The writing on the wall

U.S. troops, insurgents wield pens as well as swords

ganglandmosul.jpgThe outer wall of a house in Mosul sports some spray-painted graffiti: “Warning to all policemen: You will be killed.” So US troops pay the homeowner a visit and request that the graffiti be removed.

“If I come back tomorrow and it’s still there, I’ll fix it myself, and you won’t like it,” Capt. Blake Lackey says sternly. “I’ll tear the wall down.”

In addition to trying to control enemy propaganda as best they can, the friendlies conduct their own psy-ops:

In a small building on an American forward-operating base in Mosul, the Americans’ offerings whir out of a copying machine. Officers insist it isn’t a propaganda mill.

“It’s a fine line, but propaganda is more based on untruth,” says Capt. Corbin England, 34, of Puyallup, Wash., who helps coordinate the U.S. military’s coercive efforts in Mosul.

“Psy-ops is a multiplier. We multiply the effectiveness of the troops on the ground, which saves lives. We’re just one of the many cogs in a system that works.”

England’s office has stacks of cubbyholes filled with leaflets of all shapes and colors bearing various messages, all with a single goal: to bring Mosul around to the side of the Americans and the Iraqi security forces.

“In an insurgency, the key is the local population. If you win them over, the other guy loses,” England says.

I’ve mentioned before that the switch in tactics to target Iraqi police and military units signals that a corner has been turned.

And anyone who claims that insurgent graffiti is simply an expression that should be protected by freedom of speech and that US efforts are shameful will be the recipient of a $5 Rule award.


  1. What’s with targeting police anyway? Police exist to stop society from being taken over by criminal elements, correct? So, these people are explicitly saying they want anarchy and chaos? How is that an acceptable point of view? I would imagine everyone who doesn’t want to run around in gangs murdering, looting and raping would be against it. It seems really cowardly to me. The police are there to make things better for the ordinary person. Anyone who says they’ll kill police is basically saying they don’t believe ordinary people have any rights. I hope the ordinary people are insensed about that. I would be.

  2. Stating unequivocally that the Iraqi Police are a force for good is stretching it. During my first year in Northern Iraq, I ran into cops who were black marketeers, pornographers, wifebeaters, and extortionists, to name a few sidelines they engaged in. I knew it was going to be an outstanding police force we were dealing with during my first weeks working with the Iraqi cops when one of them got rip-roaring drunk and nearly beat his wife to death with a hammer. His buddies then snatched him, threw him into a cell and knocked teeth out and cracked ribs for hours. Due process? Hardly. That’s policing over there. Favorite method of prisoner transport isn’t handcuffs; it’s snatching a perp by a collar twist and walking him with an AK stuck in his back. Human rights? Not a chance. Most of them were lazy, venal, incompetent creatures that were holdovers from the Saddam days that were too trained and experienced to weed out or they were new hires that were either shooting at us weeks before or being lazy good for nothing bums for their entire lives. Cops have moonlighted as insurgents and I learned to hate them more than I did even non-compliant forces. It’s one thing to be shot at, and another to be sold out. The forces of law and order aren’t necessarily the cops over there. Tribes and clans rule the land and often enforce their own justice. In the vacuum we created by blasting the secular Baath party apparatus out at gunpoint, we inevitably made their society regress to what they knew best – which varies from ville to ville. The graffiti can be taken any number of ways. It could be a tribal militia or local gang that is sick of Iraqi police predations. It could be an insurgent group marking territory and trying to instill fear in the populace. Regardless, it takes being right there on the ground and being hardwired into what is going on at street level to have realistic insight into Iraqi affairs at the community level. From my own experience in Mosul, I can say with some degree of certainty that it is the latter outcome and this graffiti tag was made by non-compliant forces, but nothing beats being right there on the ground to figure out what is going on. Transplanting American values and experience into a foreign war and foreign societies doesn’t work too well. This is a society that let a maniac rule them for three decades while they let him run their economy into the ground and into ruinous wars. His sole achievement (lauded by the United Nations) was a successful adult literacy campaign – enforced by two-year prison sentences for those who skipped class. Iraqi society has very few parallels to American society at any level. It’s just too much to expect them this day right now to stand up for themselves … like Americans. That’s what we’re there for now; not to send them back to the Stone Age, because they were already there on so many levels. We’re there to bring them out of the darkness and show them how a democratic, pluralistic society works for everyone. When the general public in Iraq no longer fears getting snatched, shot up, blasted away, and hacked up for asserting their rights, we’ll see more assertiveness against the insurgents ruining the country. That day is a long way ahead.

  3. Random Bulldog: Well, I think it’s safe to say that the ‘police force’ is there to make things better (at least ‘better’ per official policy), even though every individual officer might not have the new Iraq’s best interest at heart. But even American police forces have trouble with corruption. Weeding this out will take time, and it will never be 100% successful. You wrote at the end of your excellent comment ‘We’re there to bring them out of the darkness and show them how a democratic, pluralistic society works for everyone. When the general public in Iraq no longer fears getting snatched, shot up, blasted away, and hacked up for asserting their rights, we’ll see more assertiveness against the insurgents ruining the country.’ I agree 100%. Removing this sort of graffiti and stopping those who target police officers is a very large part of achieving that. And I agree that it will take a very long time. I’m fond of stating that we’ll know if this democracy thing will actually work in Iraq when the people who are little kids today are adults and running the country. They’ll have had the opportunity to experience freedom during their formative years, and they’ll be less affected by the previous regimes evil than their parents and older siblings. The job of current Iraqis is to establish a foundation that true freedom can be based upon and to hold the country together until it gets there.

  4. Murdoc: Historically, there has never been a ‘police force’ along secular, Western lines conscious of human rights operating in the Middle East that has been founded and staffed entirely by Moslems/Arabs. There have been a number of secret police/Mukhbarrat type setups, and invariably abuse flourishes. There is no overarching concept of human rights, no mature judiciary, no concept of humane incarceration, no concept of due process or investigative methods that we take for granted in the West. Warrants are a myth, and Miranda is a pipedream. Policing consists of ‘snatch, pummel, and punish.’ We need to first of all ensure that the police are throughly indoctrinated and equipped with something more than the Glocks and blue jackets we dole out (I remember unloading bales of uniforms for these guys) … Iraqi police do not aggressively patrol. They are not very efficient, and really, it will take us years to build them up – and it will only be done by walking them through how to do it for decades, and ensuring they have the finest equipment, pay, and motivation available. I have misgivings about how the O-3 in charge of the American effort said ‘remove the graffiti or we’ll tear the wall down.’ Maybe the owner doesn’t have a choice? Maybe the owner isn’t a sympathizer and now you’re threatening to destroy his property and making him lose face? Is this the best way to go about winning hearts and minds? When we saw graffiti, all it took was some spray cans and we could fix it ourselves. We welcomed the tags because they were places we could set up OPs nearby. If someone tried to restore the tags, you were in position to snatch them. Simple. In the end, we need to stand up something like a Joint Iraqi-American police force, and run it for a few years. We can’t just equip Iraqi police with the accoutrements of American policing, a few classes, a few walk-throughs and call it a day. We need to run it for them, with them, and promote from within the ranks. Maybe the ex-Baathist who has ‘seen the light’ that the Civil Affairs guys first met when they walked into a certain town who is now the police chief because he speaks decent English is NOT the guy we want in charge. Often, choices are made because the players on the ground we favor the most exhibit ‘American values’ or understanding of ‘American culture’ in superficial ways. That’s not the way it should go. And the job of Iraqis is to step up to the plate better, which they are not unless they’re Kurds or tribal militias. We are not reinforcing the underpinnings of a secular state fast enough, nor are the people we are doing it for proactive enough to make things happen across the table flawlessly. We need more Arabic/Kurdish/Turkmen speakers on the ground everywhere, we need more participation at the local level everywhere, we need to be more proactive in bringing infrastructure refinements to the people. Once the Iraqi police understand they are not defending the state as they have traditionally done but are defending the people and, more importantly, are ACCOUNTABLE to the people – we will see something miraculous ignite. We have not reached that threshold level yet, and something is still not clicking in these people for whom ‘might is right and the only right.’ Until it does, we have both a right and an obligation to stay in Iraq to make sure the job is done.