Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An assessment and recommendation from troops in Baghdad

Three days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece about Iraq written by a group of people who have current, firsthand knowledge of what is happening. They are: Army Specialist Buddhika Jayamaha, Army Sergeant Wesley D. Smith, Army Sergeant Jeremy Roebuck, Army Sergeant Omar Mora, Army Sergeant Edward Sandmeier, Army Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray, and Army Staff Sergeant Jeremy A. Murphy. They are U.S. Army soldiers coming to the end of a 15-month deployment in Iraq. In other words, this op-ed piece was written not by some pundit or politician or smart-ass lawyer in Texas. It was written by people who have been there, people who have lived there, people who have fought there, people who are members of our military. So anyone who claims to support our troops can do so by listening to these soldiers.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the op-ed:
VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.
And that just gives the general picture. The details counter almost all of the spin from the Bush administration. For instance:
Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
So much for "When the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

These soldiers also address the possibilities for a "political solution." Everyone agrees that a political solution is key to "success" in Iraq (and I will remind all the Democrats that in the 2004 campaign Wes Clark was the first candidate to discuss this and point out that the Bush administration was failing to use a comprehensive approach to Iraq...yes, I am still bitter about how Clark was ignored and mistreated by his own party), but these soldiers explain why the realities on the ground make such a solution unlikely.
The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.
In other words, a political solution will be something that is beyond our control, and the way in which it is achieved and the immediate and ongoing consequences are likely not going to be things that meet American approval and interests. And that means that "success" for America might not ever happen.

And any chance we might have ever had at success (and I still maintain that such a result was near impossible from the start and there was plenty of evidence of that before the war) has been squandered by the criminal incompetence of the Bush administration. The following assessment from the op-ed supports my opinion:
At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”
Like I have said before, building and painting schools was no substitute for providing water, electricity, and jobs. And like I have detailed repeatedly, the Bush administration did nothing before the war and in the time after the declaration of "mission accomplished" to see that these basic needs would be provided.

The op-ed concludes with a prediction and a recommendation for policy. I just hope that The Decider is paying attention.
In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.


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