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The Millennium War

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: A report from the Mesopotamian front.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By AUSTIN BAY
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OUR BLACKHAWK FLIGHT FROM VICTORY Base to Babylon packs 2,700 years of Iraqi history into a 100-kilometer dash at altitudes a cubit or so above the tallest date palms. Every Iraqi August day is a blowtorch by 1030 hours, and this morning is no exception. As I wait in the lead helicopter, sweat rolls from my helmet band and streaks down my face, soaking the cotton neck gaiter I use as a dust mask. For the umpteenth time in the last three months I promise I will never again damn summer in central Texas.

I'm flying with British Major-General Andrew Graham, the deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He has a briefing scheduled at Camp Alfa, also known as Babil, site of ancient Babylon but temporarily the headquarters of Multi-National Division-Center South.

As General Graham takes his seat on the other side of our Blackhawk, I hassle with my shoulder harness. Even when you've worn it for weeks, Kevlar body armor, especially with heavy ceramic inserts, always adds an odd wobble or width to your body, and right now my harness just doesn't want to bite snug and tight. General Graham gracefully snaps his seatbelt, checks his headphones and mike, and both our pilots nod. I think General Graham's amused at Colonel Bay's one-handed battle of the harness--there's a twinkle in his eye.

The Blackhawk engines reach that perfect whine, the scream of escape velocity, and the helicopter springs up and out--over the concrete walls and razor wire, over the construction sites, over the observation towers and Abrams tanks that separate the Coalition's base at the international airport from the rest of Baghdad's western neighborhoods.

As the helicopter banks, a snapshot panorama flashes by--a woman stands on a roof shaking a clothesline, delicate scaffolding surrounds a mosque's minaret, cars jam a wide boulevard. The weapons, the construction, the glimpse of clean laundry mark Iraq as it is in the late summer of 2004: a difficult, fascinating kaleidoscope of intermittent war and tenuous peace, of poverty amid economic progress, of new hope plagued by vicious terror. This thought crosses my mind, one of those thoughts I shouldn't have but do: Maybe Baghdad 2004's not so different from Manhattan on 9/11.

Fifteen minutes later, after a three-minute touchdown in Baghdad's Green Zone (renamed the International Zone) where two British diplomats board the trail copter, our air convoy skirts the edge of a sprawling industrial park, then once again crosses the Tigris River. We are now over Iraq's real Green Zone, the Green Zone of Mesopotamia, the date palms, goat herds, and networked canals connecting the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the waterways that seeded Abraham's Ur and Hammurabi's Babylon. This is Iraq's splendid history, a living echo of what the region was, the Eden of city-states, the consolidator and exporter of the Agricultural Revolution.

After another 10 minutes of low-level jinking to avoid potential ground fire, over the copilot's left shoulder a hill emerges from the haze. At a distance the white stone isn't so hideous, but as we near the landing zone, the palace playpen Saddam built on the mound above Babylon becomes the cruel marble kitsch it is.

The Blackhawks hover over Camp Alfa's landing zone. Sure, it's too hot and there's too much war, yet the poetry's right there: Saddam's mound begs comparison to a trunkless stone leg eroding in the desert. "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings," Shelley opined, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" I don't despair, I just get ready to exit the helicopter. Saddam's in jail, not in a romantic's poem. Unlike those of Shelley's despot, Saddam's victims aren't forgotten, nor, unfortunately, is his lousy architecture.

"END STATE," the poli-sci mavens call it--or, to add the potent adjective, strategic End State, the grand goal. Wherever the great King Ozymandias thought he was heading, Shelley described his statue's shattered visage, a fossil relic of arrogance. Arrogance remains an American enemy, the arrogance of thug elites who never believe they'll be held accountable for their crimes.

Here's an example that drew a sad laugh when a friend working with Special Operations recounted it during a briefing on August 24. Iraqi cops and Coalition force advisers arrested one Ahmad T. Tahir (also known as Mohammad Bogy) at the wake of a man Tahir had murdered on August 22. Tahir had ties to Saddam's regime, possibly serving as an enforcer for one of Saddam's intelligence services. When the Coalition forces arrived, Tahir tried to flee into his victim's house. When the police chased him he tried to hide behind the daughters and wife of his victim. The women then began slapping Tahir and pushing him forward toward the police and security troops, who proceeded to capture him. The women told the police that "[Tahir] didn't think we could do anything to him, and that's why he was here."

In street slang, Tahir/Mohammad Bogy, the killer, was strutting his stuff until Iraqi police backed by Green Berets jammed an assault rifle into his nose. Thug arrogance is all too common a feature of the world's hard corners, where the criminals have dominated for so long they are certain their iron wills and unmitigated violence will continue to cow all opponents. It's why the only way to beat the arrogant is to beat them and punch a rifle barrel into the cold amazement of their eyes. I state it crudely with good purpose, for this is a rubber-meets-the-road example of what scholarly strategists mean when they describe war as a clash of wills.

Until mid-April 2003, Mohammad Bogy's bosses, Saddam Hussein and his cadre of yes-men, believed they would once again survive an American-led attack, and personal survival (with a few billion in Swiss and Singaporean banks) is arguably the only End State that matters to a tyrant like Saddam. Dictators may work nationalist, tribalist, religious, or ideological angles, but the big goal is unbridled personal power and glory. Check the bricks in Babylon to confirm megalomania. Nebuchadnezzar placed bricks throughout the city proclaiming his glorious victory over the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. Saddam, like an anti-Disney, erected tasteless replicas of Babylon's walls, complete with facsimile copies of Nebuchadnezzar's brick boasts--the Saddam bricks substituting his name for Nebuchadnezzar's. It's more evidence of Saddam's most-desired strategic End State: to be history's supreme Mesopotamian potentate, the Great Leader who not only slew Jews to the west and Persians to the east, but once again made Baghdad the epicenter of the world.

A RELIGIOUS END STATE guides al Qaeda: an Islamist end, or eschatology, that marks the final completion of earthly history. These religious imperialists envision an empire of the faithful, the Caliphate restored, then expanded to planetary dimensions. Call it Islamofascist globalization: al Qaeda's definition of victory.

Given the blood the two have spilled in the pursuit of these visions, only a fool will sneer at Saddam and al Qaeda. In a very real way, both the despot and the Islamist imperialist are at war with modernity. The most successful modern political systems liberate human creativity--they are more open than closed, especially to the flow of information and to economic experimentation. A freed imagination ultimately demands a say in governance--which means the end of the tyrant. Recall bin Laden complained of "80 years of Muslim indignation and suffering," the result of Turkish reformer Kemal Atatürk's 1924 decision to end the caliphate. History, going wrong for Islamist expansionists since at least the 16th century, went totally tilt when the caliphate dissolved. Twenty-first century Islamist imperialists aim for global domination, with themselves as the sole interpreters and enforcers of what they deem God's laws. An open system is anathema to theological tyranny.

This means the despot and theo-fascist are at war with the United States, the embodiment of political modernity. Saddam knew this in February 1990 when he spoke in Amman, Jordan, and vaguely alluded to America's unchecked post-Cold War power. Bin Laden knew this when he declared war on the United States in 1996.

The criminal empire and the global caliphate are enemy End States. They are not mutually compatible--at some point these enemies of ours turn on each other. But anyone with experience in the developing world knows the Islamofascists feed off the unfortunate victims of the secular despots. Particularly in the Middle East, the peoples the secular despots rob and oppress supply the Islamofascists' new recruits. That makes it both a great mistake and a dangerous case of psychological denial to talk of Exit Strategy, when there is no exit from a war with such twinned enemies.

Let's stipulate that a world where America has the same sense of security it had on September 10, 2001, is a dream state--not an End State for the global war on terror. Technology is a culprit. Technology has compressed the planet, with positive effects in communication, trade, and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft, and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. September 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers--and the oceans were no obstacles. "Technological compression" is a fact; it cannot be reversed. To deny it or ignore it has deadly consequences.

One of the problems we face in defining what constitutes an American victory or acceptable End State in the global war on terror is the war's dirt-stupid name. One might as well declare war on exercise as declare war on terror, for terror is only a tactic used by an enemy. In this case the inept name has led to needless political confusion and loss of clarity about long-range goals.

In September 2001, I suggested we call this hideous conflict the Millennium War, a nom de guerre that captures both the chronological era and the ideological dimensions of the conflict. If there is one mistake we've made in fighting this war, it's the way we've soft-pedaled the ideological dimensions, and that soft-pedaling has blurred our goals. This really is a fight for the future, a battle between our free, open political system and the unholy alliance of despots and millenarian Islamofascists whose very existence depends on denying liberty.

Recognizing the ideological component as an essential feature of the war indicates the most desirable End State to the war would have two features: (1) democratic nations that police terrorism, instead of promoting it or seeding it; (2) an Islamic clerisy that understands its role on Earth is spiritual guidance and education, not temporal political control.

A large order? The task is absolutely huge, but so was World War II, when heavy history fell on "the greatest generation." It's this generation's turn to accept the challenge of building free nation states and protecting Muslim moderates, or we will face terrible destructive consequences.

THE POLISH OPERATIONS OFFICER briefing Major-General Graham ends his presentation with a discussion of Multi-National Division-Center South's plans for the upcoming Shia pilgrimage season. The Poles are working with Iraqi authorities. This is a modern war, an intricate war in which military, economic, cultural, and political elements intertwine. Handling bus traffic and pilgrims' parking issues has priority. Certainly, pilgrims are targets for terrorists; they are also customers and, as one of the briefers points out, tourists.

We leave the headquarters and walk to our motor convoy. A day earlier General Graham and I had been discussing Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his recent return to Najaf in the midst of Moktada al-Sadr's latest Mahdi Militia escapade. "Sistani is a living example of an apolitical Islamic clergyman," General Graham had said. "He specifically says his role is that of spiritual guide." I mention that to one of the Polish lieutenant-colonels walking with us. He nods in agreement. Sistani is the most influential Shia religious leader. Now with Saddam gone, his voice is free.

As we reach the vehicles one of the U.S. officers, Major John Hoppman, who works with me in the Corps plans section, asks me if we'll get to visit the ruins.

"Of course," I reply. "It's our turn to be tourists."

Babylon was an old-style military empire that attacked its neighbors, then ruled them by force. Our contemporary world is filled with petty empires that differ very little from Babylon, fake states where gangs or tribal clans rule by oppression, not consensus. In too many hard corners of our planet the foundation for a modern state never formed, but the trappings--capital, an army, a seat in the U.N., IMF loans--can be acquired. Legitimate authority? Rule of law? Forget it. The bayonet to the throat remains the only process for establishing authority, making "sovereignty" within Rand McNally borders a constantly contested notion. In such tribal, feudal, and anarchic quarters, lip service may be paid to common humanity, but the implementation of laws protecting basic human rights is rare.

For centuries the fake nation-states didn't matter too much. Tribal battles remained local horrors. Not any more. Enforcing local dictatorial control with arrows or assault rifles is one thing--but now the rogue rulers use nerve gas. With ballistic missiles at hand, with terrorists willing to fly commercial jets into skyscrapers, rogues' possession and use of chemical weapons is no longer a local matter: Technological compression means a local war can become a global war. We learned, at a terrible price, that Islamofascist plotting in Afghanistan produces terrorist crime in New York and Washington. To return to an era where distance made a difference requires ditching essential technology. Ban the Internet? Ban the 747? Ban satellite television?

This is why the End State in Iraq matters, and why there is no Exit Strategy from the task in Mesopotamia.

Iraq, long plundered by despots, should be a wealthy country. It has water, an agricultural base, a source of capital (oil), and people willing to work. It is the best place to begin to reform the dysfunctional political systems that shackle and rob the vast majority of Middle Easterners. Success in Iraq would create conditions to break the region's endless cycle of robbery and violence. It would also force angry Middle Eastern Muslims to finally confront the inadequacies of their own societies instead of blaming Europe, the United States, and Israel for their centuries of fossilization and decline.

What are the features of this ideal Iraqi End State? It would be democratic and prosperous, capable of providing its own internal security and of deterring external threats. This is a tall order, and we should not underestimate the difficulty of achieving it.

Perhaps some of the war's architects and supporters thought achieving a democratic End State in Iraq would be a snap. Not everyone did. In an essay just two years ago, I described what the transition to peace would be like:

Pity General Tommy Franks or, for that matter, any American military commander tasked with overseeing a post-Saddam Baghdad. For in that amorphous, dicey phase the Pentagon calls "war termination," . . . U.S. and allied forces liberating Iraq will attempt--more or less simultaneously--to end combat operations, cork public passions, disarm Iraqi battalions, bury the dead, generate electricity, pump potable water, bring law out of embittering lawlessness, empty jails of political prisoners, pack jails with criminals, turn armed partisans into peaceful citizens, re-arm local cops who were once enemy infantry, shoot terrorists, thwart chiselers, carpetbaggers, and black marketeers, fix sewers, feed refugees, patch potholes, get trash trucks rolling, and accomplish all this under the lidless gaze of Peter Jennings and Al Jazeera.

What I missed was the amount of money Saddam had squirreled away to keep the pot boiling and test U.S. will through time. Oil For Food and other scams gave the tyrant a bankroll. I expected al Qaeda or its avatars to show up in Iraq--in fact, that's one of the sotto voce goals for waging war in the heart of the Middle East, to fight Islamofascism on its home turf. Prior to 9/11, with little pressure on its hidden network, al Qaeda could take its time to spring a vicious surprise attack--surprise and visionary viciousness being its strengths and the gist of its "asymmetric" challenge to America's "symmetric" power. "Fear us, America," was the message, "because al Qaeda chooses the time and place of battle, and when we do you are defenseless."

The essence of strategic art is to force an enemy to fight on your terms, not his, and ideally in a fight he cannot refuse. The U.S.-led attack on Iraq changed al Qaeda's battlefield. Sunni-extremist al Qaeda has had to fight in a predominantly Shia country. Arab elitists in al Qaeda snubbed the Afghans and ticked them off; Kurds know the feeling.

Zarqawi's al Qaeda clan accepted the battle. Zarqawi's network has been hit and hit hard. We've learned a lot about al Qaeda funding and recruiting, but Zarqawi hasn't been destroyed. Something that has been destroyed is the notion that al Qaeda's extremism dominates Islam. The idea that waging jihad against the West is easy has also been exposed as a lie. These are ideological defeats for al Qaeda, but the Bush administration--soft-pedaling the ideological conflict--has failed to exploit them politically and psychologically.

The continuing combat in Iraq is thus not only the result of slapdash postwar planning, but of two strategic aims that will take years to mesh: (1) engage al Qaeda on a battlefield it did not choose in order to destroy its eschatological claims, and (2) plant a modern, secular Arab state in the Middle East that will ultimately seal al Qaeda's defeat. The Iraqi people remain in the crossfire of Saddamite resistance, al Qaeda terror, and Coalition firepower.

What are the acceptable End States in Iraq? In an essay he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in August, Iraq's interim prime minister Iyad Allawi identified three keys to success in Iraq: (1) security and the rule of law, (2) a prosperous economy, and (3) an "inclusive, collaborative" political system. To achieve it will take years of low-level warfare and continuing security assistance from the United States even after the New Iraq begins to manage its own domestic security. No administration of whatever political stripe should think otherwise.

Another acceptable End State would be what a friend called "a too strong, bulldog Iraq." Don't dismiss the notion out of hand. Here are the attributes: "New Iraq" decides to rearm for offensive capability--and the French or Russians sell it weapons. Angry at perceived Syrian, Iranian, or Saudi interference, a brave new Iraqi government turns to regional assertiveness as a way of solidifying domestic support. The United States could live with this End State, but it would seriously frustrate attempts to spur political evolution in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A far less acceptable End State would be a "gentle" dictatorship in Iraq, an authoritarian regime that did not threaten the region but held Iraq together by force and smashed civil opposition in the name of domestic security. This would be an ideological defeat for the United States, the defeat salved if this New Iraq were an effective counterterror partner in the region. Early Coalition withdrawal, whatever the reason, would make this End State more likely.

The last acceptable End State, but one that further frustrates long-term American goals, is the oft-debated tripartite Iraq, with Kurdistan in the north, Shia-stan in the south, and Baath-istan in the Sunni Triangle and Al Anbar Province. This would be a dangerous mosaic, but for the sake of oil revenues the Baathists would have to police al Qaeda. Kurds and Shia areas would also destroy al Qaedaites.

Defeatists and cynics will argue it's too late for the United States to wage the Millennium War on ideological grounds. This ignores the fact that this war is ideological in its deepest origins.

Afghanistan is the guide. Afghanistan's October 9 presidential election was the most significant election in 2004. Obviously, it was significant for the people of Afghanistan, but it was significant too for the forgotten, trampled, robbed, and oppressed people suffering in Earth's various tyrannies--those who do long for freedom's fairer shake. The successful election was also a major step toward victory for the civilized world. This Millennium War is as much a war against fear, poverty, and anarchy as it is a war against the petty tyrants who harbor and sustain terrorists. The 8 million Afghans who voted, despite terror threats from al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts, rejected fear. The Afghan people acted, ignoring death threats made by religious fascists, the destruction wrought by 30 years of war, and the lack of "a modern transportation and communication infrastructure" (i.e., roads and telephones).

The Afghan people understand that democracy and the rule of law are the keys to modernity as well as the foundations of a more just society, and they made a public statement about their own hopes for the future. It's a future where the governed have a legal voice. It's a future where the rule of law replaces the whim of the tyrant imposed by force. The Afghan vote exemplifies the "ballot" component of the U.S. global strategy of bullets, money, and ballots. The bullets are combat and security operations. The money is financial, reconstruction, and development aid. The ballot is shorthand for fostering consensus-based governmental institutions and reinforcing the rule of law.

The Afghan presidential election is another loud shout for freedom. The Afghan people, in astounding numbers, went to the polls when they were given the opportunity--the first time in history they had the chance.

MAJOR HOPPMAN and I lag behind one of the British commandos in General Graham's personal security detachment. It's 1300 hours and heat bakes Babylon's walls. At least we don't have to wear our armor inside the ruins, which is some relief.

We pass one of Saddam's fake-Nebuchadnezzar bricks, and I point it out to John. "Snap a picture, sir?" he asks.

"Naw, let's catch up," I reply.

Then we pass a large, restored door, a portal. The portal perfectly frames the hill with Saddam's squat pleasure dome.

"This is a picture, Colonel Bay," John says.

With a broad sweep I pull my patrol cap off my head and point it toward the palace, like a carnival barker introducing a freak.

"Great shot sir. Do it again."

"I really think that place is hideous," I said. "Building it damaged the ruins. No way it didn't."

"It's sure there," John says.

I put my hat back on. "Yeah, so we deal with it, huh? I'll tell you something, though. When someone turns that palace into a luxury hotel, you'll know we're well on our way to victory."

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and U.S. Army Reserve officer who served in Iraq from May through September 2004. His most recent novel is The Wrong Side of Brightness.