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September 13, 2007

A Tribute to Fallen Soldiers

Last month a group American soldiers in Iraq penned an extraordinarily insightful op-ed on the futility of the war effort. Yesterday comes word that two of them, Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance Gray were killed in action. The following is that op-ed in its entirity.

August 19, 2007


The War as We Saw It



VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed
surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for
the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago
outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency
is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division
soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly
manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.
(Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through
a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by
failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the
margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists,
Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable
loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at
United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding
of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint
and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army
officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own
predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police
or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army
commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that
battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate
men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves
forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may
have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We
arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies
are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective
surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi
government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that
Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where
the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact
became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader,
was shot in the head during a “time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected to
survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) While we have the will and the
resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require
measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The
ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a
resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our
counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure
and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly
unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation
is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no
semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This
should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation
remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance,
with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its
people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force
(then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The
qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that
historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next
task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks
losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-
Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of
government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks.
It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political
sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will
be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.

More Articles in Opinion »

Posted by stevemack at 04:22 AM | Comments (101) | TrackBack

September 10, 2007

Today's Must Read:

From TPM

Iraqi Civilian Casualties: 2007 More Deadly Than 2006
By Spencer Ackerman - September 10, 2007, 11:49 AM

It took some time and effort, but, with the aid of TPM readers, we've obtained two complete lists of monthly Iraqi civilian casualties from January 2006 forward. Taking these numbers on their own terms, they do not bear out the claims made by the Bush administration and U.S. military that the surge has reduced Iraqi civilian casualties. Comparing each month's death toll in 2007 to the death toll from that same month in 2006, the numbers show that surge has not made Iraq safer for the civilian population. By some measurements, Iraqis are in greater danger than a year ago.

Posted by stevemack at 08:56 AM | Comments (566) | TrackBack

March 21, 2007

Gary Hart on "The Lessons of Iraq"

Gary Hart has written an insightful piece on Iraq and the new global political environment we find ourselves in today. One key point:

[T]reat jihadist terrorism more like organized crime than traditional warfare. By declaring "war on terrorism" we made the fatal mistake that it could be crushed using conventional warfare and massed armies. We clearly had the legal and moral right to overturn the Taliban government in Afghanistan that harbored al Qaeda as it planned and carried out the 9.11 attacks. Even so, the democratization of an ancient tribal society is proving hugely more difficult than driving the Taliban out of Kabul. Indeed, it seems set on returning. Instead, we should create NATO II, an organization combining the intelligence services, law enforcement agencies, and special forces of Western democracies to coordinate the crushing of jihadist cells.

Posted by stevemack at 04:31 AM | Comments (560) | TrackBack

February 01, 2007

Brzezinski: Iraq A Historic, Strategic and Moral Calamity

This is a must read. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee Zbigniew Brzezinski offers a razor sharp analysis of the war:

It is time for the White House to come to terms with two central realities:

1. The war in Iraq is a historic, strategic, and moral calamity. Undertaken under false assumptions, it is undermining America's global legitimacy. Its collateral civilian casualties as well as some abuses are tarnishing America's moral credentials. Driven by Manichean impulses and imperial hubris, it is intensifying regional instability.

2. Only a political strategy that is historically relevant rather than reminiscent of colonial tutelage can provide the needed framework for a tolerable resolution of both the war in Iraq and the intensifying regional tensions.

If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large. A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran; culminating in a "defensive" U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

I've been on the lookout for any reference in the press or from Administration to "actual" Iranian armed provocations inside Iraq. I've seen none. But of Administration sabor rattling there's no shortage.

Posted by stevemack at 10:01 AM | Comments (464) | TrackBack

January 16, 2007

The Case for Partition

As the long-awaited (four years too late) congressional debate over Iraq looms, it is disheartening to think just how off the mark it’s likely to be. The most important issues surrounding the catastrophic failure of Bush’s war policy may not be ignored, exactly, but they won’t be productively discussed. They can’t be.

Here’s the problem: The debate is going to pivot on the question of whether or not to continue the war, whether to stay or find some formula for leaving. That is, the issue will not be the problem of Iraq and how best to resolve it; rather, it will be narrowly focused on continuing one policy fix—war—as the only game in town.

Framed this way, the President has himself a slam-dunk argument (pubic opinion notwithstanding). All he needs to do is argue the necessity of success, not the efficacy of his means to achieve it. Hence, his “surge” speech:

The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people.

Robert Kagan draws a more dramatic picture and links it to military strategy:

We should not kid ourselves about the cost of failing to create a relatively secure situation in Iraq. The sectarian violence we are seeing today will seem minor compared with the massive bloodshed of a genuine Iraqi civil war. The idea of a "phased redeployment" implies a smooth, gradual process whereby U.S. military forces withdraw and Iraqis peacefully adjust. It's almost impossible to imagine events unfolding that way. Once we begin the process of U.S. withdrawal, there will be an eruption of violence to fill the vacuum. International terrorist groups will find themselves unchallenged in parts of Iraq and able to establish new bases from which to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. It is fanciful to imagine that the Iraqis themselves will take action against these groups: They will have their hands full fighting one another.

The problem with these predictions is that they’re right—or at least sufficiently probable to make them intellectually impossible to dismiss. Iraq is a mess, and even a phased American withdrawal (all things being equal) will likely leave it in more of a mess than it is now. Of course, acknowledging such probabilities does not mean that the war should be continued or escalated. It’s quite easy to make the case that the war only exacerbates these same problems. But no matter. So long as “the consequences of failure” are accepted as bush’s best argument, opponents of the war are left in an absurd and dangerous rhetorical position: They must apparently choose between denial or indifference—must say either “that’s an exaggeration, it won’t really happen” or, “so what? it doesn’t really matter (a little Islamic terrorism never hurt nobody).”

Faced with this choice—plus the Administration fantasy that the war can still be won—war critics have by and large been content to focus on the war’s delusional rationale and its failure to achieve whatever objectives the President happens to be offering for it at the time. But the only one talking loudly about long term interests is Bush—and what he’s saying is dangerous and just plain stupid.

In a truly meaningful debate, the “consequences” of the Iraq fiasco and how best to manage them would be the issue. The question needs to be how, if possible, to extract ourselves from the war without doing more damage than we have already, and maybe even undoing some of it. That is, since our presence there has: 1. turned Iraq into an incubator for terrorism, and 2. staged the ideal conditions for region-wide sectarian warfare, it would be nice if we could leave the country in a manner that would retard somewhat the development of those two political cancers.

The best hope, I believe, is partition—or radical federalization. Senator Joseph Biden has articulated this idea several times, but not to generally receptive ears. But it’s the only idea I am aware of that offers any hope of leaving Iraq in some crude form of stability. Biden’s approach has appeared several times in print, but he put it sharply in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece on August 24th of last year (2006):

First, the plan calls for maintaining a unified Iraq by decentralizing it and giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis their own regions. The central government would be left in charge of common interests, such as border security and the distribution of oil revenue. Second, it would bind the Sunnis to the deal by guaranteeing them a proportionate share of oil revenue. Each group would have an incentive to maximize oil production, making oil the glue that binds the country together. Third, the plan would create a massive jobs program while increasing reconstruction aid -- especially from the oil-rich Gulf states -- but tying it to the protection of minority rights. Fourth, it would convene an international conference that would produce a regional nonaggression pact and create a Contact Group to enforce regional commitments. Fifth, it would begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces this year and withdraw most of them by the end of 2007, while maintaining a small follow-on force to keep the neighbors honest and to strike any concentration of terrorists.

It’s not clear that, at this late date, there’s anything we can do. But by attempting to “incentivize” disengagement (as Rummy might have put it), the Biden plan holds out at least the hope of arresting sectarian violence before it spills over the borders. By extension, it might help eliminate the local militia’s role as employer of first resort and sponsor of the neighborhood academy of terror.

Posted by stevemack at 08:15 PM | Comments (10352) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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