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March 09, 2007
"The Fallujan people are gonna have to stand up on their own and tell these people, 'get out, we're done.'"

An Interview with a Civil Affairs Marine

Posted by Bill


Marine Staff Sergeant Tylor Belshe has a hard job.

In addition to the natural difficulty of winning hearts and minds in a xenophobic city iconic among Arabs for resistance to occupation - the birthplace of insurgency in Iraq - he navigates bureaucratic hurdles regarding what types of reconstruction money are authorized to be spent on what, works with a constantly evolving mission, limited manpower, residents unaccustomed to doing for themselves, poorly functioning provincial and national Iraqi governments, language and cultural difficulties, and more challenges ... all while insurgents try to kill him.

My exposure to the Civil Affairs and reconstruction missions in Fallujah is limited compared to my knowledge of the Police and Military Transition Teams, so I'll mostly let Belsche's answers speak for themselves. But my general impression is that civil affairs is a vital component of the counterinsurgency strategy in Anbar that is currently underrepresented, especially by civilian agencies (State Department, NGOs, etc.) naturally suited to the mission. Belshe and other marines and soldiers were nearly unanimous on the assertion that the Fallujans need to stand up en masse to void the insurgency from their midst and build a successful city. That said, insurgent groups wield violence so casually and effectively that many locals are afraid to stick their necks out and pick sides.

In light of these challenges, Civil Affairs personnel in Fallujah embrace the Marine philosophy of "Improvise, Adapt and Overcome."

Belshe is a 28 year-old from Denver, Colorado. He serves with the 1-2-4 Civil Affairs Group as the team's project manager and contracting official and has been a Marine for seven years.

INDC: First, can you explain what "civil affairs" means?

Belshe: "I think every team takes a different approach with it, but with civil affairs we're here to take a softer approach to helping solve the conflict in this area. Whether that's through key leader engagement, projects, all sorts of different things.

INDC: How's that mission manifesting itself in Fallujah generally and specifically with your unit?

Belshe: "In Fallujah itself, different areas are more receptive than others. Obviously, everybody likes projects. They like seeing things built and fixed. But what this area really needs is strengthening the key leaders in the community ... because a lot of them have left for various reasons - (they've) either been threatened or they've actually been killed. The leaders who are here are kinda young as far as being leaders for communities and they just need to be strengthened. And that's a good thing we're here for. We can help give them that strength, whether it's through helping their communities have water and electricity, but the community sees it as coming from their leader. That kind of gives them that strength that they need to actually stand up as leaders."

INDC: What else do you do?

Belshe: "Everything. We do everything from school engagements where we go and we talk to the students, find out what's going on in the neighborhood, to what they see as kids - what's life like in Fallujah? What's the most popular music group? At that point, we can find out from the schoolmasters what needs to go on in their school. Whether they need power, etc."

"We also sit down with the sheik's council. We try to engage the local leaders ... to find out what their neighborhoods need. The main thing in the city right now from what we hear is the basics - it's gonna be the propane, the fuels ... clean water, and electricity."

INDC: What is the local sheik's council. Who are they?

Belshe: "It's the wise men of the neighborhood come together. Some are more influential than others."

INDC: So, these aren't official government positions ...

Belshe: "I believe they're cultural positions. And they just provide us with information about what's going on the neighborhoods and we try to engage their concerns. And, again, their concerns are the same as the rest of the city."

INDC: Anything else you do?

Belshe: "There's a bunch of different meetings we go to. We try to approach it from a bunch of different angles. The meeting here today is the Fallujah Reconstruction Council. It's the engineers of the city. They get together. They're thinking long-term, big-scale type projects. Every Wednesday we meet with the contractors. They come into the Fallujah Development Center (a hub of interaction between Americans, Fallujan citizens, contractors and the Fallujan government). And we engage the contractors not only to issue contracts and to issue payment, but we ask them ... their ideas of what needs to be done. We tried starting a school board. The DJ of education isn't all that receptive to it, for whatever reason, I'm not sure."

INDC: Is Civil Affairs responsible for dispersing all funds and contracts that come through here from the coalition?

Belshe: "Not all. We're just a small portion of it. (The funding) comes through a program called CERP. It's a fund that's intended for the commanders of the area to help give quick positive influences on the community."

INDC: What's your budget?

Belshe: "You can be effective with any budget you receive. If you get more money, you can spend more money. Less money, you learn how to make due. The budget we have, we're being very effective with the budget that we've got."

INDC: What's your brightest spot with the projects?

Belshe: "There's been a few. The one that comes to mind (is) an old cemetery that was in the center of the Jolan district, very notorious for being a very harsh neighborhood. During a few of the pushes, it was the heart of insurgency, I'd say. But we came in there, and we noticed that the walls looked like they'd been run over by tanks. There had probably been some mortar attacks in the area. The walls were just riddled with gunfire."

"And, that was a project, we decided. At first it was just, 'let's build this wall around here, brighten up the neighborhood a little bit.' The impact of that project ... the second and third effects were incredible. The contract was issued. The contractor started getting on site, started taking down the wall, started to build a new one. The word got out that they were doing that and people were showing up to volunteer their time to help build it."

INDC: So, the site was culturally significant?

Belshe: "Yeah, it's the old cemetery, where great-great-great grandfathers and great-grandmothers are buried. Our interpreter, actually, his grandparents are buried there. I guess it's just known as that. So, they saw this beautiful wall going up. Three-meter wall. It's gorgeous. And, there's actually a mosque attached to the cemetery. And, just as a donation from the contractor, he re-tiled the entire mosque courtyard, fixed their bathrooms, things like that. And the neighborhood's very receptive - now every time we roll through there, the neighbors come out, are very friendly, smile, where before you used to get harsh looks, like "Why are you here?" And, everybody knows where the funding came from, where the project developed, even though the contractor tried to keep an Iraqi face to it, they kinda know where it came from and they're O.K. with that."

INDC: What else?

Belshe: "Some of the long-term projects that we hope to see completed are all the water and sewage projects that the Army Corps of Engineers are going through. Those are some really good projects."

"As far as ourselves, some of the stuff that we're doing ... another really good project that we have that's been so effective (is) the development of generators for the cement plant. Right now, the cement plant is pretty much stagnant. They're not receiving power. The kennels have to be on for so long and they only receive power for half that time. So, they're hurting their product more than they're developing it. They're not able to produce much cement.

"It's a big political issue as far as the power coming in, so we've developed a project to bring in a 6 megawatt generators and they've already got an (agreement) to get fuel from the Ministry of Oil to support the production of electricity out of those generators. And it will reemploy 600 people. We've also got a letter of agreement from the cement plant to hire on an additional 100 due to the production of cement that'll be coming out. That's how many more jobs will probably be opened up. Now, where these men are in the city, you'll be able to reemploy them, get money back into the market, and allow the city to again come back to life."

INDC: Can you outline the most significant challenges and failures?

Belshe: "If the terrorists or the insurgents or the militants - there's so many different opposing groups out there, whether they oppose us or oppose each other, they hinder progress quite a bit, because there's a lot of tension, I guess you could say. And, it's not all directed towards the coalition forces. A lot of people misconstrue and say 'everybody hates the coalition' ... but we're just one. There are a lot of different groups out there that are causing (other groups) problems."

"So, when you're trying to develop something in a neighborhood - when you're trying to get a good engagement in a community, they say one bad apple ruins the bunch. You get one bad event that happens in that neighborhood and work that you've been trying to do for the past two months might go down the drain."

"There are different projects that we think are going to be very effective, bringing the industrial area back to life. As you work on that, there's a lot of bad people that operate down in the industrial area, and they threaten and run off all your contractors so progress in certain key areas can't happen. And, what we find out is that the opposing forces - they know exactly what is key for the city to get back on its feet, and they don't want that to happen, so they oppose those different projects or efforts."

INDC: I interviewed a Fallujan [civil servant] and he said the insurgents control most of the contracts in the area - some guy comes here to do a contract, even an American contract. They show up, get supplies together, and insurgents show up and say, "Guess what? You're gonna give us half your money or we're going to kill you." Do you agree that that's happening?

Belshe: "I've seen that actually, with some of our contractors. If they don't pay, they get kidnapped. Right now we have five contractors that have been kidnapped. The weird thing is, usually a ransom comes out right away. With these, there isn't a ransom that's come out, so it's kind of a new tactic that's going through. They're more or less eliminating those that aren't paying (extortion money). Still, no bodies turned up."

INDC: What do you mean eliminating those who won't pay?

Belshe: "Those who refuse to give the money they're supposedly due. Fortunately, we saw this in our own country - in the United States as we were a young country and up-and-coming. You saw the same type of corruption we see. I think it just comes with a growing democratic society - I don't know if you want to put that much of a name on it. At some point, the Fallujan people are gonna have to stand up on their own and tell these people, 'get out. we're done.' You know, (that) they want their freedoms and they're tired of these people operating in their city."

"I tell the contractors that all the time. They're locals. They're the ones, they live out there with their families. Because they always tell us, 'security's bad. Why don't you do anything about it?' At some point we can't handle it because we don't know where they are. 'You guys live out there. You know exactly where they're at. You know who's approaching you for money. We don't know. You won't tell us. At some point, you as a community - you as a Fallujan people - are gonna have to stand up and squeeze them out of your own city. It seems impossible right now, but the day will come when you'll have to do that or nothing will get done in the city.'"

INDC: So, you don't think there's anything more the coalition forces can do?

Belshe: "I'm not at that level to make those big decisions, but as far as what we do on our team level, I know we spend countless hours trying to refine our tactics and trying to be the most effective with what we've got, so I'm sure forces-wide they try to do the best as well."

INDC: You just distribute those CERP funds. And who's doing the other reconstruction?

Belshe: "There's a bunch of different groups. There's DFI funds. It comes from the Iraqi government. I'm not sure. There's ... USAID. I just met with them last week. They're coming in with some money, which is good because we're not allowed to - (with) CERP funding ... you can't do anything on the private market. So, if you want to get that private fuel plant or fuel factory up and running, CERP funds can't do it because it's privately owned, but USAID, they can't do anything government, so when you work hand-in-hand, you pretty much accomplish all the projects you want to. And, so we're pretty excited because we have a lot of privately owned stuff that we've been wanting to get funding for ... (and) now USAID's gonna come in."

INDC: I've spent some time out in Fallujah and it's a pretty dangerous city. How do you do your job as far as going out into the city when there's the constant threat of snipers and IEDs?

Belshe: "Post-January 4 - that's when the whole transition came over, when the (Marines) kinda pulled back, turned the city over to the (Iraqi Army) - before that, we just had free reign. As a team, we were pretty aggressive in our tactics. We'd go anywhere. Not carelessly. I mean, we have great navigators and intel and we'd get through the city pretty well. If we wanted to go somewhere, we'd go there. We oversaw the projects. We escorted a lot of the Army Corps of Engineers out to the projects. We got to know the city really well the first four-and-a half-months. (Then) the transition happened, so now we're sittin' here. There's not a (Marine Quick Reaction Force within the city). There's not a lot of different response elements when you come into those neighborhoods."

"So, what we've done is we've now started to turn it over to the (Iraqi Police) and the (Iraqi Army), because they're still patrolling those neighborhoods. So, we meet with those MiTT teams, and the PiTT teams (to accomplish projects), and we have an Iraqi rep for each one of the battalions in the Joint Communications Center."

"We meet with them once a week and we say, 'O.K., go out into your neighborhood. There's these projects going on. Just be aware of them. Let us know if progress is going on in those different areas.' Then we also ask them to meet with the locals - just the exact same things we would do: meet with the local officials in the neighborhoods - the wise men, the sheiks or the imams, the guys that have lived there the longest - and find out what their neighborhoods need. Maybe not just need, but what can we do to help them."

INDC: You think the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army are capable as far as that goes?

Belshe: "So far with the IAs it's been very successful. We had some success today. We're gonna be going up to the MiTT team up at FOB Castle. And, our last meeting, the Lt. was right on key. Without any coaching he came up with three projects that were right in line with what we would consider to be valuable projects - things that could be very helpful in the community, both from a military stance as well as a development stance. We'll see today. I asked him to go back and find a contractor and develop a scope of work for these projects. So, it's in the beginning phases, but we're seeing progress with that."

"With the PiTT (Police Transition) teams, it's a little slower. They just went through a recruiting drive, so personnel might get freed up, they might get a better idea for it. (The police chief) is really into it. He likes the idea, obviously. And so, we have a couple projects that they're gonna oversee. But again, it's in the development phases."

INDC: So, give me the general idea of how you think Fallujans view the coalition, Americans, insurgents.

Belshe: "If you go into a school and you ask them the same question, they would say that they think the Americans should leave - they should get out of the city. It's been a direct response that we've gotten from them. It doesn't matter where in the city you ask them, boy or girl, they say we should leave. They loved us when we first got here, but they didn't expect us to stay this long, so now it's like, 'why are you here?' So, that's how they respond."

"You talk to the adults, you get the same response. But, at that point, they're adults and they don't want to offend you, so they're more friendly - 'Oh, we love you. We want you to stay here.' But the undertone is, I think, since they see us, since we're in the city, that's why the attacks are there. That's why they're targeting us. So, there wouldn't be any IEDs if there weren't any Americans in the city. The insurgents wouldn't be here if we weren't in the city."

"But at the same time ... they say it'll get worse if we leave."

INDC: That's what I've heard over and over and over, is that they want you to leave, but they don't want you to leave yet.

Belshe: Because it's gonna get worse, yeah. And, we ask 'em, 'do you like the IAs (Iraqi Army)?' (They say) 'No.'"

"Do you like the IPs (Iraqi Police)?' 'Yes.'"

"I think that's kinda like the answer that just comes out because the IAs, they're ... the people from outside the city. The IPs are the brothers, the uncles, people who live around the area."

INDC: Why is the insurgency still able to operate if the locals don't like them?

Belshe: "I think it's just a movement that's going on through the city. I don't know if they're just not standing up to them. I mean, you ask them ... from the contract standpoint. A contractor comes in, 'I was threatened yesterday.'

'Who threatened you?'

'I can't tell you.'

That's ... the best answer (to) ... why (the insurgents are) still there."

INDC: Is that frustrating?

Belshe: "A little bit, yeah. Not to the point that I wanna go out and kill bad guys, but it's frustrating. I'm more frustrated for them, because they'll never see progress if they don't stand up."

INDC: Is that your ultimate solution for the insurgency, for the people of Fallujah? That Fallujans need to stand up?

Belshe: "Personally, from Tyler Belshe? Yes, without them standing up and pushing them back, then they'll never see progress. If they don't, it's gonna take a lot longer."

INDC: There are those who say that the Civil Affairs mission is being too easy on these people ... that we need to go out and kick some more ass, get more aggressive with military actions. Do you think that CA mission actually has an impact on shaping the nature of the war?

Belshe: "I think if somebody comes into this area with a civil affairs group to build schools and they measure their progress by how much money they spent, they've done worse for the community than if they never would have spent a dollar. I think if a civil affairs group or whatever group comes in here - whether it be USAID, Army Corps of Engineers - if you come in here and every project has a purpose, it's a something-for-something project: if you're builing a school and (you say) 'we're not just gonna build you a school. The school's going to come because we want you to employ teachers.'"

"If it's a something-for-something, then it's a very effective program. But if you're just coming in here and spending money, then it's not effective at all."

INDC: Is that what you're doing?

Belshe: "It's a something-for-something. That's the approach that we've taken. We just don't do a project to do a project. We're not just gonna pave a street because it needs to be paved. We're not just gonna go put up power because they need power. Those are valued causes to do it, but in order to see progress in the community, there has to be some sort of check and balance."

"If the community just sees people coming in a dumping money in the community, then it weakens them in a way because they're not standing up on their own and doing something. But if you require something of them, they say, 'O.K., O.K., I gotta do something here.' And then they see progress and then ... they start to doing it on their own. And, so just by dumping money into the community it weakens them, but if you require something of them, just like in our own lives, if we're challenged. That's the only way we find growth is through challenging them."

INDC: So, overall how do you assess the state of your mission. Have you made progress? Where you at? What's your opinion of Fallujah?

Belshe: "My opinion of Fallujah?" (laughs)

"As far as progress - I can only speak for my little team out here - I think we've seen some good progress. We set pretty lofty goals when we got here, not fully understanding what's going on in the city and not being able to foresee some of the events that have unfolded."

"But I think we've been pretty effective, as far as what we have. Have we had failures? Yeah, we've had failures along the way. But it's those little projects. When you go in and you talk to students and just giving them that 15-20 minutes to stand up and speak their minds. And a lot of times you'll ask them. You'll sit there and say, 'go ahead, tell us anything. We don't care. This is what it's about to have freedom of speech. You can stand up and say anything.'"

"And, the teachers will try to control them and say, 'no, don't say that, don't say that,' but our interpreter's pretty good about telling them, 'Hey, back down. This is what we want. We want them to engage with us. We don't care if they spit in our face, they yell at us. We want them to start exercising that.' And just to have one girl stand up and really express herself, or one small boy or one adult finally express himself ... I think that's worth the seven months I've been here."

"We don't measure our success by the money we've spent. Our measure of success is whether or not peoples' lives are affected in a positive way."

INDC: But if you could nail it down, if we had to quantify ... are you making small difference around the edges or are you helping engineer a sea change in the way they view the coalition?

Belshe: "Are we just nibbling at the problem? We do a little bit of both. We're trying to attack the propane problem head-on. But at a local government level, it's a provincial problem, so until the provincial government is willing to work, there's nothing we can do. Locally, we nail it down. We attack the problems at our level head-on. Is there complete cooperation with all levels of Iraqi government? No, there's not."

"As far as at our level, we've got a good handle on the city. We know what needs to be done and we report that constantly. The changes that are going on. Again, the changes come with the people. If they don't want to accept the change, if they don't want to move forward, it's not gonna happen."

INDC: How do you evaluate the prospects for Fallujah? Of becoming a successful city with a much lower-level insurgency?

Belshe: "It has great potential. There's great people here. It has all the ingredients. They just need to come together. It has all the ingredients to become a success, but they just need to stand up. That's what I say in my mind: they just need to stand up. Just reading history in our own country - and I know it's not the U.S. - but at one point, there were a bunch of people in the ... United States that said 'we're standing up. This is what we want,' and they put it in a document and they lived behind it. I mean, we're constantly rewriting our Constitution. Every amendment's a new rewriting of it. So, these people need to decide as a people 'This is what we want' and stand up and just go forward and commit to that."


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UPDATE: AIAO line added to piece.

Posted by Bill at March 9, 2007 06:25 PM | TrackBack (3)

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