Six years in Iraq: three American stories
A soldier, a reconstruction expert, and a peace activist tell of how Iraq has changed – and what more needs to be done.
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In that first deployment, the civil-affairs officer began to have inklings of how important it might be to keep Iraqi civilians safe. But it was not until Bowers was back in the US, studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, that he began to grasp just how critical the US relationship with the Iraqi people was going to be to stabilizing the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Watching a succession of events, including the April 2004 public mutilating and burning of four American contractors in Fallujah, Bowers found himself wondering, “How is this going so wrong?”
It was about the same time that some US officials, including in the Pentagon, were beginning to discuss the need for a different approach in Iraq – thinking that would eventually lead to the “surge” of US troops and a focus on winning over local populations.
A wiry man with an intense gaze, Bowers got his chance to employ the “civilian first” approach during his Fallujah deployment – a tough test, he says, given that the battle’s objective was to rid the city of the Al Qaeda sympathizers who had come to dominate it. “It’s not easy to establish the rapport you need for long-term success when it looks like all you’re about is blowing the place up,” he says.
He might not have been able to do it without Moufid. He was a critical link to establishing trust, Bowers says, and helped the Americans make contacts with influential Fallujans who wanted to break free of the Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency.
“He helped us make the critical point you always want to make,” Bowers adds: “that it’s not the US doing these things like rebuilding services or creating local councils for the Iraqis, but the Iraqis doing it for themselves.”
Bowers has heard recent reports that marines in Fallujah are now patrolling without helmets. That tells him that his work – and Moufid’s – has succeeded.
“We can still trip up, but the path we have left to travel should be easier because of what we’ve learned,” says Bowers, now director of government affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
As he prepares for a third deployment – this time to Afghanistan later this year – Bowers says he’ll carry one key lesson with him: “Reaching out with a handshake instead of a bayonet will always be more effective when it comes to counterinsurgency ops.”
The reconstruction expert
Mr. Hughes has been to Iraq eight times since the invasion. He has gone with the military. He has gone as a reconstruction expert. And he has taken the Iraq Study Group on a fact-finding trip in 2005. But what he remembers most are two moments that point to the initial failures and subsequent successes that have defined the US campaign in Iraq.
The first begins at a barbecue at the US headquarters in Baghdad in late May 2003, some 10 weeks after the March 19 invasion. Word came that an attack on two humvees had killed two American soldiers along the road to the airport.
It was, to Hughes’s mind, the beginning of the insurgency, and it had come just five days after the US had given the ill-fated order to disband the Iraqi Army.