WIN, LOSE, OR DRAWDOWN
Headline by CPT Obvious.
Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.
The Shortest Straw
Okay, so we got the shaft. ‘Nuff said. Time to get to work, down to business, and back in the saddle. Complaining isn’t going to help and whining isn’t going to change anything. As callous as Donald Rumsfeld’s personal style may be (he was actually quoted as saying that as much as he’d like to be, he’s "not Santa Claus," and cannot guarantee that the 172nd will be home by Christmas), he is at least correct about one thing: we all volunteered to perform the dirty work and the heavy lifting that most of our fellow countrymen would rather not do. No one ever said it would be quick, easy, painless, or pleasant. And take it from me, the majority of the time it has not been. But my own philosophy has long maintained that when the going gets rough, the tough cowboy up. And if you married a soldier thinking that you’d get to spend a lot of time together, I’ve got some unfortunate news for you: You were way off.
That being said, don’t mistake this peculiar attitude of mine for a lack of anger at our situation, because it continues to grow by the day. Here’s some reasons why:
Tying the Hands That Feed
The Shiite militias need to be disarmed, disbanded, or destroyed. This may seem obvious, but it not only needs to be repeated, it is practically begging to be translated into action.
The Army has sent our veteran Stryker brigade -- on the cusp of a long-deserved homecoming -- instead back to Iraq to begin the equivalent of a third consecutive Marine tour of duty. The security of Baghdad is the official reason, but if you read between the lines, it is actually to generate positive headlines for the upcoming midterm Congressional elections. The administration is living under the fantasy that the Iraqi capital can be secured with photo-op half-measures that will somehow miraculously translate into positive media coverage of the results. On both counts, they could not possibly be more wrong.
The situation in Baghdad is bleak not because of a hopeless military solution, but due to a feckless political one. Prime Minister al-Maliki has truly found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place. He needs the support of the Shiite coalitions to which he belongs, yet is being made irrelevant by their encroachment on his government’s rightful monopoly on force. The Mahdi Army is literally just that: an army all its own. Much like the IRA, they have a political as well as a militant wing, and they wield both to considerable effect.
If Maliki desires to become a true statesman, he’s going to have to pay the cost to be the boss. Unfortunately, it smells to these nostrils like the fix is already in.
If you get me elected, you’ll be protected.
The only thing that can pull the city back from the brink is to allow us to do the job we were purportedly sent here to do. That means open season on the Shiite militias, whether it’s popular for al-Maliki with his political base or not. Anything less is a waste of everyone’s time: his, theirs, and especially ours.
The Final Battle for Baghdad
Before we go any further, here is an abbreviated primer on the convoluted politics of war in the Iraqi capital for those of you struggling to keep score at home:
The Arab Sunni and Shia (or Shiites as they are known in neighboring Iran) are the two main sects of Islam and the majority of (dare I say) "modern" Iraq is divided among them along tribal family lines, with the exception of the northern ethnic Kurds (who incidentally, also happen to be Sunni Muslims). Still with me?
Although only roughly 20 percent of the population, the Arab Sunnis were the ruling sect under Saddam’s Baathist rule (modeled after Soviet Stalinism) due to the simple fact that he was one of them. The Shia (a worldwide Muslim minority) were marginalized at best, summarily butchered at worst under his reign, and were cut out of the inner circle of favoritism that epitomized it.
Since the fall of the Baathists and the move toward popular democracy, the Shia have reasserted themselves with their numbers and sought to carve out a new role as the ruling class throughout Iraq, to the obvious distaste of the Sunnis who have now found themselves on the other side of the glass looking in. Many former Baathists responded violently, loosely coalescing into what we now refer to as the terrorist "insurgency." Combined with foreign infiltration from al-Qaeda recruited jihadists, they sought to drive the U.S. from Iraq before a permanent government could be elected and formed. Despite their best efforts and thousands of coalition casualties, they failed.
As more Sunnis were enticed to join rather than resist the tectonic political upheaval throughout the country, and al-Qaeda alienated itself from the populace with its indiscriminately deadly tactics, the Sunni insurgency turned its attention toward the rise of the Shia majorities that assumed their rightful place as the heirs to legitimate political power. If the Americans could not be chased out by direct force, then perhaps they would flee on their own accord in the face of seemingly intractable chaos to the tune of massive civilian death and mayhem.
From the ashes of this slaughter rose the Shia militias who sought to fill the power vacuum left vacant by the transition from one of the most solitarily brutal regimes on earth to a centrally weak and dispersed system of government by democratically-inexperienced neophytes. Drawing strength from a disaffected and embattled populace, the militias provided protection in exchange for power, however illegitimate in the eyes of the newly-drawn constitution whose ink was still drying. In the past year, these shadowy groups have only grown more powerful as the governments efforts to recruit, train, and deploy it’s own security forces have failed to keep up and the Iraqi people's patience with them has seemingly dried up.
This is where we find ourselves today, in starkest contrast among the mixed enclaves and segregated neighborhoods of Baghdad. The U.S. military is not necessarily caught in the middle as many in the media insist, but are rather on the fringes of the conflict, unsure of how or when to step in and break up the fight.
The Baghdad press pool has been faithfully reporting on much of our initial efforts, though they seem to be leaving out the fact that the overwhelming majority of our weapons grabs have come from inside Sunni mosques that insurgents have been using as de facto armories. The Army claims to have learned from the mistakes of Vietnam -- specifically, allowing sanctuary to the enemy -- yet it seems to insist on reliving them on shuffle/repeat.
In the very first week of ground operations our company alone uncovered enormous caches of offensive weaponry stashed or buried on the grounds of the mosques we searched in the presence of local Iraqi forces. We also randomly searched the headquarters of one of the Islamic political parties and uncovered enough of an arsenal to outfit a small army.
Since then, we’ve done little else but "clearing ops" which amount to us cordoning off entire neighborhoods and searching every single residence, talking with the people who live there, and collecting census data. This face to face communication and rapport building is indeed important, and was at the heart of our previous success in Mosul, but is only half the solution for a fractured area like Baghdad. There are several rogue militia groups operating with near impunity, responsible for much of the "sectarian strife" that produces not only hundreds of corpses weekly, but dozens of proclamations of "impending civil war" by nearly every news agency on the planet.
Why every mosque in the Baghdad area was not simultaneously raided on a brigade-level scale within days of uncovering insurgent mother lodes right off the bat, I cannot tell you. What I can tell you is that we were purportedly sent down here to "get tough on terrorism" in the city, yet so far we have yet to be let off the leash. We’ve cleared entire neighborhoods house by house and block by block, performing census work far more often than targeted raids. Call me crazy, but I figure that when houses of worship are being exploited to house weapons of war, that is when Muslim sensitivities need to take a back seat to modern realities.
Release the hounds, sirs. Don’t force us to chew through our own leash. Because right now we’re choking on it.
Losing Their Religion
Our company has spent the better part of a week saturating several noted "troublespots" of Baghdad with our presence on the ground, most importantly on foot -- an apparent rarity in Baghdad proper. (Many residents expressed surprise at our presence; even more said they haven’t seen soldiers in person for months.) We’ve gone door to door and block to block in the dense urban enclaves: administering surveys, checking for weapons, and attempting to establish connections with the people and build confidences. Already it has been paying off, as the people trust us more than they do their own Army and police forces. One never knows what other nefarious militias the Iraqis in blue may secretly belong to, and will rarely, if ever, speak to us openly and honestly with a uniformed Iraqi in the room. Some district police chiefs even reportedly moonlight as Mahdi Army commanders loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the fork-tongued Yassir Arafat of Iraqi politics.
The Sunni/Shia divide in Baghdad -- as it is in much of the rest of the country -- is less a religious imbroglio than a classic turf war. Take the Bloods and the Crips, combine them with the resources and influence of the Italian mafia, sprinkle them with a dash of Hezbollic fanaticism, and you’re well on your way to understanding the complex roots of the seemingly random, though in reality, expressly calculated violence throughout large swaths of the capital city. It is a classic power struggle in every way. You can call it civil war if it pleases your editors, but it is rather the Scorsese film Gangs of New York transplanted in both time and space to the present day Middle East. The only difference in Iraq’s case is that the weapons used are decidedly more deadly and catastrophic than meat cleavers and butcher knives.
The locals have repeatedly conveyed to us horrid tales of shop owners being pulled from their places of business and executed directly outside their storefronts, or mysterious uniformed men driving up and snatching people right off the street, never to be heard from again.. Most of the wealthy homes now stand empty, their owners having fled to less politically free but certainly less volatile Middle Eastern countries.
If you are left wondering, if this is not a civil war, then how will we know when or if it is? I’ll gladly provide you the answer. If Iraq is broken up into it’s three main ethnic categories -- the Kurds in the north, the Shia in the east and south, and the Sunni in the west -- then, and only then, will you be witness to a full-scale civil war worthy of a Beirut circa 1982 or Bosnia circa 1995. Distinct battle lines will be drawn, the spoils of victory will be clear, and the disputed territory will be fought over viciously and without restraint. And that’s without even factoring in the likelihood of neighboring Iran, Syria, and Turkey entering the fray to extract their own pound of Iraqi flesh. If you think the situation is ugly now, you won’t be pleased by what it easily could become if Iraq were to head down the path of religious and ethnic sovereignty. Malice toward all, charity toward none.
If you truly wish to see our forces depart Iraq, push for this option and watch the dust fly and we try not to let the door hit us in the ass. The only difference between foreign policy platforms by the time of the 2008 presidential race will be which party’s candidate can pull us out faster.
The Landfill Between the Rivers
Have we indeed made a Mess O’ Potamia? Or have we merely shone a very bright and very public spotlight on a long-troubled part of the world?
I believe the Iraqis themselves must be made to bear the lion’s share of the blame for allowing their country to remain so fractured over three years after the fall of the House of Saddam. Only Iraqis can fix what Iraqis have broken. The U.S. military can no more help them settle their differences than they could help us restructure Social Security. We can help them carry the nails, but they have to be the ones to hammer them in.
And one of the first steps -- as trivial as it may sound -- has got to be for them to finally start picking up their damn garbage. Baghdad is a veritable city of refuse. Few even bother to bag it -- they just toss it right outside their homes along the curbs or pile it up in vacant lots. I’ll acknowledge the fact that many trash collectors have been threatened or killed for simply doing the jobs they were paid to do, but there is much the ordinary citizen could do to ensure that his own property and neighborhood is distinguishable from the public dump.
If I lived here (a feeling I admittedly wish were a little more difficult to imagine), the immediate area that surrounded my home would be spotless, and I would keep it that way. With all the kids that play in the streets all day long, would it really kill them to pick up some trash while they’re at it? (Okay, so in a few violent areas it literally may kill them). However, the majority of the city is calm with thousands of Iraqis going about their business in a regular manner.
If what they desire is for their country to look like a Third World trailer park forever, then they’re doing a fantastic job of it. How can we be expected to care about improving the quality of life here when the residents themselves don’t give a hoot whether or not they pollute?
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently met with the families of our 172nd Stryker Brigade at Ft. Wainwright, Alaska, according to Stars and Stripes. By all indications, it didn’t go well.
When asked by one 172nd wife why the unit was performing house-to-house searches in Baghdad rather than the combat ops they specialize in, Rumsfeld "disputed her assertion, saying that 95 percent of the house-clearing operations are being done by Iraqi troops."
Stop the tape.
"95 percent of the house-clearing operations are being done by Iraqi troops." If this is an accurate quote (no longer a given with our agenda-driven media), then a healthy dose of WD-40 is direly needed within the gears of the civilian-military chain of command, because it’s squeaking worse than the cot I currently sleep on or my bowels after dining at "Chez Haji." His statement isn’t merely a whopper, it’s a bacon double whopper w/extra cheese and a side of total bulls**t.
Baghdad, we’ve got a problem.
Mediocre chow, the worst living conditions we‘ve had yet, sweating our asses off in triple-digit heat all day in order to perform a task that other Army units (cough, cough, 4th ID... 101st...) should already have been doing all year, and then receiving zero credit for any of it?! Wait, I stand corrected. "The Donald" did allow us recognition for a whopping "5%." But if you were to follow us on the ground during the brutally hot days, you would understand my incredulity. Yes, Iraqi police forces tag along with us and do assist in the cultural aspects of interacting with the populace to some extent (although the majority of this falls on our overstretched and invaluable U.S.-contracted interpreters); however, if they were truly performing "95%" of the workload then based on our own results thus far all of Baghdad would accordingly have been cleared by now.
Perhaps our brigade had been spoiled by the relative competence of the Kurdish IA recruits we trained and worked with all year in Mosul. After all, the Peshmerga already had a fairly long institutional history as a cohesive militia in opposition to the former regime. But the predominantly Arab security forces in the capital make the Pesh look like Delta Force. These guys are lazy, totally without discipline, training, or motivation, and about as haji-on-the-spot as Mel Gibson’s designated driver.
Baghdad should have been the main focus from the very beginning, but clearly it’s been left to its own devices and whatever progress that has been made in this vital heart of the country has become as stagnant as a street level sewage pond.
Bottom line: the city needs work. A lot of work. And if we are not able to leave it in capable Iraqi hands when we eventually leave, all of our efforts will have been for naught. Iraqization is the key, yet it remains the weakest link in the chain. Until that is addressed openly and honestly, we're just spinning our tires here.
And Strykers have eight of them.
Wake Me Up When September Ends
It has been made known that by the end of next month (coinciding with the projected completion of this latest phase of Operation Together Forward) the Pentagon will make its decision upon whether our unit will finally come home tout de suite or instead must fulfill the remainder of our 120 day extension. In other words, they will let us know (via Yahoo! News again, in all likelihood) that they’ve upheld their original decision to keep our Stryker brigade in Iraq for the rest of our natural lives. I think our much-heralded abilities and performance will have the unintended effect of talking ourselves right into another mission. Thus far, they’re sticking to their story of having the majority of us home by the holidays (but remember, Mr. Rumsfeld is admittedly not Santa Claus). However, this time I doubt we’ll be making any plans, purchasing any plane tickets, mailing home any gear, or even discarding a single pair of worn-out socks..
Ramadi for Ramadan, anyone? I better shut my mouth before I give anyone any more bright ideas. Someone wake me up when September ends.
On second thought, better make that December.