Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series on predictions for Middle East security by former US Army soldier Curtis Nelson.
My name is Curtis Nelson, and I am a US Army combat veteran. My deployment to Iraq with the operations section of 1/5 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division (2006-2008,) where I was attached to the personal security detail protecting Lt. Colonel Dale Kuehl and other dignitaries including General David Petraeus. After being honorably discharged, I graduated with Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Criminal Justice from The University of Texas at San Antonio. I have read and researched history and current events involving the Middle East and Europe since 1998.
I spent six months of my deployment to Iraq living among Iraqi Army soldiers at a combat outpost named “Bonsai Two.” Due to Arabs close family and tribal relationships, sharing pictures of family created common ground bridging language barriers. I observed the mannerisms and body language Iraqi’s used while interacting with one another then adopted those customs. Hospitality is one of the pillars of Islam so giving gifts was common. In effect: I tried to become an Iraqi.
My goal was to bridge “Iraqi vs. American” perceptions, and connect with individual Iraqis as a cultural neighbor who wore an American uniform. This strategy created friendships and opportunities to ask candid questions about culture, religion, politics and their perceptions of the outside world. The “personal space” Americans are known for went out the window, it was normal to talk closely and use their animated gestures. By month five of the tour a couple of Iraqi friends called me an “Honorary Arab.” My goal to be seen as one of them succeeded. As a result, I am able to read reports about the Middle East written by journalists looking through a Western point of view then apply knowledge of Arab perceptions to gain more context.
Applying knowledge about Arab culture and the environment was originally used to perceive dangerous situations while conducting missions in Iraq, particularly when it came to finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most soldiers looked for obvious signs where explosives were buried. The weakness in this approach was over time the insurgency improved camouflaging. As a result, this tactic was largely successful only after the explosives were triggered. By becoming a part of the cultural environment spending extended amounts of time with the Iraqis I was able to see through the lens of local Iraqis. The insurgency didn’t want to waste efforts killing local citizens, so they would notify people in the neighborhood where a bomb was planted. Along with notifying locals by word of mouth, insurgents would hang out a red rug on a balcony or use out of the ordinary pieces of garbage. Instead of looking for bombs which were hidden, I was able to pick up on the “red flags” meant to warn local residents.
An example of this unorthodox approach was during a mission in the neighborhood of Khadra driving down a street busy with neighbors interacting with each other. The usually-crowded sidewalks were empty and I noticed a red rug hanging outside and knew this was a warning. My effort to notify my superior was rebuffed while a local national was riding a bicycle towards us. Thirty seconds later the pressure from the civilian’s bicycle tires pushed down buried wires completing the circuit which triggered a roadside bomb. Later, I was moved to driving the lead truck, where my warnings were taken seriously. We suffered no casualties for six months, partially as a result of increased situational awareness gained from first-person interaction with local Iraqis. This interaction helped present a more complete picture of the local tactical situation, something which I hoped to expand to include the broader region.
My desire to develop a whole picture of the Middle East includes a practice of researching history and current events for eighteen years. My operations experience provided access to battalion intelligence reports, maps and threat boards to see factors influencing the big picture while observing details on the ground protecting my commander. This combination of strategic-level research and tactical experience leads me to believe that recent events in the Middle East are setting the stage for a volatile power shift likely in the next 3-7 years. Triggering this shift will be the use of chemical weapons originating from Syria. The ultimate outcome of this power shift will be a Shia-dominated Middle East.
America as a whole is lacking knowledge of the region and is looking for the proverbial “roadside bomb” of ISIS while missing the “red rug” of the emerging Shia threat and the chemical weapons now in the hands of Hezbollah. My hope is that, throughout this series of articles, to explain the potential rise of a Shia-dominated “caliphate” in the Middle East, and, more importantly, what the US should do about it.