Some troops in Iraq look longingly to Afghanistan
COMBAT OUTPOST PALIWODA, Iraq — In many ways, the war in Afghanistan looms over the waning months of the U.S. effort in Iraq, an ironic reversal after years in which attention and resources were diverted here.
The counterinsurgency directives of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, now hang on the walls at some bases in Iraq. Logisticians are busy planning ways to shift at least part of the massive accumulation of military hardware to Afghanistan.
And as U.S. units increasingly take a hands-off approach in Iraq, troops based in places such as this small outpost north of Baghdad can’t help but notice that there’s a lot of fighting going on in a country 1,000 miles to the east.
But while many in Iraq see a future deployment to Afghanistan as likely, and some see it as desirable, most say they’re content to stay where they are.
“Some of the younger guys say they wish we were in Afghanistan, but you know what they say, be careful what you wish for,” said Staff Sgt. Todd Hegeman, 35, from the Bronx, who is on his fourth deployment. “We got it pretty good right here.”
For some troops in 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, that might be part of the rub. War isn’t supposed to be about city council meetings, and a month into their deployment that’s about the extent of the action these troops have seen. Their meals and showers are hot, their trailers are air-conditioned, and most leave the base for patrols only a few times a week and usually for only a few hours at a time.
“Some of the younger guys, they’re champing at the bit, wanting to get after it and kick down some doors,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Brannan, 31, from Hays, Kan., on his second deployment to Iraq. “But that’s not what this trip is about. We have to keep it in check.”
Surrounded by veterans of multiple combat tours like Brannan, who served with this unit on its previous deployment to Baghdad during the “surge” in 2007, those yearning for action are largely left to admire the war stories of the veterans.
Not all, however, are inspired to dream of combat — or at least to admit it.
“Me and all my friends are safe here, so what am I gonna complain about?” Pfc. Stephen Michael Powers, 23, of Plymouth, Mass., said from the small air-conditioned trailer he shares with two other soldiers, each ensconced behind his own laptop.
“It’s not my dream, but the infantry’s not dreamy,” added one of Powers’ roommates, Spc. Fra izer Etpison, 26, of Palau, who served with the unit during the surge. “We get a lot more sleep this time.”
Still, even Brannan acknowledges that Afghanistan would be, in its way, an easier mission.
“Over there, it’s not so much about the economics and governance,” he said. “We’re flexible enough to do this mission, but it’s not what we’re trained to do. It’s not really what we’re good at.”
But many also see a sort of closure in this tour, a sense that Iraq is coming around to something like progress.
“On the last tour, I used to go to sleep listening to gunfights, but this trip I haven’t heard a single shot,” said Sgt. Michael Arnold, 23, of Stillwater, Okla. “Last trip they told us we were here to rebuild Iraq, but I don’t think we did a lot of that. This trip we’re actually doing it.”
Reconstruction projects funded by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program remain one of the increasingly few ways for U.S. units to keep a place at the table in a country that seems intent on going its own way. The 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which includes this battalion, estimates it will spend between $50 million and $70 million on projects in Salahuddin province, roughly the same as the unit it replaced.
This battalion — the “Black Lions” — has partnerships with Iraqi army and police units that number roughly 8,000 personnel, but joint patrols have become rare. Even the erstwhile city council meetings aren’t what they used to be.
Three of the battalion’s officers stopped by for last week’s council meeting in Duluiyah, a small town north of Balad. A couple of years ago, city councils in Iraq were essentially congregations of whomever the Americans could persuade to come and listen to American presentations on, say, the importance of picking up trash.
The councils are still U.S.-appointed bodies that have yet to stand election, but attendance is less a problem. In Duluiyah, the Americans arrived to a full house already under way, sat near the back and said almost nothing. They spoke only when the council chairman asked if they had a crane that could be used to move a checkpoint. They didn’t.
Outside, their convoy of hulking, heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles waited in the street. The American officers, keen to be as unobtrusive as possible, worried that the MRAPs caused too much disruption to traffic and said they might consider going back to Humvees if things stay quiet.
Groups of schoolchildren filed past as members of the U.S. contingent hurried to their vehicles. Brannan waved to a group of boys.
Once upon a time, they would have all asked for something. Now, only one boy asked halfheartedly if the American had a soccer ball.