I think Rich Lowry would agree that we both had an informative week in Iraq in and around Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala. Many thanks to the efforts of Major Rayburn and Col. McMaster who allowed us to accompany them on their visits in Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala — and a special thanks to some thoughtful air personnel that allowed both of us to reach Kuwait as scheduled despite unforeseen challenges.
Mystery surrounds all the reasons for the abrupt turn-around in the once “Triangle of Death”–
* and whether it will continue;
* whether the Shiite government can be prodded to be magnanimous in victory and let reconstruction funds flow into the Sunni provinces;
* how well with Iraqis we can chase and hunt down al Qaeda as it flees the cities and heads for smaller provincial villages;
* how fast the Iraqi army can begin to take up the role of a truly national army and protect national borders, leaving internal security to the local and national police;
* how well local tribal self-defense forces can be incorporated into state governance;
* how former high-ranking Baathist insurgents can be transformed from allies against al Qaeda to supporters of constitutional government in which they now form a distinct minority;
* and what will be the general level of long-term U.S. presence critical to monitor this growing progress.
All these issues are on the minds of officers, from Gen. Petraeus on down, who are cautiously optimistic but understand in the current volatility the dangers of overconfidence — especially given the heartbreak of past reconstruction and the military’s sometimes less than candid public appraisal in 2004 of the setbacks. In addition, they suspect that al Qaeda/Iraq must do something spectacular and soon, or otherwise it is going to lose, and lose badly. Many seem braced for even more such planned horrors to erode American public opinion and demoralize Iraqis before the terrorists meet oblivion.
The result may be that the news coverage of the sudden turnaround is lagging behind rapidly changing events on the ground, which, as in all wars, explode sometimes without warning and immediate full appreciation.
One thought in this context. It is of course true that the surge is working and our soldiers are far more sophisticated than in 2003. But in all the places one visits, there are reminders everywhere — pockmarked walls, rubble, memorial photos in bases — of all those killed during the worst ordeal between 2003-6. When one walks through these former battlefields, there is an eerie melancholy, a ghostly archaeology, a sense that now unnamed and largely anonymous Americans paid the ultimate price in those years to allow the opportunities we witness today. And that’s why we must continue and finish the job they started.
We at home really either chose not to follow the daily pulse of the battlefield, or our media finds it less lucrative or politically correct, or our leaders either don’t have the skill or the desire to get the American people engaged.
It’s a pity because we might well be witnessing an historic change in Iraq that would have profound effects throughout the region. The Iraqis are just beginning to step up effectively to their own defense, and are reaching out to the Americans-rather than solely vice versa as was mostly true between 2003-6. The result is that in a once frightening place like Ramadi — declared “beyond repair” in 9/06 in a sober and carefully written Marine intelligence report — Marine casualties have plummeted, reconstruction is underway, and everyone seems to be a bit dazed about the sudden calm after the horrific past storm — and whether it will continue.
Another impression: We had briefings and conversations with dozens of majors, LTCs, and colonels, who are forced to make decisions, often on the frontlines, that would normally be reserved for mayors of large cities or governors of vast states or those with rank of 2- or 3- star general in peacetime.
They understand the race against time they are in to achieve radical progress in the war to maintain enough public support to finish the reconstruction. In general, their level of education and sobriety seem on par with — or far superior to — civilian politicians here in the states with commensurate responsibility. A Col. Burton, Funk, Gibbs, Gibson, Hickey, Horvath, Kershaw, MacFarland, Mansoor, or McMaster — to mention just a few of those we met — are rare national assets in these very dangerous years ahead.
Few in 2001 talked much about conventional Army and Marine ground forces, after the non-traditionally-waged war against the Taliban. Perhaps somehow the nation forgot just how unusual these officers are who have advanced degrees, write books and articles, and daily expose themselves to death in a myriad of frightening and unforeseen ways — or how professional the soldiers are under their command.
We would all benefit from a news segment or special on the “colonels’ war” in Iraq that would introduce these rare individuals to the public eye.