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Works and Days

Impressions of Iraq—part II.

October 7th, 2007 - 8:17 pm

Just arrived home and here is the second of three postings on impressions of Iraq.

First—Some Responses to readers’ postings

I hardly speak for soldiers, never professed that I did. Mine are the mere observations of an outsider, nothing more than thoughts of a military historian after a second visit to Iraq. Take them or leave them: my feeling that those in Iraq are the moral upper-crust of our society is not cheap moralizing or patronizing, but the simple truth—as hard as that is for some to accept.

Most think that our military should be increased at least by the number of ground troops thought necessary in two or so years to monitor Iraq post-surge, or by about 50-70,000 Army and Marines in aggregate. We are almost doing that in planned ongoing increases. Should we withdraw permanently another 20,000 or so others from Europe and Korea, our rotations would be manageable.

Our problems with Nato allies in Afghanistan, and sometimes sharp anti-American outbursts from South Koreans, should be a warning about dependency and laxity. Putin, Islamism, the Balkans, al Qaeda, Iran—all that and more should have convinced the Europeans to step up their own defense.

We are all tired of European and even former commonwealth politicians lecturing Americans about how the future will be different as they go their own way—even as they expect US material and manpower support for their current defense needs. Americans would be delighted to see our allies rearm, take up the cudgels of their own defense, and start dealing with threats to Western life and civilization. No American is worried about Sarkozy’s current braggadocio. It is welcomed, not lampooned.

My past note about what Iraq was worth was qualified, as one reader conveniently ignored: I said a natural emotion after seeing our soldiers’ sacrifices was that the entire country was not worth a life of a US trooper—not that I felt such feelings were either logical or moral, much less shared by those who must do the bleeding.

US troops believe in their mission, not just because they are killing terrorists, but because that they are rebuilding a society and see tangible positive results in their humanitarian efforts, despite the costs—and that a free and secure Iraq will be critical to the region and diminish the chances of yet more global jihadist attacks.

Radical Islam, for all the criticisms of the Left, is declining in popularity in the Middle East, and its agents are dying in droves, both literally and metaphorically, at the US military’s hands in Iraq.

Thanks for those who wrote in or posted about advice with kidney stones—e.g., magnesium, diuril, diet, flomax, lemon juice, olive oil, etc. I have had them for 30 years (one major, one minor operation) but never in serial fashion, with 10-11 in a row. They are embarrassing: without warning one can burst into sweats, vomit, bloody urine, etc. and then suddenly recover as the bb passes—embarrassing when listening to Iraqi officials explain their problems, as if they might think you are becoming flushed in disagreement rather than just in pain.

I will post a third and last essay this week on Iraq. In the meantime, some further reflections after getting back home.

Antibodies?

The present course is a departure from the past idea that US troops were “antibodies” to Iraqi culture and that a large presence would only alienate Iraqis.

The divide is still present between the Gens. Casey/Abezaid (and perhaps present Centcom command) school of steady, and uninterrupted transformation, training, and reduction in Iraq troop strength (and the notion that the Iraqis will weary of killing each other in time)—and the current counterinsurgency doctrine of intervening more directly to reassure the people that they can be safe to rebuild their country.

Both schools have their advantages, but the third alternative: a massive build-up and enormous commitment of troops to smash al Qaeda and, in post-Japan-like fashion, saturate the country with troops is not in the cards.

If we fail, then some will say the surge was the wrong idea and prior commanders were right in steadily reducing our presence and keeping back to safer compounds (more on the notion of compounds being “safe” in the next posting) in the process. If we succeed, then Gen. Petraeus will become our next Matthew Ridgeway.

Sent to Iraq?

John Kerry once quipped, “You know, education — if you make the most of it — you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

But perhaps we should amend that to something like ‘if you get educated, you serve in Iraq.’

I say that because in the small circle I met or corresponded with the last week in Iraq the number of MAs and PhDs there is astonishing. Colonels Rapp, Gibson and McMaster have PhDs, as does Gen. Petraeus, scores of others I talked with as well. I don’t mean to suggest that PhDs are smarter (some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have them), only that the military puts a high emphasis on continuing education and original research, especially valuable in a complex, if not bewildering situation like contemporary Iraq.

Three weeks ago I heard a formal lecture presented by Col McMaster at Hillsdale College on the history of Vietnam and then found myself being led by him in full combat gear throughout Anbar. Similarly I was talking just six months ago at the Hoover Institution with Col. Gibson about his soon-to-be published book on military command and then saw him up in Baqubah, where he is yet again back in Iraq.

I learned a great deal about Iraqi topography from Major Rayburn after we coptered over the desert—no surprise, he is writing his PhD thesis on the British experience in Iraq. Camp Victory literally has dozens of PhDs—who see combat often—and MAs in everything from Arabic and Islamic studies to military history. COIN, the counterinsurgency center at Taji, under the direction of the talented Col Jan Horvath, draws in a lot of diverse thinkers, who are blunt in their assessments, good and bad, of the progress.

So it is not uncommon to be in a forward operating base and meet someone who taught at the Naval Academy or West Point, or whom one has met at an academic conference, or who had written a journal article one reads, inter-splicing their stories about a recent attack with discussion of academic bibliography. One West Point professor told me so many of his former students were in Iraq, he simply asked for deployment to be among them.

Again, we might also amend Kerry’s much lampooned comment even further to say that the brighter one is, the more likely they seem to be in Iraq.

Asking Questions

One result of the Petraeus appointment seems to be a more constant reappraisal of almost everything we are doing. Officers freely speak about our prognoses, what we doing right, what wrong, some more glum than others. A few officers in Iraq were outright pessimistic and candid about the outlook, saying that the Iraqis were perfidious, hopeless, and the effort impossible. But they were in a clear minority. The point again is that they were encouraged to speak out rather than dubbed defeatist and silenced. (Try speaking out in similar fashion on campus, or even ask a Larry Summers to lecture).

There is a sense that American army and marine captains to colonels were instrumental in the so-call Anbar Awakening, often forced to make critical decisions on their own and almost with no time for reflection or guidance—and often, thankfully, the right ones about enlisting Sunnis into the security services.

We are using all of our 21st-century capability, money, education, and experience to fathom what is going on in the minds of millions of Iraqis—of lost pride, a ruined country, thirty-years of abject suffering—and to what degree honor, status, and pride can be channeled away from fueling insurgency to building their own country. And it is a close-run thing always.

A Delicate Balance

It is the task of an intellectual surgeon to prod the Iraqis to step forward, without creating either dependency or create a sense of hopeless abandonment. I don’t envy those entrusted with the responsibility of trying to quell insurgency in areas the size of Colorado while rebuilding it at a current stage of, say, circa America, 1910? Few back here could pull it off.

One example of the dilemma: the tribal sheiks are coming forward to offer support against al Qaeda; but they cannot ipso facto run a government or supersede provincial administration and the rule of law. So how do you encourage their quasi-vigilante efforts and self-help militias while delicately reassuring officials that these grassroots efforts will be incorporated into government? If they execute an al Qaeda murderer on the spot, they then are undermining all the careful attempts to inculcate a judicial system. So it ain’t easy as they say.

Al Qaeda is perverted

A common theme heard from analysts and intelligence officers is the abject irreligious nature of al Qaeda. It is not quite zealotry to cut off the fingers of smokers, take 14-year old “brides”, mutilate the dead, force bodies to remain unburied, and steal businesses, homes and cars. Those are verifiable incidents—in addition to the other often told rumors of the terrorists serving children up to their parents or the employment of former male prostitutes as Al Qaeda heads. We think of bin Ladenism as a perverted distortion of Islam, but on the street level it is more a cover for gasoline and food racketeering, petty theft, and murder by young criminally-minded youth.

Soldiers spoke of confiscated computers of al Qaeda with the worst sort of pornography on them, or stories by Iraqis of known deviants, thugs, and criminals now masquerading as religious jihadists.

Here we prove incompetent in not publicizing the nature of hard-core jihadists, not just their hypocrisy and brutality, but their criminality. No doubt many of the 100,000 felons Saddam released on the eve of the war ended up working for al Qaeda, a fact we blithely forget.

How we can be doing so much in so many areas, but almost nothing to bring to the world’s attention the abject fraud of al Qaedism? Here we are reminded of anti-Western moralist Bin Laden’s kids watching video games, or the sheik himself buying a 15-year old bride on the eve of 9/11, or Dr. Zawahiri supervising the forced sodomy (to video cameras) of young teenage male captives. We are at war not just with radical Islam, but with the dregs of humanity, a sort of updated SS group of psychopaths.

Tea for me—or for you?

American officers, of course, wear almost identical camouflage. It is very hard to detect rank; only a small black insignia sewn at the breast indicates status. There is a free flow of information at all briefings. Some of the most thoughtful, blunt analyses came from majors to full colonels. This is really a war to be won or lost by middle-echelon officers, who like Roman proconsular officials must reorganize with Iraqis provinces the size of large American states.

(I note that in contrast with the university, American officers seem much less concerned with rank: not a single officer reminded me that he or she had an advanced degree from a blue-chip school—an unsolicited offering common on campus. The university is a natural comparison, since much of the anti-war sentiment emanates from it, and invites an obvious contrast about the relative degree of diversity, privilege, competence, and free speech).

Iraqi officers come from entirely different traditions of perks and privilege—whole suburbs of Baghdad reveal the former sumptuous digs of retired Baathist officers, replete with gardens, courtyards, and multistoried homes.

Iraqi officers, colonel and above, insist on tea being delivered and a retinue of hangers-on who give constant obeisance—sort of the traditional Hellenic complaint against Easternism kowtowing. (American officers more often open a frig and offer you water themselves). That said, Iraqis are trying to adopt much of the ethos of the American office corps, and thus a constant refrain in training is the need for them to get out, risk danger, and treat their subordinates with respect.

Many are doing just that—to such a degree entire units are starting to emerge that are probably better than any in the Arab Middle East. Surely one fear of Iraq’s neighbors is that if this country ever gets settled down, its army will be one of the most professional and competent in the region.

Who’s the American?

Another ubiquitous contrast. In every Iraqi conversation Sunni/Shiite divides came up. But on the American side, Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American, so-called white, as well as religious differences mean nothing. In this regard our military does a far better job with “diversity” than does the hot-house university where “difference” is artificially emphasized, often for personal advantage. On the front lines it is incidental not essential to identity—something that amazes Iraqis who sometimes seem puzzled about what constitutes an “average” American. Often the Ugandan security guards, the Iraqi interpreters, or the Sudanese contact workers seemed indistinguishable from what Americans are supposed to “look” like.

Iranian anger

The Iranians are on everyone’s mind, especially in the Sunni provinces. What to do with Basra (perhaps nothing since the Iraqi-Shiite government will have to deal with its own militias to keep their own city functioning)? What to do with Iranian super-IEDs (machine-milled explosive devices, with copper plates that liquefy on detonation and, in slug form, can penetrate all of our existing armor, resulting in terribly horrific wounds (won’t mention the details related)? What to do with Iranian-bound hacks in the government who are taking money and orders from Teheran?

And yet the last thing American officers wish is a war with Iran, a conflict that would immediately jeopardize everything they have achieved since May. The result is sort of a desire for tougher sanctions, perhaps an embargo, to squeeze Iran enough to stop sending its agents and weapons to kill Americans, but without galvanizing the Shiites into a surrogate Iranian army.

A shooting ground war with Iran, if it widened to include ground operations, really would lead to a civil war in Iraq with clearly defined sides, large armies and full-scale battle, rather than the current sectarian bloodletting—something perhaps welcomed by the theocracy in Teheran. Watch that: if our success continues, the Iranians will become desperate to stop it at any cost. Only our being “bogged down” in Iraq, so they think, stops their own rendezvous with the Americans.

Define Winning!

Most of the officers and their soldiers believed we could win—are winning—but most qualified that optimism: the Iraqis would have to step forward much more rapidly and competently, mostly the Ministry of Interior, dominated by Shiites. The subtext of all conversations, between Americans and mostly Sunni Iraqis, was that with the removal of the grotesque Saddam we had turned the country upside down, in typically radical American fashion.

The once despised Shiites, many having no education or experience outside of Iraq, were now running the country, while the 2 million who used to manage things were exiles: a sort of justice, but one that immediately posed a myriad of problems.

So we are asking from the Shiites instant experience, learning, skill, magnanimity, and forgetfulness of past abuse to take up government, include the Sunnis, and let Anbar and Diyala have their fair share of revenues—and to do all that while stopping the influx of Iranian weapons. If that should happen, the surge of money and work would keep the youth out of al Qaeda and too busy to resume attacks on Americans. That’s a simplification, but more or less a common sentiment of Sunni Iraqi provincial officials.

It is also absolutely NOT true that the American military cannot define victory. They can and do all the time. It is the creation of a stable state that enjoys something of the calm of a Gulf monarchy—but without the monarchial authoritarianism or the Sharia law of Saudi Arabia. In other words, they hope for something like a Kurdistan or Turkey, and believe the oil and agricultural wealth of Iraq, and its past experience with secular traditions, might make that possible.

Further, many of the most thoughtful majors and colonels defined the cost/benefit analysis not in terms of Iraq per se, but in view of the entire region where a stable Iraq would pressure Iran, and stop being a quarter-century long nexus of terror and trouble for others. (Speaking of officers below the rank of general—we may see soon a revolution similar to that on the eve of WWII, when George Marshall leap-frogged a number of officers to high rank. Promotion within the military is not a civilian’s business, but let us hope that we can keep the current crop of colonels in Iraq in the army, and promote them rapidly: right now they are our nation’s best military resource.)

A Heck of a Lot of Money

A last note. Flying and driving through Iraq, one notices the enormous US investment in trucks, cars, military equipment, bases, houses, reconstruction, Iraqi outfitting—literally billons evident to the naked eye, everywhere at every moment. Whatever this is, it is not a “no blood for oil” war, more like “billions in aid for a region with their own $80-a-barrel oil.” We are stealing no one’s petroleum, but rather trying to secure their naturally rich country to allow them to profit on it. The Chinese may soon have a concession; one wonders whether al Qaeda will go after them—or whether our Left will cry “No blood for Chinese oil.”

A final Iraqi Tuesday posting on casualties, a talk with Gen. Petraeus, some of the colonels working in the provinces, and what the future holds.

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