Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Those Who Know Admit: No Military Solution

This is not Vietnam, we were told. And so we have believed. We have disregarded the eerie similarities between George W. Bush's war and the war that defined America's most divisive and useless military conflict: How the American people were lied to about the causes for its origin . . . how war crimes have been covered up . . . how the support has steadily eroded. And now, slowly, the story is beginning to emerge of the most telling similarity between the two conflicts yet: How the local troops, who are being counted on to shoulder the burden when the American occupation forces eventually depart, simply are not up to the task.

It was this inability and unwillingness to fight for a government they did not believe in that led to the ignominious defeat of South Vietnam. And the same indications are beginning to surface in Iraq.


"Building Iraq's Army: Mission Improbable. Project in North Reveals Deep Divide Between U.S. and Iraqi Forces," was the ominous headline in The Washington Post last Friday. Reporters Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru painted the picture of Iraqi troops with inadequate arms, less-than-ideal inspiration, and distrusted by their American overseers. (One Army commander referred to the Iraqis as "preschoolers with guns.")
Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don't respect them.

In fact, the Americans don't: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis' courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military's goal of operating independently by the fall. (Read the full article.)

While tagging along with a military-selected unit, the reporters noted significant chasms of understanding and lifestyle that may make a concerted effort impossible.

The journey revealed fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable differences over everything from the reluctance of Muslim soldiers to search mosques and homes to basic questions of lifestyle. Earlier this year, for instance, the Americans imported Western-style portable toilets that the Iraqis, accustomed to another style, found objectionable. In an attempt to bridge the difference, the U.S. military installed diagrams depicting proper use of the "port-a-johns."
The story speaks of the Iraqis' disgust in having to use weapons that don't work.

The men spoke of the insurgents with a hint of awe, saying the fighters were willing to die and outgunned them with rocket-propelled grenades and, more fearsome, car bombs. Zwayid, a father of three, looked in disgust at his own AK-47 assault rifle, with a green shoelace for a strap.

"We fire 10 bullets and it falls apart," he said. Zwayid patted a heavy machine gun mounted in the bed of the Humvee. "This jams," he said. "Are these the weapons worthy of a soldier?"
The reporters note the Iraqi soldiers' disaffection with poor living conditions as well:
The men are housed at what they call simply "the base," a place as sparse as the name. Most of the Iraqis sleep in two tents and a shed with a concrete floor and corrugated tin roof that is bereft of walls. Some have cots; others sleep on cardboard or pieces of plywood stacked with tattered and torn blankets. The air conditioners are broken. There is no electricity.

Drinking water comes from a sun-soaked camouflage tanker whose meager faucet also provides water for bathing.

"This is the shower of the National Guard, Baiji Division," said Tala Izba, 23, a corporal, as others laughed.

"Mines, car bombs and our duties, and then we have to come back to this?" said another soldier, Kamil Khalaf.

These are just a few of the reasons that other U.S. commanders insist that a military solution is impossible. Tom Lasseter of Knight-Ridder reports that the military men now recognize this inevitability:

Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, said the insurgency doesn't seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting. "We can't kill them all," Wellman said. "When I kill one I create three." (Read the entire article.)
Even the chief U.S. military spokesman and its top commander agree.
"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military's efforts "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" -- pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.

"Like in Baghdad," Casey said during an interview with two newspaper reporters, including one from Knight Ridder, last week. "We push in Baghdad -- they're down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week -- but in north-center (Iraq)... they've gone up," he said. "The political process will be the decisive element."
That political process, of course, is locked down in a struggle between Iraq's dominant Shiite majority, who had been repressed under Saddam Hussein, and the Sunni minority, who had held power under Saddam and are refusing to give it up.

At least this is one difference between Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States refused to understand that there were many South Vietnamese who refused to back what they considered corrupted puppets of colonial rule, first the French and then the Americans. The U.S. ignored them and drove them into the arms of the Viet Cong. In Iraq, at least our political leaders recognize that there are many elements, including the Kurds, who need to come together to make a political solution work.

But while we're trying to weave a cat's cradle that we hope will intertwine religious and ethnic groups that have learned over centuries to distrust one another, we remain in denial that the escalating violence will be kept in control. Just as in Vietnam.

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