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The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq





Bing West's Third Book on the Iraq War Released August 11, 2008

The following is an article written by Mr. West, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and combat Marine.

The war I witnessed for more than five years in Iraq is over. In July, there were five American fatalities in Iraq, the lowest since the war began in March 2003. In Mosul recently, I chatted with shopkeepers on the same corner where last January a Humvee was blown apart in front of me. In the Baghdad district of Ghazilia -- where last January snipers controlled streets awash in human waste -- I saw clean streets and soccer games. In Basra, the local British colonel was dining at a restaurant in the center of the bustling city.

For the first time in 15 trips across the country, I didn't hear one shot or a single blast from a roadside bomb. In Anbar Province, scene of the fiercest fighting during the war, the tribal sheiks insisted to Barack Obama on his recent visit that the U.S. Marines had to stay because they were the most trusted force.

The war turned around in late 2006 because American troops partnered with Iraqi forces and tribal auxiliaries to protect the population. Feeling safe, the population informed on the militias and terrorists living among them. Then, in the spring of 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attacked the Mahdi militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that controlled Basra and half of Baghdad. The militia crumbled under pressure from Iraqi soldiers backed by coalition intelligence and air assets.

The threat in Iraq has changed from a full-scale insurgency into an antiterror campaign. Al Qaeda in Iraq is entrenched in northern Mosul, where it may take 18 months to completely defeat them. By employing what he calls his "Anaconda Strategy," Gen. David Petraeus is squeezing the life out of al Qaeda in Iraq. The mafia-style militia of Sadr has been splintered.

The competition among Iraqi politicians has shifted from violence to politics, albeit yielding a track record as poor as that of our own Congress. After failing for two years to deliver basic services, both Shiite and Sunni politicians are stalling on legislation to hold provincial elections because many of them will be defeated. While irritating, these political games have not blocked U.S. gains.

Americans should praise rather than slight our military's achievements. Civil war has been averted. The Iraqi army has thrown the militia out of the port of Um Qasar, thus ensuring stable oil exports. Al Qaeda fought to make Iraq its base in the Arab Middle East. Instead, it is being hunted down.

Iran has emerged as the major threat to stability in Iraq. While its goal was to control a weak Iraq after the American army was driven out, Tehran overplayed its hand. Iran supplied the rockets to attack Iraqi politicians in Baghdad in April and supported Sadr's militia. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites died fighting Iranians in the '80s, and those memories are still fresh. In southern Maysan Province, American and Iraqi units are waiting to hunt down terrorists returning from Iranian training camps. Iraq, backed by some American forces in remote desert bases, is poised to emerge as a regional counterweight to Iran.

Iraqi volunteers working for a nonsectarian political party in Baghdad asked me, "Is America giving up its goals?" It's an unsettling question. The steady -- but not total -- withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is freeing up forces to fight in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is not the central front in the war on terror. Al Qaeda is hiding in Pakistan, a nation we are not going to invade.

The Iraqis aren't yet confident enough to stand entirely on their own; al Qaeda's savagery still imposes too much fear, while Iran is training terrorists next door. In counterinsurgency, the people must know they are protected. Gen. Petraeus has proven that intimidation can be defeated by placing American soldiers among the population. Wars are won by confidence, but also by procedures that take time to mature; and the Iraqi offensive against Sadr's militia in Basra last April revealed an atrocious Iraqi command and control system.

We are withdrawing as conditions permit. For instance, in the infamous Triangle of Death south of Baghdad, Col. Dominic Caraccilo has spread his rifle companies across 22 police precincts. Over the next year, he plans to pull out two of every three companies, leaving the population protected by Iraqi forces, backed by a thin screen of American soldiers.

If implemented on a countrywide scale, this model would reduce the American presence from 15 to five brigades over the next few years. They can be comprised of artillerymen, motor transport and civil affairs as well as infantrymen. By calling these residual forces "Transition Teams," we can remove the political argument in the U.S. about the exact number of combat brigades, and allow our commanders flexibility in adjusting force levels. This change of names rather than of missions is a way to save face and bring Americans closer together.

The problem is not American force levels in Iraq. It is divisiveness at home. While our military has adapted, our society has disconnected from its martial values. I was standing beside an Iraqi colonel one day in war-torn Fallujah when a tough Marine patrol walked by. "You Americans," he said, "are the strongest tribe."

But we cast aspersions on ourselves. The success of our military should not be begrudged to gain transitory political advantage.

In 1991, our nation held a parade after our military liberated Kuwait. Over the course of more than five hard years, our troops have brought stability and freedom to 25 million Iraqis, while crushing al Qaeda in Iraq. Regardless of disagreement about initiating the war back in 2003, Americans should unite to applaud the success of our troops in 2008.

A stable Iraq keeps faith with the million American soldiers who fought there, sets back Iran's aggression, and makes our enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere fear us. It's time we stopped debating about yesterday and displayed national pride in our soldiers.

   
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