Iraq has changed dramatically in the year since my last visit. Last month, I was honored to visit the Coalition leadership in Baghdad, as well as Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. Army and Marine combat units throughout the country. Thanks to an excellent personal security detail, I was able to cover a lot of ground quickly in the extremely violent and tricky environment presented by the ongoing insurgency and the extensive criminal activity faced by military forces, contractors and journalists, as well as the suffering Iraqi civilian population.
One thing has not changed in Iraq: Our fighting forces on the ground represent the most combat effective, courageous and well led military capability we have ever fielded. This may be insufficiently understood and valued by those who monitor this conflict. Their casualties are a fraction of what we should expect given the level of cunning and firepower that has targeted them with automatic weapons fire, mortar and rocket attacks, RPG strikes, the greatly feared suicide bombers, and remotely detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs.) We currently lose a battalion a month of soldiers and Marines killed, wounded and injured. Our troops remain confident and demonstrate incredible bravery and restraint. Their sergeants, lieutenants and captains are in many cases now in their third combat tour since 9/11. The in-country re-enlistment rate is sky high in elite units like the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (250% of objective).
This U.S. fighting force in Iraq of 140,000 troops (more than half of whom are National Guard and Reserve Forces) is the crown jewel of our national security guarantee to the American people in the War on Terror.
In addition, I was very reassured to see the enormous cooperation and teamwork of the U.S. military and U.S. embassy senior leadership. Our brilliant former ambassador, John Negroponte, and the steady and experienced four-star joint commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, have put together a seamless and mission-oriented strategy that has jump-started the economic recovery, pushed to the forefront the Iraqi interim government and rationalized the huge burn rate ($5 billion per month) of U.S. Treasury resources in spite of an environment of great chaos and endemic corruption.
Iraqi Forces Crux of War
Two new realities have emerged since the successful elections of the Iraqi interim government. First, the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) is now real and appearing in great numbers (169,000 police and army). They have real equipment (automatic weapons, some tanks and armored personnel carriers, personal body armor, light trucks, radios) and the beginnings of a national command and control and logistics system. They are increasingly well prepared for operations by the national training system created by the incredibly talented Lt. Gen. Dave Petraeus.
Many of these forces (perhaps 60,000 plus) are now operating in the cities and rural areas of Iraq and confronting the insurgency with courage and resolve. The ISF have taken horrendous casualties—600 killed and 1,800 wounded since the election. The losses have deepened their commitment. Recruiting has gotten easier—not more difficult. By next summer there will be 250,000 Iraqis in the uniforms of their armed forces and the Interior Ministry Police.
The Iraqi units that I observed in training and action are patriots with a commitment to creating a new Iraq. I don’t use these words lightly—the creation of the ISF is the crux of the war. In my view, these ISF units by next summer may well allow a significant drawdown of a third or more of the deployed U.S. forces.
Finally, in my judgment, the Sunni population (20% of Iraq) that enslaved and ruined Iraq over the past 35 years has now collectively decided they made a fundamental misjudgment in sitting out the last election. In my view, if the ongoing constitutional process can be nurtured to a successful conclusion and allow elections of a new government in December, then we will see the high point of the insurgency pass this coming January. The energy will begin to drain out of the violent maelstrom of Iraq and by the fall of 2006 we will see the beginnings of a stable and viable Iraqi state.
Race Against Time
This will continue to be hard work in Iraq. Progress will be non-linear. Casualties will be a trailing indicator of successful political integration. Iraq will be bloody at least through the coming summer even given the positive findings I believe are likely. To succeed, we must sustain both a robust U.S. military presence and continuing significant U.S. taxpayer economic support to develop Iraq’s infrastructure for the coming three to five years. If we adopt a publicly articulated “exit strategy,” we risk reversion to a bloody civil war that will destroy all that we have accomplished through the great daring and courage of the military, State Department and CIA inter-agency team.
From the beginning, I have believed Iraq was the right war, in the right place, at the right time. President Bush showed great political and moral courage knocking down the sanctuaries of both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, many believe these operations were badly executed because of fundamental misjudgments and micro-management by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon civilian leaders. Now we have the right forces in Iraq, superb leadership, growing traction of the ISF, a developing Iraqi-led political strategy and an Iraqi economy that is struggling off its knees. We are also in a race against time. The U.S. Army and the Marines are too under-manned and under-resourced to sustain this security policy beyond next fall. They are starting to unravel. Congress is in denial and must act. In addition, the American people are losing faith in the statements of our Defense Department leadership. Support for the war is plummeting along with active-duty and National Guard recruiting.
Political Will and Clarity
The U.S. Army needs to increase by 80,000 personnel and the Marines by 25,000. In addition, serious targeted recruiting educational and economic incentives need to be provided by Congress. Finally, the challenge of recruiting dedicated young men and women to the Armed Forces calls for public support and involvement by America’s political leaders, educators, coaches and parents. Supporting a strong armed forces is not the responsibility of Marine and Army recruiting sergeants, but of all of us who benefit from our national defense.
We must achieve our purpose in both Afghanistan and Iraq of building viable, law-based, non-threatening states that allow American military withdrawal. There is no reason we cannot carry out our aim. Failure would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy and economic interests for the next 20 years. Our troops in the face of danger are now growing worried—will the American people sustain them to achieve victory or ignore their struggles on the frontier of the War on Terror?
Now is the time for nonpartisan, collective leadership to support and guide our strategy in the ongoing operations in Southwest Asia. Lack of political will and clarity will surely snatch failure from the impending realization of our objectives if we do not act to support those who have given so much to America’s defense.
Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal © 2005, Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved