John Matel serves as Team Leader of the Al Asad Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) declared Ramadi the capital of their caliphate in Iraq. That was only about eighteen months ago. Today Ramadi is the capital of resurgent Al Anbar, with thriving markets, internet cafes and restaurants. Maj. General Gaskin, who commands CF in Al Anbar, has said that the province is ready to be handed back to the Iraqis in March. He added that when he arrived less than a year ago, he never expected it to happen this fast. The turnover does not mean that the violence is over or that all our forces will all leave, but it does mean that the Iraqi police and security forces will be doing most of the day-to-day work of keeping Iraqis safe and it is incredible to anybody who knew this place last year.
BTW - I take this security thing personally, since I often trust Iraqis to keep me safe too.
From everything I see and all that I hear from those who lived here during those dark days when the insurgency burned through Al Anbar, the surge worked. Of course, success did not start and will not end with the surge. What the surge did was give us credibility - showed friends and enemies alike that we were committed to finishing the job. We had some advantages. The Marines had been working with the Anbari people and local leaders for years, so they had a base to start with. Beyond that, Al Qaeda in Iraq stupidly overplayed its hand, by murdering, maiming and generally oppressing the civilian population to such an outrageous extent that tribal leaders teamed up with coalition forces to drive them out. The surge was not sufficient, but necessary to finish the job and to create enough security so that ordinary people, just seeking safety for their families, could feel secure enough to do normal things like going to markets, restaurants and Internet cafes.
It is important to remember that the surge represented a change in emphasis and not merely an increase of boots on the ground. Our forces live in local communities, close to the people they protect and get to know. This ensures that the insurgents cannot just come back to again threaten civilians. Protecting the civilian population and winning their trust is the key to success. As security is established, rebuilding (or in some cases building) can begin. PRTs are part of a reconstruction "surge".
Our ePRT is the beneficiary of the improved security. My predecessor told me about his troubles just finding contractors not afraid to be seen talking to us. They had hard time finding someone just to lay a concrete walk to a city hall. This is a problem no longer. My colleagues and I travel all around western Al Anbar, an area the size of South Carolina, meeting local people and helping them with projects that improve their lives. On my desk today are proposals for projects involving things like upgrading electricity connections, helping local business associations get up and running, or refurbishing courthouses. The courthouses are particularly gratifying, since they represent the return of the rule of law. Just a short time ago, it was impossible to find judges willing to risk assassination to carry out their duties. Today they are dispensing justice openly in their own courtrooms. The picture I have included is a courthouse we helped refurbish. It rises out of the detritus of war and is a fitting symbol for what is happening here.
Al Anbar is still a dangerous place. We travel in armored convoys; our helicopters still feature the ubiquitous 50 caliber machine guns at the ready. But in the nearly four months I have been in Iraq, I have felt safe (as safe as you can feel bouncing up and down in helicopters) most of the time as my staff and I have traveled to every important center in western Al Anbar, and many smaller ones too.
I recently went on foot patrol in an isolated town called Nukhayb along with the Marines stationed in that area to protect pilgrims returning from the Hajj. This year nearly 10,000 pilgrims passed thorough this part of Anbar on their way to the holy city of Mecca. There were no incidents and the Marines are surprised at the almost compete lack of trouble. "Picket fences," the analogy to peaceful small Midwestern town, was the way one Marine characterized it to me. Around here Sunni and Shiite live together, intermarry and even share the same Mosques.
As we walked, we were constantly surrounded by curious children and some adults who, for unknown reasons, insisted on calling out the names of American cities or celebrities. Nobody was afraid. I noticed a brand new 4" water pipeline network line that recently been laid in trenches near area homes. The market was small but well stocked. I bought a wool scarf emblazoned with the Iraqi flag (it gets cold in Iraq) and some cookies from the local vendors. The scarf is great; cookies not so much.
We had gone to this remote area to meet with local leaders and assess the effects of the drought on agriculture, especially on the local sheep herds. Our ePRT can help with some advice and maybe a small grant to for medicines and minerals to enhance animal health, but what they really need is rain, something we cannot supply. The situation is bad; nevertheless, these problems of animal heath and crops are the normal problems of an arid agricultural community and can be addressed in normal ways. Things are returning to normal here and all over western Al Anbar.
I am no expert on the big events happening in world politics about Iraq. What I know about is the part I work with every day and what I am writing comes from what I see. I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to play a small role in this fundamental change for the better in Iraq. It is well worth the discomfort and risk of being here. Iraq was horribly mismanaged for more than a generation. It will take time to rebuild neglected infrastructure or sometimes build it in the first place, but Iraq can and should be a prosperous country. It has the necessary energy and water, resources, soils and even more important - resourceful people. The surge gave us the possibility to help the Iraqi people build a future for themselves that is better than the dreadful past. I hope and believe that the Iraqis of Al Anbar,with our assistance, will be able to make the most of this opportunity.