Last week, I embedded with U.S. Army troops at Forward Operating Base Justice in northern Baghdad. Outside the wire, we toured the slums and met with neighborhood leaders inching toward self-sufficiency in al Salam. We sipped chai with a sheikh who condemned terrorists on all sides. We watched residents bicker over a civil affairs blanket drop in Khadamiyah. We sat with slimy Mahdi Army apologists in Hurriya. We stopped by a Sunni insurgent enclave, which soldiers I patrolled with dubbed a "sniperville," in al Adil.
There's nothing glamorous or romantic about these missions. No one will make a movie about our men and women in uniform engaged in the tedious, painstaking business of moving Iraq toward stability and governability. But if the war is to be won -- if security is to be established and the foundations of a civil society bolstered -- this is ground zero. The troops I met ask only three things of their fellow Americans back home: time, patience and understanding of the enormous complexities on the ground.
In Washington, counterinsurgency theory (COIN) is a neat, elite intellectual abstraction. Since coalition forces simply can't catch and kill every insurgent lurking in the populace, the theory goes, it's up to the military to persuade the Iraqi people to turn on the insurgents, join the political process and help themselves. At FOB Justice -- former headquarters of Saddam Hussein's ruthless military intelligence unit, the site of the dictator's execution by hanging and home to the Dagger Brigade 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division -- COIN is a vivid, hands-on reality. Here, a task force of brainy commanders, brawny patrol officers, courageous Arab-American interpreters, wizened trainers and intel gatherers, baby-faced convoy drivers and grim-humored gunners attempts to put President Bush's "winning hearts and minds" idealism into daily practice.
Modern war in the Middle East is no longer as cut-and-dried as shooting all the bad guys and going home. We are fighting a "war of the fleas" -- not just Sunni terrorists and Shiite death squads, but multiple home-grown and foreign operators, street gangs, organized crime and freelance jihadis conducting ambushes, extrajudicial killings, sectarian attacks, vehicle bombings and sabotage against American, coalition and Iraqi forces. Cell phones, satellites and the Internet have allowed the fleas to magnify their importance, disseminate insurgent propaganda instantly and weaken political will.