Yesterday, in the footnote to my post about counterinsurgency (which the military abbreviates as “COIN”) efforts in Al Salam, I noted that the Khadamiyah neighborhood in Baghdad had recently taken a turn for the worse as Jaish al-Mahdi activity had increased. Khadamiyah is the neighborhood that Michelle and I walked around and met with locals during our visit to Baghdad back in January, and at that time it was one of the city’s most quiescent sectors. I based the note about it turning sour on an email I’d received from LTC Steve Miska, commander at Forward Operating Base Justice in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago, in which he noted the change in dynamics in Khadamiyah. Well, after posting yesterday’s story I sent off a courtesy email to LTC Miska, just to let him know that I’d quoted him in the piece. He replied:
I think exploring the nonkinetic side of our fight is an avenue less traveled. The soft power is exactly how we win in a COIN effort. Dollar bills are more powerful than bullets. However, those patrols are less sexy than kicking down doors in the middle of the night.
That is certainly true, and is reflected in press coverage of both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the reason I’ve been airing the Winning Hearts & Minds series is to show the other side of the war, that part that isn’t sexy enough to earn Pulitzers and therefore hardly ever gets any coverage, even though it’s one of the most important parts of the war.
Update on Khadamiyah. We have regained momentum against JAM over the last few weeks. We have JAM leadership on the run. The people are fed up with the organized crime and extortion that accompanies JAM. Although we still have plenty of political interference in Khadamiyah, I think we have swung the pendulum back in the direction of economic progress and protecting the people from extremists on both sides.
Throughout our area of operations we have made significant gains against defeating Al Qaeda (AQI). We are actively collaborating with former Sunni insurgents to drive AQI from their neighborhoods. If we stop the AQI intimidation, we take a lot of wind out of the militia sails. The militia use the fear of AQI car bomb attacks to justify their reason for being. Without the threat of AQI, the militia is just a bunch of mobsters running extortion rackets and terrorizing the Sunni populace.
This is good news, and it’s important for a couple of reasons. First, look at the symbiotic relationship between AQI and JAM. They hate each other and would probably get into gunfights if they met on the streets, but Shiite JAM has a hard time flourishing without the constant threat of Sunni AQI to play against. Remove the al Qaeda threat, and as LTC Miska says, JAM becomes irrelevant and a nuisance, and then becomes unpopular enough to allow for stronger US and Iraqi Army action against them. Well, that’s the hope anyway. As with anything else in Middle Eastern politics, your mileage may vary. If recent history is any guide, it’s more than possible for radicals like Hamas to take power via democratic means. But on the other hand, there is no love lost between Iraq’s majority Shias and Palestine’s pro-Saddam Sunnis, so you can’t reliably guess the future of one by the past actions of the other.
One of the things I saw in Baghdad is that most Iraqis aren’t interested in radical Islamic theology or jihad or in the secular wing of the insurgency. To be sure, there are far too many Iraqis who are interested in those things and they tend to group up in ways that attract and hold too much political and militia power, but at least in the part of Baghdad that we saw, I don’t think radicals and radical sympathizers are anywhere near a majority. If they were, Iraq would a whole lot bloodier than it is. Most of the people wanted security and jobs, in that order. The strategies that FOB Justice has been deploying and that Gen. Petraeus is applying across Iraq are aimed at delivering both plus a whole lot else. They’re not quick fix strategies; they will take time to pan out, if they do. And there’s always a chance that they won’t, either because JAM proves too slippery to be destroyed, or because the Iraqi people continue to choose poorly in their political leadership, or for some set of reasons I haven’t thought of.
I’m not going to sit here as a Polyanna and say that everything’s going to be hunky dory if AQI and JAM are destroyed and Iraq’s economy keeps booming. There will remain a devil’s nest of problems to deal with, especially to Iraq’s east and among the remaining radical Baathist and Islamist elements, for a long time to come. But destroying AQI and JAM via both the hard power that makes for splashy headlines and the soft power that doesn’t would go along way toward achieving the internal security that Iraq needs but has thus far been elusive.