Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

What Lies Ahead
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 25 2006 7:00 AM

Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

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Gen. George W. Casey 
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Gen. George W. Casey

The Council on Foreign Relations recently published a piece that accused the American military of not adapting in Iraq. That was true in 2003 and midway through 2004, but no reasonable person can walk the streets with a Winski, Davenport, Weston, or Barela and argue that the U.S. military is hidebound today.

The American way of war has historically been to seek out and defeat the enemy army, not to assist a foundering ally. Following in that tradition, through mid-2004 most American units in Iraq were focused on offensive operations to crush an insurgency recruiting from among a million military-age Sunni males. Beginning in 2005, it was Gen. George W. Casey, the Multi-National Force commander, who identified this strategy as shoveling against the tide and redirected the military effort toward training an Iraqi security force. Calm and thoughtful, Casey eschewed the press and met with every infantry battalion to explain the new strategy. The first time I saw Casey was in Ramadi, huddled in a corner with a company commander and a squad leader fresh from a heavy firefight.

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"When Gen. Casey visits," Col. Nicholson said, "it's just him and his aide. He lays out his plan and talks about the risks. There's no bullshit."

In 2006, the American military is not trying to subdue the insurgency by the force of its arms. Iraq is being handed over to the Iraqis. And in a bemused but real sense, the Americans have become the ombudsman for the Sunnis.

In his direct way, Col. Nicholson said it best when addressing the Fallujah city council: "Sooner or later, the American military is leaving," he said. "Work with us now to ensure your own security and living conditions. Or risk returning to 2004, when Zarqawi and imams with whips took over your city."

At this stage, no one can predict how Iraq will turn out. American leadership is not the determining factor. The criticism of the secretary of defense from six retired generals had scant impact among the battalions and training teams I visited. Soldiers on the front lines have more important things to think about and little time to gossip about matters far removed from them.

The problem is the lack of Iraqi leadership. The singular intelligence failure was not the missing weapons of mass destruction; it was not understanding that 30 years of dependency enforced by murder had eradicated both trust and initiative.

Yet the three critical tasks demand Iraqi, rather than American, leadership. First, the government in Baghdad must drive a wedge between Shiite extremists and the Shiite militias and similarly split al-Qaida and the religious extremists from the Sunni "mainstream" insurgents. Second, the ministries in Baghdad must support their police and army forces in the field. As matters stand, U.S. advisers and commanders have to apply pressure repeatedly before Baghdad will respond. At all levels in the Iraqi system, there is an instinct to hoard—and too often to steal and skim—that deprives the fighting units of basic commodities. Third, the police must be reformed. How Sunni police can be effective and not be assassinated in their own cities is still unclear. Conversely, the Shiite police in Baghdad have lost all credibility and trust among the Sunnis.

On the positive side of the ledger, three major hurdles were cleared during the last 12 months. First, elections were held and a government was chosen. Second, an Iraqi army at the battalion fighting level emerged. Third, Iraq weathered the sectarian strife in February without a political collapse.

With U.S. forces drawing down and a bisectarian government emerging in Baghdad, the "mainstream" rejectionists have lost their rationale. The insurgent leaders, however, avoid risk in battle by paying impoverished youths $40 to emplace IEDs. Spending more than $300 billion in Iraq, the United States never created a jobs program to compete with $40 IEDs. As for the insurgent leaders, if captured, they face a porous and corrupt judicial system that frequently releases them. Before they quit, they will ask what reward they will receive and how they can stay alive to enjoy it. What's more, the insurgency enjoys the support of hundreds of Sunni imams who preach sedition knowing the judicial system will do nothing.

In Ramadi, al-Qaida must be destroyed before there can be any local settlement. Watch Ramadi to see if the Iraqi army and police will fight together.

In Fallujah, though, al-Qaida does not control the local insurgents. Watch Fallujah to see if a political settlement can be reached between a predominantly Shiite national government and the local Sunni insurgent leaders.

By American standards, the violence in Fallujah is horrific. But the mayor, the city council, the police—and the local insurgents—are bargaining with Baghdad about their future. If you compare the city with its own past, State Department diplomat Kyle Weston said, "Today Fallujah is a cauldron of politics, not military battle."

With two years' experience on the front lines as a diplomat, Weston won the respect of the Marines. He is saying roughly what Gen. Casey told me at his residence several days earlier: "Iraq is a political-military problem," he said, "with the political component written in big block letters. It's not about us; it's about the Iraqis who have to work it out."

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

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