On Tuesday night New York Times correspondent Rich Oppel spoke at the Headliners Club about the war in Iraq. He indicated that he wanted the audience to take his observations as his reporting on the war, not his opinion. It is a difficult line to draw, and even more difficult to stick to, but generally he made a sincere effort to be objective. That said, it was clear that he thinks that the war was mismanaged from the start, and that whatever gains have been achieved are minimal. He began by talking about troop strength. The chief of staff of the army said we needed several hundred thousand troops. This was contradicted by civilians in the Pentagon (Rumsfeld, I presume). “It is clear now we were far, far short” of the necessary troop strength. It was a serious misjudgment.” The Army’s new insurgency manual says we need 1 soldier for each 20 residents. We had 170,000 troops when we needed half a million. Then he made the comment that is the headline of this post, followed by, “The effort was held together with string.” One example was the town of Bahuba, which was a very dangerous area near Baghdad. It had a population of 150,000. Under the Petraeus insurgency model, we would have needed three to four thousand troops to hold the area. ONE COMPANY (around 150 troops) had responsibility. They had an outpost which was a burned out building. That was the only thing they controlled. There was a hellacious battle here. Dozens of guerrillas tried to overrun the outpost. The Americans fired their machine guns until the barrels glowed cherry red. It was winter, and it was so cold that men gathered to be warmed by the turbine of a tank. An outpost in another area was known as “Disneyland.” It was attacked by sniper fire. The troops couldn’t go after the sniper because they had to wait for the Iraq troops, who weren’t ready to go. “I asked an Iraqi, ‘What happens if America leaves?'” The answer was, twenty minutes after the Americans left, we’d leave. They’d surround us and kill us all. (Part of this story was Oppel’s chilling account of how he and a photographer went in search of the sniper, drawing enemy fire from two directions.) As recently as a year ago, we still were deployed with too few troops. “We literally controlled nothing for miles around except the outpost.” You couldn’t talk to unit commanders without their breaking down and crying over the men they lost. General Petraeus was in Mosul with the 101st Airborne. When he left, he was replaced with a unit 1/4 the size. On the surge: Most of the surge troops went to Baghdad. The aim was to allow breathing room for the political process to work. There has been some halting progress. A bill passed to allow provincial elections, but it was vetoed. Another bill allowed Baathists back in the government, but the effect may be to force more Sunnis out of the government. An American official told Oppel that there is not nearly as much progress as he had hoped there would be. Some good news: Violence is down in Baghdad (but not in Basra or Mosul). In the capital, the markets are coming back, also clothing stores, restaurants, people are less afraid to venture out. But already the violence is starting to increase. April is the worst death toll since September. Four things contributed to the decline of violence: 1. Shiites won Baghdad. They eliminated many of the Sunnis through ethnic cleansing. 2. Sadr’s cease-fire. He represents the Nativist Iraqi, the poor, which would be a strong factor even without him. 3. We have Sunni guerrillas (“concerned local citizens”) on our payroll. They joined our side because they needed money and feared the Shiite leaders. But they also reject American occupation. Most are not motivated by religion or jihad. This has made an amazing difference in Anbar province. But it may not be due to troop surge; it may be the policy of paying the Sunnis. Where to from here? 1. Wait out the clock. Let a new president figure out what to do. 2. There are competing arguments for staying and leaving. –For staying: America has a moral responsibility. We broke this country and unleashed terrific forces. Second argument: American troops on the ground helps contain Iran. Iran would like to see breakaway Shia state in southern Iraq. By staying, we give Iraqis time to address security. –For leaving: 1. We’re draining manpower from other assignments (Afghanistan). 2. The Iraqis won’t do anything until we leave. 3. Very high toll on our troops. 4. Iraqis will never reconcile themselves to an American occupation. At least the Sunnis have warmed to the realization that Iran is the greater enemy There are two perilous situations for the U.S. One is in Basra. Iraqi forces are trying to rid Basra of criminals. U.S. is helping. The other take on this is that Maliki is trying to weaken Sadr, taking sides in an Iraqi civil war. The Sadr cease fire helped us immensely. The American military knows what Sadr can do to them. They refer to him as “Salid,” a descendant of Muhammad. But Sec. of State Rice was contemptuous of him. We’re on the same side as the Iranians, we want Sadr put down. The Iski party (Shiite) wants a separate Shia area in the south. This is what Iran wants too. The Sunnis are not at all reconciled with the government. From a U.S. perspective, the Sunni insurgents are a much less alien force than the Shia. There is no easy decision. Every decision will lead to great consequences. This was the end of Oppel’s remarks. He avoided drawing any conclusions about whether we are “winning” or “losing” the war. Nor was he critical of U.S. policy, except for the initial decision about troop levels. He also said that the big winner (my words, not his) in the war has been Iran. We gave Iran a free hand to operate in Iraq. In the question and answer that followed, I asked whether U.S. policy had identifiable objectives, or whether it was simply ad hoc, and, if it did have definable objectives, were those objectives achievable. His answer was that it was the responsibility of the president to lay out a clear strategy. He cited a McCain adviser (Foresman) as being very critical of the generals’ testimony before Congress and Bush’s continuing insistence that the war was going well. Quoting the adviser, he said, “The American people deserve better than presidential bluster.” What I drew from Oppel’s presentation was that Iraq is an incredibly complex issue. There are factions within factions. The Shia, who we put in power because the Sunnis were aligned with the Baathists and Saddam, have gone on a killing rampage against the Sunnis. Even so, there is more good will than you would think; Shia families have hidden Sunni neighbors from the death squads. Oppel clearly believes that we are doing the smart thing by coming to the aid of the Sunnis, but he also questioned whether this was something that could last very long. Nothing that he said could support the idea that we have turned the corner in Iraq, or that the surge is working in any meaningful way.
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