Soldiers Holler Back
As to your excerpt of [Odierno's] NYT interview, I think you are very pessimistic. The Iraqi Army is a revered institution. Look at our own governmental institutions and how much our own citizens trust the vast majority of them…very little, except for…the military. I recall talking with a teenage boy one evening while we searched his family house during a census operation. I jokingly noted his pinky ring and asked him if he was [Mahdi Army, the force loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr]. He emphatically said no, he was not, and he was going to join the [Iraqi Army] when he was old enough. This was a very wealthy family (the kid had a $400 cell phone). His mother was very proud that he wanted to join the [Iraqi Army]. After we were done, you should have seen the pride when we asked to exchange phone numbers so we could call him again and he us if there was criminal activity in the area. The Coalition wanted his help!!! He was going to take part in keeping his neighborhood safe!!! The National Police has some credibility problems, but I think much of that stems from the fact they were never planned for and they are seen as the place you go if you are not good enough for the Army. They are an outgrowth of the Public Order battalions set up for the 2005 elections. After the elections, somebody got the bright idea that it might be a good idea to keep these guys we just armed and had done a reasonably good job during the elections in the system.
As for sectarian violence being down, I and many of my peers and colleagues find that some people will not be happy with the metrics until there is a benevolent utopia in Baghdad. By the measures of the Philippine Insurrection and our own Reconstruction post-War Between the States, I’d say we are doing better than we even hoped for at the start. Every day there is little to no violence makes it that much harder for Sadr to restart the fighting. I have seen the intel reports and the interrogation reports that verify the violence still on-going is as much economic opportunity as it is ideology. Plus, I think he had a strategic epiphany back in August.
Me: First, I didn’t make any point about the Iraqi Army. I pointed out that Odierno in 2006 set a goal for himself of getting the Iraqi government to win the allegiance of the population, and that didn’t happen.
More broadly, I want to put some stress on the idea that "some people will not be happy with the metrics until there is a benevolent utopia in Baghdad." That’s true. But it’s not exculpatory of the U.S. here. On my most recent trip to Iraq, I constantly heard Iraqis say that they never had any problems with sectarian violence before the U.S. arrived. And I’d submit that if we were under occupation by a foreign army that didn’t speak our language and constantly informed us that they were out to entirely change our modes of political behavior, we’d be a wee bit intolerant of any of their errors, too.
My friend is blowing off steam here. But it won’t do to tell Iraqi civilians who fear for their lives from death squads, insurgents, terrorists and — let’s be frank here — the U.S. military (rightly or wrongly) that they should buck up, because by Philippine Insurrection standards, everything’s going swimmingly.
UPDATE: A mutual friend tells me he thinks I’m being unfair to the above-quoted soldier. First, my line about him "blowing off steam" reads as dismissive. And, on reflection, yeah, it does. I shouldn’t have written that and so I apologize.
Secondly, our mutual friend says that I didn’t deal at all with his point about the Iraqi Army, and simply used the platform to reiterate what I think. And, again, that is indeed the net effect of the post. I didn’t challenge the Iraqi Army point because… it’s a good one. And it certainly complicates my reductive statement, in response to Odierno, that the Iraqi people don’t consider the Iraqi government legit. I should have written "point taken" before moving on.
Last thing. The concept of creating space where correspondents argue with what I write isn’t really new — it’s called Ye Olde Letters Page, after all — but doing so in a real-time way, where someone argues with me and I argue back on the Streak, is a little new. At least it’s new for me. And that means I’m going to make mistakes. You guys should call me on them. I’ll do my best to minimize them, and I also promise to address them in a prompt and transparent way.