Un­ex­pected hope from a visit to Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Michelle Malkin

Ear­lier this month, I embed­ded with U.S. Army troops at For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base Jus­tice in north­ern Bagh­dad. Out­side the wire, we toured the slums and met with neigh­bor­hood lead­ers inch­ing to­ward self­suf­fi­ciency in al Salam. We sipped chai with a sheikh who con­demned ter­ror­ists on all sides. We watched res­i­dents bicker over a civil af­fairs blan­ket drop in Khadamiyah. We sat with slimy Mahdi Army apol­o­gists in Hur­riya. We stopped by a Sunni in­sur­gent en­clave, which sol­diers I pa­trolled with dubbed a “sniperville,” in al Adil.

There’s noth­ing glam­orous or ro­man­tic about th­ese mis­sions. No one will make a movie about our men and women in uni­form en­gaged in the te­dious, painstak­ing busi­ness of mov­ing Iraq to­ward sta­bil­ity and gov­ern­abil­ity. But if the war is to be won — if se­cu­rity is to be es­tab­lished and the foun­da­tions of a civil so­ci­ety bol­stered — this is ground zero. The troops I met ask only three things of their fel­low Amer­i­cans back home: time, pa­tience and un­der­stand­ing of the enor­mous com­plex­i­ties on the ground.

In Wash­ing­ton, coun­terin­sur­gency the­ory (COIN) is a neat, elite in­tel­lec­tual ab­strac­tion. Since coali­tion forces sim­ply can’t catch and kill ev­ery in­sur­gent lurk­ing in the pop­u­lace, the the­ory goes, it’s up to the mil­i­tary to per­suade the Iraqi peo­ple to turn on the in­sur­gents, join the po­lit­i­cal process and help them­selves. At FOB Jus­tice — for­mer head­quar­ters of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s ruth­less mil­i­tary intelligence unit, the site of the dic­ta­tor’s ex­e­cu­tion by hang­ing and home to the Dag­ger Brigade 2nd Brigade Com­bat Team, 1st In­fantry Di­vi­sion — COIN is a vivid, hands-on re­al­ity. Here, a task force of brainy com­man­ders, brawny pa­trol of­fi­cers, coura­geous Arab-Amer­i­can in­ter­preters, wiz­ened train­ers and in­tel gath­er­ers, baby­faced con­voy driv­ers and grimhu­mored gun­ners at­tempts to put Pres­i­dent Bush’s “win­ning hearts and minds” ide­al­ism into daily prac­tice.

Mod­ern war in the Mid­dle East is no longer as cut-and-dried as shoot­ing all the bad guys and go­ing home. We are fight­ing a “war of the fleas” — not just Sunni ter­ror­ists and Shi­ite death squads, but mul­ti­ple home-grown and for­eign op­er­a­tors, street gangs, or­ga­nized crime and free­lance ji­hadis con­duct­ing am­bushes, ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings, sec­tar­ian at­tacks, ve­hi­cle bomb­ings and sabotage against Amer­i­can, coali­tion and Iraqi forces. Cell phones, satel­lites and the In­ter­net have al­lowed the fleas to mag­nify their im­por­tance, dis­sem­i­nate in­sur­gent pro­pa­ganda in­stantly and weaken po­lit­i­cal will.

I came to Iraq a dark­en­ing pes­simist about the war, due in large part to my doubts about the com­pat­i­bil­ity of Is­lam and Western­style democ­racy, but also as a re­sult of the steady, sen­sa­tional diet of “grim mile­stone” and “daily IED count” me­dia cov­er­age that aids the in­sur­gency.

I left Iraq with un­ex­pected hope and re­solve.

The ev­ery­day brav­ery and con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the troops I embed­ded with have strength­ened my faith in the U.S. mil­i­tary. Th­ese sol­diers are well aware of the his­tory, cul­ture and sec­tar­ian strife that have wracked the Mus­lim world for more than a mil­len­nium. “They love death,” one gun­ner mut­tered as we heard ex­plo­sions in the dis­tance while parked in al Adil. Nev­er­the­less, th­ese troops are will­ing to put their lives on the line to bring se­cu­rity to Iraq, one neigh­bor­hood at a time.

They have teamed with Sunni and Shia, Iraqi civil­ian and sol­dier alike to es­tab­lish lo­cal gov­ern­ment struc­tures and se­cu­rity frame­work dis­tricts. “We are not here to build the Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces,” Lt. Col. Steven Miska, deputy com­man­der for the Dag­ger Brigade Com­bat Team, 1st In­fantry Di­vi­sion, said. “We’re here to grow them. You can’t just plant and walk away.” Capt. Aaron Kauf­man of Task Force Jus­tice added: “It’s not a six­month or year-long process, es­pe­cially when you’re talk­ing about train­ing the Iraqi forces.”

The troops I met scoff at peace ac­tivists’ ef­forts to “bring them home now.” But they are just as crit­i­cal of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and Pen­tagon’s mis­steps — from hold­ing Iraqi elec­tions too early, to sense­lessly break­ing up their brigade com­bat team, to draw­ing down forces and with­draw­ing last year in Bagh­dad and Fal­lu­jah, to fail­ing to hold cities af­ter clear­ing them of in­sur­gents. They speak can­didly and crit­i­cally of Shi­ite mili­tia in­fil­tra­tion of some Iraqi po­lice and Iraqi Army units and cor­rup­tion in gov­ern­ment min­istries, but they want you to know about the un­her­alded good news, too.

Ev­ery day, Iraqi Army trainees risk their lives and their fam­ily’s lives to come to work at FOB Jus­tice. Res­i­dents of Khadamiyah approach the base with tips. Schools are re-open­ing; neigh­bor­hood coun­cils are shar­ing intelligence. “All those things are com­ing to­gether,” Capt. Stacy Bare, civil af­fairs of­fi­cer, said em­phat­i­cally.

Win­ning the coun­terin­sur­gency bat­tle is not just about keep­ing Iraqis safe. It’s about keep­ing Amer­i­cans safe — by send­ing a mes­sage that the might­i­est mil­i­tary in the world can­not and will not be out­wit­ted and out­lasted by the fleas. On the em­blem of the Dag­ger Brigade are two im­per­a­tives: “Con­tinue mis­sion!” and “Duty first.” Th­ese troops are com­mit­ted to their mis­sion. They de­serve our com­mit­ment to them.

Michelle Malkin is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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