The Roots of the Problem in Iraq

Until recently, I did the adjunct Professor thing at a local business school. I had a few students that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them were officers, and a bit older than the average student.

So here’s a story one of them told me when he got back. It dates back to shortly after the invasion of Iraq and I think illustrates how we got where we are.

Anyway, being senior officer in a given area, this officer found himself having to deal with local Sunni sheikhs in small villages. He wasn’t trained for it, but that’s OK – he’s a very smart guy, and he exudes both capability and humility. In other words, he’s the kind of guy you would trust with your life if you have to. And every one of them told him the same thing. It seems they were terrified someone called Talibani was going to come and kill them and everybody in their village. Needless to say, this was reported up the chain of command, but he had no idea who this Talibani character was. All he could do was tell the local sheikhs was that his men would never allow this Talibani person or anyone else to come out and kill them.

(Now, at this point, most of us have heard of Talibani, as he is now one of the Presidents of Iraq. At the time this story took place, he was leader of the Kurds.)

It turned out that other officers of his rank were having precisely the same issue – local Sunni sheikhs were all scared of Talibani. All these officers were reporting this up the chain of command, but they weren’t receiving any guidance to the contrary. Eventually the obvious conclusion is reached: Talibani was some sort of boogy man, a local version of Keyser Soze if you will. And it never occurred to the folks higher up the food chain to send any guidance down despite repeated questions. After a few months of this, one of the officers found out who Talibani was by checking on the internet.

Now, a lot of the mess in Iraq is caused by massive misunderstandings between US troops and the locals. Those misunderstandings are natural, given the very different cultures involved. But mistakes made early on were huge, and they exacerbated the situation.

(I would contrast my student’s experience with that of my grandfather in WW2. Because he spoke Yiddish, which is similar to German, he was the guy that had to talk to the local mayor or outpost leader or whatever whenever his unit took a town or wanted to arrange a surrender. Most of these people were very unhappy to be talking to a Jew, but given that his Sherman idling in their front yard they got over it. My grandfather was not a negotiator, he was a tank driver. His informal negotiation job was merely to make sure the locals stayed quiet between the time unit raced forward to take the next town and the rear echelon folks showed up to run things. Still, he was given very precise instructions about what to say and what not to say, and how to say it. He was given information about local politics. Clearly, one would think that in 2003 and 2004, the military has a much greater ability to brief a Captain or a Major than it did a tank driver in 1944 and 1945, and yet…)