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I recently met a young soldier who spent most of the last seven months in Baghdad, a private first class in the 2nd Infantry Division out of Colorado. We met at the Ali Al Salem air base and “Life Support Area,” an air-transport hub about an hour from Kuwait City International Airport. I was waiting for my plane to Baghdad, on my way to an extended embed in Anbar province; he was waiting for a plane back home for 18 days of R&R.

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I got straight to the point: “What do you think about the surge?” We were smoking cigarettes in one of the shacks set up for the purpose. He blew a puff out slowly, and shook his head, looking down at his boots. “If you ask me, it’s a waste of time.” Why? I asked.

“Those people, man, they’re so lazy.” He was referring to the Iraqi police. “We give them everything, all this equipment that we got ’em, that we’re payin’ for, and they don’t do anything.” His unit’s area of responsibility is in and near Sadr City in western Baghdad — , stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Madhi army gang. Most of the units deployed in Baghdad are now working closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, in particular the police, and using “Joint Security Stations” as neighborhood bases of operation. A JSS tends to be an Iraqi police station beefed up with a lot of security and firepower — American firepower.

He told me various anecdotes — about how the Iraqi police wave through most cars at checkpoints without checking thoroughly for “high-value targets” or banned weapons; how they often desert their posts when fired at; and how they let brand-new trucks sit idle with a single flat tire, and in general are terrible at maintaining critical equipment. I had heard such anecdotes before, especially on that last point: Returning civilians are often aghast at how quickly the very Iraqis charged with taking care of critical infrastructure equipment — such as power-plant turbines — would trash them.

“And a lot of times,” he went on, “they work against us.” He related the story of one “high-value target” that his unit had been looking for weeks. (Every large unit in Baghdad has a “top ten” list of insurgent/terrorist leaders in their area). They finally found him, at an impromptu traffic checkpoint, in the back of an Iraqi-police truck. The police claimed that they didn’t know he was a bad guy, but this soldier thought they were lying. “The reason he was back there is that they thought they could get waved past any checkpoints. They were protecting him. They’re so corrupt, man.” I’ve heard that over and over from the soldiers — how corrupt the Iraqi police are. “But the Iraqi army, they’re alright, they’re doing pretty good.” And I’ve heard that, too, here at Ali Al Salem, — over and over again.

I asked the young soldier about intelligence-gathering — the key to success both in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations. He said that intelligence tips from local Iraqis increased every month he was in Baghdad. But even here the news was not all good. American forces hand out tip-cards — basically business cards with contact information for tiplines — to Iraqi citizens. The soldier recounted that just a few weeks ago, his unit received a tip on a VBED (Vehicle-Born Explosive Device — basically, a car bomb) parked at a particular intersection in his area. Went they went to investigate, they hit an IED at that intersection and one of his fellows was killed. The described vehicle — a gray Volvo — was no where to be found. But he wasn’t surprised: He said that IED’s go off nearly every day right in front of the outer checkpoints of his base — planted, presumably, in full view of the Iraqi police who man the checkpoints.

“Ask me,” he said, “we can leave here next year or in five years, it doesn’t matter, because when we do, all hell’s going to break loose. It’s the religious stuff — the Kurds hate the Sunnis and the Sunnis hate the Shiites; I don’t even know who hates who anymore. I don’t even care.”

Then suddenly, his eyes seemed to soften. “I mean, a lot of Iraqis are alright, you know? A lot of them appreciate what we do, — and we do a lot of stuff for them: We hand out backpacks and stuff at schools and help them build things. . . . Some Iraqis seem like they like us but they’re too scared to help. They got the JAM [the Mahdi army] threatening them and stuff.”

This young soldier has spent his tour of duty in one of the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad — ergo, one of the worst in Iraq — and it should come as no surprise that he is pessimistic. He doesn’t know what the generals know, what Americans are starting to find out: that across Iraq, soldiers like him are seeing a different picture than he is — a light at the end of the tunnel in some parts, a feeling that we’re winning in others — a palpable sense that we’ve turned the corner, that the defeat of our enemies here is becoming inevitable.

But this soldier’s stories seemed to me a salutary warning that America needs to focus on the task at hand and avoid the allure of soaring, unreachable goals. Among conservatives, “realists” long scoffed at the democracy-building mission, focusing instead on establishing security in Iraq. But even the seemingly limited goal of establishing security in Iraq is a bridge we don’t need to reach in order to complete our mission in Iraq. The war on terror may go on for decades, and the terrorists have made Iraq the central front.

This mission has come down in the end to what it was most fundamentally about in the beginning: Is the Iraqi regime a friend or a foe? Is it proliferating weapons of mass destruction or not? Is it fomenting terrorism or fighting it?

The first two questions have already been answered: Iraq is now a military ally of the U.S.; and its illegal WMD activities have verifiably ceased.

The remaining question now is whether the Iraqi regime is fomenting terrorism or fighting it. For one young soldier, that remains an open question — and that echoes the most senior reports from the Pentagon. And as long as it remains an open question, we must keep fighting. Iraq remains at risk of sliding back into support for terrorism, this time perhaps on a grander scale than under Saddam, and as an Iranian satellite.

More than almost any other country in the world, Iraq cannot remain neutral in the war on terror. It is the center of gravity in the War on Terror, and both the Wahhabi-Sunni extremists and their counterparts in Tehran have made it the central front.

The reason to hope that we will win in Iraq is that the Iraqi army by all accounts has joined the fight against terrorism on our side. But a tough challenge lies ahead. The final phase of our mission in Iraq rests on the shoulders of those who, like the soldier I spoke with, are trying to turn the Iraqi police into a credible force in the fight against terrorism. So far, in that mission, victory has eluded us. We cannot leave this place until we triumph.

Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is currently in Iraq.



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