Michelle and I spent four days patrolling the environs around Forward Operating Base Justice in north and west Baghdad last week. FOB Justice is near one functional neighborhood, Khadimiyah, one mostly recovered neighborhood, Al Salam, one dysfunctional neighborhood, Al Hurriyah, and an al Qaeda-influenced area the name of which I never learned.
FOB Justice sits in a mostly Shia area, but it is just across the Tigris from Adamiya, a Sunni area that produced pops of AK gunfire every night and, on a couple of occassions, we heard the sound of mortar fire coming from that direction. But the convoys we were on were never shot at, and our troops never fired a single shot, which by itself is significant considering the fact that we were in Baghdad and did drive and walk through some sketchy areas. Most people in the states don’t realize that most of Baghdad’s violence is confined to areas where Shia and Sunni mix. No one so much as threw a rock at us, and the troops were greeted in a friendly manner nearly everywhere they went. Only in Hurriyah did we see overt hostility, but it never went beyond the sly insult stage.
This isn’t to say that everyone in Iraq loves US troops or that FOB Justice’s area of operation is Disneyland. Troops from FOB Justice frequently run across Haifa Street (including the trip bringing us back from the International Zone, hours after a fierce fight had taken place there) and troops from Justice have unfortunately been killed in combat or by IEDs; last fall a colonel was killed by one of the sophisticated Iranian-made IEDs. IEDs are a constant threat across most of Iraq. We ran across Mahdi Army militia fighters a couple of times on one patrol (and I have video); their intent was to check up on the Americans while staying far enough away to avoid a clash.
When you embed with a unit you strap on the helmet, suit up in body armor and go where they go and see what they see. Upon our arrival at FOB Justice, the commander, LTC Steve Miska told us we would have unlimited access and he lived up to his word. While on patrol the troops watched out for our safety, but back on the base we had no minders or anyone keeping tabs on us or telling us what to write.
Before setting off on this post, I want to stress that I don’t think spending a few days in Baghdad has turned me into an expert on the war. I’ve followed the war like you have since it began and obviously following the conflict day to day informs what I think about things. But I’ve now been in Iraq and I’ve seen the war up close. So while I don’t claim to be an expert, I guess you could call me a quick study.
This post is mostly about mistakes. The troops didn’t sit down with us and tick off all the mistakes that they think we have made in Iraq to date, so what follows isn’t their gripe list being published under my name. They did answer our questions forthrightly and we learned much from interviewing them and just talking with them over chow and listening to their crosstalk in the Humvees. So this post is made up of my observations after seeing the war up close and following it from afar, including mistakes, fumbles and ways forward to win–and what victory actually looks like.
1. No plan for the post war period. Our military crushed the Iraqi military in three weeks, winning the war easily. But the post war period has been so messy that a consensus has developed that we can lose the war and that we are in fact losing it. The reasons for this are many and, like Iraq’s history and makeup, complicated. Iraq spent 35 years under a level of brutality and police state paranoia that can’t be wished away or even driven away by any military force, no matter how powerful. Iraq also is a mix of Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Baathist and victim, tribe and family, and that make it an inherently complicated place to do anything. The defeat of Saddam’s regime did far more damage to the country’s basic civil order than anyone could have anticipated, and that collapse can only be remedied through time with an intense effort not to rebuild the country along any of its old lines of operation, but as an effort to build it as an essentially new country. Going in, the Bush administration apparently believed that the removal of Saddam would remove only a yoke of oppression, and didn’t factor in that Saddam’s removal would also destroy the country’s basic law and order. We in the West have a hard time appreciating this, I think, since so much of what we do is based on a medium and long range view of the future. As free people, we tend to think we can count on the day after tomorrow and thus we factor a long time horizon into the way we think. When you live in an unfree society where your life can be taken away from you on the tyrant’s whim, I think that this produces more of a short term world view. The day after tomorrow doesn’t represent hope, it just represents the equal possibilities of danger and survival. Saddam’s ouster removed the threat of capricious state murder, but also removed that same threat from groups that would otherwise have been at war. It also removed the basic civil services and order that were all part of the regime. All of this disorder feeds the insurgents, terrorists and militias.
Had we taken this into account, our planning for the post-war would have encompassed far more federal agencies from the outset, and they would have been mobilized to work with the military to introduce a free state version of the civil order that went away with Baathist rule. To date, the situation in Iraq still isn’t being addressed holistically. It’s still being addressed more as a war than as an effort to create a free nation from the ruins of a failed police state. You have to address security and community at the same time. Security obviously comes first, but right behind it the roots of civlization need to take hold and start growing. The military is tasked with security and rebuilding and it is doing both as well as it can, but it needs help from the rest of the government’s resources. For example, the Army’s civil affairs officers negotiate with locals over nearly every detail of daily local governance in pacified and transitioning areas. That work really would be better handled by non-military agencies, which would operate within the military’s security aegis but would not themselves be military officers. Housing and Urban Development might take on this work, or maybe a refitted Peace Corps (and yes, they’ll need extensive re-training in order to work in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq and get over their tendency to mistrust the military–Peace Corps types do tend to be liberals, after all). The military needs the intel that would result from this work, but doesn’t need to be in a position where its battle trained officers have to negotiate contract minutiae even while they have to keep a constant lookout for threats from Iraq’s lethal environment. Having to be warfighters and mayors at the same time greatly increases the stress of an already complex enviroment.
2. Leaving Iran alone. An intelligence officer in Iraq (not at Camp Justice), used the phrase “uninterrupted flow of weapons and ammunition” when I asked him how much Iran was influencing the violence in Iraq. The fact is, Iran has been sending more and more weaponry into Iraq in the past year to 18 months, and it has been assisting the insurgents and the militias (Shia and Sunni alike) in supplying what the Army calls “explosive force projectile” IEDs. These EFP-IEDs are easily hidden and incredibly destructive, and their construction is simply beyond the ability of the warring groups within Iraq. Iranian Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard trainers have been directly assisting and training the militias as well, making them more dangerous to the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi people and to our troops. Iran must be dealt with and it must be taken out of Iraq, or Iraq will remain a violent, lethal place for our troops and its people. As long as Iranian arms and expertise get into Iraq uninterrupted, Iraq will not become stable and our troops will have to remain there in large numbers. The Iranians want Iraq to remain unstable and they want us to have to keep a large force there dealing with the insurgents, terrorists and militias, which is why the ISG’s belief that chaos in Iraq is against Iran’s interests was met with such derision by the troops in Iraq. And believe me, it was.
3. Pullbacks and soft failures. Leaving Moqtada al-Sadr alive was a mistake, when we had him surrounded in 2004. According to an officer familiar with the 2004 siege that nearly ended Sadr’s life (this officer was not at FOB Justice), our troops were two rooms away from Moqtada during the seige when the order came from outside Iraq to leave him alive. The reason he was allowed to live remains a mystery to the troops in the field, and feeds the notion that they’re not being told all that they need to know to win this war. Sadr has grown as a threat from surviving his most direct confrontation with the world’s most potent military. He has also grown as a political force, though, and he still can pivot toward peaceful politics if he is wise enough to make that choice. So far, he’s proven unwise, and many people in Iraq have come to recognize it. The pullback from Fallujah likewise taught the insurgents and militia that we’re reluctant to settle scores and battle against direct challenges to our authority. Abu Ghraib continues to be a major public relations disaster, and is continually used to smear our good troops in the field every day by the left in the West and by the terrorist propagandists around the world. Abu Ghraib is one of many points upon which many on the left have made alliance with the terrorists, as they both use it to run a PR pincer attack against the US military. The fact that the military cleaned up the Abu Ghraib mess, and the fact that the terrorists themselves do worse things every day as part of their mainline strategy, doesn’t deter the left/terrorists in their continual Abu Ghraib-based attacks. Continuing to use Abu Ghraib by pundits in the west is unserious and reflects a basic ignorance of the fight; either that, or an alliance with the enemy.
4. Iraqi elections held too early. The triumph of the purple fingers was actually a failure, according to more than one Iraqi we spoke with. Iraq wasn’t yet ready for self rule and still isn’t. Its people hadn’t yet learned that radicalism is a road to their own destruction. They elected pro-Iranian Shia leadership that has proven weak against the Shia militias and has tilted heavily against the Sunni, to the point that the Sunni tend not to trust the national government. It’s difficult to see how the Iraqi government as it’s presently constructed can bring about national reconciliation, deal with the security threats and build up trust among all of Iraq’s various sectarian and ethnic groups.
5. Misunderstanding the fundamentals. War is about killing people and breaking things in order to achieve a political or existential/security objective. The Iraq war was about removing Saddam as a threat, and that mission was accomplished in 2003. We’ve been arguing over how much of a threat Saddam really was ever since, but the fact is that he’s dead and gone and no longer a threat, thanks to the 2003 invasion and successful campain against his forces.
The rest of the effort in Iraq has been about replacing the Baathist regime with something that won’t threaten us and won’t allow Iraq to become a breeding ground for terrorists with global reach, both to keep that security threat in check and to create in Iraq an example for the Middle East so that the region might become more free and thereby produce fewer terrorists. Those missions have also been accomplished or at least stand as being items we can currently check in the positive column. Calling Iraq a “civil war” misunderstands the nature of Iraq and the term “civil war.” Most of Iraq’s warring parties don’t have any chance at taking over the entire country and don’t seem interested in doing so. Most of them are reacting to the vaccuum of power since the iron grip of Saddam slipped off the country. Most of them are reacting to threats they perceive are either coming from the presence of foreign troops, or from the presence of Wahhabi-influence terrorists (al Qaeda) or from fellow Iraqis who belong to the other major sect of Islam, or from Iran. Most militia fighters would probably lay down their weapons if the overall environment improved, and by that I mean improvements in the basics: the economy and education as well as the security environment.
That said, we have also misunderstood the basics of Islamic and Iraqi culture. President Bush said in his second innaugural that all people want to be free and has based his war strategy on this idea. The truth seems to be much grayer than that; most people want to be free, but some people want to control the freedom of other people, and some people are perfectly content to farm our their decisions to others they perceive as authority figures. Additionally, the western definition of freedom doesn’t yet hold sway in places like Iraq whose contact with the west mostly consists of warfare or selling us oil. Underlying that, Islamic principles don’t foster individual freedom so much as they command modes of behavior, and that culture informs every single aspect of life in Iraq. An Iraqi federal police colonel who lives a very secular lifestyle underscored this to me when he said, in a meeting with US Army troops present, that if Ayatollah Sistani tells him to fight the Americans who are currently training his forces to take on the terrorists, then he will fight us. Islamic loyalty would trump common sense and any notion of freedom, since he knows full well that taking on the US Army would result in his own death and more destruction in his country.
6. Assuming Iraq will conform only to unreasonable expectations which are based on ignorance of counterinsurgency warfare. The troops in Iraq will tell you about three successful American occupations if you ask them–the Philippines, Japan and Germany. The latter two took five years to go from defeated enemy to ally, and decades after that before they really stood on their own feet. The Philippine insurgency took 8 years to quell and that country still has myriad problems that keep it from enjoying true First World status a century after the US put down its insurgency. Iraq is a far more complex place than either Japan, Germany or the Philippines and should therefore be expected to take longer to make the full transition to standalone state. But not knowing the history of America’s counterinsurgency operations has led us to want quick, clean victory where it just isn’t possible and never was.
7. Media misconduct and malpractice leading to flagging homefront morale. This one isn’t so much a mistake as just part of the modern world. The media is incurious, generally unethical in its approach to reporting Iraq and far more skeptical of the US military than it is of the insurgents, the militias and even the Iranians. The media hardly ever reports on victories in Iraq because the kinds of things that demonstrate real success just aren’t sexy, and perhaps because at their core they don’t believe in victory. It’s sexy to talk about US troops engaging insurgents on Haifa Street and killing every last one of them, but that’s not a real victory in the terms that govern the Iraq conflict. Street fights and reports about them play into the enemy’s hands, in fact. The media poo-poos events like the re-opening of schools in Iraq because as defined on American terms, re-opening a school doesn’t mean much at all. But in Iraq, the re-opening of a school represents a community in the end state of achieving normalcy. A community that has a functioning school also has a liveable level of security, it has functioning services like power and water and has families that aren’t so worried about local violence that they won’t send their children outside their homes. It means there are probably jobs in the area, and it means that those jobs give families a level of economic security where they can think about their children’s future. Re-opening a school in Iraq means civil society itself has returned to that school’s community. It’s a big deal. But the media doesn’t understand that and doesn’t care to, preferring to focus on combat operations and sectarian killings while it farms its daily reporting duties out to very dubious agents and stringers. The MSM’s methods in Iraq feed the insurgency’s propaganda needs and damage our efforts to win.
Having said all of this, Iraq is still very winnable. There are mistakes in every war. Iraq is a hideously complex environment to work in and its complexity has to be taken into account. Communities like Al Salam and Khadimiyah in Baghdad prove that at the end of the day most Iraqis value security and the chance to have a normal life above any notions of jihad and sectarianism, and we can work with most Iraqis to make their country safe. Most Iraqis want our troops there now, just not forever. Our troop morale is very high and they are focused on goals that they believe are attainable and will make Iraq stable. Most of the troops we spoke with support the surge; a minority don’t but it doesn’t seem to be a contentious issue. Democracy in Iraq probably won’t look like democracy here when the fight is over (and presuming that we here at home see it through), but if we correct our mistakes and change the media and political dynamics here, we can and should win. The price of failure is that Iraq would become a true hub for an al Qaeda that would see its “victory” in Iraq as Somalia times 100. Iraqi oil dollars would fuel this new terrorist power as long as Iraq’s oil infrastructure holds out. From secure bases in Iraq, the terrorists’ aims and capabilities would be practically limitless. Faith in America as a war ally would be shaken from Europe to Asian and everywhere else.
So whether we win ugly or pretty, we have to win. And we can.
Addendum: I’ve noticed a small amount of insurgent noise from a liberal for my claiming to have been on “patrol” Baghdad. I suppose it depends on one’s definition of patrol, but in one case we were on foot in a neighborhood that looked like it would make a very good sniperville, and during that long stroll Mahdi fighters briefly separated our group by driving right through our column on scooters. You see about half the Mahdi guys we saw in the photo above–I was a little slow on the draw with my video camera when they showed up out of nowhere. In another case, as I was standing in front of a mosque shooting video that’s relevant to this whole AP/Jamil Hussein story and keeping myself moving so snipers couldn’t draw a bead on me, two explosions went off less than 5 minutes apart, a few blocks from where I stood. The threat of IEDs and suicide attacks is constant, and nearly everywhere. We drove through a neighborhood that one of the officers described as “AQIZ”–al Qaeda. If that’s not “patrol” then call it something else, but insults are a bore. I won’t quibble over a word choice here and there and I’m not going to wander into the weeds with people who don’t seem to be interested in honest give and take. I figure it’s just someone’s petty way of attacking us for going over there and coming back with a shred of optimism. Or, more likely, because we’re conservative and we exist.