Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Change in the Weather

I saw my breath this morning for the first time since last winter in New York. When I arrived to Kuwait the temperatures were still in the 110°-120° range. Managing the heat is relatively easy. Drink lots of water, stay out of the sun as much as possible, and keep hard work to a minimum.

It stayed hot for a few weeks in Iraq until the temps dropped to a reasonable 80ish. That’s when the last of the summer dust storms hit. The dust that is kicked up from these storms knows no boundaries and can find its way into rooms, vehicles, and even showers. It reduces visibility to near nothing. There isn’t much worse than breathing dirt all day long.

Then the rains came. It has rained briefly a few times. One day it rained here for half a day and turned the entire base into a slick, dirty, sticky mud hole. I made the same complaint last time and anyone who has ever been here knows what I am talking about. The Iraqi earth is not sand, at least not in central Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates. The earth here is more of a dried up river silt that when dry become as fine as talc. When it’s damp it becomes spongy and soft. When it gets wet it turns into soup. When you walk through it the mud sticks to the bottom of your boots and picks up clumps of stones and more mud. You can shake it off, scrape it off, and kick it off but the mud stays in between your treads on your boots until it decides it fall off.

Now the weather is turning once again and it is cold in the mornings when you wake up. People are starting to wear their fleece outer garments. Winter, such as it is, is coming to Iraq.

Iraq is changing too. When I arrived I was expecting a continuation of 2005, with gunfire, explosions, and high number of lethal and snatch-and-grab operations. I knew we were conducting large numbers of infrastructure projects but thought we'd need to play "dodge bomb" on the highways. I guess I was expecting a hot peace. What I discovered was much different.

Iraq is stable. That is the word that seems to fit best. The word that immediately follows the word “stable” is “fragile.” If you look at numbers then Iraq has benefited from the surge. The numbers of significant acts of violence are down across the board. The numbers of families returning to their homes has risen. The numbers of shops that are open are increasing. The nights are quiet. However, Iraq is more than a set of statistics.

Many factors can be attributed to this stability. The surge, GEN Petreaus, the SOI (Sons of Iraq) program, the destruction of al Qaeda cells, the money being poured in for infrastructure projects – any and all of these combined have brought a respite from the carnage of 2006 and 2007. A lot of credit must be given to the Iraqi military and police who have become a strong, (nearly) independent force. They take the lead on operations or calls for assistance and are backed up by our forces. They are a much different organization than existed in 2005.

Or, it could be that everyone is waiting for us to leave and as one battle hardened captain told me one night, “The Iraqis just decided that they don’t want to kill us right now.”

Within a few weeks the Security Agreement (formerly known as SOFA) will go into effect. This agreement will directly impact how we conduct our missions. There are no details whatsoever. Will we have to request permission to leave the base? Within a few months the nation will hold provincial level elections. As the balance of power shifts one way or another the fallout will be felt among the local towns and villages here. Will officials who lose vacate their seats? Within a few months the SOI will no longer receive American financial support, take a reduction in pay from the GOI, and may be put out of business altogether. Will the pick up their guns against us?Within a few years Iran is poised to come in and help their Shi’a Muslim brothers when we leave. What happens then?

Iraq might be coming out of the long cold winter to a slow rebirth or maybe this is the calm before the storm. Unfortunately the elements for one are the same as the other. It’s too early to tell which way the wind is blowing and the weathermen have been known to be wrong.

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