19 June 2009

“Inshallah” or “Better the Arabs do it tolerably”

Stars and Stripes ran an article today in which a number of Soldiers discussed the professionalism of the Iraqi Army. A few US Soldiers complained that the Iraqi Army typically runs patrols, whenever they feel like it, if at all. Often, patrol leaders will need to be woken up by US advisors and reminded that they had a scheduled patrol that day.

This isn't exactly new in Iraq. American advisors have long since noted that many Iraqis tend to harbor the "inshallah" attitude—referring to an Arabic word which roughly translates into "if it is God's will". It's typically used as a response to orders or to questions about upcoming activities. For example, in this case, if an Iraqi Army commander is asked if he will be going on patrol, he might respond, "Inshallah". "Eh, maybe, if God wills it". Those of us with Latin American experience might notice the stunning similarity to this and what's often called the "Manana attitude".

Stars and Stripes reports:

The patrol was part of a daily routine for the Americans, who are tasked with early morning and late-night patrols to find the men who are launching rockets from eastern Baghdad into the Green Zone.

The other part of their daily routine?

"Go wake the officer up," 2nd Lt. John Harris told his interpreter.

For the American soldiers, rousing the Iraqi troops and persuading them to send out at least one Humvee on patrol is one of the most frustrating parts of their day. And the disconnect between the two approaches illustrates just how far apart the two armies remain as the June 30 deadline for Americans to pull back from Iraqi cities fast approaches.

The Iraqi officer woke up, but he was irritable. He said he had no orders from his commander to send out a patrol. In fact, he said, his soldiers already went on a raid a couple of hours earlier.

Harris and his soldiers — 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment — doubt the story about the raid. They've heard similar explanations in the three weeks they've worked with this Iraqi unit.

Yet Harris, who was a staff sergeant before earning his commission, also understands the officer's hesitation. In contrast to the American military, in the Iraqi army, nearly all decisions are made by commanders and almost never by junior officers or soldiers. If the Iraqi watch officer doesn't have explicit orders to dispatch a group of soldiers to patrol with the Americans, he's fearful to make that call himself…

…But the Iraqis hadn't picked the patrol time, nor did they have their own clear set of orders to go. The Iraqi battalion commander — the one who makes virtually every decision for the 500 soldiers in the unit — was not on the base. The first and second lieutenants who were around were less than eager to put together a unit on their own just to go out in the middle of the day, before their lunchtime.

When an Iraqi lieutenant finally agreed to go out, he said they would patrol for an hour in a nearby university neighborhood, a place where young people would be having lunch and where young women don't wear the black chador.

He stopped the patrol twice to walk and talk to people on the street. Both times were near groups of beautiful young women in bright-colored head scarves and tight, slimming clothes. The Iraqi soldiers talked to the men and watched the women…

…On another day, the 43rd Iraqi Army Brigade, which also controls part of eastern Baghdad, led a raid for illegal drugs in a market area just outside their headquarters at Forward Operating Base Shield. The plan involved many players: Iraqi police were to stop traffic; the Ministry of Health was to give free local exams to make up for inconveniencing shoppers; and the Iraqi army was to look for heroin, cocaine and porn…

…In the end, the raid produced no illegal drugs, Liebal said, "but they got a scathing amount of porn."

Now, on one hand it's kind of cute to see that American values—namely, patrolling in college areas filled with chicks and police raids which snag copious amounts of porn--are rubbing off on the Iraqi Army. Yes, despite the vast cultural differences between our lands, we can still rest assured than we men will always think with the same part of their anatomy the world over. I know many of you are saying, "but the Iraqis seized the porn because it's a cultural taboo to have porn". Yeah, that's about as likely as looking through the latest issue of Rolling Stone for an article on a military blogging site. Oh wait…

In all seriousness, though, the professionalism of the Iraqi Army is, of course, a serious concern. On one hand, at least the Iraqis themselves are the ones patrolling the streets. After all, one of T.E. Lawrence's famous quotations noted that it is better that the Arabs do their business in Arabia tolerably than to have Westerners do it perfectly. And actually, in the conditions of Iraq, American patrols would not be as perfect as we would like to think they were.

Nevertheless, the article brings up the fact that it's difficult to find good leaders in Iraq. Whereas in the United States, junior officers and sergeants are expected to show great amounts of initiative, this isn't so much the case in Iraq (nor, I would submit, in many dictatorships or newer democracies). Indeed, initiative at the lower levels of leadership was an anathema to Iraqi culture, particularly during Saddam's rule.

Why? Well, the ancient Greeks provide an excellent explanation. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of an ancient tyrant by the name of Thrasybulus, who ruled over Miletus in modern-day Turkey. When asked how he kept order in Miletus, Thraysybulus did not respond. Rather, he walked outside into a corn field and, using a scythe, cut the heads off of the tallest stalks of corn. The analogy, of course, was that in order to preserve one's position in a dictatorship, a dictator needed to remove those who stood head-and-shoulders above the rest in his nation, as they represented a potential rival leader. This meant that a successful tyrant needed to eliminate anyone with influence, power, initiative, intelligence, or money.

This, of course, is what Saddam Hussein did during his rule. An issue of Foreign Affairs in the Summer of 2006 discussed Saddam's leadership strategy in detail, but in summary, it was obvious that Saddam preferred to rid himself of anyone with promise, surrounding himself with weak and incompetent leaders in order to reduce the likelihood of a military coup against him.

Iraqi society may still be recovering from this sense of reverse Darwinism—a process by which the best and brightest were purged from the nation. Will they ever fully recover? Only time will tell.

1 comment:

El Goyito said...

The Spanish version of "Inshallah" would be "Ojalá" which is, I'm pretty sure, directly derived from the Arabic word - remember Spain was occupied by Muslims for 700 years. "Ojalá" and "Si Dios quiere" (If God wills it) are common little attachments to plans about the future here in Latin America. For example if I invite someone over for dinner for tomorrow night they will most probably respond, "Ok, that's great. I'll be there IF GOD WILLS IT." It can get annoying but the funny thing is that I even find myself attaching that little conditional clause to things without even thinking.