The Importance Of The Iraqi Elections

Early voting has begun in Iraq's parliamentary elections, amid insurgent attacks near polling places. Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson just returned from a recent civilian tour in Iraq. He explains what he saw and the importance of the upcoming elections.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Over the course of the long war in Iraq, we've spoken many times with Gary Anderson, first to ask about military issues - he retired from the Marines with the rank of colonel - and more recently, to ask about his experiences as a civilian adviser with the State Department on a provincial reconstruction team. He's just back from a year in Iraq, where he worked as a governance adviser and joins us again as Iraqis head to the polls this weekend in the second parliamentary election since the U.S.-led invasion.

We'd especially like to hear from those of you who've been to Iraq about how things have changed, what are the big issues that lie ahead? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Gary Anderson is with us here in Studio 3A. Welcome home.

Colonel GARY ANDERSON (Retired, U.S. Marines Corps): Good to be here.

CONAN: And you were working in the Abu Ghraib area that's around the notorious prison.

Col. ANDERSON: That's west of Baghdad. The prison is about in the middle of the district, in a little town called Kandari(ph). Yeah.

CONAN: And that is then one of the areas that has been mixed - Sunni, Shia. And you write, when you got there, it was still very much in the heart of the insurgency.

Col. ANDERSON: It was still very much in play when we got there, really in April of last year. It had been overlooked by - not overlooked, but it had not been a priority effort as they tried to get a handle of Baghdad proper. And then, as Baghdad quieted down, we moved out west to Abu Ghraib. When I left, I felt pretty good. I think we - we've reduced the level of violence to something that's essentially random terrorism. We took our last fatality in our associated partner brigade in May. And things have calmed down quite a bit. And I think we got a lot of good work done. I felt pretty good about coming out.

CONAN: And what do you attribute that to? Who gets the credit?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, General Petraeus, General Jim Mattis, his Marine partner, when they put together their counterinsurgency manual based on a lot of work done over the years, I think pretty much got it right. You clear the area of the insurgents, make it dangerous for them, and you go in and you try to hold that area, make sure that you get all the pieces in place so civilians like me can come in and try to build on whatever they've done. And I think that's a good formula. It's not perfect. It doesn't work 100 percent across the board. Every little village is its own little entity. But it's a pretty good, solid way of doing things, I think.

CONAN: And were you able to build?

Col. ANDERSON: I'm sorry?

CONAN: Were you able to go ahead and build?

Col. ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. I think we did. We got a lot of - you know, we were called a reconstruction team, and I think I can safely say that the war damage and a lot of the damage done by Saddam Hussein's neglect since the Iran-Iraq War, particularly to the infrastructure, the canal system, which is really important on a rural area like Abu Ghraib, has been rebuilt to a point where they've got a fighting chance to go on from there.

CONAN: What is the economic basis there? Is it farming?

Col. ANDERSON: It's farming, largely dairy farming. And there's a lot of Rust Belt defense industry that will never come back. They're going to have to redo the industry in Abu Ghraib. They're going to have to retool, just as your earlier guests were saying. But I think we've got them on a pretty good path to really get their act together as far as agriculture in the future. It's not a sure thing, but I felt pretty good about leaving.

CONAN: That's encouraging because U.S. soldiers are going to be leaving there pretty soon.

Col. ANDERSON: That's true. And you know, the interesting thing is -this is a real - it's hard for the Iraqis to come to grips with us, that they'd you know, we told them we we're going to leave. We told them weren't going to stay. And even the most cynical Iraqis are starting to realize we're really going to leave. And this is not a non-traumatic thing for them. And believe it or not, there's a lot more angst about us leaving than you would have expected, than you and I certainly would have expected when we started this thing in 2003.

CONAN: Well, because that would require people to have the faith in the police, in the - you know, their national army, the structures for justice and administration.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. I think the security force has done a pretty good job. And I think Prime Minister Maliki has done a good job with security. But the hardest part I found was getting - particularly at the local level - getting confidence back in the civil infrastructure. And there's still a lot of skepticism on the part of the Iraqis that I know about their ability to handle that portion of it.

CONAN: Their competence or their integrity, shall we say?

Col. ANDERSON: Both. A lot of the problem, quite frankly, is that their - as is a case of most nations in the Middle East, their civil salaries are very small and there's a tremendous temptation to make that up in graft and corruption, and there is a lot of graft and corruption. Not to the extent that there is in Afghanistan, but Iraqis will tell you there's a lot and they're right.

CONAN: As you move ahead - as they move ahead, how important are these elections?

Col. ANDERSON: I'm sorry...

CONAN: As they move ahead, how important are these elections?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, this is where we have to be careful. And I don't want to sound like a negative Nelly here about elections. Elections are good, but we can't - I think we really have to be careful about thinking the elections are going to be the cure-all, end-all for Iraq. There are a lot of underlying problems that are very, very serious that actually could cause us a lot of problems after the elections.

And I think we have to be careful of getting our expectations so high that if this election is successful - and I think it will be, I don't think they'll be a lot of violence, and most Iraqis are going to vote. So...

CONAN: Including most Sunnis who didn't vote last time.

Col. ANDERSON: Including most Sunnis who didn't vote in the first election. Most of them did vote in the parliamentary...

CONAN: Yes.

Col. ANDERSON: ...or in the local, or I should say the provincial elections, last time.

CONAN: Yeah.

Col. ANDERSON: The Sunnis learned their lesson. They're not going to stay away from the polls this time, one way or the other.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is retired Colonel Gary Anderson. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk.npr.org. Otto is on the line from Sunnyvale in California.

OTTO (Caller): Yes, good morning. I just got back from Iraq a couple of months ago. And for my past year there, I certainly have seen a lot of progress has been made, that the U.S. is clearly helping the people there. Initially, I was personally opposed to the invasion myself, personally. But as a soldier, I really have to carry out what ever I was told to do when I was sent there.

And one thing I have been very impressed is how high the morale is for U.S. soldiers (unintelligible) Marines over there, and also what we are doing, really, to help one base at a time, one turnover at a time. I helped out on the turnover of a lot of the bases and the inventory of the things to figure out what to do with the stuff that we brought over there, a lot which really needs to be left behind in order to help the Iraqis for the rebuilding effort - generators, things that some people might say we need it back at home. But ultimately having been in the desert for so many years - blasted by the sun and the really hot weather, a lot of those, really, are not moving to anywhere else. So a lot of the work that we were doing is making sure that these items get -put to the best use for the Iraqis and also some of those that we could potentially take back and send to Afghanistan to help out our soldiers there as well.

CONAN: Otto, where - can you tell us where you were working, what part of Iraq?

OTTO: Yeah. I was in Baghdad. I was in Camp Victory, where the headquarters of the multi-national force of Iraq was based - was the logistic headquarters. And (unintelligible) really close to the various base closure issues we have. And I could tell you that the efforts that we have put in really have helped the Iraqis quite a bit before we leave.

For example, things that we left behind for Iraqis, we do not leave junk behind. We leave things that have maintenance, with support in order to make sure that they would (unintelligible). And I think these are things that we've been able to do that I'm very proud to be part of when I was over there.

CONAN: Otto, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate the update.

OTTO: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Were you seeing equipment being turned over to Iraqis? This is quite a bit of equipment being turned over. One interesting thing as an aside, one of our - our Navy commander on our provincial reconstruction team or embedded team came up with an idea for some very, very interesting uses for shipping containers. We got shipping containers laying all over the place. And he's come up with some modularized housing units, ideas and so forth I think are really, really kind of neat.

CONAN: And I wonder, you were talking about infrastructure, which was a big issue there in the Abu Ghraib grave, canals particularly. What about things like parks?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, one of the things that - I kind of divided the work we did into what I call feel-good projects and, you know, real hardcore real infrastructure projects. I wouldn't poo-poo the feel-good projects like soccer fields and playgrounds and that. I really considered that to be a force protection thing.

You know, if you're out there building parks and playgrounds and things - people see good things happen in their neighborhoods, they're lot less slightly who try to blow you up, which is near and dear to my heart.

CONAN: That's a good thing, yes. Let's go to Christopher calling from South Lake City.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER: I wanted to ask the question of how morale was with the troops considering that this new round of elections would possibly bring the new suicide bombings. And in addition to that, how are contractors faring in Iraq right now? I haven't heard too much on the news about contractor issues or the opportunities that (unintelligible).

Col. ANDERSON: To speak to the troops themselves, the two brigades that we worked with I thought were magnificent. I'm an old Marine, but I worked with - primarily with soldiers over there, and I can't say enough good things about them. They...

CONAN: By that, he means U.S. Army.

Col. ANDERSON: U.S. Army, yeah. They're superb troops, and I can't say enough good things about them. The contractors over there, I think, you know, I physically lived aboard Camp Victory, Camp Liberty portion of it, and they do a lot of good work. They work hard. I think they earn their money. I can't say anything bad about them.

CONAN: Christopher, thanks very much.

CHRISTOPHER: Yup.

CONAN: Gary Anderson has written a piece for the Small Wars Journal called "Counterinsurgency vs. Counterterrorism: A Civilian's View." If you'd like to read it, there's a link to it on our Web site. Go to npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Tehrik(ph), Tehrik with us from Boston.

TEHRIK (Caller): Well, I might lose you because I'm going into the Boston Harbor right now.

CONAN: Well, see if you get a question out then.

TEHRIK: Yes. I'm going to say I agree with the gentleman that, you know, the elections are just a facade. The allegiance of the people is to their local leader. You know, it really doesn't make a difference. I'm from Pakistan, and no matter what party gets elected, you know, we are -the local residents, we are in power. The people have to listen to the people who are the tribal leaders or the (unintelligible) as they're called in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I'll take your comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, drive carefully, Tehrik.

TEHRIK: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. Well, you know, getting confidence from the local leaders was really something I struggled with. And I think my results were mixed. I did a thing that I call governance patrols. And I'd go out to various neighborhoods, in the various village areas and talk to people and say, you know, what's right - what's going right, what's going wrong? And if I found something that I didn't like, I'd go back to find the local ministry rep or the local - what we call baladia, the public works guy and, you know, give him a good swift kick in the rear end and get him out to do it. But getting them to do that on their own as a part of their normal daily routine was not - it was not the easiest thing in the world to do.

CONAN: Accountability difficulty.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. Some extent, you started to see it - them do it themselves. Other cases, they still need a boot in the rear end.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Cole(ph), Cole with us from Tempe, Arizona.

COLE (Caller): Yes, hi. I was actually in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. And obviously that was a very dangerous time. Today is actually the three-year anniversary of us losing our first soldier in the brigade. But while we were there, we saw the implementation of the surge. And one of the methods they used in urban areas was literally dividing communities, so Shia communities from Sunni communities, so they wouldn't have violence between them. I'm wondering if they're still doing that, and whether or not that's had an effect.

CONAN: I saw that in Belfast in the old days.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah, it has had an effect. Unfortunately, they have not been able to take the barriers down as quickly as they wanted to. A lot of that is not so much sectarian anymore. It's because of the threat of suicide bombings and so forth. They've had - they've actually had to maintain the barriers a lot more than I think Prime Minister Maliki would've wanted to. But that's probably the price that you pay for still having at least a low level ongoing insurgency going on.

CONAN: Thanks, Cole.

COLE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Cole, I - we're sorry for your losses. It's a sad day.

COLE: Every day is a sad day.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Bye-bye. As you look ahead, Gary Anderson, you said you did not expect a lot of violence associated with the elections; a lot of people have wondered if there may not be a surge of violence after the elections, sectarian divisions that are still there and not going away.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. I - that's my main concern. And I think that's why I take a cautionary note about the elections. If you - and I talked to about 200 Iraqis before I left, specifically to find out they're going to vote. Didn't ask them how they were going to vote. But if you talk to them too long, everything came down with the Iranians. There's a tremendous amount of fear and apprehension that the Iranians have got too much power in the country through some of the senior Shiite leaders - and I'll name names - like Chalabi. And he's done a lot of, in my view, a lot of things that detracted from this election. And I suspect that you're going to see some fallout from that after the election.

Now, how bad that is, I don't know. But what I do know is that I think there's going to be an eventual conflict between the pro-Iranian and the pro-nationalist faction. And I don't think it's - I think it's a mistake to think it's going to be entirely sectarian. I think it's going to start out Shia on Shia, with the nationalist Shia going after the - what I would call the Persian-dominated faction. And I think that politics in Iraq has a tendency to be a full contact sport.

So I would expect to see some problems after the election; how bad they're going to be, I'd like to hope they're not going to be that bad, but let's see what happens.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, again, welcome home. And thanks again for your time.

Col. ANDERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Retired Colonel Gary Anderson, with us today here Studio 3A.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.