Politics & Policy

Reality on the Ground

It's not "lost," but we could make it be.

Iraq is a mess. Not so much in the sense of what Gen. David Petraeus is physically dealing with on the ground, but in the sense of what we have allowed the effort to morph into here at home and worldwide.

We’re not losing the war — not by any true combat leader’s estimation — but we are struggling to get our arms around the conflict’s realities; and that in itself is undermining the effort.

The biggest problems as I see it are the politicization of the war to include subtle attempts to micromanage ongoing “surge” operations; and not-so-subtle attempts to limit funding to troops; publish withdrawal dates; raise white flags on Capitol Hill; and withhold, twist, and manipulate facts: everything from the mainstream media’s skewed analysis of the facts within the 9/11 Commission Report (which few Americans have taken the time to actually read) to the outright dismissal of the possibility that there may well have been weapons of mass destruction in pre-invasion Iraq.

Fact is, everyone believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — or an earnest program to develop or acquire them — and that the WMDs might have been spirited across the border into Syria (much like the Iraqi air force turned tail and flew to Iran prior to the Persian Gulf War in 1991). But the Left’s four-year campaign to dismiss anything that might conflict with their own agenda, has enabled all opinion contrary to theirs to be dismissed as nothing less than the musings of crackpots.

The Left has even written-off or ignored evidence of pre-invasion connections between Iraqi officials and terrorists, which was detailed by the 9/11 Commission Report and which continues to surface. And there were “connections,” perhaps not official working alliances (though we don’t know for sure), but certainly connections in the form of conversations, turning a blind eye to freedom of movement, and who knows what else.


Based on my own wrestling with various geostrategic issues since 2001, as well as specific human and open-source intelligence (though declassified, also non-published) I’ve been privy to since the spring of 2003, I am convinced that both ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing some form of a Western-friendly democratic republic in the heart of West Asia were necessary. I say this based on the knowledge we had then, and I’m still not convinced today that the Iraq invasion was a mistake; though, mistakes have been made in the prosecution of the war.

My recent time in Iraq brought several additional realities home to me, not the least of which is the fact that we are wrong on many of our assumptions about the Iraqi people. In fact, many in Congress and many Americans across the country have wrongly concluded that all Sunni, Shiia, and Kurdish peoples hate and mistrust one another, they’ve all been killing one another for centuries, and they will never stop killing each other.

The mistrust may be there for obvious reasons. But the hate is not, which is the primary reason foreign terror networks like al Qaeda — through car-bombings of innocents, gangland-style executions, and blowing up mosques — have tried to pit Sunni against Shiia.

Al Qaeda fears America’s strategic position in the region. They know they cannot defeat us in any pitched battle. And they know their only chance is to defeat us by fomenting ethnic and religious hatreds in Iraq thus creating enough bloody chaos as to make the conflict appear unmanageable in the eyes of the American public.

But let’s not forget, Sunni and Shiia were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against Iranian Shiia during the Iran-Iraq War. They fought together in two — granted, very short and one-sided — conflicts against us. And today there are far more Sunni, Shiia, and Kurds serving together in the Iraqi armed forces and police than there are Iraqis fighting as insurgents.


As one American soldier told me early last month at the chow hall in Camp Victory, Iraq, “Iraqis aren’t Sunni or Shiia first. They’re not religious fundamentalists or extremists. The majority are Iraqis first. In fact, they’ve been more secular than religious for decades.”

Granted, there has been conflict between Sunni and Shiia since the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 A.D. and questions of his successor arose. Nearly 14 centuries later, the conflict still exists. It’s been with us since the invasion phase of the war in early 2003. But the killing between the two Muslim factions spiked when the Golden Dome Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra was bombed in early 2006. It was one of Shiia Islam’s holiest sites. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was responsible for the attack, but the Sunnis were blamed. Reprisal attacks began. And it was exactly the civil strife AQI was trying to spark.

But the Left in Congress has both allowed al Qaeda to manipulate American public opinion, and they (the Left) have allowed the hatred of President Bush — going back to Florida 2000 — to fester into a nasty albeit successful campaign of misinformation aimed at distorting the facts for those whom they have accurately counted on not to read the 9/11 Commission Report, not to have access to intelligence beyond what politicians and a very small handful of disgruntled soldiers tell them, and not to be able to get their arms around the complexities and realities of Iraq.

As part of that misinformation campaign, the Left has been successful in dehumanizing ordinary Iraqis, which to me defies logic because on the one hand, they’ll argue that Iraqis (supposedly incapable of ever governing themselves or stopping the sectarian violence) are not worth the blood of American GIs, yet on the hand other they’ll rail against the Bush administration for all the Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion in 2003.

The congressional Right is also guilty because they have, for the sake of political fairness, allowed the Left to get away with contradictions and fact distortions practically unchallenged when there is so much at stake in Iraq.


Last week, I received an e-mail from a reader who after reading my piece, “One hand can’t clap,” said:

From where I sit, I can’t imagine America staying any longer than it would take us to get our stuff packed up and get out of there. I simply don’t think Iraq — or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter — is fixable. I don’t see any of these wonderful virtues and qualities you so glowingly ascribe to them [the Iraqi people] — I just see primitive, hateful people who are hell-bent on killing, killing, killing.

Regarding a vignette within the story where I described how several Iraqi soldiers tried to save the life of a dying cat, the reader said:

I can’t help wondering too, that if it had been a woman in the street being killed by one of her male relatives for daring to have her own mind — you know an HONOR killing — would those Iraqi soldiers have rushed in to help her and worked so hard to save her? I suspect not, since I’m quite certain cats have a higher value than women in ANY Islamic country.

First of all, Iraqi men as a group don’t hate or devalue women. In fact, women have a voice in the new Iraq, which millions of Iraqi men and women have cast votes for. Second, Iraqis are not primitive people, nor are they “hell-bent” on killing. Fact is, they’re sick of the killing, because they live with it every day.

The problem — through no fault of the reader’s — may be found in the first four words of her note: Because from where she sits, she doesn’t really know what is going on in Iraq. It’s simply far too complex to process into anything comprehensive from an 800-word newspaper story or a TV news segment broadcast from the roof of a building somewhere in the Green Zone.

She’s also being fed a steady diet of politically charged drivel and actions from Harry Reid’s “lost war” to Nancy Pelosi’s not having time in her schedule to meet with Gen. Petraeus after the general flew halfway around the world to meet with her and others on the most important issue of our time.


After reading last week’s piece, another reader told me she was “infuriated” over the possibility that we might abandon these people.

I too have become infuriated, because now after having been to Iraq — and eaten with Iraqis, talked with them, and held the hands of their children — my mind now has faces, voices, and smiles of real people who do matter, to go along with my military understanding of just how strategically vital Iraq is to the world.

Iraqis aside, there are the U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq who are dealing with the same realities, who have so much more at stake in this than any of us, and who are wondering from what planet Congress is holding session when a U.S. Senate Majority Leader can make groundless declarations about the war being “lost” and still be taken seriously by a huge segment of the population.

This is also about the standing and reputation of our country in the eyes of our current and future allies — in terms of our commitment to those allies when the going gets tough. There are many people worldwide who are convinced we abandoned the South Vietnamese people when the political pressure became too great for us at home. How will the world perceive us if we now abandon the Iraqi people for similar reasons? I would argue it would be generations before anyone ever trusted us again. Perhaps no one ever would.

Success in Iraq is also about the morale and well-being of the U.S. military. Our forces would suffer in ways most D.C. politicians cannot begin to imagine if we were to retreat from Iraq.

Then there are the Iraqi people — and any other peoples in that region of the world who have stood up to terrorism — and what would happen to any of them if the world’s most powerful Army, Navy, and Air Force withdrew in the face of AQI and the Iraqi insurgency.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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