Nir Rosen has produced yet another brilliant piece of reporting, this time about Iraq. His piece, out in Rolling Stone today, is called The Myth of the Surge.
He starts by setting the grim scene:
- This is what “victory” looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily. House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush’s much-heralded “surge,” Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence.
Most of the piece is an up-close report on the operations in a couple of Baghdad neighborhoods of (a) one of the new “Iraqi Security Volunteer” (ISV) groups, and (b) an officer in the Irasqi National; Police (INP) who treads an extremely difficult path between the mainly-Sunni ISV’s and the Mahdi Army people from his own Shiite sect.
He has a really apt quote from Charles Freeman, an extremely savvy veteran US diplomat who, among other ambassadorships, was ambassador to Saudi Arabia for quite a while:
- “We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority,” says Chas Freeman… “Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future.”
Nir gives a very depressing account of US troops blundering around through the bizarre physical, operational and (im-)moral landscape of Baghdad, including going with them on a couple of house raids that net a bunch of misidentified detainees and one against whom the evidence is fabricated by the local ISVs. He also shows the intense rivalries and pettiness within/among the ISVs; the rampant distrust and toadyism; and most importantly of all the fact that there is almost no functioning economy or society at all left in large areas of Baghdad.
At one point he writes, quite correctly:
- A foreign military occupation is, by its very nature, a terrifying and brutal thing, and even the most innocuous American patrols inevitably involve terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians. Every man in a market is rounded up and searched at gunpoint. Soldiers, their faces barely visible behind helmets and goggles, burst into a home late at night, rip the place apart looking for weapons, blindfold and handcuff the men as the children look on, whimpering and traumatized. U.S. soldiers are the only law in Iraq, and you are at their whim. Raids like this one are scenes in a long-running drama, and by now everyone knows their part by heart. “I bet there’s an Iraqi rap song about being arrested by us,” an American soldier jokes to me at one point.
Go read the whole article. It is right up there alongside the great piece of reporting that Jon Lee Anderson had in The New Yorker last November, in terms of (a) depicting the “Apocalypse Now” landscape of US-occupied Iraq; (b) underscoring how distant the reality on the ground in Baghdad is from the anodyne views of “the success of the surge” that too many US politicians and analysts have bought into into; and (c) underscoring, too, how great the challenge will be that our next president will face in Iraq, on January 20, 2009.
Great job, Nir.