In some campaigns, most notably in Anbar province, U.S. troops are relying on Iraqi proxies, especially Sunni tribes, to stem violence. Successful as some of these efforts are, they too have only short-lived benefits. Proxies are "essential in winning a counterinsurgency," the soldiers write, but, in order for that strategy to work, the proxies must be "loyal to the center that we claim to support"—i.e., they must be loyal to the central government in Baghdad. The Sunni tribes, like the other sectarian militias, have no such loyalty.
Not even the most optimistic officers and analysts would claim that the United States can win this war by itself. Petraeus, among others, has said that the military campaign cannot produce victory; it can only provide breathing room for the Iraqi political factions to reconcile and create a unified government. Many, even perhaps Bush, are beginning to doubt if Iraq's current nominal government can handle this.
But the seven soldiers doubt something more basic than even this: They doubt, on the basis of their own experience, that the military campaign can provide the breathing room. Even with the surge, the U.S. military must rely on the coherent cooperation of the Iraqi police and military. And the soldiers say in their op-ed piece that the Iraqi police and military are part of the problem.
The seven soldiers are named in the byline—Army Spc. Buddhika Jayamala; Sgts. Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, and Edward Sandmeier; and Staff Sgts. Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy. But are they still in Iraq? Are they transiting out or already back home? I sent the soldiers e-mails, asking these questions. They haven't yet responded. Do they still have their laptops? Are they facing reprisals? Are their Army careers over (at their own choice or that of others)?
I've put the question to several Army and Central Command spokesmen. None have replied; some say they're looking into it. Meanwhile, they're putting the best face on the Times piece. Cmndr. David Werner, a public-affairs officer at Centcom, reading from an official statement, said, "We're proud of their intelligence and grit and insight. We do offer a variety of means by which soldiers can express their views." However, he added, the op-ed piece represents "seven individual views. There's 160,000 U.S. service members in Iraq presently. Others have their own views."
It is important to note that, at least on the face of the op-ed piece, the seven soldiers are not anti-war. In fact, the piece states, "While we have the will and the resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require measures we will always refuse—namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force."
Here they open up, but don't go on to address, a broader issue: The cases of "successful" counterinsurgency campaigns that many advocates and historians cite—most notably, the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya—involved much more brutality than we would likely tolerate today and perhaps more casualties and time as well. This raises a still larger question (which some officers and specialists, including a few who helped Petraeus write the Army's recent field manual on counterinsurgency, regard as the question): Is the U.S. military—and are the American people—well-suited and prepared to fight these kinds of wars, once they understand just what they entail?