Americans can simply click off their television sets and forget about the situation in Iraq. For the families living there, that’s just not possible. They have to live forever with the consequences of our actions.
Lt. Colonel James Crider, Squadron commander of the 1-4 Cavalry (“Quarter Cav”) said to me, “I’ve had several Iraqis tell me that…[t]hey want us here — not forever, but for now, until they can take care of themselves.” He added, they tell me, “It would be a disaster if you leave now.”
Iraqis’ opinions, actions, and welfare, should be front and center in this debate. I spoke with many Iraqis, as well as many soldiers about the Iraqis, during my recent trip to Baghdad. We talked about the current situation there and the effect of the American political debate on their lives and actions. Though the views of Iraqis , like those of Americans, span the spectrum of possible opinions, most of the people I met had one thing in common: a longing for freedom and safety, coupled with a knowledge that they need our help — at least in the near term.
The national government of Iraq is struggling against the ingrained mindset of the Iraqi people to think of themselves as members of tribes, sects, neighborhoods, and clans, rather than as members of a unified nation. “Saddam kept the country together,” an Iraqi expatriate, who fled in the 1990s and returned this year as a contractor, told me. “It hurts me to say this, but what we need is the American army to completely take over the government. The people are not ready for freedom yet; you took away the one thing that had held the country together without anything to replace him. That was a very big mistake.”
An Army Specialist agreed, saying, “I don’t know if we can win [this war] in the sense of leaving a perfect democracy here or an ideal situation in that sense — my feeling is sometimes that it might take another dictator, because the people here still don’t understand freedom the same way we do. Also, they don’t think of themselves as a nation — they think in terms of religion, sect, and tribe. They follow their local or religious leaders. A dictator is what it took before to hold the place together as one country, and might again.”
The American government is not helping, as it is playing its all-too-public political games. Though he may have thought of it as just being between him and his “friends” in the mainstream media and the fringe “Daily Kos” left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) comment that “the war is lost” and “the surge…hasn’t accomplished anything” was splashed on the front page of every news outlet from Al Jazeera to the Iranian state newspaper. Contrary to the beliefs of all too many Americans who seem tied to the notion that the Iraqi people are both blind and ignorant, Congress’s votes to set a withdrawal date from Iraq — much like their other, similar votes and statements — were heard with perfect clarity by Iraqis, as well as by the insurgents who take heart from them. These statements encourage Iran to increase its involvement, as well, as they are seeing an increasing political return on their deadly investment in this war. (A Colonel within the MNF-I political apparatus told me that “if you take [Iran] out of the equation…we could probably reduce our casualties almost in half.”)
“I had people coming up to me as we patrolled the neighborhoods saying, ‘We heard you were leaving,’ an officer with Quarter Cav told me. “They don’t understand our process; they don’t know that this is just rhetoric, or that it will be vetoed. All they know is that the leaders of our Congress said that it’s a lost cause, and that our government has voted to pick up and go home.”
Such statements by America’s political leaders are “terrible,” an Army public affairs soldier told me. She continued, “I understand political posturing …but it really is terrible. If the war is lost and we need to go home, then why do we need to stay here five more months, when I could die or my friends could die” for a lost cause? “The war is either over or it isn’t; this just doesn’t make sense.
“What we want is to keep helping the people here. The people at home who say these things, they don’t understand that these are people who have to live here after we leave, whatever the situation is. These people and the things that happen here aren’t real to them, and they can’t understand unless they’ve been here and seen it.”
Like many Americans at home, there are several soldiers who would like nothing more than to see the US end its involvement with Iraq as soon as possible. There are also many, though, who, having established a presence on the ground, and having spent time among the people of Iraq, want to see this mission through to a successful conclusion, not only for America’s sake, but for the sake of the people of Iraq whom they have gotten to know during their time in country.
Our young combat leaders understand — better than senior political leaders at home — how we hold the lives of Iraqis in our hands. One example is a bespectacled captain of infantry I spoke with , who was on his second tour in Iraq and had been there since just before Gen. Petraeus’s confirmation as the new head of MNF-I. I asked what he thought about the mission in Iraq, and what he thought the prospects for success were. Gazing pensively at the ground, he took a moment to collect his thoughts, and said, “Well, politically, staying here probably isn’t the best decision.” Given the situation at home, he added, “winning here seems less possible all the time, even though we’re now doing what it is we probably should have been doing all along.” Recovering from that moment of near despair, he paused and glanced up, and, looking earnestly at me through his thick, military-issue glasses, he said, “There’s not a single one of my soldiers who doesn’t look at the neighborhood we’re in, look at the children there, and not want to do whatever they can to give these kids as bright a future as possible. We want to finish this job, and we know we can do it.”
The Iraqi people themselves, though, are also an obstacle to their own success. “What has to happen here,” one noncommissioned officer told me, “is that the Iraqi people have to take a chance, risk their lives, and stand up against al-Qaeda and everybody else. Once they decide that they want freedom and peace, and want to work with us, then it will all be over.”
“It’s easy to live as a coward. If they want to be free, they will have to take the risk.”
What the Iraqi people need more than anything else to push them toward making that decision is a consistent, unified message, both from America and from their government, that as long as they are willing to work for their own freedom and self-sufficiency, they will be supported with whatever it takes, and with no threats of precipitous withdrawal and abandonment — an act which would leave them at the mercy of an unspeakably brutal insurgency.
What many of the troops, and many of the Iraqi people, both want and need is to be given the support and the resources which will allow them to establish a free and secure state which can endure without an overt American presence. More than anything else, they need the time to succeed.
The last time we asked the Iraqi people to stand up to oppression and barbarism was after the 1991 Gulf War when we encouraged the Shi’a to revolt against Saddam. They did, and we failed to come to their aid. We have asked much more of them in this war. This time, we must be faithful to them, and to ourselves .