The U.S. military loves metrics to measure success or failure. Vietnam had its dubious enemy body counts, the Gulf War its measure of smart bombs accuracy. Troops today in Iraq may have come across their most accurate technique to gauge the current campaign: the Chai count.
“Do you know how many times I drank Chai in Anbar in 2005 and 2006,” US Army Captain Scott Polasek asked Hussam Alwan Abed, the head of the Sons of Iraq program in Miqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad in the Diyala province. “Once — only one cup of Chai. We were too busy shooting and killing people.”
Chai is Iraqi tea, usually drunk from a small glass tumbler with a saucer and thick layer of refined sugar at the bottom which, if stirred, will double your blood sugar. Any serious guest in Iraq will be offered two Chai during which business or old times are discussed. In Iraq, drinking tea with friend or acquaintance is a sign of civilized life. Life without Chai may not be worth living.
During his second tour in Iraq, Polasek has had tea with Abed several dozen times, debating politics, who should become a member of the local Sons of Iraq — the “neighborhood watch on steroids” that has been so important in employing military-age, poorly educated males in Iraq — or how security will proceed in the run-up to provincial elections, tentatively scheduled for later this year.
This method of engagement with Iraqi community leaders is a core goal laid out by General David Petreaus, who in the past several years has set the rules for the US-led coalition’s counter-insurgency, creating what been called in some quarters “a political campaign with guns.”
The “surge” of about US 30,000 troops last year received the headlines. Yet it was the tactical change in the way US forces operated, borrowing from British and French experiences in Malaysia, Algeria and Northern Ireland that pushed US troops off their large bases, onto the streets and into the homes of community leaders. The boost in security has created enough trust among the population to improve intelligence gathering while draining the pool of underemployed males that were targets of al Qaeda recruiters.
“If the government doesn’t use the sectarian issue in the upcoming election, then things will work well,” said Abed, a Sunni, who is running for a seat on the Diyala Provincial Council and is the contractor in charge of several hundred Sons of Iraq. “Hopefully, the theme in the next year will be reconstruction and redevelopment.”
The change in techniques has worked. US deaths in July were at their lowest since the war began while Iraqi security death also fell in the face of increased operations. Life has become so peaceable in Anbar, the former core of the Sunni insurgency, the US Marines offered to leave the region in order to fight in Afghanistan.
The change in focus has been nowhere more dramatic than in Diyala, where the Iraqi Army and Police are currently carrying out its largest military operation since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. Nearly 50,000 Iraqi troops are clearing al Qaeda safe havens and weapons caches in upper Diyala, near the Iranian border, with little direct US support.
2006 Bad Year For Diyala
The year 2006 was not a good year for Chai gatherings or for life in general in Diyala. In March and April, elements of al Qaeda in Iraq took over towns and stores throughout the region, while Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army took over neighboring Shia towns. Both groups used the region as a staging area for the relentless, massive suicide bombings and sectarian attacks that shook Iraq’s capital of Baghdad throughout the year.
In additional, in April of that year, al Qaeda attacked one of the largest markets in the country, the Aruba Suk in Miqdadiyah. The attack destroyed more than 3,000 stalls and took away more than 15,000 jobs from the region. The Suk was estimated to have made up more than 25 percent of the area’s total economic activity. Today, the Suk is barely returning to operation, with perhaps 50 of the storefronts open.
“A year ago, this guy wouldn’t be open selling kabobs, and we would have been sprinting from building to building, trying not to get shot by snipers – six months ago even,” said First Lieutenant Casey Campbell, commander of the White Platoon, Hawk Company, 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment during a visit to the Suk. “Al Qaeda would coming into town in almost platoon formation and would shoot everyone, police included, chopping off heads, it was awful.”
Pictures of the Aruba Suk before 2003 showed the streets of the Suk completely filled with people, with plush merchant quarters above each store, and long, ornate, second and third-story balconies reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Campbell said.
Now some furniture stores and a couple a coffee shops have returned. The U.S. State Department and the Iraq government are spending $1 million to help fix the Suk in the next year, while security has return to such a degree that Petreaus himself visited at the end of last month without his helmet and a Kevlar vest. Security was so poor during his last visit to the area in December that he couldn’t leave the nearby US military base.
Local tensions between Sunni Arab members and a local Police dominated by Shia continue to bubble, and corruption continues to be rife. If the Sunni-dominated Sons of Iraq program can’t be properly integrated into local police forces, or al Qaeda in Iraq finds a way to repeat its devastating large-causality suicide attacks, the recent gains could be lost, with violence erupting again around the time of the provincial election.
“The Shia community could have some big surprises before the election,” said Abed, who before 2005 is believed to have fought against Coalition troops. “The Sunni community realized that if they don’t join this election, they won’t be represented. We have fears of being arrested just before the election.”
Polasek’s year-long deployment ends in November, too soon to be available to oversee the postponed elections. In the meantime, he expects to sit down “hundreds” of more times before he returns to the squadron’s home base in Vilseck, Germany, near the Czech Republic.
“We were doing it wrong last time,” said Polasek, regarding US tactics used earlier in the Iraq conflict. “People don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. Things were way too kinetic, busting down doors, humiliating people in front of their families. Now it’s all about understanding tribal affiliations and finding ways for people to keep their honor.”
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