In a previous guest post, Edward Gonzales explained his experiences with government spending on an Iraqi community. In the present essay, Gonzales caters to our requests for more talk of blowing stuff up. –RPM
by Edward Gonzales
While serving in Iraq I came to the conclusion that a thriving economy did more to fight the insurgency than all the weapons in my arsenal. To fully explain this I will describe the conditions in the village in which I served, the type of enemy I encountered, the change in tactics we employed, and the results I witnessed.
When I first arrived in Iraq I had a very simple view of what fighting an insurgency was going to entail. I would organize combat and reconnaissance patrols, find the insurgents, and kill them. The reality I experienced was not so simple. I very rarely saw the bad guys. Most attacks took the form of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), booby traps, snipers, and mortars. The only time the insurgents openly exposed themselves to us was during suicide attacks. It was physically and emotionally draining. Nothing would happen for weeks and then three days of attacks would come with two or three IEDs and booby traps per day and then nothing again. The anticipation of when the next attack might occur was the most draining. When the attacks came from snipers, the insurgents placed themselves in populated areas, so if the patrol returned fire and killed the sniper, the chance of killing one or more innocent villagers was highly likely. After the attacks the insurgents would disappear by blending into the local populace. The insurgents had this ability because the villagers either supported them or they were too afraid to speak out against them. I became convinced within a month that “winning” in the traditional sense against an insurgency was impossible.
Insurgents fell into one of two categories. In the first category were the die-hard extremists committed to jihad. There is no negotiation with this type of insurgent. They must be fought with weapons and brute force. We hear a great deal about this type of insurgent from our politicians and the media. What is not said is that they represent a very small minority of insurgents in Iraq. In my time in Iraq I captured and questioned dozens of insurgents. Only one insurgent fell into this category. The great majority of insurgents I encountered fell into a second category. They were young men who had been recruited by the extremists. They certainly had been ingrained with the usual pro jihad, anti American propaganda that I expected, but upon further questioning the reoccurring theme was no money, no hope for the future, and a promised better quality of life once the Americans were thrown out. I realized that had I gotten to these young men first, I could just have easily recruited them into the Iraqi Army or local police force. These insurgents did not care about American democracy or Al Qaeda ideals. They wanted someone to show them a way towards a better life, a life that included a job and a family they had the ability to support. Al Qaeda in Iraq had convinced these young men that America was the source of all trouble and once the Americans were destroyed Iraq would be a prosperous nation again. The realization I came to was that as long as there was no hope for a better future, I and any Marine who might replace me would be fighting insurgents forever.
A Change in Tactics
My focus therefore became about providing enough security to let the village be relatively safe but not so much that it stifled trade. Myself and the Iraqi officers and soldiers patrolled daily and on every patrol we would stop in to see as many shop owners and village elders as we had time for. I would take ten minutes to have tea with each one and ask if their neighborhood was safe and if business was growing. I repeatedly told them that our only intentions were to keep them and their families safe. The security measures that we did put in place were meant to protect and improve trade, not hinder it. After a few weeks I was on a first name basis with most of them and knew their children. Within six weeks of this type of patrolling the difference within the village was noticeable. The people would greet us and let us know if any outsiders had come to the village. They pointed out the areas and trails they thought might be unsafe and we began to find many more IEDs, booby traps, and weapons caches. The number of attacks began to drop.
I noticed a direct and snowballing correlation between safety and economic conditions. In a dangerous area the people produced just enough for their survival. When security was provided against murder and robbery, people began to produce more for trade. As trade started the area became more safe and production and trade increased again which lead to greater safety. As production and trade increased and more people came into the village my job became easier, not harder. The local businessmen gave us all the information we needed to keep insurgents from launching heavy attacks. There were still dangers and attacks still did happen, but in a village with active trade the locals turned those who did launch attacks into the Iraqi Army or local police force, usually within hours. Many locals risked their lives on numerous occasions to stop an American or Iraqi patrol from walking into an IED or booby trap in the road. On another occasion, two men trying to emplace an IED were chased away by the local men all armed with AK-47 assault rifles. (In the Al Anbar province men were allowed one assault rifle in their homes for protection. As a Marine tasked with providing security I was much safer and my job easier with armed locals, but that is another article altogether.)
As these conditions developed young men who had been “away” began returning to their family homes. Some Americans pointed out the danger that many of these young men had probably been insurgents in the past and they were biding their time in order to attack us again at a later date. I and many of the Iraqi and American officers I worked with disagreed strongly with this assessment. These were young men who had given up fighting and were moving back in with their families and now were making a go at a peaceful life in their hometowns. A discussion that I had with an Iraqi Army officer put the situation into perspective for me. He had fought against the Americans when we first invaded Iraq. When the Iraqi Army was stood up again he decided that the best way for Iraq to be peaceful and prosperous once again was not to fight the Americans but join the Iraqi Army. As time passed he believed that more and more young men who were working with Al Qaeda would realize that the insurgent groups were not the way for a better future in Iraq and would quit those groups and return home.
I knew that the insurgency in the village that I was in was defeated when more and more people moved back into the village to go to work on the family farm or work as a fisherman on the river. There was still an occasional attack, but locals were as committed to stopping the attacks as we were. The insurgents had lost the support of the locals
Sound economics is so vitally important because young men who have jobs and hope for the future do not join insurgent groups and launch attacks against police and army units. The dangerous extremists do still exist, but without the support of the local populace these extremists have no young men to recruit and are much easier to hunt down. A thriving and growing economy does more to combat insurgents than all the weaponry in existence.