Troop levels will come down next year because we're out of troops. The Surge from 15 combat brigades to 20 to secure Baghdad (as it was advertised) started in January with 15 month rotations, up from the 12 month tours troops served at the beginning of the war. These start expiring in April and those troops come home. There aren't troops to replace them, to maintain a higher level. Oh, President Bush could extend tours again but he's done that once and that's a lot to ask when his own desultory military service was cut short by a year so he could attend business school. The whole point of the Surge was to lend stability to Baghdad to allow the Iraqi government to get their act together. Even General Petraeus last week admitted that this wasn't happening.
Against this backdrop came some awful news. In August, seven NCOs (non-commissioned officers, the backbone of the Army) on active duty with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times called The War as We Saw It (it's now archived on the NYT site and costs money, but you can read it here) and you should, if you've not already done so. These are the boots-on-the-ground soldiers who every day see the reality of Iraq, not some senator, President, think-tank official or even journalist who flies in and travels only in a protected bubble.
Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)
They had to put that last bit in. Soldiers don't have the same First Amendment rights that we have, or used to have.
A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.
As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
Hmmm, funny, I recall President Bush in 2004 talking about the Iraqi Army ("The best way to take the pressure off our troops is to succeed in Iraq, is to train Iraqis so they can do the hard work of democracy, is to give them a chance to defend their country, which is precisely what we're doing. We'll have 125,000 troops trained by the end of this year.") and how it would take over. What happened to those 125,000 troops who were ready at the end of '04?
The Sergeants go on:
In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, "We need security, not free food."Even NCOs on the ground can see that our President and his regime is delusional or deceptive. Is that what makes this tragic?
In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are - an army of occupation - and force our withdrawal.
Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.
No. What makes this tragic is that one of Sergeants, Staff Sergeant Jeremy Murphy, was shot in the head August 12, a week before this was published. He has been evacuated back to the United States and is expected to survive. Two others, Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora, were killed in a truck crash last Monday. Thoughtful, experienced, capable men who took a huge career risk to try and bring some reality to the discussion over Iraq, and not a month later one is wounded and two are dead while the President drones on delusionally about the ever-shifting goals and strategies in Iraq and tries to tell us that the inevitable reduction in troop numbers is an actual decision reached because of all the progress we've made.
These Sergeants represent the ideals that should define us; patriotic, strong, but also clear-thinking, informed, pragmatic and even willing to risk their personal careers for the greater good of the country. How many more good men have to die so that lesser men won't have to admit a mistake?