Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Perspective: Waiting for Godot... and tires

Above: An Iraqi soldier based at Combat Outpost Thrasher waits patiently for supplies to arrive in order to build a checkpoint.

Watching soldiers on a mission can be poignant. Watching soldiers on a mission spiraling toward failure is devastating. Outside a house in western Baghdad's once-upscale Ghazaliya neighborhood, next to a broken Iraqi Humvee, I enjoyed this rare bit of clarity, and in a moment I saw why Iraq is such a mess. It's not the obvious choices -- sectarian hatred or Al Qaeda or meddling by Iraq's neighbors -- but something much more pedestrian, exceptionally mundane: flat tires.

Several of the local Iraqi battalion's Humvees had been knocked out by bombs in recent weeks and hauled to a camp near the Baghdad airport a few miles away. The Iraqis had requested tires and spare parts from their maintenance depot, which still hadn't arrived and may never.

Captains Jeremy Tilley and Eric Wilkinson, U.S. advisors to the Iraqi army at Joint Security Station Thrasher, stood in the midday sun with Major Hatham Faak Selman, helping him work through his tire problem. They stared down at the busted Humvee. Tilley suggested that Selman take the four good tires off the broken Humvee, drive to the airport, replace a disabled Humvee's flat tires, and drive or tow the trucks back to the combat outpost. Selman, the Iraqi battalion's maintenance officer, seemed doubtful of the plan.

"What other options do you have?" Wilkinson asked.

"I need tires," Selman said.

"There's no tires," Tilley said, exasperated. "You waited so long, and now you don't have any other options."

"I've been asking for tires and haven't gotten any!" Selman said, throwing his hands up. "And now we're losing another truck every day."

One day it's tires, the next it's batteries, the next it's fuel. Soon the Iraqis quit bothering to fix the trucks. The vehicle shortage had reduced their ability to patrol this neighborhood, which meant they weren't gaining as much experience, which would make it impossible for them to assume control of security for the area, which would make it impossible for them to assume control of security for the country, which would leave the Americans holding the bag for as long as they could stand it.

"Right now," Tilley said, "I recommend you take these four tires and come back with at least one Humvee."

"Okay," Selman said. "It's my problem. I will solve it." He walked away, seeming bothered.

"We've been hounding them for the past three weeks, and it's been pretty much falling on deaf ears," Tilley said. He and Wilkinson were pushing the Iraqis to develop a system to track their vehicles, to know which are mission ready and which need maintenance, but had made no progress. "They want us to solve the problem, and you've got to say no," he said. "They have the solution here. You just have to help them make the connection."

The same story is told a thousand times a day across Iraq, from the police to the courts to the customs office.

Nation building, as it turns out, takes a lot of tires.

Read the rest at Esquire