Baghdad, Iraq — There are door kickers and door openers in Iraq’s counter-insurgency war. They aggressively hunt down terrorist cells and their weapons. And there are those who plant and water the seeds of cooperation, trust and even friendship with local inhabitants.
One wins headlines that validate their efforts; for the other validation comes in the smiles of Iraqis, the information they pass and the efforts they make on their own after a bit of nudging to remake their lives and communities.
“It’s a mind war with a lot of these other groups,” said Sgt. Doug Bowyer, an Army Reservist from San Jose, Ca. “They (terrorists and other extremists) say that we have nothing but bad intentions for Iraqis. Obviously, it’s not true, but that’s all the people have heard.
“I know it’s clichéd, but we try to change perceptions, to put the best face on the coalition forces and the American Army and what we’re doing here.”
Bowyer, 52, is a member of the 318th Tactical Psyops Company from San Jose, Calif., and attached to the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment in Baghdad’s East Rashid area since July. The unit is composed of five, three-man teams — each with an interpreter. Every day they go out from FOB (forward operating base) Falcon or from a smaller combat operations post and follow behind the door kickers during presence patrols in the muhallas (neighborhoods) of East Rashid, a religiously mixed area that was once a stronghold of al-Qaida-Iraq, who pushed many residents out and established it’s own brand of terror state within the area’s confines.
As troops slowly prowl neighborhoods with Iraqi Army forces, Bowyer and others of his team press the flesh, meeting people, asking about their problems, how the U.S. military can help, if people who fled the area are moving back.
At the same time, they keep a sharp eye out for graffiti praising insurgents or promoting sectarianism.
“Over there,” Michael, an Iraqi interpreter on a patrol, said while pointing at a wall along a deserted and garbage-strewn street. “It says ‘Long live the mujahedeen.’”
Bowyer and Michael jumped out of their Hummer, spray cans in hand. As Bowyer covered the graffito, Michael sprayed a new message: “Mujahedeen” — if you fight Coalition forces you will die. Your fate is in your hands.”
Continuing on foot Bowyer and Michael did the same to the infrequent anti-coalition messages they found, erasing the old, replacing it with something new: “No to Sectarianism, yes to peace” they wrote. “One people, one Iraq.”
Following along, as they went deeper into populated areas, were children who helped the unit put up photo-posters and signs in Arabic praising Iraqi security forces.
“It’s not directly changing minds, per se,” Sgt. Ted Vytlacil, 57 and a unit leader from St. Louis said. “It’s making observations that make messages that cause people to think and maybe change their behavior themselves.”
The small tidbits they pick up in their interaction with ordinary Iraqis — people’s reactions, which are subjective, not the kind of factsd intelligence is comprised of — are valuable indicators to U.S. commanders as to how secure a muhalla is becoming, whether AQI or others are reinfiltrating the area.
“When you see people are in the markets, out on the streets, that’s a good indicator that they feel safer,” Bowyer said. “When you see little children out on their own on the street, you know it for sure.”
On a recent patrol in East Rashid, Bowyer and others — including the door kickers they were following — had reason to smile. Erected by residents themselves on entry points to a muhalla, were cloth banners: “Welcome Back,” they said in Arabic. “There Is No Sectarianism Here.” According to Iraqi officials, more than 400 families that fled terrorist enclaves in East Rashid have returned since U.S. forces pushed insurgents out in the autumn during bitter street fighting.
“You erected these yourselves?” Bowyer asked the muhalla’s community leader. When the answer was in the affirmative, he then asked the cost of a banner and made a note to get funds to the citizens to do more. “At a dollar apiece, you can’t go wrong,” Bowyer said.
Psyops units are a hit with Iraqis children, who rush out to meet them. There are always handfuls of candy, much coveted soccer balls, toiletries, notebooks and pens, and especially for the girls, stuffed animals the families of the troops send to Iraq for distribution. “I have a neighbor at home who grew up in post-war Germany,” Vytlacil said. “He always talks about the kindness of the GIs. “I hope when we are long gone, there will be Iraqis children who remember the same.”
When not on patrol, the unit does another outreach effort — a weekly newspaper in Arabic that’s distributed throughout the city. The “Baghdad Mail” uses “puller” stories on the front page to draw people in — fashion, features and the like — while on the inside there is local news, stories on the coalition and Iraqi forces and a special column done by Vytlacil. Using a parable or other cultural reference as a lead, he talks about the counter-insurgency war and the hopes for Iraq’s future.
His email address at the end of the column sometimes pays dividends beyond personal messages of thanks and more general messages of reader opinion. In just one email shown a reporter, there was information on an insurgent safehouse and weapons cache.
Hearts-and-Mind, to use Vietnam War parlance, is part and parcel of U.S. counter-insurgency strategy. In East Rashid, it’s proving its worth.