It has been nearly 120 days since the end of combat operations in Iraq. Seven years and eight months after the invasion, Sept. 1 marked the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the beginning of Operation New Dawn – the US military’s new mission in Iraq. But amid recent reports of escalating sectarian violence, challenges facing Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) , and a newly-settled government still shifting its distribution of power, peace and stability may seem as elusive in Iraq as ever.
What we don’t always hear about, however, is the real, community-based progress evolving in Iraq. And I’ve seen this improvement firsthand.
After one hundred days of Operation New Dawn, I and the other members of 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry thought it important to share what we’ve seen in Iraq – what the view looks like after the transition from combat operations to stability operations. Admittedly, our perspective is confined to northern Diyala Province. But within this complex region that comprises elements of nearly every challenge facing Iraq, we continue to witness daily achievements – most without US assistance – by local Iraqi governments, Iraqi Security Forces, and Iraqi citizens.
Effective local governments
Over the past eight years, US Department of State experts have necessarily focused their advising and training on the national and provincial level governments. As these echelons became more proficient, local governments gradually received more attention and subsequently emerged as functioning entities. What we’ve witnessed lately is wholly impressive. Local city councils that had all but dissolved from inaction or inattention are now meeting weekly, identifying the most critical projects for their citizens, prioritizing those projects, and publicly soliciting and awarding bids in a clear display of transparency and effective governance.
What’s more, many a mayor now travels to the provincial seat as the voice of his constituents, lobbying for more attention, more money, or more critical infrastructure. The improvements in local governing efficacy have provided the higher levels of government with vital visibility on the most critical needs of its citizens.
Progress of Iraqi Security Forces
Few soldiers or police officers are faced with a more daunting challenge than the Iraqi Security Forces. And though not perfect, the progress they’ve displayed and the capabilities they continue to gain are positively encouraging. Our unit works within the disputed territories – contested lands that both Arabs and Kurds claim. Two years ago their respective forces lined up facing each other in a tense stand-off. Today, both forces conduct combined security operations in this region, working together to weed out remnants of the enemy.
A few weeks ago, two separate police elements (one Arab and one Kurd) collected intelligence on an IED cell in a nearby town. Together they planned a series of raids to capture five suspects. They told us about the mission, and we asked if they wanted us to accompany them. Our linguist listened for their response and told us, “They are going to do this on their own. They’ll call if they need us.”
That night, the combined Arab-Kurd force conducted raids on four different objectives, detaining five terrorists (including the ring-leader) without firing a shot or causing collateral damage. And this is merely one example of the growing ISF capacity across the country.
Iraqi citizens tired of violence
If there’s a certainty in Iraq, it is this: Iraqi citizens are tired of the violence, and they’re denying terrorist freedom of action. A month ago, two Iraqi shepherds tending their sheep in an open field by a rural, two-lane highway watched a car stop on the side of the road. Three men emerged from the car, laid an IED in a pothole, armed the bomb, and sped away. The shepherds ran to the road, placed themselves between oncoming traffic and the explosives, and waved their arms in the air to warn their fellow citizens. Within thirty minutes combined security forces had chased down and captured the three terrorists.
What we witness daily is a population whose primary focus is local progress, not extremism or Arab-Kurd tension, or political impasse. Instead, they want nothing more than security and the corresponding opportunity to improve their livelihood. Iraqi citizens’ tolerance for violence is all but gone, and they’re making Iraq a dangerous place . . . for terrorists.
Democracy isn't easy
Admittedly, much work remains. The government still faces significant hurdles: passing a hydrocarbon law; conducting a census; reducing Arab-Kurd tension; achieving a suitable resolution to disputed boundaries; and funding much needed infrastructure across the country. The ISF must continue to sharpen its tactical skills and build their sustainment capability while simultaneously fighting the remnants of extremist organizations. And the Iraqi people must continue to reinforce their government and their security forces by rejecting extremism and embracing teamwork, regardless of ethnicity.
None of this will be easy, but neither is democracy.
From our perch in northern Diyala, we see tangible evidence of continued Iraqi advancement – in many cases without US assistance – in spite of tremendous challenges. As a New Dawn breaks across Iraq, the view on the horizon is not one bright light but scores of shining examples of progress and potential. Combined, they illuminate the long and understandably bumpy road toward a self-sufficient Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Isenhower is the Commander of 2nd Squadron, 14th US Cavalry, 2-25 AAB, currently stationed in northern Diyala Province, Iraq. He holds a BS in History from the United States Military Academy and an MA and PhD in History from Duke University.