A View from Iraq

I have a friend that is a somewhat recent West Point graduate who is now on his second tour of duty in Iraq.  This time he works on the staff of a Brigadier Genereal of the Army.

He recently wrote many of his family and friends a letter where he talks about Iraq, what we are doing there and his feelings.  What I like best is that he clearly loves the people there and their resolution and courage.  But he also sees the challenges that cannot be solved quickly and maybe not at all by the USA military.  I liked his letter so much I asked and received permission to share it with the readers of this Blog.  His name is Walter and he is a Captain in the US Army.

There is food for thought here for all elements of the political spectrum.

His words begin here …

What is America doing here [here being Iraq, in case you didn’t read the last e-mail]?

The United States Forces – Iraq is hellaciously busy planning. While our diplomats negotiate with the Iraqis concerning an extension of American troops past the deadline of 31 December, the herculean task of moving all our equipment and soldiers out of the country continues. If you read the news, you’ll notice the new talk is of leaving 3,000 soldiers here instead of the 10,000 that dominated discussion for most of the summer. Either way, most of the actual training is being done by contractors, and that’s what will likely continue after 2012 anyway. What is truly fascinating is watching the military bureaucracy at work. USF-I has myriad staffs, working groups, committees, meetings to prepare for other meetings… it is impressive. It also means that egos, organizational stove pipes, different groups working at cross efforts or unwittingly tackling the same problem, and of course having too many chiefs and not enough Indians make things difficult. And that’s before you start coordinating with the Department of State while preparing to make everything their responsibility. Nonetheless, the people working here are bright, committed, and trying to make a difference. I’m almost universally impressed by the General Officers here as well, which is certainly heartening.

American forces are also busily training the Iraqis, especially on the sweet big ticket defense items we’ve sold them (we could probably solve our employment issues by selling the entire world our last generation of defense technology). These include an old variant of the Abrams battle tank, the M113 armored personnel carrier, and M198 and M109 artillery pieces. Only a few of Iraq’s divisions will be outfitted with this modern equipment, but the challenges are nonetheless substantial, especially since religious tensions come into play on deciding which divisions receive which toys. We have to teach the Iraqis how to operate and maintain complex machinery that is not only completely new to their military, but greatly stresses a fractured and fledgling logistical capability. The Iraqis will be the first to tell you that this is not one of their strengths, and culturemay have something to do with it. That link delves into greater detail than I can, and right or wrong is a very interesting read. On the other hand, I was present for the first firing of Iraqi artillery since the invasion, and the amount of sheer joy expressed by our Iraqi counterparts of all ranks was immeasurable. The Americans who have been here multiple times over are very proud of the progress Iraq has made.


What do you think of the Iraqis?

My last time here I interacted with them at the small unit level and was impressed by the generosity and hospitality of the Iraqi people. I should note that my soldiers who had fought against and lost friends to Iraqi insurgents on previous tours were far less forgiving. Now I talk almost exclusively to Iraqi generals (as the “schedule man” to BG Mealer, according to one of them). They are just like our Army, with some extremely competent leaders and some that leave you scratching your head at how they got their stars. The best ones invariably speak excellent English (a trait reciprocated by none of our senior leadership that I’m aware of), display a strong sense of humor, are fierce patriots, and realize how much work lies ahead of them. To a man, they desire American forces to stay beyond December. They also see Iran as the greatest threat to Iraq. During a discussion on the Abrams training program, we told one that it takes 10 years before an American is considered a fully qualified tank instructor. The Iraqi replied that we should call and tell Iran to wait 10 years, then. Another one remarked that “in all the world, the weak, nobody listen to him, everybody want bite from him. If you leave now you leave us in the mouth of the lion.” Today I sat in on a meeting with an Iraqi four star general who I swear was educated at Oxford. He began the meeting discussing the Arab Spring, and likened the transition from American troops to Department of State as reminding him “of the morning flower. It blossoms at the beginning of the day and closes at the end of the evening.”

Even more fascinating is Kurdistan. First of all, the animosity the Kurds bear towards Arabs means it is by far the safest region of Iraq (unless you count the Turks and Iranians pursuing separatists across national borders). While American soldiers don’t leave the International Zone in Baghdad, the cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah are so safe that you can walk around unarmed. However, they have seen their comparative advantage vis-à-vis the Iraqi military decline significantly, especially because American efforts to strengthen the central Iraqi state mean their own Peshmerga lack the heavy weaponry of normal Iraqi Army units. The Kurds still love us, but they are deeply worried that once we leave they will suffer again. One of them summarized it this way: “We need money for construction because our country has been destroyed. We are relying on our friends the Americans to help us… for the past seven years you have been giving the Iraqis all the money, and now they have what they want, they have the power, and we have a destroyed country… Please understand we are very thankful. In the name of the […] the Kurdish people, we thank you. We blame the decision makers. They don’t like us because we are different. Everything happening now is the same as under Saddam.”


What is Walter’s corner of USF-I doing in Iraq?

My piece of this puzzle has moved from the original posting, Iraq Train and Advising Mission – Army, to the USF-I J5 (Plans). This staff is responsible for strategy, assessments, and most everything taking place in the future. BG Mealer has already been here for over a year, but GEN Austin (currently vying with GEN Odierno for tallest 4 star general) extended her tour to make her the Deputy of this particular staff. The Director is BG (P, which means he’s been selected for 2 stars) Snow, who served as the ITAM-ARMY Director beforehand. They’re both exceptionally bright, driven, and wrestling with what seems like a million different working groups and meetings that attempt to keep the ship of our nation’s efforts here sailing on a smooth line. Interestingly, we’re teaching the Iraqis pretty well in that regard. At the end of a meeting today, the Iraqi conclusion was to form several working groups and hold semi-annual conferences. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is!


What is Walter actually doing in Iraq?

I’m still working as the aide-de-camp for BG Mealer, who brought me with her to the J5. Does  this show her to be a poor judge of character? Absolutely. However, nobody is perfect. I do the important things, like keep her calendar, ensure she arrives to meetings on time and prepared (Heaven forbid the PowerPoint slides aren’t present), coordinate her travel, and of course do her laundry (much less menial than it sounds, since we’ve contracted for laundry services that take care of that). I spend my free time reading, exercising, and studying German, Chinese, and Arabic as well as Army Doctrine. You might want to ask, does Walter have too much free time? In response I ask you to do a word count on this e-mail.


What is Walter’s opinion of how this ends?

I should qualify this by stating that my opinion isn’t worth much. First of all, I don’t trust anything a 25 year old says about national strategy, and neither should you. Then again, the same could be said for many 52 year olds. I’m just an aide and don’t sit in the top level meetings or talk to the principal Iraqi policy makers besides saying hello and goodbye. Equally important is that a soldier’s job involves the execution of foreign policy, not forming it. At least, that’s what I remember from Huntington. What’s more, my opinion is difficult to nail down, and it often depends on my mood, the temperature (finally dropping, by the way), and of course the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter. To trot out the old cliché, where you stand depends on where you sit. Looking at the same data set through a different perspective can lead you to wildly different conclusions. To illustrate this fact, I’ve written two sample op-eds you might find in a mediocre newspaper *cough* AtlantaJournalConstitution *cough*.

1.     “Our failed imperial adventure draws to a conclusion.”

As the date for the complete removal of US troops from Iraq nears, the current spike in violence, political gridlock, and sectarian tensions underline how little our invasion accomplished. It’s true that we overthrew a brutal dictator who killed thousands of his own people. But what have we actually achieved in the time hence to either make Iraq a better country to live in or – in line with the original justification for the invasion – increased our own national security? Not much. Despite seven years pumping trillions of taxpayer dollars into the country, Iraq’s residents still deal with critical infrastructure shortfalls. Anbar province, cited as a success story because of the Sunni Awakening widely seen as crucial to the success of the “Surge,” has less than 8 hours of electricity a day. Roughly a third of Iraq’s citizens lack access to sewage services. Many provinces, including Baghdad, have unemployment of 25% or higher. When you place these stark facts against the backdrop of ongoing violence that leaves hundreds dead every month it is easy to understand why Iraqis are losing faith in their government.


The messy political system that replaced Saddam has proven equally unresponsive to the will of the people. Prime Minister Maliki left the crucial posts of Minister of Interior and Defense empty for months on end to maintain his grip on the levers of power, stalling much-needed reform and development projects. His chief rival, Allawi, went so far as to accuse him of torture, dictatorial tendencies, and gross mismanagement in a recent article published by the Washington Post. Political posturing notwithstanding, one thing is for certain: President Bush grossly miscalculated in invading Iraq and prosecuting the ensuing conflict. America and Iraq have suffered astronomical costs in blood and treasure to the advantage of the region’s true malign influence, Iran. The mullahs continue to provide Shiite extremist groups with sophisticated weaponry to bomb our convoys, attack our bases, and force more and more of the Iraqi elite to follow their de facto representative, Muqtada al Sadr.


Looking back over the last decade, it’s impossible to keep from thinking that America’s war of choice in Iraq likely cost us victory in Afghanistan. To add insult to injury, the Arab Spring adds further proof that a country’s populace has the power to accomplish what no amount of GIs and American Provincial Reconstruction Teams can match. What’s more, it has helped bring about our current financial distress, exhaust our military, and led to renewed calls for American isolationism. It’s time to forego foreign adventures and start dealing with the aftermath of short-sighted and duplicitous policy.


2.     “Glimmers of Hope in the Cradle of Civilization.”

Excluding the possibility of a new agreement between Iraq and the United States, America’s combat soldiers are mere months from completely withdrawing from the country. As they turn over America’s partnership with the Iraqis to the Department of State, they can do so knowing they made a crucial difference in the lives of millions. Despite initial failures, President Bush had the courage to double down on Iraq, and in David Petraeus found a general able to help the military relearncounterinsurgency. Since the “Surge” broke the insurgency’s back, the partnership between Iraq and America has yielded tangible security benefits. Of Iraq’s 18 provinces, only two still see enough violence to qualify as unstable.


Despite a historical trend for increased violence during Ramadan, August was the first month since our invasion that not a single American soldier was killed in action. The volatile region between Kurdish and Arab Iraq maintains a tenuous truce despite the removal of American soldiers from the Combined Security Mechanism. Prime Minister Maliki finally ended political gridlock by appointing Ministers of Interior and Defense. What’s more, the Arab Spring proved that yearning for democracy comes just as naturally and is felt just as powerfully throughout the Arab world as in other parts of the globe. Iraq’s military now boasts powerful Abrams battle tanks, APCs, and artillery that combine with expert American training to shape it into an effective guarantor of both national sovereignty and a convincing counterweight to Iran. Just as important, with the price of oil still over $100 a barrel and the world’s second largest proven oil reserves, Iraq has the resources to invest in the infrastructure it so desperately needs.


As Syria’s Assad continues to machine gun demonstrators and Egypt’s military struggles to manage a transition to democracy, the region can look to Iraq for valuable lessons learned. Was everything done as well as it should have been? No, but great undertakings are rarely perfect from the start. One of the proudest American traditions is reinvention, and our success in Iraq proves that it is alive and well. Even after a decade of war and no matter what some people say, the United States hasn’t lost its soft power appeal: we are still considered the coolest country in the world by far. Seeing the difficult road in Iraq to completion is a testament to our men and women, both uniformed and civilian, tirelessly striving to make a difference. History will show that they have.


— end of letter  —


Thanks Walter for the insights and unexpected view of a far away place.


Posted in Essays, Personal Stories, Spiritual Threads

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