Small Wars Journal

The Colonel Faisal that I Know

Tue, 01/03/2012 - 4:59am


By Morgan Mann

May 2008

Colonel Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie is the district chief of police of Fallujah. To understand Colonel Faisal one must attempt to understand Fallujah and then reflect that knowledge back onto the man who is responsible for the security of the town of 300,000. Fallujah sits astride the Euphrates, and for at least 100 years it has been a smuggling way station and camel stop for Bedouins, British, Ottomans, and now Americans. It would be a difficult town to tame under the most peaceful conditions. With provincial elections looming, various government, security and tribal factions vying for power, and the remnants of an Islamist insurgency attempting to return the city to anarchy, Colonel Faisal has his hands full.

Colonel Faisal has been the subject of quite a bit of US media attention lately. The Washington Post in particular seems to enjoy painting him as a nefarious character who the US military has decided to sponsor.

I know Faisal and have had several meetings with him – including a tasty lakeside luncheon of kebab the other week. I don’t know him well, but I am familiar enough with Fallujah, the Colonel and the political dynamics to have a more educated opinion than the likes of Washington Post reporters who come to visit. The US media’s treatment of Colonel Faisal is another example of American contradictions and struggles with being faced with a world that is instantly accessible but not understood. Domestic political agendas demand instant gratification while winning a counter insurgency requires resolve, adroit political positioning, and patience. Three themes dominate the negative attention of our efforts in Iraq relative to the Sunni insurgency. The themes revolve around the media's discomfort with our exercise of hard nose power in our mission to secure Iraq.

Theme 1: Fighting and Talking. How we must reach a political solution.

Theme 2: Cultural Relevancy or Cultural Prejudice. We can’t have it both ways, and one way will lose an insurgency every time.

Theme 3: The Strong Man Revisited. Rule of Law.

Theme 1. One example of American dissonance in attempting to accept Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems is Sudarsan Raghavan’s March 24th Washington Post article that portrays Faisal as an American killing insurgent turned Iraqi strong man who tortures his own people. Its tone suggests that Faisal is no different than those that are still fighting us today. It is interesting how politicians and pundits chatter on with the cliché of our armchair security experts chanting: “the solution to Iraq is political, not military”. This very statement demands, as a first step, that we talk with former foes in an attempt to use a combination of carrot and stick to seek some lasting political stability. Yet as soon as the nasty histories of our friends and enemies are known the same bystanders decry the moral repugnancy of our company.

There are 4 types of people in Iraq:

- People who fought Americans and Iraqi forces that are now helping us and the Iraqis rebuild the country.

- People who fought Americans that are still trying to fight Americans and Iraqis in legitimate positions of authority.

- People who ran to Jordan and Syria when the insurgency heated up, and have recently returned to share in the new bounty of American dollars and Iraqi recovery.

- People that did nothing during the height of the insurgency, and do nothing now. (this is the vast majority of the population)

Only the first two types command the moral authority with the Sunni community in Anbar Province. In order for us to win we must accept this. We must also recognize that when the enemy switches to your side, it means you are WINNING. So how do we establish legitimacy with the community as a whole, and continue to win by killing, capturing or converting those that fought against us? We fight Roman style (at least the nice part) and co-opt our former enemies to help secure and stabilize the Sunni region. We reach a political solution by working with the occasional person that might have looked at us through a gun sight two years ago. Does it feel particularly good? Ask any solider and they will say no – especially if you have lost friends in battle. However, would we prefer the alternative of endless fighting without reaching some solution – no. The mission is not to kill every person that has raised arms against American forces. The mission is to secure and stabilize Iraq to facilitate and foster a legitimate government that will not flame out ten minutes after we leave. Consequently we need to work in a world of coalition and compromise that Iraqis will form to try and make this stable government a reality.

So, the strategy is simple: kill those who still fight, co-opt those that flip. The carpet baggers are mostly businessmen and tribal leaders that have recently returned. They are important for economic recovery but play little part in establishing security.

So what does this mean for our friend Faisal? It means he is an effective leader that has chosen a path that is aligned with ours. The mutual self interest is now a marriage, because he has no where else to go but with us or the grave (because of the insurgent enemies he has made). Consequently we have a loyal ally who once was our enemy.

Theme 2. American media paints the “ugly Iraqi” quite well. The message delivered suggests that Iraqis must be protected from themselves, or at least abandoned because all they know is violence and destruction. It almost suggests a ‘white man’s burden’ requiring us to rescue the Iraqis from themselves. This seems quite ironic because we spend our university careers learning the evils of European colonialism and American imperialism. Ivory tower anthropologists teach us about the scourge of cultural absolutism and the need to recognize cultural relevance when a European culture interacts with [choose the professor’s third world interest] another culture. Yet, when faced with the real framework of some societies how do we reconcile the reprehensible and acceptable? Should we tame the savage? How can we without some long term commitment and colonial mindset that attempts to subvert local culture and institutions with those of our own making? Of course this isn’t acceptable in theory or practice, so the next argument is that we should have nothing to do with this type of local behavior. So once again how do we engage?

The reality is we need to work within the Iraqi framework, not as an active participant, but rather as an interlocutor. We have not the time, patience, will or skills to try and create an American Iraq. We must work with existing institutions – tribal, political, and religious – to maintain the real security gains, and promote governance that will foster stability and economic development. It is humoring to listening to the most Rush Limbaugh listening of officers turn to ‘bleeding hearts’ in their attempt to create an American criminal justice system, an American Department of Labor, or enact Sarbanes Oxley to ensure business transparency. If we attempt to import American institutional/governance solutions to Iraqi problems we will alienate those we are trying to help, and enable those we are trying to kill.

Fasial is a creature of his society – quite a successful one. He is a person that has been able to survive the social Darwinism of an evil dictator and now deal with the complexity of religious, tribal, and nationalist issues that we can only begin to comprehend. He in fact is using Iraqi methods to solve Iraqi problems at this point. I don’t condone his actions, and we will stop illegal activity that we observe. But my job is not to make him an American. My job is to ensure he maintains security in Fallujah with some level of popular legitimacy with the population he is securing.

Theme 3. There are about 4000 Iraqi Police in Fallujah. In the past 18 months the Iraqi Police have suffered 240+ killed at the hands of Al Qaeda of Iraq insurgents. This does not include family members kidnapped or beheaded. It does not include houses burned, ransom paid, or beatings received. 240 out of 4000 is 6%. That would be 10,800 dead Americans if we took 6% killed in action during the recent ‘troop surge’. The feeling for security and the desire not to return to the days of 2006 are visceral. Sunni Iraqis rejected Al Qaeda ideology – this is a significant victory for the US and for mainstream Islam. Three years ago Iraqi ‘nationalists’ created an alliance with Al Qaeda to defeat the American presence; however, the attempt by Al Qaeda to coerce the Iraqis into Taliban like social practices failed utterly.

Security was gained through a significant amount of Iraqi on Iraqi bloodshed. The blood spilled across tribal and family lines. The scores will be settled in the Iraqi tribal fashion, by murder and ransom. It is important that these scores be settled over time and not allowed to occur all at once; thus, the need to maintain tight security and maintain strong man tactics.

Faisal will maintain this security. He will do so for his own personal gain and for the security of Fallujah. Is Fallujah ready for a kindler gentler police chief more appealing to our armchair sensitivities? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t take that risk yet. We need to ensure the next round of elections occur before we loosen the noose around Fallujah.

In Closing.

The American media continues to look for failure in every corner of Iraq. Do we want chaos and defeat for the purpose of some domestic agenda? Perhaps, but that sure is disappointing to someone who has fought when asked, and attempted to help solve the situation we are faced with in Iraq as opposed to ignoring it or using it for home court political advantage.

I grow weary of the American self flagellation that occurs with every step of this post 9/11 endeavor: “We torture, we kill innocents, our soldiers are all victims, we need to come home now, and so on.” The instant communication and new media age requires a new American maturity. The images and stories you read are the true stories of war. The personal aspects of war will never change, never. The death, pain, atrocities, greed, graft, hubris and naïveté experienced by all belligerents present in every war will continue. In today’s age however, we now get to see war as voyeurs, similar to Romans attending the coliseum to watch the gladiators fight to the death. We want to peek through our hands and try not to look, but just want more. In exchange we must either accept the business of war or we must accept defeat. We are still an adolescent nation wrestling with the mantle of empire. We can accept it and recognize the world as it is: a brutal place with world actors seeking political and economic advantage to our detriment; or, we can shrug off the responsibility of a world power and let our way of life decay over the next several generations. The future is still bright, provided we continue to engage on the world stage and fight for what is in the long term interest of our country. As free Americans the choice is ours.

[1] This essay originated as a reply to a Washington Post article written by Sudarsan Raghawan titled “In Fallujah, Peace Through Brute Strength”, published 24 March 2008. I don’t like to generalize “Media” and disagree with the conservative connotaion of “main stream media”, however the coverage of Iraq by many news outlets by many media outlets has been one dimensional and shallow. Consequently, I may have broadened my attack needlessly.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Mann is currently the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 25th Marines based in Devens, Massachusetts. He served in Babil Province, Iraq as a Company Commander in 2004/2005, and in the Anbar Province as a Battalion Operations Officer in 2008. Mann has a BA in Political Science from UCLA, an MBA in strategy from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, and attended the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School and Command and Staff College. Over the past five years he has written several articles for Military Review, Proceedings, and the Marine Corps Gazette regarding Iraq, tribal power relations, and company level intelligence efforts. In the civilian world Mann works for Cisco Systems helping customers in the intelligence community.