Sunday, September 21, 2008
Everybody and his brother linked to Dexter Filkins' article in today's New York Times on the changes in Iraq since his last tour there, as well they should have. It is excellent, and you should read it now if you glided past the link earlier in the day.
I happened to be in Princeton's Barnes & Noble this evening, and the tables out front are packed with books that assume, as if it were beyond debate, that Iraq has been an American defeat. One book included a preface written in December 2007 that denied that the surge had done anything but make matters worse. There is now almost irrefutable evidence that the authors of such books were prisoners of wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the readers of such books do not necessarily know it.
In any case, the antidote to all that defeatism is Michael Yon's outstanding Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New 'Greatest Generation' of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope, a tour de force in combat journalism. He spares nobody, especially not the Bush administration and the Army, for failing to understand the nature of that war and, particularly, that in the first four years we got crushed in the "media battlespace" even as we were killing jihadis by the truckload. One of the most important features of the Petraeus strategy was understanding that; Yon does not say it, but Donald Rumsfeld may have had to go for the Petraeus strategy to have succeeded.
Anyway, I laboriously an excerpt from the end of Yon's book so you can see how closely Filkins new opinion resembles his in all the important ways. Both are worth reading in their entirety. Note especially the warning at the end of the excerpt from Yon.
So Mosul is complicated, and it will take a while. But after five years of blood, toil, and mountains of treasure, Iraq is coming into brighter days. Violence is down. Iraqis who previously wanted dollars when I shopped in their stores now prefer to be paid in Iraq dinar. The civil war has ended. People are coming home. People say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Iraq is one nation. Those who suggest that Iraq should be partitioned, noting Iraqis often do not get along and the Sunni-Shia rift is profound, miss the crucial reality that Iraqis consider themselves foremost to be Iraqis. The conflicts between Iraqi Sunni and Shia are largely political, not theological. Al Qaeda, now the main instigator of civil war, is thoroughly discredited and strategically crushed in Iraq. Today, al Qaeda's attempts to incite sectarian violence only backfire.
Iraqis are willing to fight for Iraq.
A good deal of this war was American soldiers and Iraqis sitting together, drinking tea, and working out problems like businesspeople. Religion rarely came up in these meetings. Just because Iraqis have "Allahu Akbar" on their flag doesn't mean they're foing to blow up the World Trade Center any more than "In God We Trust" means we're going to attack Communist China.
Iraq does not hate America. If they hated us, I'd be urging an immediate troop withdrawal, because there would be no hope of winning this war. If the Iraqis hated us, we would be fighting the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. Instead, we're fighting alongside them.
Several times I have told Iraqis, "One day Iraq and America can be good friends." They look at me in disbelief. "What do you mean?" they say. "We already are good friends."
At this point no nation on Earth knows more about Iraq than the United States. Iraqis have an affinity for things American. You see it everywhere. There's a gym in the Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad named "Arnold Gym." Arnold Gym is little more than a bench and a few free weights, but the kids who work out there not only admire the governor of California, whom they have never met, but also the American soldiers whom they see every day. In Mosul in 2007, Command Sargeant Major James Pippin taught the local children to raise their index fingers and pinks and say, "Hook 'em horns." The kids had no idea what that meant, and neither did I, but they did it every time a Humvee passed because they respected CSM Pippin, who got shot, then mostly healed up after many painful months, and returned to the battle.
There are lots of kitchen accidents in Iraq. Kids get burned. American soldiers can't take it when they see a kid get burned. If they are in the neighborhood on a mission and they see a burned kid, they will cancel the mission to get the kid to an American aid station, which, technically, they shouldn't be doing. But a lot of tough soldiers get weak knee'd when they see a kid in trouble. They'll shoot insurgents all day and all night and can't get enough of it, but when they see a kid hurt, they'll stop and drive off with the kid. Thousands upon thousands of these obviously spontaneous actions had a profound effect on how the Iraqis see us. They knew we did a lot of stupid and overbearing things, even brutal and criminal things at times. But they also could not deny that, on the whole, our people had a heart for them, or at least for their kids. And who couldn't like Iraqi kids? Practically everywhere the kids loved to see the soldiers, and the soldiers loved to see the kids.
War is ugly. But if you are going to fight at all, it's important to fight to win. We have created the conditions for peace in Iraq. But our job is not finished. The worst thing that could happen now would be surrendering when victory -- real victory, not just empty triumph -- is so close.
When our troops start drawing down, as they should when the conditions are favorable, the drawdown must be done methodically, for reasons both strategic and logistic. A hasty withdrawal would only empower our enemies and allow al Waeda to regenerate. Politics dictates that politicians talk about withdrawal. The truth is right now we need more troops here, so we can get out of these tanks and other armor in Mosul and start walking the streets. The higher truth is that we are so close to winning, winning in the big sense of seeing Iraq be free and democratic, united and at peace (by local standards), that it would be a crime to hold back now. Maybe creating a powerful democracy in the Middle East was a foolish reason to go to war. Maybe it was never the reason we went to war. But it was within our grasp now and nearly all the hardest work has been done.
Whoever becomes our next president in January 2009 must be prepared for an uptick in violence in Iraq shortly after the inauguration. Insurgency is a political war, waged on the news cycle, and our enemies might well try to create an illusion of strength. If the new president is panicked by an illusion and pulls our troops out, we and the Iraqs likely will pay the price for decades, perhaps generations to come. If we precipitously withdraw our troops, all of the tremendous progress we are seeing will be lost....
Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New 'Greatest Generation' of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope