Lessons Unlearned In Iraq

Last year at this time, I traveled from Forward Operating Base Warhorse into the Iraqi town of Baqubah several times a week to meet with the governor, the provincial council chairman and other officials. Yes, it was dangerous. But it wasn't suicidal.

Today, though, such trips would be almost impossible. Baqubah is a battlefield, the site of a major push against al-Qaeda and other insurgents. The houses that haven't been destroyed are riddled with bullet holes. Many of the Iraqis I worked with are dead, and many others have fled.

The reason for some of this destruction lies, as our newspapers tell us, in the outpouring of al-Qaeda operatives from Baghdad, a result of the latest U.S. troop "surge" into the capital. Much of the responsibility, however, is ours.

The actions of American troops have prompted much of the resistance in Diyala province. More important, these actions are symptomatic of other factors, including the short attention span of the American people, the regular rotation of our troops, the understandable desire of each commander to distinguish himself, and our very American belief that we can solve problems quickly when others can't. We have allowed all of these factors to run away with the war in Iraq.

Last year the colonel in charge of a battalion of the 4th Infantry Division, several of his commanders and other officers and I spent a great deal of time trying to convince potential "insurgents" that politics could be a substitute for guns in the ongoing battle to control resources. We were modestly successful. The brigade commander met regularly with Shiites and Sunnis in the security forces and government. Battalion commanders were on excellent terms with Sunni and Shiite tribal chiefs in their areas and received substantial support from them.

Through the offices of Baqubah Mayor Khalid al-Sanjary, I spoke several times with high-ranking former Baathist military officers who wanted desperately to help their country and to defend it against Iranian incursion. Here our two sides had a common interest: The United States had been tracking the infiltration of war materiel into Diyala from Iran, and much of it was used against us; these Baathists (most of the officers were Sunni) had led Iraqi units during the war against Iran and had no desire to see Iranians control their country.

The "peace" of summer 2006 was tenuous and began to erode in August. There was a U.S. troop "surge" into Baghdad -- the current "surge" isn't the first or, some say, even the second -- and we felt the results of insurgents fleeing into Diyala long before it became popular to talk about it.

Then came an unfortunate development in the Iraqi forces. The Shiite commanding general was replaced by Maj. Gen. Shaker Hulayel, another Shiite who was said to have been appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office.

Hulayel was sectarian to the core. He talked the talk of peace and reconciliation, but his walk was down corridors lined with Sunni detainees, illegally held and tortured. His walk was in front of death squads, sent to take out important Sunnis. His walk was laced with hatred and contempt for the precepts of democracy and order.

His presence was not helpful to the reconciliation process.

There was also an unfortunate development in the U.S. military. In the fall, the battalion from the 4th Infantry Division was replaced by a cavalry battalion. Our new colonel was eager to finish the job his predecessor had not. He chose to fight with weapons, not words, as a first option. He dropped the "speak softly" and resorted to the big stick. Out of necessity, as our directions were to work with and train Iraqi forces with a goal of handing responsibility to them, the sectarian Hulayel became an "ally."

The results? Hard to prove, but Mayor Sanjary -- an able and intelligent politician who worked harder to foster peace than anyone else I knew in the government -- was "kidnapped" and his office blown up under strange circumstances. We Americans, after I left Baqubah, issued arrest warrants for him. Word is that he has been detained as an insurgent.

The whole episode is bizarre and, given Sanjary's influence, damaging to U.S. goals. Of the former Baathist officers I knew, some have fled. Others have perhaps put their experience, intelligence and outstanding craftsmanship at the service of our enemies. Who really knows? If all the authorities are against you, do you have a choice?

Hulayel was, at U.S. insistence, finally dismissed a few weeks ago. The charges against him were corruption and aiding insurgents.

And we Americans? We are trumpeting our "new" initiative of enlisting Sunni tribal chiefs to our side. We are busy "building confidence" among the Iraqi security forces who, we now admit, have had sectarian tendencies. We're also mounting a massive campaign against . . . our "enemies."

We have forgotten or not bothered to remember what we have done over the past months.

But the Iraqis have not forgotten. They have lived this chapter before. Only it was better then, last year.

Kiki Munshi, a retired Foreign Service officer who returned to duty to lead the provincial reconstruction team in Baqubah, Iraq, from April 2006 until January 2007.