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capt. jason whiteley
The Iraqi people do not want democracy. They don't care that the Americans are here. They just want security.

What is your mission?

The mission of the U.S. government is to facilitate the emergence of a participatory government. We have to empower the council at the neighborhood level so that they can begin to introduce some sort of services. [There was] a service gap left bankrupt by the old regime when we arrived, such as water, sewage, power, simple things. That type of problem needs some kind of municipal body. We have the money to employ people and empower them to fix these problems. ...

We have three power bases: the sheikhs, the hereditary base; the imams, the religious base; and the council, who are largely appointed by us -- fledgling, can't even really help themselves.

The imams are the most powerful group, because not only do they represent their people, but at the end of their sermon, they editorialize current events. Because they speak to the widest number of people, they are the true power brokers for this area.

The challenge for us is to get them to agree on a problem and on a solution. It is easy for them to agree on a problem. The problems are fairly self-explanatory: There is sewage running in the street, trash in the front yard and only two hours of electricity. The solution is much more complex, as everyone has their own idea as to how the problem should be resolved, and better yet, they have their own person who should be paid for resolving it.

Trying to divide those three power brokers -- who is going to receive the money for the contracts, and in return what will it provide for us? Will it moderate the speech at the next sermon from the imam? Will it cause a sheikh to preach to his tribe not to attack the coalition but be neutral? Would it inspire confidence in the local council and get people to believe that it could get something done?

They also constitute the face of opposition, the face of the enemy.

They can be the enemy, and in some cases they definitely are the enemy. Dealing with the imams in particular is problematic, because if we empower an imam in the eyes of the populace by giving him a contract, we do that because we think he can moderate the violence.

In truth, though, there is no real way of knowing what he uses that money for or how he uses that influence at a later stage. In the eyes of the people, it may legitimize everything he has ever said, in fact make him a stronger, more powerful person, and it has just the opposite of our intended effect. He becomes more popular, more prestigious, more wealthy. He's then able to finance terrorism, influence a larger segment of the population, and I think we have had some problems with that.

photo of whiteley

Capt. Jason Whiteley, from Lumberton, Texas, has been in the Army for six years and is the commanding officer of the Misfits, the nine-man combat group followed by FRONTLINE's cameras. In this interview, he speaks candidly about the challenges of trying to navigate the political realities on the ground in Iraq, including the division of power among Iraq's tribal, religious and political leaders. He discusses the insurgency, describing an incident in which after U.S. troops built a soccer complex for the local community and hosted a soccer tournament, they were ambushed from the same complex by some of the people who had helped finance it. Whiteley is optimistic about the long-term viability of democracy in Iraq, but argues that for now, the Iraqi people need security and infrastructure repairs to improve their daily lives. And he says the Army needs to be frank about how much time will be necessary to achieve the mission in Iraq. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Nov. 29, 2004.

So you are dealing with unintended consequences.

We are dealing with a lot of unintended consequences, which also must be managed just as well as the intended ones. And sometimes it can take up to a month before we realized what the consequences were from a certain action.

If you have the right points of leverage, is there a way in which principles and ideals have much less influence on people's behavior and money, power and opportunity have much more significance in terms of changing people's behavior?

I think the people have their principles. They do have a value set they will not violate. But money, particularly in these times, in this place, is a huge motivator. Most have a sense of entitlement because of the previous government and the amount of jobs they provided. They went to ministry, stood for eight hours, went home, drew a paycheck -- a paltry one, but still drew a paycheck. [They] had a job and a sense of purpose.

Now as we try to reestablish this government, millions don't have a job -- no paycheck, job or sense of identity. What we try to do is to provide them with a job, a little bit of money to put food on the table for sure, but also to give them a sense of identity: "I have a job; it is at this location, and this is who I am." In the absence of that, they find their identity with the different terrorist groups. They seek out different mujahideen elements and ally themselves with them.

It's not all progress, is it? There are a lot of problems that your presence creates. It's a very mixed, complicated picture. Would you say that is fair?

I would say that is fair. There have been countless instances -- in one of our poorer Shi'a slums, we built a soccer complex and hosted a soccer tournament. It was a really big success. We had all the council members there; the imams came; the sheikhs came. Everyone had a pair of scissors; they all cut the ribbon, exactly as you would see it in any other country in the world. Fabulous outing -- 10,000 people there to cheer for their favorite team. The police had a team. The finals I think was the police against the local high school. It really was a textbook thing.

Two weeks later, they used that same facility to ambush us. We were in a full-on firefight. People were dying all over the place. The same group. The leaders who had shaken our hands previously had financed it. Some were killed in that engagement. Instances like those illustrate how complex it is and illustrate how quickly it goes from being very, very good to very, very bad.

How difficult is it to assess your progress?

I keep a journal. In May the [local council] was progressing well and becoming a fairly robust institution, but just a few weeks later, with the upsurge in violence in Fallujah, all that changed -- 100 percent turnover in council members, six people killed, another six wounded severely, family members murdered. Really, there is no council structure left for me to work with. I have to start rebuilding it this week. It's completely gone the opposite way that I thought it was going.

When we first met, you said to me that you felt the insurgency was winning. I think you described it to me as: "They attack us; we have to retreat to defendable positions. Our space in which we can operate is limited." Was that your assessment then, and is that your assessment now?

That was my assessment then. When we attack them, they attack back, and it forces us to concentrate our resources, our assets, on the insurgency on that particular flashpoint, which frees up the rest of the sector. It is a zero-sum game, which means we continue to retreat, they continue to advance, and occasionally we get in a good punch. Like the other day, we killed a lot of people, and the ING [Iraqi National Guard] raid on the mosque where they found all those weapons, that was a success. That pushes them back a little bit.

But what we don't see is where they are collecting and enveloping us. Strategically they are doing that around Baghdad. They have moved from Fallujah to Mosul to Doura, where we are and where our job is, such as the sewage treatment plant. The insurgency just seeks that out. In a broader sense, the terrorists have a lot of support, although I would be hard pressed to define that as winning.

What surprises me is how much support [the insurgents] have among the people. Just right now, for example, we are trying to recruit people to guard the highway, the main highway that people use to go to work. We have had a lot of bombs on that road, assassinations, one this morning, and no fewer than 100 IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in the past month. There will be 100 men guarding that road. Yesterday someone distributed a flyer saying, "If you try and defend this road, you will be killed; your families will be killed." Today we were supposed to have 100 people here at 10:00, but there is no one. One letter was that effective in turning off the entire security apparatus. Speaks volumes, I think.

It doesn't mean that the insurgency has support; they have the threat of violence, which is sufficient.

Right. That's right. I think what it does indicate is that people are not confident in their government or us to keep them safe from the mujahideen. We don't have the monopoly on violence, so they default into a cower mode from us and the mujahideen. It makes it very difficult for us to find them because they hide in the houses, and everyone knows who came by and threatened them, but they won't ever tell us. And because they won't tell us, we can't find them. And it emboldens the terrorist groups.

Just down the road they shot the [man who was fixing the road]. We were fixing that road so that farmers could take their stuff to market, but they killed him and set his vehicle on fire. Now we can't find anyone else to go down there and finish the job. I can't find anyone else to finish the highway. You're not working for the U.S. Army; you're working for your own government.

Is it possible to make a success?

Very long term, I think it is possible. ... Fighting an insurgency is slow and messy, like trying to eat soup with a knife -- a good example of how tough it is. That's very, very accurate. ...

The election is going to be huge. The timing of it is going to be even bigger because of pressure by the Sunni faction to push it to a later date while the Shi'a want it now. How the government deals with that is a good indicator of how viable the democracy will be. I think very long term there is a reasonable chance of success.

We are in for the long haul for it to be a success.

I think so. There's too much violence. Too much learning needs to be done on behalf of the populace about how one interacts with the government which allows your participation. There is a lot of infrastructure repair that needs to be done in order for this government to effectively rule. I mean, the highways have to be rebuilt; power grid needs to work; fuel situation is terrible. We have gas lines that are two miles long. These very simple problems that promote civil unrest have to be solved somehow, and then people will turn their attention to institutions and how institutions distribute power, and then they will be successful. But I think you are talking 10 or 20 years from now, if I were going to bet. ...

The American public is overly sensitive to appearing to be imperial, and we're oversensitive to everyone else's cultures, but it has the opposite effect. We're not sensitive to anyone else's culture, and we are imperialist, and we just can't get our minds around that.

And so what we do is we come to a place like this, we invade it. To strip it of all euphemisms, we invade it, we conquer it, we move into the nice places, and then we pledge to the world that because we didn't ask their permission to do it, we sort of shortchanged them on the diplomatic end, whoa, we'll make up for that by rapidly handing it back over to the Iraqis as soon as possible. And that just screws everyone. The world opinion still doesn't respect the fact that we're here in the first place, and we have now handed the Iraqis a government that is completely untenable.

And the Iraqi people do not want democracy. They don't care that the Americans are here. They just want security. They want to be able to go to school and come home without getting shot in the face. Kids want to play in the street without an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] coming down the road.

There is a reason, I think, that out of insurgencies and guerrilla wars there never spontaneously emerges a democracy; there is a military government or a strongman, because people prefer security over liberty. It is just human nature. When you distill it down to its finest point, you want to be safe before you stretch your liberty and wear whatever color clothes you want.

To put it another way, you have to impose firepower to stop being shot at. In order to defeat the violence, you have to remove liberty from the equation before you can replace it. The problem with long-standing dictatorial states is that they don't have a tradition they can revert to once the security situation has been resolved. The guy in power doesn't want to give up power; he doesn't want to return to the status quo, because it wasn't a status quo that was democratic.

There was a great point in The Economist about developing nations, those that were dictatorial versus those that are republican, or some degree of republican. Even though they are all poor, all muddling along, the ones that have a greater degree of civil liberties tend to have a higher GDP on average than the other ones, [are] more progressive for exactly that reason. You do sort of stagnate with a strongman.

Nonetheless, if we were to come in and impose a technocrat government -- if I were the king of the universe, I would have brought in a bunch of technocrats. I would have contracted out the existing systems probably to the previous contractors. For example, these are all East German-built highways, so the Germans would come back in and would do infrastructure repair [and] modernization; the Russians would do modernization on the power plant; the French would do whatever the French did. Everyone would take an infrastructure segment, and they would rapidly modernize it using some form of leap-ahead technology. ... We are going to modernize everything. We are going to restructure our bureaucracies; we are going to have the rule of law, some type of tribunal over-watch. More or less everything would be covered by some nation -- police force, everything.

And then at the end of that, you would be set for elections. Some type of census would be conducted. You could appropriately figure out who needs to be represented where and have your required diversity within your rule-making body, however that turns out -- your parliament, two houses, one house, five houses. That all doesn't matter at that point.

But because we came in and tried to rapidly do this and the transition, we gave them nothing to rule. If you are the president and you can't make a phone call to Basra, what good are you? You know, the first time the mayor saw this city, he flew around on a helicopter. This area is one-ninth of Baghdad, and he has never visited, never been to one of our advisory council meetings. He doesn't know who his subordinates are. He has no budget. So how are you going to engage your visions and policies?

These are difficult problems, even in the United States and the U.K. You have a pothole on your road, you expect the government to come fix it. It may take a little while, but eventually they will come and fix it. These people have problems 10 times the magnitude of that, and they don't have a mechanism for anyone to hear their voice.

You have a militant anti-Western ideology, a natural insurgency, and you have the war damage and chaos caused by the war, and you could throw in another 25 problems. It is a uniquely difficult environment.

I think it is. I think we shortchanged it. Unfortunately, the people who do the heavy thinking made invalid assumptions. Someone somewhere briefed the wrong guy on feasibility on a timeline that was not right. Maybe they forced it. Anyone who shows up here would realize that you can't transition a country from where we are now. [To overcome] 35 years of neglect and decay in a year just is not feasible. It's not enough to say, "We handed over power a day early; CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], go home," and we declare victory. Nothing changed.

Is it part of the same mentality from the first Gulf War, that it would be nice to wrap up the war in 100 hours so we can go home?

I think so. Not so much my generation, but my parents' generation and the people now who are decision makers in the broader institutions in the United States, I really think they are tainted by any kind of Vietnam-type situation, a war that would drag on.

What I think is really more applicable is some kind of committed ideology like we had in World War II. Soldiers don't mind being here. We are over here for a year. If you just told us, "You are going over there until the job is done," if that was four years or five years, the soldiers would do it. I mean, we are American soldiers; we understand what that means. ...

But instead they say, "You are going to be over here for a year, or if you are a reserve, you are going to activate and go over for six months, and once you are over here or you are activated, then the extensions start to play in -- oh, just another six months, another six months, another six months." And before you know it you have been over for -- in the case of the 3rd ID [Infantry Division], they have been over for 14 months. We have been over here for 12, go back for 12 and back over again for 12. So out of three years we will have been over here for two, with that middle year spent half the time going and half the time coming. So why not just be frank about it? Commit us to a goal, and we will achieve that goal. There is no need to convince the populace and the Armed Services that we are not in another Vietnam. We know that. ...

Tell us about your team.

Their loyalty is unquestionable. They're from all over the battalion. ... The opportunity to forge this team has been truly wonderful. ...

Why are you called "the Misfits"?

Because of the fact they come from all over company. No real identity. We made this little group six months ago. We've got no history or identity. We are just for the here and now. First it was ridicule; now it's a badge of honor.

They've become a cohesive fighting force -- been on 500 missions, been in contact with enemy 24 times. They've gained a reputation as a good fighting force, trusted. They have had losses -- we lost the gunner [Spc. Travis Babbitt] on my truck. They reacted like soldiers, cried when appropriate, but continued to fight and eventually defeated ambush. ... They're all heroes, every last one of them. ...

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posted feb. 22, 2005

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