I have been assigned to a Transition Team. This is a team of senior US Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen or Marines that advise Iraqi military and police units in order to let the host nation’s security forces take over the duties of securing their country. This is an effort to bring the bulk of US Troops home from overseas and allow Iraq to rebuild as a nation. It is defeating the insurgency in Iraq and will set the country of Iraq up for a successful future. It is a mission I believe in and a mission that I know will work. The total training package covers subjects such as defeating IEDs, weapons training, Arabic and class after class of cultural nuances that come with the job.
This is the mission, along with the thousands of other troops both Iraqi and US, on the ground, and in the air, fighting it out, engaging village leaders, religious leaders, and government leaders in dialogue and learning about a nation culturally and personally, that is really stopping Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In turn AQI have been seen for who they really are triggering the loss of support of the local population, and gaining the support and more importantly the trust of the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Government. This mission was the mission that General Petraeus, put in place several years ago to defeat the enemy.
As I write this, names, ranks, times and places have been changed to protect the families of the Iraqis with which we work.
Today, I took that training, put it in my pocket and met my Iraqi counterpart, COL. M. This meeting is probably the most important meeting that a team leader will have when building cohesion between the US team member and his Iraqi counterpart. As they say, you only get one impression, and in Iraqi culture, it is often the truth.
We have been taught that first meetings are not about business. They are about family, friends, ideas, weather, likes, dislikes, chai tea and whatever else may come up. Today I would use that training to set myself and my team up for success.
COL. M. and I met, shook hands, and through a translator told each other how we hoped to become friends and brothers over the next year, how we hoped that we could learn from each other, and how we hoped the war would be over soon. I had heard that he had an ill family member and decided to take the opportunity to wish him and his sick family member well. “Inshallah (God willing); I hoped that your family is well and your sick relative recovers quickly.”
“Thank you, Thank you, Inshallah!” Allah (God is a huge part of everyday life and conversation.)
This is what I love about the Iraqi people. They are loyal to God, their families, and their tribes. Just the fact that I knew about it, and was kind enough to ask, was enough to get the conversation rolling about family.
As we moved into his office, I presented him with a small Gerber knife. He was very happy to receive the gift which quickly put me at ease. Giving is also an important part of their culture. It is customary to present a host with a small gift. It is not the gift that is important, but the action that underscores who a person is. He, in turn, presented us with some Chai tea. The glasses are shot sized filled with tea and just as much sugar and will put a snap in your shorts. I had an opportunity to have some on my first tour to Iraq and looked forward to enjoying the sticky-sweet goodness filled with a days worth of energy.
We talked about his eight kids to my seven kids (having a lot of kids gets you a lot of respect as a man), and how, when we are home, we play with them and enjoy being with them. We talked about parents and grandparents. We even made light jokes about how much being married costs; he has two wives (they are allowed up to four if they can afford it and everyone’s family agrees to it).
We talked about the differences in our armies and how we do business. We talked about eating different animals during different types of training and got a good laugh out of past incidents dealing with how hungry we were when we had to kill the animals to survive. He discussed how the US Military was the best in the world, and how he hoped that someday, the Iraqi Army and their soldiers, could be as well disciplined, trained, and strong as the American military. At that exact moment, I was both proud to be a soldier and viewed in such a manor, admittedly a bit self-conscious, for being part of the force that surely killed family and friends in the Iraqi military, nearly six years ago. I thanked him for the compliment and changed the subject to the future of Iraq.
We talked about the insurgency and how it has died down significantly in Iraq and how he was in a hurry to put his battalion back together and how he was slowly but surely training his soldiers. He displayed his concern over the length of time that it was taking the Iraqi Army to accomplish this task, even with the help of the Americans. His battalion had most of their equipment, but much of it is non-operational. The enlisted soldiers (the Jundi) are very uneducated and untrained. Most of them cannot read or write.
I reminded him of WWII, and how Germany took much longer to get rebuilt as an Army, and how Japan didn’t even have a military for years and years after the war. He replied, “Nam, Nam.” (Yes, yes.) We talked about how the insurgency may actually be the silver lining for Iraq. It was a weird thing to say about Al Qaeda, but rang true. They have actually helped to coerce the Iraqis and Americans to work hard and fast to build a strong and united Iraqi Military and Police Force and training them to sustain themselves through training (which they are beginning to do for themselves again) and equipment (which they have started to purchase with their own funds), and determination (which they have).
With that, the conversation died down, both of us in thought, seemingly thinking of how we could get the best out of each other over the next year and the future of Iraq.
I stood and said good-bye. I took a picture of the two of us with my digital camera; Instant gratification. We stood, side by side, arms around each other’s shoulders as if we have already fought together and won.