Pride and Progress
“We’re not going to shoot our way out of here.” If there is one message the U.S. Army wants a visitor to take away from a tour of Iraq, that’s it. The Pentagon isn’t looking to kill every single terrorist before U.S. soldiers withdraw. Rather, it defines success as completing a transition from a U.S.-led war to one in which the Iraqis assume responsibility for defending their own country.
Outside Iraq, there is widespread doubt about the competence and commitment of the new Iraqi armed forces. Their American trainers and advisers insist that the forces have made rapid and important progress.
I won’t pretend that a three-day visit qualifies me as any kind of expert on this emerging force. But here are some observations and reports from bases and training camps in the north and centre of the country, gleaned from conversations with U.S. and Iraqi officers:
1) The Iraqis are fighting. Iraqi forces have suffered 2,200 casualties in the past year—a figure that includes killed and wounded. Yet both recruitment and morale remain high. Not a single Iraqi soldier has been taken captive by insurgents. Nor has there been a case since January, 2005, of Iraqis leaving a battlefield without taking their dead and wounded with them.
2) American soldiers increasingly trust their Iraqi counterparts. American trainers are assigned to Iraqi forces often in very small teams, sometimes as individuals. Yet there has been no case of an Iraqi unit betraying an American to the insurgents. And no American serving with Iraqis has ever been captured by insurgents.
3) The trainers expect that the Iraqis will field as many as 10 divisions by the end of 2006, and that Iraqis will assume most of the work of patrol and security. As Iraqis replace Americans, the flow of information from locals to the security forces has quickened.
4) When asked, Iraqi political leaders say they want the Americans to leave—but not quite yet. Meanwhile, personal relationships between the Americans and their Iraqi military counterparts are obviously strong and close. I talked to one officer who had fought in the first Gulf War against the United States—in fact, he had led the only successful Iraqi operation of the whole war. Asked how he liked working alongside his former enemies, he grinned: “Much better now.”
5) If the Iraqi soldiers remain visibly a Third World army, the insurgents are not exactly the Viet Cong either. The old Saddam Hussein regime, terrified of its own people, issued its troops only three bullets a year for live-fire training. The result: Today’s insurgents are lousy shots. I spoke to one six-foot-five officer who told me of standing upright through a firefight at 100 yards. “You’d think they could hit a target my size,” he joked.
The kick of an AK-47 causes an untrained marksman to pull back on the gun and shoot over the head of his target. (I know: I tried.) On an automatic setting, an untrained marksman will end up spraying his bullets 20 to 30 feet into the air.
You hear a lot about the insurgents’ use of ambush and improvised explosive devices. These are terrifying and deadly weapons. But they are also weapons devised to compensate for the inability of the insurgents to survive in the open against even Iraqi forces, let alone American ones.
6) The coalition is suffering some bad publicity this week from the release of another round of Abu Ghraib photographs and the report of British beatings of prisoners in the South. It’s worth putting these abuses into the context of the determined—under the circumstances, amazing—humaneness with which most captured insurgents are treated. If wounded, they are rushed to U.S. field hospitals and treated on equal terms with wounded Americans and coalition forces. Under the laws of war, an Iraqi insurgent captured planting a bomb could legally be shot on the spot. Instead, after questioning they are handed over to the Iraqi judiciary for trial.
7) The Americans sincerely stand behind their commitment to Iraqi democracy. I talked to a senior officer who had led men—and lost men—in battle against the extremist Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. Asked how he felt about the possibility that al-Sadr might have a role in the new government, he answered: “It’s difficult for me, really difficult. But his party did win votes. And that’s democracy.”
Here’s something you don’t have to come to Iraq to appreciate: If an elected government can stabilize itself here—if an Iraqi army, overwhelmingly Muslim, can fight and defeat jihadist extremists—the victory will deliver a crushing blow to extremists everywhere. It’s significant, I think, that Iraqis have not mounted large demonstrations against the Danish cartoons. As a matter of fact, at a dinner served by an Iraqi-owned catering company, every plate came equipped with three pats of butter prominently labelled, “Product of Denmark.”
If, on the other hand, Iraq were to fail—if the insurgents pushed Iraq into chaos—the whole world would pay. I asked yet another U.S. officer: Why not just quit and withdraw? He answered, “These [jihadis] would follow us home.”
It matters desperately to each and every citizen of every democratic country that the Americans and the new Iraqi government succeed here. And it matters desperately to the brave men and women fighting here to know that the world supports their work. They are fighting to defend you too. Perhaps you could speak up for them?