Since I came home from Iraq a few months ago I have found myself paying careful attention to our government's handling of the war, and especially of the comments of the politicians who will shape the course of the war in the months and years to come. Many of my men are still there, men that have I had led into combat and served with under the most trying of circumstances. Some of those men served with me in Afghanistan prior to Iraq, and they are as close to me (if not closer) as my own brother. Because of my men I have an especially personal, vested, interest in the direction of the war - which is why I listen so closely to our politician's trying to figure out what the future will be in that difficult place.
I returned to the U.S. in time for the elections, so I was able to hear much of the rhetoric by both parties and our President. After the election I eagerly awaited the results of the Iraq Study Group to see how their report would affect the direction of the war. The ISG came up with many interesting ideas, but few new ones. I was encouraged by its bi-partisan nature, but discouraged as it seemed to describe events in Iraq that depart from the reality I had seen on the ground.
This is a recurring theme in our politicians, and most disturbingly, the Pentagon and the Executive branch of our government. Before the election there were constant cries of how the situation on the ground wasn't as bad as the media made it out to be despite the record number of U.S. casualties in the month prior. This was a very common complaint amongst the troops I served with, how some politicians and pundits seemed totally out of touch with the reality on the ground. The single thing that stuck with me throughout the elections was how many times I heard reference to how we were "winning in Iraq" - which was the exact opposite of my experience on the ground. As an officer in a unit that specialized in counter-terrorism my men and I were exposed to a side of the Iraqi war that was obviously harsher than that experienced by the average U.S. soldier. But I still spent considerable time among regular army units, and I witnessed an escalation by the insurgency in Iraq that spoke a different truth - we were not winning.
After the election the rhetoric softened, and the administration began talking slightly more realistically. However the descriptions I heard were still considerably rosier than what I had observed. I was very encouraged by the testimony of our new Secretary of Defense when, at his confirmation hearing, he flatly admitted without hesitation that the U.S. was not winning the war. I was further encouraged by the remarks of former Secretary of State (and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Colin Powell when he stated this week that the U.S. was losing the war. I have great respect for General Powell, and I was heartened to hear him admit what I knew in my heart.
Through all the changing positions on the war by the administration and Congress, one common thread kept emerging. The call for "victory" in Iraq. "We need a new course, but victory is still possible." "We must ensure that we win in Iraq." "We won't leave until we have ensured victory in Iraq." and other various permutations of the same motif. Even General Powell echoed that statement when he said that although we are not winning, "victory is still possible". But what does victory in Iraq look like?
Iraq is a country that is in the throes of civil war. I know that my conservative friends on the vine may argue with me on that point. I have heard others say that it is not in civil war, but it is "close" to it, or will be if the U.S. does not do something "soon". My question to those of you who feel that way is that if the current level of violence in Iraq does not constitute a civil war, what level of violence must be attained before it does? I understand that the administration refuses to call it a civil war, and I also understand why. To call it so would infer that the administration had totally failed in its policies towards the war. As someone who has served in Iraq that political sophistry is offensive. It is what it is and arguing about labels detracts from the greater problem of finding a solution.
There are three factions in Iraq that have disliked (if not outright hated) each other for several hundred years. The Kurds in the north, who have set up a nation-state of their own in Iraq, want nothing to do with their southern neighbors. They are the only group that can truly be considered allies of the U.S. in Iraq. But they are content to wait behind their borders while the other two groups exterminate each other.
The Sunnis are the minority in Iraq, and are among the most violent of the insurgents. They held the reigns of power under Saddam, and many of them form the core of the remaining Baathists in Iraq. The Anbar province, the most violent area in Iraq outside of Baghdad, is firmly in their control. They want the Americans out, but even more than that they they want to destroy their Shiite enemies. The Sunnis are also Al-Qaeda's biggest supporters in Iraq, with the terrorists of Al-Qaeda assisting the war against the Shiites where they can.
The last group, the Shiites, are by far the largest group in Iraq comprising 2/3rds of the population. The Shiite militias are the largest in the country, and they are determined to strike back at the Sunnis for what they see as years of political and religious persecution under Saddam. The Shiite are of the same sect of Islam as Iran, and are cozying themselves up to the government in Tehran more and more as time passes.
What is victory in Iraq? Is it the peaceful co-existence of all three groups in a power-sharing government? Something Americans don't realize, but that my men and I came to learn in our time in Iraq, is that there are no true "Iraqi people". The vast majority of the people of Iraq identify themselves by tribe first and sect second..."Iraqi" is a distant third if it is on the list at all. The tribes that the people are composed of have been warring with each other for hundreds of years in some cases, it was only Saddam's brutal tyranny that managed to keep the people unified. Add to that the religious war that has existed between the Shiites and Sunnis for the last several centuries (if you think Catholic versus Protestant in Northern Ireland you would not be far off the mark) and you have a recipe that does not allow for "peaceful co-existence".
I hear our military commanders and political leaders talk about "victory" and I cannot help but wonder what that is in a nation where the three groups hate each other. Do we really think that sending more U.S. soldiers will stop the civil war? Our troops are essentially alone in trying to stop the violence as the Iraqi soldiers are corrupt or wholly untrained. Is victory established when the government is finally able to handle its own security and stop the insurgency themselves? If so, I fear that we have a very long time to wait.
Can someone please tell me what victory in Iraq looks like? When can my friends come home?