The End of the War in Iraq: Just "Good Enough"

An Iraqi police SUV stays parked across the entrance to the market in Mahmudiyah, about 10 miles south of Baghdad on the highway to Najaf. The market road through town has been closed to traffic for years, but drivers seem OK with the long, bumpy detour. Better to endure the inconvenience than to risk more car bombings or another attack like the explosives-and-gunfire rampage that killed roughly 70 people in one half-hour in July 2006. By late 2007, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in the area had slowed but still occurred about 15 times a week. Just last March, the town endured nearly a week of urban warfare in which roughly 2,000 Iraqi troops and 300 Americans battled a few hundred Shiite militiamen and their neighbors, who joined the shootout. Things are quieter now—although no one wants to take chances in the area that's been known since 2004 as the Triangle of Death.

Bombs explode occasionally, but mostly without hurting anyone. Awful exceptions remain, like the Jan. 2 suicide bombing that killed roughly 20 people gathered at a sheik's home in Yousifiyah, 10 miles from Mahmudiyah.

But thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police and tribal adjuncts stand guard at checkpoints all along the area's roads, on the lookout for wanted men and possible bombers as rows of cars pass between low concrete barriers. The Iraqis have tried to make some of the stops less grim by sticking plastic flowers to the gray slabs. Some checkpoints are painted with slogans like BE RESPECTFUL AND YOU WILL BE TREATED RESPECTFULLY.

You don't see many Americans now. It's a striking change from about a year ago, when troops scoured the marketplace for wanted killers and helicopters made twice- weekly assaults against Al Qaeda hideouts on the town's outskirts. But in recent months U.S. troops have pulled out of the neighborhood combat outposts they used to share with Iraqi forces, and their numbers have thinned to a third of what they were across the triangle in early 2008. Americans still pass through occasionally to check in with their Iraqi counterparts, attend local council meetings and do what they can about rebuilding the ravaged economy. Otherwise the Iraqis are mostly left to muddle along on their own.

Until now it was impossible to predict with confidence what the end of the war would look like in Iraq. But a clear picture could be emerging here in Mahmudiyah. The outcome is hardly what the occupation's supporters wanted, but it's too late for anyone to do much about that, under the deadlines set by the new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. By the middle of this year, American combat forces must complete their official withdrawal from population centers. Security duties will be left to Iraqi forces, although U.S. military trainers and advisers will remain. As of Dec. 31, 2011, three years from now, all U.S. troops are to be out of the country. Meanwhile they still have their hands full in the northern city of Mosul, where insurgents and jihadists have dug in for another showdown, and Iraqis are bracing for more violence in the run-up to elections at the end of this month.

In Mahmudiyah the drawdown began almost a year ago. As hard as the Americans tried to fix the place, it's still nothing to brag about. The economy, although improving, remains crippled. Public services are practically nonexistent. Courts and government offices are open, but schools lack working toilets, and teachers are so bad that parents scrape money together for private tutors. Sewage floods some side streets, and telephone landlines fail as often as not. The big government hospital is chronically short of medical supplies; late last month, a man scoured the town's drugstores for surgical thread because the hospital had none for his wife, who was undergoing a Caesarean delivery. "The military is, in some cases, the only government people see," says Maj. John Baker, who advised Iraqi troops in rural areas near Mahmudiyah until late 2008. By normal standards the town is a mess—but it's less dangerous than it was, and at this point that's about the best anyone can expect.

The situation is summed up in a phrase you hear among American combat troops and trainers: "Iraqi good enough." The term expresses their resignation—realism, they'd call it—about the limits of what America can accomplish in Iraq. They say it when an Iraqi Army unit has no choice but to buy fuel for its Humvees on the private market because Iraq's military-supply system is so corrupt and inefficient. Or when the persistent shortage of capable leaders forces Iraqi battalions to function with only half the number of officers they require. Or when Iraqi soldiers fall apart in a senior officer's absence because that's the way it goes in a top-down society. The concept has spread to American Embassy staffers, who invoke it when speaking of the near-impossible task of reforming the decrepit old welfare-state economy. "Good enough" may not live up to Americans' hopes for Iraq, but at this point it describes the place we're likely to leave behind in 2011—if things stay on track. "It's a hell of a lot better than I thought we were going to get four years ago fighting in Anbar, or two years ago in a civil war," says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl. "The high side may not be that high, but the costs of failure are severe."

Success seemed at hand as I watched a Marine convoy roll through Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The moment ended almost immediately. Stores and restaurants that had stayed open all during the invasion had suddenly bricked up their windows, and an orgy of lawlessness erupted. Amid it all, reporters at the Republican Palace were given a poster-size proclamation from the then Lt. Gen. David McKiernan vowing to make Iraq "a model of success to the international community." Few Iraqis saw it. I assured my Iraqi friends that the anarchy would subside when the lights were on again and reconstruction began. The looting did stop after nothing was left to steal, but other things got worse. Even so, U.S. commanders and spokesmen spun every insurgent attack as the death throes of a desperate minority, rather than a rising wave of resistance. That state of stubborn denial left American troops vulnerable to bombings in canvas-covered Humvees and embassy personnel facing rocket attacks in flimsy trailers.

Wishful thinking prevailed on the civilian side, too. Economic planners were convinced they could rescue Iraq from its welfare-state paralysis. They set out to privatize state factories, although it soon became obvious that few of the bloated dinosaurs could survive a free market. They wrote laws inviting foreign investment that never came close to the levels they sought and most Iraqis opposed. Some looked to post-Soviet Eastern Europe as a model for revival. When U.S. diplomats spearheaded the International Monetary Fund's requirement that Iraq reduce state fuel subsidies, Iraqis were outraged. It didn't help matters when a commercial counselor at the embassy introduced the plan in December 2005 by telling Iraqi journalists, "No pain, no gain." I asked one Iraqi what he thought of that. He said 30 years of Saddam was enough pain.

The turning point came in late 2006. Millions of Iraqis had fled their homes, driven off by sectarian kidnappings and killings. Four months of U.S. and Iraqi Army efforts had failed to quell the bloodshed in Baghdad. It was the then Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV who finally broke the U.S. military's code of public silence on the disastrous state of things. An earnest man, he liked to say he took his assignment as a chance to see the birth of a new democracy born in a country of great wealth and potential. But on Oct. 19, 2006, a glum Caldwell stood behind the podium in the press center and carefully sounded what amounted to an all-out alarm after three years of gung-ho military dissembling: "The violence is indeed disheartening."

America's expectations have plunged. Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East. The government will no doubt be repressive—not as bad as when Saddam Hussein was in charge, but even now Iraq's jails hold thousands of prisoners who have been held for months without hearing the charges against them. Corruption is rampant, in part because the state isn't strong enough to haul the biggest wrongdoers into court without touching off a rebellion. Residents of Mahmudiyah sarcastically call their mayor's neighborhood Owja, after Saddam's hometown—the lights stay on there even when the power is out everywhere else. And Tehran already has far more influence in the new Iraq than it did under Saddam.

If Iraq can defend its own borders, keep the oil flowing and not provide a refuge for international terrorists, that's what now counts as an acceptable outcome. Sometimes the newfound pragmatism verges on the heartless—as when U.S. officials refer to "tolerable" levels of violence. Translation: bombings and assassinations, as long as hostilities don't spiral out of control. Talking privately about "Iraqi good enough," one senior American adviser (he couldn't have spoken so bluntly if identified) gave me this definition: "Another way of saying 'we're out of here'."

Iraqis know "good enough" from the inside out. They have an old saying: "A man who has been through death is happy just to have a fever." Iraqi life is all about workarounds and adjustments and adapting to inevitabilities. Water pressure in the city mains is so weak that people need household pumps to get anything from their taps. One high-end model is nicknamed the Thief because it leaves nothing for the neighbors' smaller devices. There's no end in sight for the rough times. American commanders have encouraged at least one major U.S. company to put that fact to intelligent use. The electrical-equipment giant Cummins Inc. has plans to create a distribution and service center not far from Mahmudiyah, in the town of Iskandariyah. The company intends to train Iraqis to repair the mobile generators that U.S. troops and local neighborhoods rely on in place of the country's decrepit power grid. I recall an Iraqi who told me early in the war that we would have been smarter to come with thousands of generators. After all, he said, we managed to bring all those tanks. But in those days the Coalition's only thought was to get big industrial power plants up and running. The grandiose projects fell way behind schedule and are still plagued with problems.

One of the architects of the Mahmudiyah drawdown was the area's U.S. brigade commander at the time, Col. Dominic J. Caraccilo of the 101st Airborne. We met before he rotated home this past November. Between his two tours in Iraq, he had coauthored a book: "Achieving Victory in Iraq: Countering an Insurgency." Most American officers avoid the V word, preferring not to raise the implicit question of whether the war was worth the lives of 4,100 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Caraccilo's book doesn't really define victory except to say it needs to be redefined. But one of the chapters is titled "The Good Enough Solution," and that's pretty much what he made in Mahmudiyah in the course of adapting to a troop reduction that was thrust upon him by redeployments to other parts of Iraq.

He pulled troops out of small outposts and returned them to the big bases with mammoth dining halls and basketball courts, despite their isolation from the people. After all, Caraccilo figured, it's Iraqi troops who will inherit the fight. Now the Americans are teaching their jobs to the Iraqis, even highly specialized skills like operating the sophisticated IED-hunting vehicles that are now being turned over to the Iraqi military. The handover still hinges on decisions about what's good enough. Asked how he'd apply the term to an Iraqi soldier, Caraccilo says: "If he's getting shot at and shoots back without running away. That's good. If someone can bring him extra bullets, that's better."

Americans on the ground worry that the drawdown could be a step backward. Before, the idea was for U.S. troops to live among Iraqis to secure them and under- stand what was going on. The advisers on Baker's team, moving back to a big base near Mahmudiyah at the end of their tour in November, were already nostalgic for the days when they lived down the hall from Iraqi troops, sharing meals and chores and learning who could be trusted. In Mahmudiyah, America's hopes now center on Maj. Gen. Ali Jassem al-Frejee, commander of the new 17th Division of the Iraqi Army. All of 39 years old, he's battled against Sunni and Shiite extremists and has prudently seeded officers from both sects throughout his command. Like many now in charge, he was an officer and nominal Baathist in Saddam's military. When al-Frejee's younger brother was kidnapped in Baghdad, the general's forces rushed out of their sector to rescue him the same night. The brother, also a soldier, had been assigned to protect the general's home. "Now I have to get someone to protect my brother," al-Frejee says with a sardonic grin. But assassination is a constant risk for him. Some U.S. officers say other leadership could pick up the slack if he's harmed. "That's debatable," says Capt. Tom Goettke, a company commander who saw plenty of action with local Iraqi forces before rotating home in November.

American commanders are learning to choose their battles when dealing with their Iraqi allies. When an Iraqi lieutenant in Mahmudiyah was caught tipping off radical Shiites before they could be arrested, his commanding officer merely transferred him to a Sunni area instead of kicking him out of the service. But that was good enough; it got the unreliable lieutenant out of the way. (The Iraqi commander refuses to discuss the matter with colleagues in the U.S. military.) And it wasn't worth making waves when an Iraqi soldier beat an insurgent detainee who had called it "an honor" to kill Iraqi troops. Col. Akram al-Hamidawi gave the soldier a warning but told me—right in front of his American adviser—"If I were in his position I would have done more than that."

The Americans have enough to worry about already. Their ranks are stretched far too thin to keep a close eye on every trained-up Iraqi unit. "Because we don't have enough advisers, we are in effect saying all these battalions are good enough, whether they really are or aren't," says Baker, who led an 11-man military transition team (MiTT). Mahmudiyah demonstrates the truth of what one Iraqi analyst told me: Americans have spent the last couple of years trying to unwind mistakes they made earlier. They dismantled the Army—only to find they had to revive it, using many of Saddam's old officers. They scrapped the network through which Saddam bought the tribes' loyalty, but now it's been effectively rebuilt with Sunni tribal militias who joined U.S. forces, for a fee, to fight Al Qaeda. The coalition is fighting to remove Al Qaeda from a land where it did not operate before 2003 and has built blast walls to end a sectarian blood feud between sects that used to live in relative harmony.

Just as the rest of Iraq could slip back into deadly chaos, the threat continues to hang over Mahmudiyah. Shiite militia chiefs who were driven out early last year are thought to be seeking a new foothold. One, a locally born, Iranian-backed cell leader, cherishes Mahmudiyah as his "diamond." There are still occasional, nearly harmless, roadside bomb blasts on some routes where tribal security contractors are not allowed to patrol. Some U.S. troops suspect their tribal allies of setting the IEDs just to show there's no peace without them. The market remains open after dark, but not late at night, as the local government has urged. Shopkeepers aren't willing to push their luck. They gripe about power outages and the local government's failure to organize generator service even after U.S. forces have provided the machines. A few days ago U.S. soldiers and State Department people visited the market to negotiate with squatters running unlicensed shops. A municipal government worthy of the name could have handled the problem without help from the Americans.

The mixed Sunni-Shiite town is preparing for provincial elections, scheduled for Jan. 31. With luck, the democratic process might contain the seeds of a better Iraq someday. Rival Shiite parties, which once ruled the center of town and used to kidnap and kill each other's members, now merely stake out their turf the traditional way, with satiny red, black and green banners and posters of their martyrs. Most people in the surrounding countryside are tribal Sunnis. They're venturing into town again, unlike in recent years, but they've been suspicious and hesitant to mix in Shiite city politics. Now some are forming parties to take part in the contest; party posters are plastered along the rundown storefronts of the market, visible between the tangled wires clinging to local generators. There's doubt among the Americans that Iraqi forces will be able to secure polling stations all across the country without more assistance from U.S. troops. If Iraqis don't believe their votes have been counted honestly, the fragile peace could fall apart.

Whether or not the contest is clean, trouble is all but inevitable. "The local political pattern is, fight and negotiate and fight and negotiate," says the noted Iraq historian Phebe Marr. "There's going to be a continuing series of tests and probes." The country's traditions have developed over centuries on the frontier between empires, some indifferent and others ruthless, Marr theorizes, and people came to distrust central power, relying instead on ethnic and tribal networks. America has little choice now but to accept the risks. "It's time to let go," says Caraccilo. He's impatient with U.S. commanders who are too afraid of failure to let Iraqis run things their own way. "The Coalition has a very difficult time having the restraint and discipline to refrain from intervening," he says. Still, Adel Jumaili, a retired Iraqi Army officer in Mahmudiyah, warns that many of his countrymen aren't likely to be content with "good enough" after so many years of sacrifice and suffering. "Iraq has lost many of its sons and much of its potential, and at the end the only thing we get is 'less violence'?" he complains. "Was that the ultimate hope?" He worries that frustration and disappointment will bring more chaos when the Americans pull out. In the end, it's the Iraqis who decide what's good enough.