The Chai count

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Click to view images from Miqdadiyah. Photos by Bill Murray.

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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9 Comments

  • Diver says:

    Our armed forces working to understand the culture and incorporate cultural needs into the strategy. As americans we have always paidy lip-service to this kind of interaction, never really doing it. In this instance we are really doing it, and discovering that it works.
    We have an emarrassingly long way to go establishing this as a trusted doctrine in military operations. Re-development efforts with civil and state authorities need the same transformation. Sad but true – the flow of money to projects is stolen by the armful, simply because we do not have this same kind of engagement from our own people all the way down into the working levels of the community there.
    If the American public had any real visibility of these problems, they would be freaking out about the amount of waste lost to corruption that is simply not being actively opposed by any kind of constructive engagement like that which is now being employed by our troops.

  • KW64 says:

    These things take time. Sadly, many expect instant results and get frustrated without them. Insurgencies take about seven years to bring down. It is not clear that we could have built the Sons of Iraq in 2003 or 2004. Their atttitudes needed to evolve as well toward Democracy, majority rule, and the reality rather than the myth of Al Queda.
    Rather than beat ourselves over the head that we did not use these tactics from the beginning, lets just be thankful for the success achieved and recognize how close we came to a defeat that would have been disastrous for the region, for Iraq and for the US. We may have to make a similar effort elsewhere. Hopefully people will understand that we can succeed in similar circumstances if we stick to it and work together.
    I have an Iraqi friend who made a virtual sugar slurry out of his tea and coffee. When he got diabetes, he said it was because he was overweight; I thought he was oversugared.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/12/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Joakim Ekström says:

    I think the soldiers are absolutely amazing! They aren’t trained by the State Department to be diplomats. But they understand what needs to be done. So they get up early in the morning, tie their boots and get out in the 120 degrees heat to do the work the nation needs them to do. And they do it as well as any career diplomat.
    As for the army as an institution, the “small footprint” strategy was implemented in 2004. In late 2006 Gen Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad had the great courage to report that the strategy wasn’t working. Since then, a new strategy was implemented within only a few months. I think that’s rather impressive!

  • Hamidreza says:

    The legions of self-labelled mostly leftist academic “experts” on Arab culture and Shiism and Islamic Studies and …. should read this article and weep.
    Where were they when the troops needed their “expertise” on tribal and cultural matters? They were nowhere to be found happily receiving taxpayer funded salaries at the state universities and demonstrating in the streets as Stoppers and Anti-War Coalitions in the comfort and security of Western society.
    Now they shamefully see that the troops have successfully turned their skills and courage to cultural understanding and friendship — and had no use for the cultural (relativist) skills of this sorry crowd of whining, self-hating, and treasonous leftists.

  • Terry Gain says:

    Hamidreza,
    Bravo.

  • anand says:

    It is unrealistic to expect “legions of self-labelled mostly leftist academic “experts” on Arab culture and Shiism and Islamic Studies” to know any more about Iraq than anyone else. Although to be fair, Shiism experts understood Iraq much better than Arab culture and Islamic Studies experts.
    The real question is why didn’t “Iraq” experts step forward. In part they did step forward. They are called Iraqi Americans and other Iraqi ex patriots. We as a nation failed to aggressively reach out to them and recruit them in 2002 and 2003, in part because reaching out to them was expensive and Rumsfeld opposed a long engagement in Iraq.
    Investing in recruiting Iraqi ex patriots and local Iraqis after the fall of Saddam would have been expensive and generated medium term payoffs rather than immediate results. However, it took us a while to fully appreciate that.

  • bacsi says:

    “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.”

    “As americans we have always paidy lip-service to this kind of interaction, never really doing it.”

    Just what the devil do you people think the US Special Forces is all about? Working with the indig has ALWAYS been SF’s forte. Its nice to see the regular ground pounders have finally waken up, but its not so great to find SF’s role so forgotten and dismissed by everyone. Lets see, exactly who was it that ran the show in northern Iraq; and who was it that led the Afghan warlords who kicked out the Taliban? Anyone remember? Just who is it that lives in small camps off in the boonies interacting with the locals, and have been doing that since Vietnam? Anyone remember what an A-team is? Or what it’s mission is? You think Special Ops is SF? ha!

    “We were doing it wrong last time,”

  • PLZ2521 says:

    I was stationed in Muqdadiyah for 13 months as a cavalry scout. In the midst of a horrible, war-torn city, we drank chai all the time. Humanity exists there, but in an ancient and fundamental form. Predator vs. prey. Sub-Saharan principles and little to no concept of Western democracy, ideals, or technology. Education is based on family and tribal philosophies. It’s almost Taoist, until you try to get some bread at the market, on the wrong day, and become one of the countless victims.
    Progress will only come on a Reconstruction level process of several decades.

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