Tactics on the Ground: Putting Troops Among the People
Weighing the 'Surge'
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.
"This is General Petraeus's baby," said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August.
Next week, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will deliver to Congress their much-anticipated response to the central question that has dominated U.S. policy in Iraq this year: Is the "surge" working?
For months, top commanders and Bush administration officials have said that sectarian violence is down, although some U.S. agencies disagree, according to a recent draft report by the Government Accountability Office. Commanders and officials say attacks are also down against U.S. troops in once-treacherous regions such as Anbar province. This year, more than 100 joint security stations and smaller combat outposts have been erected in neighborhoods and villages across the country, which generals say is an indicator that U.S. and Iraqi troops maintain control.
If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves. But the numbers only partly describe the reality on the ground. Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory.
In many areas, U.S. forces are now working at cross-purposes with Iraq's elected Shiite-led government by financing onetime Sunni insurgents who say they now want to work with the Americans. The loyalties of the Iraqi military and police -- widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias -- remain in doubt.
Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus's showcase remain skeptical. "Personally, I think it's a false representation," Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge's success. "But what can I say? I'm just doing my job and don't ask questions."
While none of 18 benchmarks for progress set by Congress specifically addresses markets, security in neighborhoods such as Dora is viewed as essential for political reconciliation. Under Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. troops have left their fortified bases and moved into the smaller stations and outpost from which they can regularly interact with Iraqis.
Hours before Campbell spoke, a delegation led by an American general, with several reporters in tow, filed through Combat Outpost Gator. Scores of Iraqis were milling inside the fortified market, where shopkeepers were selling clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods. In December, the market was a war zone, but roadside bombings and other attacks there have dropped significantly.
After the delegation left, Maj. Ron Minty, 36, said that the generals had wanted 300 shops open for business by July 1. By the day of the delegation's visit, 303 had opened.
"It took us until August 1st -- not bad," said Minty, the acting commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. The goal by Sept. 1 was 500, he said. (By Monday, 349 stores were open. Before the U.S.-led invasion, the market had more than 850 shops.)
Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said.