Nervous in Baghdad
From the July 25, 2005 issue: Do Americans have the will to stay the course?
Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By AUSTIN BAY
Why? I asked. Why is that? Why the rank negativism? We were standing under a camou net, waiting for the Iraqi police brigadier now charged with directing Iraqi security operations in Falluja. Abizaid had taken off his helmet, and passed it to one of his aides. "Here's how I answer that. The Arabs see the Iraqis taking control of their own lives. And I see that. I see that every day. The fact is you have Iraqi leaders and soldiers who go out and face it [the insurgency] every day. The Iraqis have been fighting and dying at a rate three to four times greater than ours, so I wouldn't sell them short."
But what do you say to someone who says nothing has changed?
"The center of friction is now somewhere west of Baghdad. Last year I would have said it was Baghdad. It's moved from Baghdad, west. Into Al Anbar" province, toward the Syrian border. "We're squeezing them more and more. It's clear from the intel that Zarqawi is under pressure. Al Qaeda is under pressure everywhere. The main problem [in Iraq] is the Sunni Arab community coming into the political process, and that takes patient military and political skills."
Patient, he said. We have no patience, I thought. Washington, D.C., and cable news have no patience. Our own ridiculous, catered-to generation, General, has little patience for anything except capital gains, and maybe that's too generous a statement. If the Big Mac is two minutes late, Boomers, be they left or right, get pissed. I thought that--but I didn't say any of it. In part I didn't say it because it's not totally true. I know way too many exceptions--some who have wised up, and some who have borne the burdens of real-world responsibility and bad history from the get-go. So I didn't shoot my mouth.
"Al Anbar is two to three years behind the rest of Iraq in terms of development," General Abizaid went on. "The final battle of the Iraqi insurgency will be fought here. Maybe by Iraqi forces alone." Then he added: "In conservative Sunni neighborhoods you will find restaurants named Al Falluja. Falluja has become a symbol for fighting Western Crusaders."
Even when Falluja is policed by Iraqis?
In this part of the world, Abizaid nodded, "they'd just as soon have [their] Sunni extremists go to Al Anbar and get killed. [The deal is] let your problem be somebody else's."
What's the Iraqi Army going to be like, in two or three years?
"Do not think you will make the Iraqi Army into a U.S. Marine Corps or U.S. Army or French Army or British Army," Abizaid replied. "They will be an Iraqi Army, capable of defending their country. That's what they're training for, that's what they're going to be."
As if on cue a staff officer signaled. The Iraqi police brigadier--wearing a nifty SWAT-style flak vest--had arrived.
OCEANS STILL SPAWN HURRICANES, but they don't stop ICBMs or terrorists. On 9/11 al Qaeda demonstrated that what the World War I generation called "over there" is nowadays very close to "back here." America--according to its enemies--is everywhere, but a computer keystroke finds al Qaeda, Chinese spam, Nigerian scams, North Korean agitprop, Bhutanese rug prices, and Sudan's hideous genocide in Darfur. An airline ticket, a sick tourist, and 22 hours moves the Asian flu from Bangkok to Denver. The upscale phrase is "technological compression," but the down-to-Earth 21st century fact is all of us live next door.
Unfortunately, many politicians and journalists still habitually live by 20th-century templates. Newsweek certainly thought "the snake's there and we're here" when it ran its notorious "Koran flushing" anecdote, sparking deadly riots in Pakistan. Two other templates were also in play then: the Vietnam and the Watergate templates. Vietnam and Watergate for three decades have provided the New York-Washington-L.A. media axis with convenient--if reductive--headlines. The Vietnam and Watergate rules are simple and cynical. Rule One: Presume the U.S. government is lying--especially when the president is a Republican. Rule Two: Presume the worst about the U.S. military--even when the president is a Democrat. Rule Three: Allegations by "Third World victims" are presumptively true, while U.S. statements are met with arrogant contempt.
When will the media figure this out: Al Qaeda and its cohorts are strategic information powers and little else. "The terrorists have yet to win an engagement above the platoon level," Gen. Abizaid said as we flew from Qatar to Iraq. I mean, a C-17 is loud, but the man said it with exacting clarity. Terrorist bombs are made for TV, and terrorist beheadings are made for the Internet. Here's a radical thought, politically incorrect, incorrect in terms of TV ratings but still strategically correct and correct in terms of defending liberal values: Winning the global war against Islamist terror ultimately means curbing the terrorists' strategic combat power, and that means ending the media magnification of their bombs.
I remember a very early morning in July 2004, still on active duty, when I realized this was the case. I walked into the coalition's Joint Operations Center in Al Faw Palace, Baghdad, and took a seat in the back of the tiered amphitheater. A huge plasma screen draped the front wall, like a movie theater screen, divided into ceiling-high panels capable of displaying multiple computer projections. A viewer could visually hopscotch from news to weather to war. The biggest display, that morning and every morning, was a spooling date-time list describing scores of military and police actions undertaken over the last dozen hours. The succinct, acronym-packed reports flowed like haikus of violence: "0331: 1/5 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division, arrests suspects after Iraqi police stop car"; "0335 USMC vicinity Falluja engaged by RPG, returned fire. No casualties."
The spool spun on and on, and I remember thinking: I know we're winning. We're winning because--in the big picture--all the opposition (Saddam's thugs and Zarqawi's al Qaeda) has to offer is the tyranny of the past. But the drop-by-drop police blotter perspective obscures that.
Collect relatively isolated events in a chronological list and presto: the impression of uninterrupted, widespread violence destroying Iraq. But that was a false impression, even in July 2004. Every day, coalition forces were moving thousands of 18-wheelers from Kuwait and Turkey into Iraq. If the insurgents were lucky they blew up one. However, flash the flames of that one rig on CNN and, "Oh my God, America can't stop these guys," is the impression left from Boise to Beijing.
Another memory of those days. I remember running into Col. Sam Palmer in the Al Faw Palace in May 2004. Sam served as the Corps's C-9, in charge of Civil Affairs (economic assistance and civil-military relations). Sam looked tired--looked, heck, he was beat, with the dark rims of 20-hour days circling his eyes.
"Here's one of the things a strategic policy guy like you, Austin, is going to see immediately. We're whipsawed by the U.S. political cycle," meaning the elections. "Somehow we've got to get a stable policy--something that will help see us through the economic and political development phases of this war."
June 2005--back in the Al Faw Palace, this time for an interview with Lieutenant General John Vines, the commander of XVIIIth Airborne Corps. We're in the corps commander's office, on the second floor. Another reporter asks Vines the gut question: "The loss of national will. Does that [possibility] scare you?"
"Truthfully, yes," Gen. Vines says. Vines had just briefed us on Operation Lightning, an Iraqi and U.S. effort in and around Baghdad. "At least half of that operation [in June] was planned and executed by Iraqi MOD [Ministry of Defense] and MOI [Ministry of Interior] troops, [operating] along with the 3rd ID [Third U.S. Infantry Division]." The Iraqi troops "coordinated. Believe it or not, bureaucracies in the United States don't coordinate among themselves. The Iraqis have gone a long way to deciding who has [security] responsibilities in Baghdad. MOI has the lead inside Baghdad, MOD outside. . . . Iraqi tactical capability is adequate." The issue is "their ability to sustain it."
"The real measure is not military but political. The insurgency won't be defeated through the barrel of a weapon but through a political process."
Yes, I thought, and that's also the only thing that can defeat America.
WHEAT AND ELECTIONS--to grow wheat and hold straight elections requires security. In a world with jumbo jets and the Internet, economic productivity, popular sovereignty, and mutual security aren't the products of mere nation-building; they require planet-building.
"There is so much to do, so much still to do," Jdhooshi said. No kidding. The Bush administration has had extraordinary successes in the field. It's pursuing "The Big Win"--a strategy designed to create a secure, 21st-century international order that will allow open societies to operate without fear of WMDs or IEDs.
Consider the enemy--and let him speak for himself. The November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh stunned the civilized world. His killer, a second-generation Arab immigrant named Mohammed Bouyeri, shot van Gogh, stabbed him, then slit the filmmaker's throat. Bouyeri left a five-page letter on the body that said "there will be no mercy for the wicked, only the sword will be raised against them" and promised to destroy Holland, the United States, and Europe.
At his trial in July 2005, Bouyeri testified to his own depravity and the jihadists' sociopathology. "I acted out of conviction and not out of hate," Bouyeri told the court. "If I'm ever released, I'd do the same again. Exactly the same. . . . The law [sharia] instructs me to chop off the head of everyone who insults Allah or the prophet." He also told van Gogh's mother: "I don't feel your pain."
Bouyeri is a 9/11 jihadist--the kind of religious nihilist who, given half a chance, will fly a 767 into a skyscraper. His crime is a European example of how the "murder tool" is used by political and religious reactionaries to thwart moderate voices throughout the Middle East. For decades Arab moderates have complained that they literally live under the gun, fearing reprisal and death. I've heard that personally from Palestinians and Syrians--and Iraqis during Saddam Hussein's reign.
How do you stop a man like Bouyeri in a world where oceans mean so little? You pull his gun away from the heads of those he threatens.
The Bush administration's reaction to 9/11--specifically, its strategic decision to go on offense--has been the right thing in spades: Take the gun from the hands of tyrants and terrorists. Defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed al Qaeda's claim of "divine sanction" for its international war. Removing Saddam Hussein began the reconfiguration of the politically dysfunctional Arab Middle East--a dangerous, expensive process, but one that will give moderates the chance to build states where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not protected.
Progress in this war has been hard to follow for a reason. The Bush administration hates the Washington press corps, and vice versa. If hate is a verb-too-far then substitute "fundamentally distrusts." The Washington press corps reflects the ethos of the national press, and that ethos is left-liberal Democrat. No, this "press" isn't a monolith; yes, competition breeds a kind of diversity, but since Tet 1968 and Richard Nixon's election Republicans haven't gotten a fair shake from the New York-Washington-L.A. media axis (even though Tet occurred during a Democratic administration). Niggle over individuals, pull this stray story from that odd report, but the weight of evidence is heavy.
For the strategic good of the United States, and global liberty in general, however, this poisoned White House-press relationship may prove to be a huge problem. Al Qaeda's jihadists plotted a multigenerational war. In the early 1990s our enemies began proselytizing London and New York mosques and in doing so began planting cadres throughout the world. Even if Washington leads a successful global counterterror war, many of these cadres will unfortunately turn gray before it's over. That means a multiadministration war, which means bridging what my friend Sam Palmer (a genuine liberal warrior, God bless him) identified as the whipsaw of the U.S. political cycle.
The Bush administration has not done that--at least not in any focused and sustained fashion. My mother predicted this. December 2001: Mom phoned and said she remembered being a teenager in late 1942 and tossing a tin can on a wagon that rolled past the train station in her hometown of Plainview, Texas--a World War II scrap metal drive. She knew that the can she tossed didn't add much to the war effort, but she felt that in some small, token, but very real way, she was contributing to the battle.
"The Bush administration is going to make a terrible mistake if it does not let the American people get involved in this war. Austin, we need a war bond drive. This matters, because this is what it will take."
She was right then, and she's right now. Early on the Bush administration failed to tap the great reservoir of political willingness 9/11 generated. Would the national press and academic left have called a "Democracy Bond" or a "Security and Development Bond" drive corny? Of course they would have--but so what? Clothing drives for Afghan refugees? Maureen Dowd might have snarked at that, but again, so what?
Administration officials did preach a bit, but the sermon was too cheery: America needed to maintain a strong economy to sustain the war effort. That was tied to tax cut programs to fight recession. It should have been tied to an optional check-off on the IRS 1040: "Buy a Security Bond with $50 of your tax money." The money would have been better spent than the optional bucks dedicated to federal elections.
The White House has also soft-pedaled the paradox in America's Middle East strategy: Political and economic success in the Middle East inevitably attracts terrorists. You can almost hear the flummoxed questions in the White House briefing room: "You mean you're going to go there to build a new country but also attract bad guys?"
Well, yes. The bad guys aren't stupid. They know wheat and elections are their death knell. Al Qaeda's biggest recruiting tool was--and is--the political failure of the Arab world. In this dysfunctional world, tyranny and terror reinforce one another, with the people the inevitable victims. If this war is going to be won it must be fought in the heart of the Middle East.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi believes it. Z-Man said as much in his captured message to al Qaeda in February 2004. After Iraqis run their own government, U.S. troops will remain, Zarqawi's message said, "but the sons of this land will be the authority. . . . This is the democracy. We will have no pretexts." Iraq's new army and police will link with the people "by lineage, blood and appearance."
Al Qaeda still fears an American and Iraqi strategic victory--a democracy defending itself against terrorists. This would be a huge victory, not only for the United States but for Arab and Muslim prestige.
Strategy is always about applying one's own strength to an opponent's weakness. Al Qaeda's historical pattern is to wait patiently, for years if necessary, and carefully prepare a terror operation until it's certain of success. Prior to 9/11, with little pressure on its hidden network (succored by the Taliban, Wahhabi petrodollars, worldwide fundraising, and, yes, Iraq), 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 strategic ambush of 9/11 sought to force America to fight on al Qaeda's terms, to suck the United States into a no-win Afghan war, to bait the United States into launching a "crusade against Islam." Osama bin Laden believed he possessed an edge in ideological appeal, "faith-based" strength against what he perceived as U.S. decadence. U.S. failure in Afghanistan would ignite a global "clash of civilizations" pitting all Muslims against America.
Bin Laden's strategy flopped, for a slew of reasons. Chief among them, liberty remains an ideologically powerful idea. The United States also pulled an "asymmetric" military move of sorts, using Green Beret-guided Afghan allies and high-tech airpower to topple the Taliban.
Since the loss of its Afghan base, al Qaeda has experienced extraordinary pressure. Time to plan is squeezed. The United States has used diplomacy, police work, better intel, and its military presence to exert the pressure. Al Qaeda has attempted to adapt, without apparent success, by using a sleeper cell strategy while aggressively attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Which leads to the subject of U.S. military action against Iraq and its role in defeating al Qaeda. The American presence in Iraq serves as a baited trap that al Qaeda cannot ignore. Failure to react would demonstrate al Qaeda's impotence. For the sake of their own reputation (as well as any notion of divine sanction), al Qaeda's cadres must show CNN and Al Jazeera they are still capable of dramatic endeavor.
Toppling Saddam and bringing the hope of democracy to the Middle East strategically changed al Qaeda's "timelines." Time is now turned against al Qaeda, in the form of a new Iraqi army, in the political shape of a new, pluralistic Iraqi government--examples of what General Abizaid calls "Iraqis taking control of their own lives."
So al Qaeda has come to Iraq to fight. Building a New Iraq and defeating those who would destroy it is the grand strategy--but the Bush administration didn't make that case explicit. It "suggested" this case but shied away from making it the center of its public diplomacy. In retrospect that was a long-term political mistake.
IS THE PLAN REALIST or is it utopian? The realpolitik maestros of George H.W. Bush's administration were horrified by the prospect of nation-building. Bush I discouraged post-Soviet Ukraine's democratic aspirations. Moscow needed time to lick its wounds. In the wake of Desert Storm, when the Shias revolted in southern Iraq, American forces stood pat, and Saddam's Republican Guard slaughtered them en masse. Sure, the U.N. deal had only authorized removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but Resolution 687--which halted Desert Storm--also demanded fair treatment of Iraq's Shias and Kurds. The mass murder of Shias was a huge moral and political dilemma, and Bush I opted for a minimal response: air umbrellas over northern and southern Iraq.
The Clinton administration talked the talk of international development. But Haiti proved to be a hollow gesture. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton criticized Bush I for indecisiveness in the Balkans, specifically Bosnia. The Clinton administration then proceeded to dither. Its covert support of Croatia against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia proved to be successful, culminating in August 1995's Operation Storm, which drove Serbian forces from the Krajina and back into eastern Bosnia. But the covert program came too late for savaged Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The Clinton administration's greatest act of liberation--Kosovo--was a war fought without U.N. approval. America acted to stop a war in Europe from spreading, a war with ethnic and religious dimensions. The United States acted to defend European Muslims.
All of this was too much for Republican "realists," until 9/11 made it clear that economic and political development--the expansion of the sphere of economically and politically liberal states--was key to America's 21stcentury security. What Al Toffler called the "slow" and "fast" worlds became the Pentagon's world of "gaps" and "cores," or "disconnected" and "connected" regions. Afghanistan was slow, gappy, and disconnected. It attracted international terrorists. Somalia was slow, gappy, and disconnected. "Gaps" with Muslim populations were the most critical, but "disconnected" dictators in Zimbabwe or Myanmar also provided haven to terrorists in exchange for cash.
Cain asked God if he was his brother's keeper. The message of 9/11: In the 21st century you darned well better be.
I remember Bishop Desmond Tutu's visit in 1984 to my church on New York City's Upper West Side. Bishop Tutu had been there for a month, using our church as a base for his forays to the U.N. and elsewhere. At tea time after church he had the usual klatch around him, but this morning's subject was economic aid to Africa. I said that corruption was a huge problem and he agreed. I told him I thought the churches did a better job of delivering effective development aid because they avoided corrupt governments. Tutu confirmed that with a nod, and took another sip of tea. "The best way is if we can directly link people, you know, in the U.S., in the West, to individuals in developing nations."
"So how do you do it?" Bishop Tutu asked. "How do you do it?"
And that is still the big challenge. After 9/11, realists confronted a reality that demanded idealism. Global development--and that includes the development of democratic legal systems capable of controlling corruption--is in the direct security interest of the United States.
THE BAGHDAD OF JUNE 2005 is not the Baghdad I left in September 2004. The piles of bricks around Iraqi homes are a positive sign. Nothing bespeaks faith in a middle-class future like home remodeling. Downtown cranes sprout over city-block-sized construction projects. The negatives are all too familiar--terror bombs and the slaughter of Iraqi citizens.
Last July I saw six Iraqi National Guardsmen manning a position beneath a freeway overpass. It was the first time I had seen independently deployed Iraqi forces. Now, I see senior Iraqi officers in the hallways of Al Faw Palace conducting operational liaison with U.S. and coalition forces. I hear reports of the Iraqi Army conducting independent street-clearing and neighborhood search operations. Brigadier Gen. Karl Horst, assistant division commander of U.S. Third Infantry Division, told me about one Iraqi battalion's success on the perennially challenging Haifa Street.
In February of this year, under the direction of an Iraqi colonel, Muhammad Faiq Raouf, the battalion drove terrorists from this key Baghdad drag. Last year, Haifa Street was a combat zone where U.S. and Iraqi security forces showed up in Robo-Cop garb--helmets, armor, Bradleys, armored Humvees. Horst told me that he and his Iraqi counterpart now have tea in a sidewalk cafe along the once notorious boulevard. While I was in Baghdad, troops from "Colonel Muhammad's" battalion rescued Australian hostage Douglas Wood.
"Muhammad is a real live Iraqi hero," Horst told me. "He's also had 43 death threats, and counting."
Is Colonel Muhammad's unit one of those Iraqi units Lieutenant General Vines says plans its own missions? I asked.
"Absolutely," Horst replied.
During the house-to-house search that led to Wood's rescue, a U.S. unit in the Third Infantry Division was in a supporting role, but the Iraqis planned and led the operation.
How many Iraqi battalions work like Colonel Muhammad's? Here's my guess, based on what I've gleaned from my best military sources: As of June 2005 there were a half-dozen Iraqi Army battalions capable of running their own operations. But that's a vast improvement over the zero that existed in July 2004. (I do not include the 36th Commando Battalion in this mix--that elite unit was a very effective force already in 2004.) Yes, Iraqis and Americans are still paying for the biggest mistake we made in this war: disbanding the Iraqi Army. The trick will be to use these capable nuclei to build a larger, sustainable force. My bet is that the Iraqis will pull it off. By the end of 2006 the Iraqis plan to have 250,000 troops and policemen in uniform.
But they won't if America wilts, and our weakness is back home, in front of the TV, on the cable squawk shows, on the editorial pages, in the political gotcha games of Washington, D.C. There, it seems America just wants to get on with its Electra-Glide life, that September 10 sense of freedom and security, without finishing the job. The U.S. military is fighting, the nascent Iraqi military is fighting, the Iraqi people are fighting, but where is the American political class?
Bullets go bang, and so do ballots in their own way. In terms of this war's battlespace, the January Iraqi elections were World War II's D-Day and Battle of the Bulge combined. But the bricks--the building of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other hard corners where this war is and will be fought--that's a delicate and decades-long challenge.
Given the vicious enemy we face, five years, perhaps fifteen years from now, occasional bullets and bombs will disrupt the political and economic building. That is the way it will be if we are successful. "There is so much to do," Jdhooshi said, "so much still to do."
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.