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Soldiers take pulse of Iraq with 'atmospherics'

By Spc. Christopher Mallard

BAGHDAD, Iraq (Army News Service, Sept. 20, 2005) – What does the price of eggs have to do with the Global War on Terrorism?

For some Coalition Forces, it has a lot to do with helping commanders assess their areas of responsibility.

Progress in the Iraq theater of operations is measured differently than in former conflicts. What may seem mundane is precisely the type of information Coalition Forces routinely collect as they assist the Iraqi government on all levels in its efforts to revive civil institutions.

Civil affairs teams are trained to conduct these assessments, also known as “atmospherics.” Raw data, which could be as dull as measuring the price of eggs from one week to the next, is continuously being compiled, charted, then transformed into reliable information for commanders to use.

Grocer can tap community lifeblood

Commanders need to have a much greater understanding today than in previous conflicts, officials say, not just of the ongoing battle-space, but how the opinion of a grocer across the street ties into a much larger framework of the conflict.

Atmospherics is just one of many tools available to leaders to gain a greater understanding of the overall dynamics that are the lifeblood of the community.

A Civil Military Operations Center uses several guidelines to collect and analyze critical information streaming in daily. As assessments and atmospherics are being conducted by civil affairs teams out in the field, the maneuver element tries to piece this information together so priorities can be set for future projects.

Continuity of vision important

Sgt. Matthew See of 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, said civil-military operators are primarily responsible for providing commanders with courses of action in all areas of civil military operations, including essential services, economic development and governance.

“We can only do so much during a year’s rotation,” said See, a native of Roseville, Calif., who is on a one-year contract with the National Guard and holds a Masters degree in public policy from Pepperdine University. “There is certainly a lot of creativity out there, but when new people come in and take charge, their priorities may not be the same as those who have gone before them.

“Circumstances change on a day-to-day basis around here, yet continuity of vision is the key to ensuring that all these efforts contribute to Iraq’s progress toward not only a free society, but one in which the people here can take pride in an economically, socially, and politically sustainable homeland.”

Butchers, bakers: atmospherics makers

On one morning in late August, See accompanied Maj. Mike Ellis, Civil Affairs Team 3, A Company, 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, to conduct an atmospherics mission in nearby Hor Rajeb.

Ellis and See interviewed the manager of a local grocery store regarding the price of lamb, heating oil, perishables and security. Standing underneath an awning of rippled aluminum slabs, Ellis stepped into the shade to ask several questions of the grocer through his assigned interpreter. Meanwhile, See went across the street to speak to the butcher.

Civil affairs Soldiers spend many hours learning the proper techniques for conducting an atmospherics interview.

“It is important to make an introduction and greet these people using local customs and gestures before jumping right into the interview,” explained Ellis, a resident of Atlanta. “The people seem to relax and share more of their problems and concerns instead of feeling that they are being interrogated.”

Knowing local problems can help win minds

Grocer Kareem Arabi told Ellis’ interpreter that he believes there are potential agricultural jobs in the area. Even though there is a language barrier Ellis did not divert his attention from the person to whom he was speaking. This way, the conversation remained personal and confidential.

“There is a lack of irrigation water and more importantly, electricity, which is critical to making sure the irrigation pumps work,” repeated Ellis, listening intently to the storeowner explaining his concerns. “Young men and women in the town could be gainfully employed if the pumps were working and the farms fully utilized.”

Stepping back into the midday heat, he walked toward his vehicle, closing his note pad. “Unfortunately, this community will remain underemployed and a lot of people in this sector will remain jobless until these problems are addressed by local government,” Ellis said. “If civil affairs can help, we certainly would like to participate in those discussions.”

For now, the team would have to return to Hor Rajeb to reassess irrigation and electricity issues that were brought up from the interviews. If a project is funded, civil affairs will return to follow up on the progress of work requests that were submitted.

Atmospherics can empower policy makers

Atmospherics is a relatively new methodology and cannot be statistically verified like a detailed study or various methods of American-style polling. Until there is greater stability and more secure conditions in Iraq, atmospherics is the most reliable method available for acquiring knowledge on people’s thoughts concerning the government and Coalition Forces.

There are several institutions that are normally reliable places to look for these studies. In the case of Iraq, the Department of Defense has been working with U.S. Agency for International Development, which for decades has collected information on issues related to sustained development. According to its Web site, “working with Iraqi institutions to establish an environment for sustainable economic growth empowers policy makers to formulate and execute decisions based on economic data, implementing the most modern and best practices in good governance.”

Disheartening to many number crunchers is the unreliable demographic information in the country due to the fact that no census has been conducted in more than 20 years.

Wind differs in each muhalla

“So much information is simply lost. So, even though we use atmospherics to gather information and determine which way the wind is blowing in a particular muhalla, people’s attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs may be entirely different across the street,” explained See. “There needs to be long-term continuity, not only of vision, but also of the means to achieve it, including information gathering.”

These Soldiers have had extensive Middle Eastern studies course work and in many cases are encouraged to become functional in the Arabic language. Commanders rely on them and their unique ability to discern what is actually being said, especially in the densely-populated areas around Baghdad.

Civil affairs teams glean information from atmospherics and then use that data to aid the Iraqi people and unit commanders in daily operations.

(Editor’s note: Spc. Christopher Mallard serves with the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion.)

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