U.S. general in Iraq: Growing disconnect with Washington
“I don’t know if I have the moral authority to send troops into combat anymore,” a senior American general recently told United Press International.
He knows what his power means — that on his word hundreds or thousands of young men would step into danger.
“I’m no longer sure I can look (a soldier or a Marine) in the eye and say: ‘This is something worth dying for.'”
He doesn’t mean Iraq. There are plenty of bad people here to fight, and plenty of innocents worth protecting.
His moral crisis was that he had been to Washington, D.C.
He had been asked politically loaded questions from both sides of aisle about the war, each questioner seeking ammunition to use for their own political ends.
He was dismayed. And he’s not the only one.
“Everything that happens in Iraq is viewed in Washington through a prism of whether it is good for George W. Bush or bad,” said a civilian U.S. official, who spoke to UPI on the condition he not be named.
Successful election? “Proof” the invasion was the right thing to do. Car bombs in Baghdad? “Proof” this was wrong from the start.
There is a growing disconnect between Washington and those fighting the Iraq war — between the people sweating in the desert, saddled with making the policy work, and the people in suits and air conditioning, hoping to be proven right in the end, on whichever side they sit.
“I am seeing signs that are frustrating to me,” said Lt. Col. Mike Gibler, an Army battalion commander serving in Mosul whose father fought in the Vietnam war. “There are huge divides, and not only at the senior levels of government. There’s a competition for who wants to be the loudest voice to be heard regardless of what they say, regardless of what they know.
“I am seeing a change in our nation’s willingness to support this over the long haul,” said Gibler.
To many here, that political reductionism is obscene. It degrades their daily work as much as it does the loss of more than 1,900 Americans.
The good in Iraq has been hard won — it was never a given. And the bad in all its forms — the car bombs, the ambushes, the rockets, the innocent dead — is the predictable product of warfare. Even putting aside the questionable post-war planning and rosy predictions, the outcome was always sure to include many, many undeserving deaths.
Once a nation decides to go to war, the consequences will be ugly.
It also interferes with their mission. One commander asked that a reporter not quote a junior officer who mentioned how thinly stretched the troops were in his area of operations. He didn’t mind that it be reported there weren’t enough troops — he could do with more — he just didn’t want it connected to him.
He’s not a coward and he’s not a liar. He’s busy.
“When people say stuff that conflicts with the politicians back home we just end up answering a lot of questions from D.C. We’re going backwards,” he said.
Time spent on e-mail finessing opinions that are offered in honesty with professional military judgment is time taken away from the mission at hand.
“The debate about the war is finally happening, but it is two years too late,” the U.S. official said.
“It’s no bullshit on the ground here between us and the Iraqis. But back home it’s still in f(ing) ideological political mode,” he said. “We need to separate ‘accountability’ from ‘success.'”
These officials now care far less who was right two-and-a-half years ago than they do about stabilizing Iraq and returning home with their troops in one piece.
To do that, Washington needs to get serious about winning, they say. The White House and its congressional supporters are so focused on “staying the course,” and the opposition so intent on forcing the White House to admit its mistakes there seems to be no time for anything else.
And there is actual work to be done.
If the December elections are held and are successful, the U.S. military plans to begin pulling back, turning over more responsibility to local politicians and Iraqi security forces. While ostensibly a sign of progress, it will also be a time of great vulnerability for U.S. interests.
Across Iraq, in small towns and large, there are young captains and lieutenants and sergeants who are not just patrolling streets but who are shepherding town councils and water projects. What will happen in those towns when those Americans are gone? Will the city council fall apart? Will the water pump break and not be fixed because of a lack of spares or money? How will U.S. forces, once on intimate terms with the town, know if things are turning dangerous?
“There is going to be a vacuum when the military draws down,” the official said. “When they pull back, who is going to interface with the Iraqis? Before it’s stable enough for the (United Nations) and the (non-governmental organizations) to come in? What is the American face going to be in the interim?”
The Iraqi government ministries are barely functioning; many are still being staffed, and few in their roles have experience working in a government meant to serve rather than dictate to the people.
The troubles are understandable. Iraq has had four governments in three years — Saddam Hussein, Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, Ayad Allawi’s interim government, and Ibrahim Jaafari’s interim government. Each of these had its own favorites to staff and head ministries, and there has been frequent turnover — as well as a number of assassinations. In December, if all goes well, Iraq will get another government, and with it the attendant time it takes any government to organize. In Baghdad’s case, it is almost starting from scratch, again.
But Iraq can not afford to serve its people poorly, not while an insurgency threatens a democratic existence. Baghdad’s ineffectiveness will only feed its opponents.
“It’ll be the lack of government services that could make this fail,” said Army Lt. Col. Bradley Becker, in an interview with UPI in Qayyara, where he has been commanding a battalion for the last 11 months. “The people have to have confidence in the government, the teachers have to get paid.”
U.S. interlocutors — nearly all of them military — have served as buffers so far, making things happen on the regional and local level that otherwise would not. Though the military presence may be diminished next year, there will not be a reduction in the requirement for American influence — money, problem-solving skills, and arm-twisting, the official said.
Gen. George Casey, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has held meetings with U.S. Ambassdor Zalmay Khalilizad to begin forming up provincial transition teams to take on the civil works after U.S. forces are reduced. Finding staff for it is a challenge, a senior military official told UPI.
The State Department has fewer than 3,000 civilians assigned to Iraq, according to officials here, and nearly all of them are in Baghdad. There is just one State Department representative in all of vast Anbar province, home to some of the worst fighting.
“The Department of State hasn’t mobilized for this war. They need to start assigning people … We have never had our A-Team here,” the U.S. official said. “The ratio is outrageous.”
A senior military official said the United States needs “expeditionary diplomats, treasury planners, etc, if our goal is to win the peace, to create a better peace.”
“When we do things — like initiating war with Saddam — and haven’t the managerial integrity to have the international and interagency blocks incorporated and integrated into the planning and execution, we end up with a mess paid for in lives of innocent Iraqis and U.S. servicemen and women.”
The only way to be sure Iraq does not become the threat it was posited to be before the war, a safe haven for terrorists, is to raise the standard of living and the expectations of the people, creating a country of “haves” who don’t tolerate terrorists and thugs, and who have confidence their government and security force will back them up.
Another looming problem that may need attention: whether the reconstruction projects undertaken by the United States with $18.6 billion appropriated in 2003 are actually bringing about stability. Some of the projects on the books won’t yield results for two or three years. And by the end of this year, all of the money earmarked for Iraq reconstruction will be committed or on contract, U.S. officials involved in reconstruction point out. There will be no flexibility after that to redirect money to high-impact projects — those that influence public opinion — unless there is new money for reconstruction.
“We’re in a tactical security environment. I don’t give a rat’s ass that in two years the sewer system is going to work,” the U.S. official said. “We may not get there if we aren’t careful.”
Khalilizad is reviewing the reconstruction priorities now, as did the ambassador before him, John Negroponte.
Negroponte ended up taking money from water and electricity projects and pumping money into the security sector, but that may have been shortsighted. Projects that impact the quality of Iraqi’s lives in the short term may do more to shore up security than new guns and border forts, as Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli posits in an article for the July/August edition of Military Review.
Chiarelli, whose Task Force Baghdad was responsible for policing the city’s restive Sadr City, overlays a map of the slum’s water and electrical infrastructure with its insurgent cells. There is a striking correlation: the worse the conditions, the more numerous the cells. As his troops improved that infrastructure with local projects, the fighting diminished.
“The question is, are we — the Iraqi people, the United States and the international community — willing to take the time, energy and sacrifice to see it through?” said Gibler. “I honestly believe this can be won. I have to be optimistic. I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them to go fight, otherwise.”