Can the United States Build a Foreign Army?
Entry 3: How the Snake Eaters learned to take charge.
Courtesy Owen West.
This article is the third of three excerpts drawn from Owen West’s book, The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq.
Capt. Dhafer wrapped up his patrol brief and pulled a cigarette from the pack he kept tucked in his helmet band. He looked over his shivering jundis and calmly lit the cigarette, projecting confidence to his men, as American advisers like Walter Roberson and Mark Huss had done for him. Dhafer saw himself as aloof and self-contained, but deep down he coveted the advisers’ approval. Keeping the cigarettes in his helmet was supposed to signal to the advisers that he had been there, done that, like their fathers in Vietnam. He had watched Platoon several times.
Dhafer was a twentysomething Shiite from Baghdad whose first exposure to Americans came during President Bill Clinton’s punitive bombings for Saddam’s failure to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998. Dhafer, then a lieutenant, was driving to an aircraft maintenance depot when a Tomahawk hit a hangar bay. His ears popped. He never forgot the power of it. Five years later, in 2003, Dhafer had hoped the Americans would invade, cut the rot out of the Iraqi army, boost his salary, and help his fellow Shiites. During the invasion he had stripped off his uniform, recording the mobile numbers of all his troops when the Americans gave the order to reform his army, as promised.
It never happened. America’s top civilian official in occupied Iraq, Paul Bremer, officially disbanded the Iraqi army in June 2003 and thus unwittingly replaced Saddam as the man most hated by Iraq’s professional military caste. All the U.S. leaflets had pledged that an honorable surrender would lead to continued service. Now that the army was disbanded, what was Dhafer supposed to do for a living? Become a professional looter like the Iraqis who paraded past his house in Baghdad each day under the weight of stolen goods? He waited for the Americans to come to their senses. Perhaps all armies were corrupt.
In early 2004, a rumor spread through the underground community of former Iraqi army officers, who had been secretly meeting in small groups over tea and tobacco in Baghdad hookah bars. The Americans wanted them back. Dhafer was part of a group of hard-core officers, mostly special forces with good reputations, Sunni and Shia both, that immediately joined the effort to rescue what they considered a foundering American project in Iraq.
It was not so easy. The Sunnis in Anbar were crazy, especially those in Abu Fleis, where he was leading a patrol today. The hamlet was overrun by palm trees, neck-high reeds, and experienced insurgents. It was a tiny suburb that sat across Route Michigan from central Khalidiya, a peninsula that jutted out into the Euphrates like an enormous green thumb. The river fed long, lush tracts of farmland that were tilled by workers housed modestly along Route Michigan, but owned by wealthy Baathist retirees who lived in isolated mansions farther up the peninsula surrounded by 30-foot marble walls. The patriarchs who owned the big houses—tough-looking, well-dressed 50-year-old men—claimed to be farmers, but Abu Fleis was notorious for its population of former officers of Saddam’s secret police force that once kept tabs on the tribes in Anbar Province. When the Americans invaded in 2003, the secret police moved off Saddam’s payroll and into the service of Al-Qaida in Iraq.
Dhafer was in the lead truck of a patrol convoy from Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1 that carried 20 jundis and two advisers. He stopped his truck at the foot of town, near a series of auto body shops that marked the entrance to Abu Fleis. He knew better than to order a patrol to burst into one of the mansions in the wealthy area in the northern part of the peninsula. That was a job for the Navy SEALs at night. A young Iraqi captain who harassed a rich family during the day would not live long enough to see the next leave convoy to Baghdad, so precise was the insurgent network in Abu Fleis.
Dhafer was trying to build his own source network. He couldn’t compete with the old secret mukhabarat so he was targeting their workers. When you didn’t have bribery money, you started at the bottom, where a favor went a long way. Leave the top to the Amerikees.
Dhafer was first out of the vehicles. Theatrics were effective for both the locals and his own jundis. He stared down the crowd of men hanging around the crowded roadside entrance to Abu Fleis, which served as the local market, then clicked his radio and shouted an order. The jundis leapt from their trucks and fanned out. One of the benefits of the cold, thought Dhafer, was its ability to speed up shivering jundis
The captain knew his NATO hand and arm signals, and silently called for a column patrol formation with a series of arm motions, but the only man responding to his gestures was an American adviser walking near the back of the file.
“Follow me!” Dhafer yelled in Arabic.
Instead of putting a junior jundi in the risky point-man position, Dhafer took the lead. He always did. In hostile neighborhoods like Abu Fleis and Khalidiya it was important to send a message that he and his soldiers were not intimidated. He strolled into the parting crowd, looking for familiar faces. Dhafer believed that building an informant network among the skeptical Sunnis hinged on a series of small acts of power and kindness.
“Spread out,” Dhafer told his jundis. “You may shop if you like.”
The jundis slung their rifles and waded into the small vegetable market marked by wooden stands topped with bright-colored umbrellas. Jundis earned $350 a month, a very strong wage in Iraq. They pooled some dinars and were soon laden with plastic bags filled with fruits and sodas. This micro-economy blended surprisingly little with Khalidiya, just across the street, which was like Harlem to Abu Fleis’ Upper West Side.
When Dhafer had first patrolled into Abu Fleis, it was a ghost town. Few shops were open. No man would sell Dhafer a cigarette. Now jundi dinars were a part of the small souk economy, and a raw materials warehouse had reopened in hopes of attracting the interest of the Iraqi battalion on the hill. Some of the advisers thought Dhafer was wasting time in the market. On a recent patrol with the captain, an American adviser had complained, “They’d rather be shopping than shooting.” This hurt Dhafer, because the advisers often implied his jundis were lazy, a slur they tossed on the Iraqis too casually.
But Dhafer knew what he was doing. By inserting his men into the village’s daily economy he was building familiarity. The local Sunni hatred of the Shiite soldiers had shocked him at first. Months spent haggling about prices had slowly but steadily migrated to local gossip, which Dhafer recorded nightly in his camouflaged all-weather notebook.
The captain ducked into a garage heaped with scrap metal. He recognized the owner, a casual source named Kamel who had complained in the past about the need to repair the sandy intersection at Route Michigan that had been chewed up by years of explosions. Dhafer fingered some of the steel in Kamel’s shop and sniffed the air for gunpowder.
“God’s peace be upon you,” said Dhafer.
“Peace,” said Kamel.
“How is your business?”
“Terrible. And yours?”
“Ha. It is too good. By God the most merciful perhaps we can help each other,” said Dhafer. “Anyone bothering you?”
“You mean besides the Americans?” said Kamel.
“You know who I mean. Those who steal scrap metal from your shop. They use it to hurt my soldiers. They hurt us both.”
“If I told you my family would be in danger.”
“I’ll keep you out of it,” said Dhafer.
“If I tell you, what will you do?”
“Put them in an American jail for a few days,” said Dhafer. “They will not bother anyone again. They will be scared. Maybe they will move.”
“No. They live here,” said Kamel. “How do I know you will take them to jail?”
“This is a promise. The New Iraqi Army keeps promises.”
Kamel peeked from his window. He stared vacantly at the makeshift souk. Finally he pointed at two young men dressed in sandals and sweatpants. “Those two are terrorists,” he told Dhafer. “Very bad men.”
Dhafer doubted it. The finger-pointing had come too easily. He tried to determine Kamel’s intentions. There were three types of sources: those with petty vendettas who wanted to get a neighbor in trouble for things like property disputes, those who needed money, and those who hated al-Qaida and wanted to remove them from the community. It was tough to differentiate at the outset—new sources wanted to test the Iraq soldiers’ handling of intelligence before revealing information that might get them killed, like the identity of a terrorist bomber.
Dhafer scribbled down the information so Kamel would feel important. He had no intention of sharing it with his fellow company commanders or even his intelligence officer. In the Iraqi army there was little mutual trust. Senior officers robbed juniors of their best ideas and took credit for their most successful operations. If a major or a colonel learned of a good informant, every time a patrol was dispatched to Abu Fleis they’d demand an update from that source. After a few days of this, the informant’s head would roll down Michigan along with the trash kicked up by the American benzene guzzlers.
Dhafer walked back out into the sunlight and talked to a dozen more neighbors, then walked back to the market, where a crowd of shoppers were airing grievances about American tanks ripping up their roads. Dhafer needed a foil. He settled on a surly 50-year-old man who was clearly irritated by the jundis. He wore a dark leather jacket and an expensive watch.
“You haven’t looked at me once,” Dhafer said loudly. The man turned his head, glanced at Dhafer, and turned back to the murmuring crowd. The captain moved closer. “I hear the bombs are coming again.”
“I don’t know anything about bombs,” the man said, turning away.
“What are you looking at? Are you signaling someone?” Dhafer asked with feigned interest. He squinted for effect. Then he pointed at the two men Kamel had identified. “That man nodded at you. Who is he?”
“The man you are looking at!” Dhafer shouted. “What is his name?”
The crowd went quiet. An adviser backed up until a wall was on his back, his hand wrapped around his rifle’s pistol grip. Sensing trouble, the jundis tossed their bags of fruit in the back of the pickup truck and formed a perimeter around the market. They were as confused as the vendors. Dhafer walked over to one of the startled young men and grabbed the collar of his sweatshirt. “This man!” Dhafer shouted at the 50-year-old. “I ask you, do you know him?”
The man in the leather jacket blanched. He knew he was being set up. “I know him,” the well-dressed man muttered. “He is Jassim. Everyone here knows him. He is a good boy who goes with God.”
“Your eyes tell me different,” said Dhafer.
The jundis seized the two young men and pulled from their pockets a few anti-American leaflets. It was the standard stuff churned out by a local imam in a mosque up the road in northern Abu Fleis. The young men were arrested for possession of propaganda, a flimsy charge.
The boys were released from jail after two days, but Dhafer’s instinct with Kamel was sound. Empowered by just a few sentences, Kamel became a regular source, and Dhafer’s information steadily improved.
* * *
In early November 2006, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging. While Shiites in Baghdad celebrated, many Sunnis were livid. After hearing the news, Sammy and Fosi al Fadawar, two brothers who had proclaimed themselves the toughest mujahideen in Khalidiya, met with two Syrian al-Qaida fighters. The foursome decided to retaliate by kidnapping some jundis in Khalidiya. They dressed in black, stuffed hundred-dollar bills into their pockets to bribe the checkpoints, and donned body armor and ski masks. They loaded their car with two PKC machine guns, four AK-47s, hundreds of bullets, a cattle prod, handcuffs, blindfolds, a hack saw, a pistol, several knives, and a change of clothes.
Although it wasn’t clear if they had been drinking or smoking hash, their behavior was bizarre. They drove through Khalidiya, playing a blaring tape from a radical imam, occasionally thrusting their AK-47s into the air.
“The puppets are afraid to fight real Iraqis!” one of them screamed. “God is great!”
“The jundis are on the highway. If you are so brave, why do you not attack them?” asked a bystander. The locals had been encouraged by several prominent imams to consider for themselves which side would bring prosperous times. Many openly supported the jundis.
“We will do more than that!” screamed an insurgent.
The four drove down Route Michigan, stopped outside a checkpoint, and unleashed a string of bullets into the sandbags protecting the jundis. Two Humvees full of jundis pursued the car in a wild chase. After a few cloudy turns, the lead Humvee came up over a rise and there was the insurgent car. In the turret, a jundi named Farat jerked back the machine-gun trigger, steering the bullets across the hood of the enemy car into the windshield. He did not straighten his finger until the gun was dry and the barrel was glowing pink.
Staff Sgt. Dave Cox, a Marine adviser, and several jundis climbed out of their Humvees and sprinted toward the smoking car. One insurgent popped open a door. Cox and his jundis poured four magazines into him.
When the echoes faded, Cox shouted, “Nice shooting, Farat!”
“I killed those fuckers!” shouted Farat in English. “Allahu Akhbar!”
Courtesy Dave Cox.
The pulpy bodies were dragged from the car and positioned for a picture. The jundis hugged one another and danced. The Marine gunners leapt from their turrets to take pictures and ruffle Farat’s hair. It was the battalion’s first big kill. Battalion 3/3-1 would soon adopt the nickname “The Snake Eaters,” so strong was the aggressive ethos that the advisers had instilled.
When the cheering died down, jundi Farat crumpled to his knees and vomited uncontrollably. He apologized, but Cox rubbed his back and told him he had nothing to apologize for. “You’ve done your job today, jundi,” Cox said.
Cox wanted to burn the bodies as a message. The jundis wanted to show them off. They loaded the bodies in an open trailer and drove slowly along Market Street. Curious boys darted in and out of the huddle trying to get close to the Iraqi soldiers, screaming that jundis had killed the Fadawar brothers. The streets were alive with shouts of congratulations and praises to God. They left the bodies to be claimed at the local hospital that had recently reopened after a two-year closure. It seemed a fitting symbol. The Iraqi troops had delivered both healing and death.
* * *
On Nov. 18, 2006, the first joint Iraqi army-police patrol roared into Khalidiya for a show of force, which was basically a parade. The police, called shurtas, had abandoned Khalidiya in 2004 after the police station was bombed and three chiefs assassinated. Now they wore uniforms but their faces were covered by black ski masks, for fear of being recognized by insurgents in town, including many former school friends. Seeing the cops for the first time in years, locals lined the streets of Khalidiya, waiting for something to happen. Certainly al-Qaida in Iraq agents would not let the parade pass through town unmolested.
The U.S. advisers remained hidden in the background in case of an attack. It was a show of Iraqi solidarity, not American engineering. Many Iraqis believed the bell would toll for the insurgency on the day local Iraqi police walked their own streets without masks. This was the first step.
“God is great!” the cops shouted into megaphones. “Terrorist cowards, your end is near!”
Courtesy Owen West.
The patrol honked its way down Michigan. Suddenly, several Opel cars carrying masked civilians darted out of Khalidiya and joined the motley formation. The convoy slowed to walking speed. Cops jumped from their trucks and happily greeted the anonymous newcomers. They were local civilian tribesmen from a group called Thawar Al Anbar (TAA), the paramilitary wing of the fledgling Anbar Awakening, headed by sheiks who were finally rebelling against al-Qaida’s control of Anbar Province. The TAA was in the business of revenge killing. Some militiamen were hefting wooden clubs and beating on the sides of their pickup trucks, while the police cheered and handed over their microphones. Even the Snake Eater jundis seemed buoyed by the presence of the tribesmen. They looked like youngsters in a bar fight welcoming the help of wild-eyed strangers.
“The sons of Khalidiya are here to protect you,” the TAA fighters shouted into the borrowed speakers. “We will destroy the terrorist cowards!”
The parade made its way into downtown Khalidiya, where the TAA members handed out leaflets reading, “God has called upon the people of Khalidiya to join the Al Anbar revolutionary fight against al-Qaida. If you have hurt or killed sons of Anbar, it is God’s wish that now you shall die.”
Giddy boys grabbed stacks of the leaflets and raced off to post them across the city. As the masked TAA members visited with several encouraging shopkeepers, GQ, an Iraqi officer whose impeccable grooming standards had prompted the nickname, tried to persuade the police to head back home to base before things got out of control.
“We need them to stay!” shouted the people. “We need police!”
Some TAA fighters posted flyers listing local men on the walls of Khalidiya’s central mosque. Above the names, two weeks’ notice was given for their confessions to be posted on the mosque wall, or they would be hunted down and killed.
Next, the TAA militiamen stormed an Internet café run by “Email Umar,” a suspected insurgent who was listed on the poster. Apparently he was accused of killing a tribesman. Coincidentally, Umar was also sought by the Snake Eaters for assassinating their best source, Omar the Teacher. Email Umar wasn’t at the café, so the TAA clubbed his 50-year-old father, smashed the store windows, and broke the computer screens.
“Anyone who again emails a terrorist or visits the sinner websites in this shop shall be executed, praise God!” shouted one TAA fighter.
Email Umar’s father rushed over to GQ, holding up his broken hand and wailing piteously. GQ pulled a TAA leader into an alley that was quickly walled off by jundis.
“Any more bullying by your men,” GQ threatened, “and you’re on your own. I’m in charge here, not you. Now go home.”
“It is my town,” said the man.
“If you plan to come back or walk around without a mask, you need my jundis.”
The TAA leader offered his hand but GQ refused to take it. He whistled at his men, and they vanished in cars and on foot using back roads. GQ was convinced that many of them had mined his troops in the past. Now he was supposed to shake their hands? He quickly gathered up the police and with his jundis escorted them back to Coolie Camp.
That night at the Snake Eater outpost, Lt. Col. Fareed, the Iraqi battalion commander, was equally conflicted. Over several glasses of tea, he complained to the advisers about “unemployed farmers and smugglers”—the TAA—in his battle space.
“If they are so tough,” Fareed said, “why have they hidden for a year while my jundis have done the hard fighting?”
“The list of names on the mosque shook up the town, though,” an adviser said.
“That shows how much inside knowledge the tribes have,” Fareed agreed. “We will tolerate these ‘Sons of Iraq,’ but they do not fight for Iraq at all. They fight for themselves.”
* * *
On the morning of Dec. 27, Fareed gathered his company commanders for an operation called Sad City Roundup that would turn the tide in Khalidiya: He wanted to put every male in Sadiqiya in a lineup on Route Michigan, specifically focused on a large group of men that sat day after day in plastic chairs smoking and watching the traffic from the relative safety of a giant cement truck stop. TAA militiamen dressed as jundis would point out the insurgents among them from the safety of armored cars. The accused would be arrested and jailed.
The plan struck many advisers as outrageous. They knew the truck stop well. The idea that the worst insurgents had been hiding in plain sight for years like storefront mobsters on The Sopranos was hard to accept. Did the militiamen know them that well?
At a nearby U.S. base, Fareed spread out 10 extra uniforms in the sun and waited. The police, who shared some members with the TAA, rolled up in police cars. The tribesmen left their guns in their cars and dressed in the ragged chocolate chip uniforms provided by the Snake Eaters. Fareed had brought extra-large sizes because he assumed the militiamen were fat. Instead they looked like emaciated jundis. They had gone hungry over the years of al-Qaida rule.
Marines working alongside the Snake Eaters left their patrol bases along Route Michigan and moved into positions encircling the city, carefully checking the traditional sniper hideouts. As a squad of Marines spread out down a narrow alley, there was a sharp explosion and Lance Cpl. William Koprince from east Tennessee, who was on his second tour, was dead.
Fareed gathered the Iraqi raid force on the U.S. airstrip. “A brother in the Marines has been killed by a mine in Sadiqiya. It is up to us to ensure his death brings fruit.”
Courtesy Owen West.
Seventeen vehicles filled with jundis and TAA roared out of the camp and quickly surrounded the truck stop in Sadiqiya. Jundis swept the small city, hauling every military-aged male back for inspection. In 30 minutes, hundreds of men were marched in rows down to Route Michigan. Anyone who sauntered up to gawk was grabbed. Soon the town was deserted. A queue of 1,000 men staring at their feet stretched for a quarter mile.
One of the Iraqi armored vehicles rolled slowly along the line. TAA “jundis” peered out the dirty portholes, occasionally rapping excitedly on the glass. When an insurgent was identified, he was yanked from the line and handcuffed.
Once the first hundred men were inspected, Fareed gathered a few sprightly citizens and announced, “Run and tell the rest of the men in Sadiqiya to report here if they want to retrieve their relatives.”
“Sir, the whole town’s here!” one of the men protested.
Three dozen men were arrested and driven to the detention facility, where jundis sat side by side with TAA fighters, explaining the evidentiary process needed to withstand the layers of lawyers waiting to set the suspects free. To process each of the prisoners required 30 minutes of paperwork, witness statements in English and another in Arabic. Some TAA could barely write. Others attempted Roman letters and produced mere scrawls. Charge sheets were torn up and rewritten. Jundis guzzled soda and munched on bags of Doritos, smeared the papers with orange dust.
For six months, the Snake Eaters’ No. 1 high-value target had been Ahmed Hamadi, the sniper whose brother was accused of killing Doc Blakley. In the courtyard of the jail, which was built like an enormous chicken coop with cement walls, a crowd of jundis rushed a captured insurgent and encircled him for a picture, like hunters standing over a trophy kill. They wanted an adviser to take the picture, but Americans were not allowed to photograph detainees.
A jundi pleaded, “Please Major, it’s Hamadi!”
“Ahmed Hamadi. His brother, Kamal, killed Doc Blakely. For years soldiers have been looking for this terrorist. We captured the Sadiqiya Sniper! Praise God!”
The jundis broke into a frenzied dance. Some were in tears. Hand in hand they encircled Hamadi and sang. Then one jundi tried to attack the sniper, but was held back by his friends. “Help me God to kill this man!” the jundi shouted.
“Get those jundis out of here,” the adviser told the lead jundi, “or we’ll all be locked up here tonight.”
Hamadi was a mousy little man with big ears. Looking at him, the advisers doubted he was the mythical Sadiqiya Sniper. But his identity was confirmed, and indeed he had an astounding eight intelligence reports in his file, dating back to 2005.
One of the SEAL interpreters wanted to investigate further. He had been on the raid when Hamadi’s brother, Kamal, was captured and believed the brothers were indeed snipers. He volunteered to impersonate an insurgent and fish for information.
The SEAL interpreter was roughly tossed into Hamadi’s cell, as if he too were an insurgent. During the night, Hamadi bragged about bombs he had planted, but by morning, running out of time, the interpreter was forced to press for information about his brother.
“I was picked up with my sniper cell,” he told Hamadi. “Know any snipers?”
“There is a very strong group here,” said Hamadi.
“Do you or your family shoot?”
Hamadi stopped talking. He sat in the corner of the cell and picked at the bars with his long fingernails. Eventually the interpreter called for the guard. As he walked out, he told Hamadi, “God will show you no mercy.”
* * *
A few days later, a Snake Eater foot patrol was walking through Khalidiya when the advisers sensed a new vibe. Some of it they could articulate: boys beating on pots and pans to celebrate the Snake Eaters instead of tipping off insurgents; grown men sharing a laugh with the advisers. But mostly it was an undercurrent, a human vibration into which the jundis immediately tuned but the Americans couldn’t pinpoint.
“Can you believe it?” Dhafer asked an adviser, smiling.
“I’ll believe whatever you tell me to believe, Dhafer.”
“We cannot do an operation because there is no one to arrest,” exclaimed Dhafer. “The war is over here. Over!”
That seemed a bit much. An old man approached with a list of names, a dozen of his sons or nephews fanned out behind him like a flight of geese. “We give you these names because they are the worst,” the patriarch said, handing the list of suspects to Dhafer. “But you will not find them. They have left.”
The people had found their courage, and the insurgents had no place to hide. Al-Qaida supporters stood exposed. After three-and-a-half years of the heaviest bloodshed in Iraq, the local Sunni tribes had come over. In a week, cops would walk the streets. The insurgency in Khalidiya was finished.
By the winter of 2007-08, Iraqi Brigade 3-1 (3/3-1 was one of its three battalions) was rated as one of the two best units in Iraq. No longer in need of U.S. advisers, the Iraqi command gave the Snake Eaters and the rest of the brigade a special rating as a quick reaction unit. They were relieved of their responsibility in Khalidiya and used as an elite shock troop in Diyala, Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, where they patrol to this day without advisers—as they have for close to four years.
Courtesy Owen West.
The Iraqi soldiers who started fighting in 2004 are still fighting today. But if you remain out on the edge that long, tragedy will find you. While supporting U.S. Special Forces in an attempt to capture Mosul’s second most-wanted terrorist, Dhafer was killed while entering a building as point man. He never did listen to the advice to walk in the back of his formation. The terrorist on the second floor landing shot Dhafer in the chest, right above his plate, and he died in Capt. Haadi’s arms, the Iraqi officer who had radioed Blakley’s death.
That night Haadi, who was a wreck, sobbed, “It was just like Blakley!”
Today Haadi remains in the fight with the Snake Eaters, though he misses the advisers and their “crazy spirit.”
No matter how we entered Iraq and Afghanistan—and will undoubtedly enter future small wars—all roads out lead through the adviser. The goal of any advisory team must be to imbue the foreign army unit with a sense of aggression. An aggressive unit by definition believes it can dominate its enemy. Once a unit has that core belief, then an internal code of conduct will take hold, shaping the actions of everyone in the unit. Once a unit is focused upon the enemy, it develops a sense of pride in its accomplishments, and a sense of shame at poor performance. Advisers don’t have the legal authority to fire poor leaders, but they can shape the unit’s ethos and make it difficult for poor leaders to remain.
On patrol with the Snake Eaters, I always felt the presence of dozens of advisers before me, and when I met them later, back in the States, our experiences in Khalidiya were different, but one belief was constant: Adviser teams work. I only wish some of our predecessors had seen the eventual turnaround.
Iraq was an American-led war, and we want American heroes. But the sudden reversal in Khalidiya was not an American story. Looking back, it seems foolish to believe that American forces alone could have protected the indigenous people in Anbar Province from the hard men among them.
Why and when the people of Khalidiya summoned the courage to point out their oppressors and decided to switch sides is a mystery. That’s the truth—despite well-intentioned doctrine at the top and acts of incredible courage at the bottom. But the key ingredient was competent local forces, as it will be in Afghanistan.
* * *
In July of 2009, Haadi related to the advisers that just one bomb had exploded in Khalidiya in two years, a personal vendetta by a cop, not a return to the bad old days when a bomb was discovered almost every day. Habbaniya, Haadi claimed, had returned to its prewar role as a sleepy agricultural waypoint on the route to Baghdad, and Lake Habbaniya—which set Khalidiya’s southern border—was again a popular domestic vacation spot.
“I am bringing my own family to the lake,” Haadi told the advisers. “It is that safe.”
We had our doubts. Security was one thing. Cavorting with children in a lake just a mile away from the site of hundreds of bombings and dozens of sniper shots was another. Then in August I read a New York Times article about hundreds of Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, who now gathered on the shores of Lake Habbaniya near the Iraqi outpost to dance by the waves to pounding tunes spun by a western-style DJ. We advisers were floored by the report.
“My jaw is on the floor right now,” Mike Troster, the former DEA agent, wrote.
“This means so much,” wrote Mark Huss, the plumber turned adviser leader. “Every day I struggle to tell my family what I did over there. I have a lump in my throat.”
“Cool,” Walter Roberson joined in, and that was it.
But it was Dave Cox who spoke for us all when he wrote, “I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes, because only we understand what we and the Iraqis worked for, and how hard it was every day, and who was lost along the way. But together we did it! Now let’s hope the politicians don’t screw the pooch.”
All author proceeds from The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq are being donated to the families of fallen Marines, advisers, and Iraqi soldiers.
Owen West, who took two leaves-of-absence from his job Goldman Sachs where he co-heads the veterans' network. to serve with the Marines in Iraq, is the author of The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq. He is also the author of two novels and numerous articles about adventure sports and military affairs. His writings can be found at www.westwrite.com.