By Noah Smith
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

I deployed to Iraq in 2012. On the way over, I was 27 years old and eager to fight. I headed into the international zone in the center of Baghdad. My mission to advise the Iraqi Special Operators to help them adjust to an environment in which they did not enjoy direct U.S. military support. We were their advocates and confidantes. I spent the next six months working with their commando school.

Little did I know I was heading into a deeply frustrating experience, perhaps the most confusing of my life.

It soon became clear to us that our mission would not succeed, because no matter what we did, Iraq was drifting toward civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq was conducting assassinations and morphing into something powerful. ISIS was beginning to emerge.

Also, our Iraqi counterparts did not really trust us, and why should they? We had gone into Iraq, we had left, and now we were back — but for how long?

And so we had a hard time with the Iraqi government. We couldn’t get the amount of training ammo we needed for new recruits to be assessed and trained. Closed door conversations lent the strong suspicion that the government was stockpiling ammo as a preventative measure for the coming Shia — Sunni civil war.

Iran was on Iraq like white on rice. Mookie, Muqtada Al Sadr’, and his friends, Shiite militias like Asa’in Ahl Al-haq returned to Iraq, after exile in Iran. They quickly established a television channel and extended a welcome to Iranian sleeper cell surrogates. Every day, I felt as though my movements were observed and reported to Tehran.

Iraqis quietly expressed their concern to me that Iran was taking over Iraq, and no one was doing anything about it. The distrust of their comrades ran so deep that some would stop talking to me the second another soldier entered the room, regardless if the other one was a friend. Sunni soldiers gradually faded into the background, relatively unnoticed. Some went AWOL, supposedly because they preferred military prison to being in the regular Iraqi army. Almost all new recruits were Shia.

In the midst of all this, it was difficult for us to know what to do that would be in the best interest of our Iraq. Of course, there really is no such thing. It was never ours.

But it is now Tehran’s.

This is what it is like, I think, when policy is at odds with reality. The truth is that the strategy of going forward with a united Iraq was unrealistic in view of the political situation on the ground. We were not being realistic. The notion of a unified, non-sectarian Iraq was a fairy tale. My assignment was to implement that fairy tale and report progress.

That is an enormously demoralizing realization for any soldier. As I look back on it now, I think it was like working at the circus and showcasing a well-scripted performance whose source was vaguely known. It’s hard to fault any particular agency or department. My superiors were all part of the same circus, just different clowns in different outfits.

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