He Explained Iraq to Me. Now I Have to Explain America.

By Nate Slate
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Not long ago, I finally succeeded in arranging for my Iraqi cultural adviser to move to the safety of the United States. My adviser -- whom I'll call by his tribal name, al-Dulaimi -- helped me navigate the thickets of local culture and politics when I served in Iraq during the first year of the war.

As we drove from the airport down an Oklahoma highway in the darkness, Dulaimi told me that he'd watched the Democratic presidential debates while waiting for his flight out West. "They all talked about leaving Iraq," he said of the candidates. "They're just saying that to get votes, aren't they? They would never do that, would they?"

His plaintive question gave me pause. Of course, Dulaimi wouldn't understand American politics, or the way some Americans would view this war. After all, he had known American soldiers who were selfless and dedicated. Who cherished Army values. Who had committed their lives to each other and this cause.

So it would seem impossible to Dulaimi that the United States might give up. The Americans he knew, the ones he had risked his life (and the lives of his family members) to support, would never "cut and run."

As a brigade commander in Iraq, I wouldn't have been able to function without Dulaimi. Where an interpreter may be simply a talking head, a cultural adviser is a trusted agent. He is the man who helps you put your military operation in context. He allows you to see the village as a native would. He helps you come up with the course of action that saves American lives, and Iraqi lives as well.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq also knows what it means to be a cultural adviser. Philosophically, a cultural adviser is working for much more than money; he is working to transform the country. Before we left Iraq, Dulaimi's name was put on a death warrant and posted on the wall of the village mosque. Death squads patrolled the streets looking for him and other collaborators from the area. Dulaimi lived under what amounted to house arrest for many months, guarded by his family in his village. Working through the U.S. departments of Defense and Homeland Security, we finally managed to free Dulaimi from his torment on our fourth attempt.

As it turned out, the paperwork was not the difficult part. Physically getting him out of Iraq was. Telling everyone in his village a cover story about his whereabouts, we finally succeeded in finding a neighboring country that would allow Dulaimi to pass.

When he finally landed at the airport in Oklahoma City, it seemed almost surreal. I had kept in touch with him since I last saw him at our departure ceremony in Iraq in 2004. His weekly cellphone updates informed me that many of the good people who had supported us in the villages had been killed by the insurgents. Some of the killings had been horrific. Those who lived had survived a nightmare. Dulaimi was pleased that the Americans had finally allowed his village to form a militia and to drive al-Qaeda in Iraq from his area. He held no animosity that we had left them for a time to their own devices.

With typical Iraqi resilience, he looked to the future with guarded optimism. He was a marked man, but he did not believe that his country had to be. Amazingly, because of the recent progress made by his village's militia, he still believed that victory was possible in Iraq. His only worry was the Iraqi government. After more than two years of being victimized by his own government, he had no faith in the current system.

Our recent success with the Sunnis in Anbar province is unsettling to the Shiite-led government. They remember the hard lessons of the British occupation. They cannot afford to push the United States to align with the Sunnis. We must take this opportunity to correct the flawed government we put in place. We cannot afford to use hope as a method. Success in Iraq is not possible without a revised constitution (as detailed by the Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya). Only a strong central government can control the ambitions of regional politicians and ward off civil war.

The good work of our men and women in uniform will be needed for some time, but it will not be enough. A pullout is not the right answer, but neither is military force alone. As usual, things are not black and white, and the truth lies in the middle.

When I turned to answer Dulaimi's question about the heart of America, I didn't duck the obvious. Yes, we could pull out of Iraq. As bizarre as it sounds to anyone who has given a piece of themselves to this effort, retreat is possible. However, it is unnecessary. The current government in Iraq lacks leadership. Leadership is the answer. I wait to hear a presidential candidate address what is really needed to succeed in Iraq. As Dulaimi has so quickly learned, we are all waiting for our leaders to address the obstacles to the road ahead.

Nate Slate, a recently retired Army colonel, works for a defense contractor.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company