Facing Reality In Iraq

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, September 10, 2006
By Leon E. Panetta

Over the Labor Day weekend, as families here were getting together to enjoy the last days of summer, I traveled to another part of the world where families were fighting just to survive a tragic war.

As part of the Iraq Study Group, established by Congress to help provide bipartisanship guidance to the executive and legislative branches on the future course of policy in Iraq, our group spent three days in Baghdad. The group is co-chaired by former Secretary of State Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

One trip to a war zone can’t give any first-time observer a true understanding of all of the difficult and complex issues that make this conflict so frustrating. But three days in Baghdad provided some firsthand and inescapable impressions.

Tomorrow, this nation remembers the tragedy of Sept. 11. As the president recently acknowledged, Iraq had “nothing” to do with the terrorism of Sept. 11. But the irony is that the terrible mistakes made in the conduct of this war could give al-Qaida a base for terrorism throughout this critical region.

That is what makes Iraq more than just another political issue. In returning to the United States, my fear is that both political parties are engaging in the kind of ugly rhetoric that seeks to establish which party is more patriotic. Frankly, it is the failure of both parties to work together on this issue that is unpatriotic.

If we lose sight of the reality that is Iraq, we will never find a solution.

Here are some of my impressions of that reality.

The violence

A recent Pentagon report confirmed what I saw on the ground. A rising tide of violence tears away at the fabric of Iraq. The report said Iraqi casualties soared by more than 50 percent in recent months. The average number of weekly attacks jumped to almost 800, leaving as many as 120 bodies a day in the streets. U.S. casualties are averaging at least two a day and, recently, as many as nine.

Flying in a C130 from Kuwait to Baghdad immediately made clear the reality of this war. As we approached Baghdad, we were told to put on helmets and flak jackets in the 120-degree heat to protect ourselves from random weapons fire. To avoid a missile attack, the plane dives into a corkscrew spiral descent into Baghdad airport, leaving most of our stomachs at 10,000 feet.

With us are a number of young combat troops in full battle dress reporting for duty to their units in Iraq. This roller-coaster descent into hell is their introduction to Iraq.

The eight-minute helicopter ride to the Green Zone is low and fast with an accompanying attack helicopter firing periodic flares to divert any heat-seeking missiles. Even the Green Zone is no safe haven with increased incidents of indirect fire and mortar attacks. A few days before we arrived, a dud missile had penetrated one of the many trailer barracks, just missing a sleeping soldier.

Even more disturbing are the constant nightly helicopters flying overhead delivering wounded to what was once Saddam Hussein’s private hospital. That hospital now cares for all wounded — U.S., Iraqi, insurgent — and is itself a good barometer of increasing violence. A doctor friend in the emergency room confirmed that September had started with escalating casualties on all sides.

The cause is complicated with attacks coming from every direction — al-Qaida, Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, criminals and other sectarian elements. At the heart of it is the long history of violence, hate and oppression that is the cause of all conflict in the Middle East. The fundamental challenge to the United States is whether a people who suffered under Saddam Hussein are willing to set aside that history in order to embrace a different kind of future. In other words, will they love their children more than they hate each other?

The troops

Often lost in the headlines are the contributions of our troops and the many civilian volunteers working to help the Iraqis. Their families worry about them every day, but the large majority of Americans who have not been asked to make any sacrifice in this war often forget the incredible dedication and bravery of those serving in Iraq.

The government’s sheer incompetence in understanding the lessons of war and nation building have put our men and women in even greater danger. The failure to provide adequate troops allowed vast arms depots to be stolen by insurgents. The disbanding of the entire Iraqi army, police and government lost the experience of the only people who understood the security and infrastructure needs of Iraq. The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison confirmed what the insurgents were saying about the United States as an occupation force.

Yet our people are doing their job as best they can. We met with many of the generals and had a chance to talk to soldiers and officials at every level. They understand it better than any of their superiors in Washington.

Take someone like Gen. Pete Chiarelli, commander of the Multi National Corps. He is a 21st century warrior who understands that the war on terror cannot be won simply at the point of a gun because it also requires providing basic services to people — sewage, water, electricity, trash collection, health care and jobs. Or my friend at the hospital who works long hours to save the lives of friend and foe alike and who goes to his barracks at night with the memory of those people lost that day.

There are thousands of people like them in and out of uniform who do their duty every day in miserable conditions who must not be forgotten. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this war, these men and women are good people trying to do a tough job. There are a lot of depressing things about Iraq and the mistakes that were made, but our troops are not one of them.

The people and their leaders

The last impression is about the people and leaders of Iraq itself.

Iraq is a nation of 26 to 27 million people who for the last 80 years have suffered through the trauma of revolution, war and dictatorship. They also are often forgotten in the headlines of war.

Iraq is a nation of great resources and history, yet the average Iraqi is struggling to survive with four to six hours of electricity each day, trash often piled up to their necks, random suicide bombers, sectarian killings, corruption and crime. Their greatest resource — oil — is the key to their future economy, budget and unity, but it is being lost to the lack of security, incompetence and the black market.

Their leaders, many of whom we had the opportunity to meet with, are largely untested after three months in office. We were told that the “jury is still out” on whether they have the capacity and vision to govern. Prime Minister Al Maliki is committed to the necessary reforms for a unity government but the question is whether he is willing to confront the religious power centers that influence policy. The government has some 30 ministries with representatives from both Shia and Sunni factions. Most have no experience. Some use their offices to advance sectarian interests. Some, like the defense minister, are working hard to improve the responsibilities of their ministries.

The test is whether a unity government can set aside the historic fears, paranoia and suspicions to reconcile Sunnis and Shias, outlaw the militias, control corruption and meet essential security and human needs. The present effort to secure Baghdad cannot succeed without political reconciliation. Some believe we will know the answer to that in the next three to six months.

In the Middle East, it is said that everything is connected and that the past is the present. The danger is that an imploding Iraq will not only destroy itself but will plant the seeds for further destruction and violence throughout the Middle East. Another Lebanon controlled by Syria and Iran will become a permanent base for terrorism that will spread chaos throughout the region.

We cannot allow that calamity to happen. The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake because the United States ignored every basic lesson of diplomatic and military success in the last 50 years. Somehow it thought it could win this war on the cheap, and we are paying a terrible price for that.

But my trip convinced me that we owe it to our troops, ourselves and the people of Iraq not to leave this mess behind. I do not know what the final recommendations of our group will be, but I do know that we cannot, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, “leave problems to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”

If this war is consumed by partisan attacks, if the choice is presented as simply one between “stay the course” or “cut and run,” we will never be able to do what is right. We need to lower our voices and work together. How can a divided America insist that Iraq must have a unity government? Our example speaks louder than our words.

As a frustrated Iraqi said to me, “We believed that America was better than this.” We can be but only if we remember our first duty is to make life better for those I saw last weekend in Baghdad.
Leon Panetta is a former congressman and White House chief of staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

© 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
All Rights Reserved. http://www.montereyherald.com