraqi woman who lives outside of Zaab and earns her living selling used clothing from a small shop that looks more like an open one-car garage says, “You don’t know how much we have been suffering. We have to risk our lives to get medical care by driving on dangerous roads to the next city.” 

Making the journey from Zaab to Sharqat, a 15-mile trip, with SOI protection mitigates that risk. The new women’s clinic, built with American funds would ease the burden even more, but it is difficult to lure doctors and nurses to the area.

Safety for Communities

In its survey of the Sons of Iraq, the human terrain team discovers that these men prefer their work as Sons of Iraq not because of how they look but because of what they do: providing a measure of safety for their communities.
Should it be any surprise that protecting one’s community in a time of war would be considered the most highly valued form of work?

Refuting the assumption that the men thought farming menial, these farmers and sons of farmers resoundingly affirmed that they had no aversion to manual labor. In fact, many of them work as subsistence farmers in addition to their SOI jobs to help feed their families.

Farming may not be respectable work in the eyes of American soldiers, but it is respected work to the Sons of Iraq, labor that their tribe has done for generations.

The Human Terrain Team only arrived in the fall. Had their survey been conducted a year earlier, American dollars spent on rehabilitation might have been deployed to address the real needs of the former insurgents so that they could transition from militia forces back to farmers.

These men need education. Fifty-nine percent, according to the human terrain team’s report, lack more than a sixth-grade education, a fact not hard to understand when one considers how war dismantles education.

In the last couple of years, Americans have begun building schools in this part of Iraq. Fifteen schools were either built or refurbished. Although the schools were ready for students, there were few teachers to teach them.

This region alone faced a shortage of 700 teachers, according to Hawija City Manager Sabhan Ali Aljabora, To address the problem, teacher training in Kirkuk began in earnest, but when the newly trained teachers were told that they would be assigned to schools in this recently turbulent part of the country, many refused to relocate.

With the increase in security that the SOI have brought to the area, schools are starting to reopen again, but still some nicely refurbished schools remain empty of pupils because no teachers have yet arrived. 

The future of these Sons of Iraq, America’s other military contractors, will determine Iraq’s future. If the members of this Sunni militia can reenter civilian life and support their families without threat from a Shia-dominated central government, peace may have a chance.

If, however, the Government of Iraq leaves them without hope, these Sons of Iraq may resort again to armed resistance. If that happens, the Arab West could turn wild again.

Carol Burke is the author of Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight. She was embedded with the Human Terrain Team attached to the 3-25 Infantry Division in Northern Iraq.

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