Last week, I went to Iraq to search for John Murtha’s army. You know: the one he described as “broken, worn out,” and “living hand to mouth.” Thanks to the help of some friends in low places, I met with a lot of the troops and almost all of the commanders around Baghdad and at Camp Fallujah. Murtha was not just wrong, but damnably wrong. And so, unsurprisingly, is Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, who declared the war unwinnable.
I promised to bring back as many of the facts as I could. Here are the two most important ones: First, we are winning this war. Second, as the operations in Iraq enter their fourth year, our forces are beginning to suffer the problems that a prolonged conflict creates.
None of the soldiers I spoke to — Army or Marine — was happy about being in Iraq. Some were there for the third year-long tour, a big strain on their families. One senior officer from the 4th I.D. told me about one of his favorite young warriors, a captain, who he said was “enormously adaptable and capable.” But the captain had been on one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq in his five years of service. The result? “He’s no longer married.” That’s the kind of wound even the best docs can’t mend. The 3rd I.D. is close to finishing its second tour in Iraq next month, and the men are more than ready to head home. One senior sergeant from the 3rd I.D. told me the coming rotation home would mark the end of his second tour in Iraq this time around. (He’d been there before, in the 1991 Gulf War.) There are already rumors that the division will come back again after only ten months at home. He said, “We need a bigger army to do this much longer.” And he’s probably right. But he, like all the others, agreed on one important point.
All the men I spoke to (and, yes, the women as well) didn’t believe this job was over. They have committed themselves to the war, and expect their commitment to be matched at home. Frustrated? Yes. Tired? Sure. Broken? Don’t believe it for one microsecond. Living hand to mouth? Oh, please. Everyone I spoke to — officer and enlisted — said they had everything they need, and get more for the asking. Take Noah Sheridan of Indianapolis, a mechanic. His job is vehicle maintenance. His orders are to not fix broken down Humvee engines. Noah and his buds rip an old one out, grab a new one from a seemingly endless supply, put it in, and the vehicle is out of their shop in 8 or 9 hours on a good day. (Noah said — and I think he was bragging a little — that they could do a transmission in about as short a time.)
Is our army broken? Not hardly, but it could be. One 4th I.D. colonel said it best: “You want to break this army? Then break your word to it.” Which is precisely what the Dems want to do. President Bush was right when he said yesterday that the only way we will lose this war is if we lose our nerve. The Dems long ago lost theirs.
Because the politicians haven’t gotten to the point of cutting off war funds or setting withdrawal schedules, our troops are not paying a lot of attention to the winds blowing around the Beltway. In their ignorance, poor souls, they don’t understand the judgment of their betters — the Deans, Pelosis, and Murthas — that the war is “unwinnable.” So they’re just going ahead and winning it. And you have to understand that “winning” means not only defeating the insurgents, which we are doing, but training, equipping, and teaching the Iraqis to both protect themselves and keep their country together.
DEFEATING THE TERRORISTS MEANS not only capturing or killing them, but cutting off their sources of arms, men, and money. Syrian, Saudi, and Iranian support for terrorists is a constant problem. The main “rat lines” — the routes into Iraq from Syria and Saudi Arabia — are not closed, but tightened down enormously. The official line is that we are not engaged in operations against Syrian forces or on Syrian territory (more than one senior military commander said that directly and would not budge from it). But something has been going on for weeks if not months. Syrian support for the insurgents has, I believe, been forcibly reduced. Iraqi forces, including the “Desert Protectors” — really tribesmen operating in their home areas — are proving effective against infiltration. Part of the remaining problem, one senior officer said, is the “booze, money, and drugs” coming in from Saudi Arabia, and arms coming in — especially those described by Tony Blair — from Iran.
The effect of choking the “rat lines” is that terrorists who used to come into Iraq in big bunches are now coming in by twos and threes. More and more of those tiny groups are being caught. In short, the terrorist forces in Iraq are being reduced steadily. And the effectiveness of terrorist attacks is reduced because the weapons available to them (aside from the stuff coming in from Iran) are less effective. Though the big bombs take many lives, and though the number of attacks increases substantially around events such as the Thursday election, most attacks don’t succeed. Only about 18% of the attacks succeed in injuring people or damaging vehicles.
One senior officer said that we’ve “taken out” — i.e., captured or killed — an estimated 90% of the al Qaeda in Iraq. They are among the more than 2,000 terrorists we have caught or killed there.
The foreign fighters coming in are almost entirely suiciders, not soldiers. But at least 90% of the insurgents being caught are Iraqis: members of anti-occupation groups, some of which trace their origins to the 1920s when they drove the Brits out. It is these people — mainly Sunni but some Shia such as those answering to Moqtada al Sadr — who are the most stubborn opponents of democracy. They have no confidence in the current Iraqi government and if they refuse to vote in the Thursday election — as it appears they will do at least in the big city of Ramadi — the insurrection will continue.
What happens after the election is as much a political as a military question. The Iraqi military is doing its job. Half the Baghdad area is in Iraqi control, and about 60% of all Iraqis live in secure areas. One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made in the information war was all that nonsense about rating the readiness of Iraqi units at Levels 1 through 4. When only one was at Level 1, the Dems went bonkers. (Okay, more bonkers.) The media picked up that stick and has been beating the Defense Department over the head with it for months. Trouble is, no one has ‘splained the levels in terms anyone outside the army bureaucracy can understand. Having spoken to several of the commanders there, let me try to translate army into English.
You know who rates Level 1? Just about nobody in the world. Even our military units drop from Level 1 to Level 2 or 3 with regularity. Then they rest, retrain, and refit and get back to at least Level 2. Yes, one Iraqi unit is at Level 1. Many Iraqi units are now at Level 2. Which means the Iraqi units at Level 2 are equal to or better than the militaries of most of the damned world. Better than say, the Italians or the Spanish. Level 2 units — many if not most of the Iraqi forces — have earned the rating accorded most of the other coalition nation forces. They are fighting well, and are getting better fast. Will they be able to be left alone soon? No. But American plans to draw down our forces — already in place — mean that the Iraqis will take more responsibility quickly next year.
THE BIGGEST CONCLUSION I DREW from the trip is that the Iraqi civilian government lags badly behind the Iraqi army in taking charge and moving forward. Time after time, our top commanders expressed frustration that the politics aren’t keeping up with the development of the Iraqi military. It’s inevitable in a democracy, but this kind of dissent is very counterproductive. One of our commanders told me that many Sunni, Shia, and Kurd pols are holding back, waiting to see how much power they can grab in the election and afterward. The compromises they need to make on fundamental issues — power of a federal government, whether to tax, how to structure the military so that it will be independent of tribal rivalries — all hang in the air while the politicians maneuver. That same commander said that he and other senior American leaders are raising the temperature on the Iraqis, telling them that they’d better get on with it.
Democracy in Iraq is still a goal, not a fact. If the Thursday election turns out as expected, it will be only a small step forward. At worst, it will be a setback if the Shia and Kurds turn Sunni rejectionism into an institutional exclusion from key government ministries and parliamentary consultations.
It’s too bad that the Iraqi pols don’t have the vision their military counterparts do. At the Iraqi military academy at al-Rustamiya, BGen. Dan Bolger and his Iraqi and Brit cohorts showed me the future of the Iraqi Army. I had the chance to talk to several members of their first graduating class. To a man, they will be graduating straight into the two-way firefight. And, to a man, they want to rid their nation of the terrorists that prey on it. They are an Iraqi investment in the future. Let’s hope the Iraqi pols don’t waste that investment. And we have to ensure that the Dems don’t waste ours.
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