Sunday, March 30, 2008

Iraq back on the front page

Five days ago the Iraqi government began a crackdown in Basra on the lawless militia followers of Moqtada al Sadr. The fighting quickly spread to Baghdad and other Shiite towns like Nasiriya, Ku, Hilla and Diwaniyah, all places that are familiar to me and that I visited many times. The reasons for this new outbreak of fighting is not very well understood by many Americans. I have even received an email asking, in essence, "I thought you said that the surge was working?"

The actions taken by the Iraqi government in the last few days are extremely important for the future of that government as well as for the Iraqi people. To be effective any government must have sole control on the use of force within the boundaries of the nation. Sadr's militia, the so-called Mahdi Army, have between 40 - 60,000 (estimates vary) followers operating from majority Shia areas throughout central and southern Iraq. Sadr has influence, but not necessarily control over these groups of what are essentially armed gangs. These gangs are heavily involved in criminal activity.

The Mahdi Army is nothing new. These gangs were just beginning to form when I was in Iraq in 2003 - 2004. I remember clearly one day when I was in An Najaf an Iraqi told me Sadr followers were stockpiling arms and ammunition in mosques in the city. In April 2004 Ambassador Bremer tried to crack down on Sadr but the result was an armed Shia uprising in south-central Iraq that the Coailtion Multi-National Division was unable to suppress. American forces moved in to do the job and restore order. In August 2004 Sadr tried to use force again in the city of Najaf. The Marines and the Iraqi Army were called in and the Mahdi Army suffered considerable casualties before a truce was brokered.

The military defeats of Sadr in 2004 caused him to change strategy. Sadr began to work the political arena, although he kept his Mahdi Army armed and ready. Sadr began to bide his time, waiting for the moment when the Americans would leave and he could renew his effort to turn Iraq into his own version of an Islamist, fascist state.

This week the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki decided to take on Sadr and his Mahdi Army. This was not a sudden, impulsive decision but one taken after consultations with the Americans and his partners in the government. This dirty job needed to be done but the security situation and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces was never such as to be able to perform the task. I can only hope that the Iraqi Army is up to the task. Sadr is calling for a ceasefire so he must be worried that his military force will be chewed to pieces if they were to try to take on the Army.

This is a risky endeavor by Prime Minister Maliki. He can't fail. Should he fail in all likelihood he would lose his job. The consequences of failure are great, not only for the Iraqis but for the Americans and the Presidential election.

The New York Times is already saying the the Iraqi government operation has stalled. This is like calling the game as over after two minutes of the first quarter. I believe that the battle has just begun, and the outcome will not be known for weeks. We shall see.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The fifth anniversary of the war

Five years ago this week I was sitting in Ft. Bragg, N.C., wondering if the war would start before the Pentagon shipped me and my comrades to Kuwait to join the rest of the invasion force. My presence in Kuwait was not necessary for the successful initiation of the invasion but I wanted to be there anyway. For six months I had known that I would play a small part in history and this knowledge had consumed my life, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

I was one of thousands of civil affairs reservists that the Army had mobilized and assembled in Ft. Bragg in the middle of February. Before that, I had been living in Norristown, Pennsylvania helping to prepare the unit to go to war. I had been preparing for this moment for almost thirty years - a time when I could use the expensive training that the Army had invested in me.

When I flew back to Norristown after visiting my family over Thanksgiving I wasn't sure when I would see them again. In December four members of our unit, including my good friend Colonel Larry West, were mobilized as a planning team. Their mission was to go to Kuwait and link up with the unit that we were assigned to support, the First Marine Expeditionary Force. This seemed like one more sign that we were going to war. But our mobilization order didn't come in December and I returned home to my family for the holidays.

When I returned to Norristown in January I said good bye to my wife and children a second time not knowing when I would see them again. Almost every day in January the Pentagon issued mobilization orders for Army Reserve units throughout the nation. The newscast were full of diplomatic maneuvering and troops flowing into Kuwait. I had never lived through such tense, uncertain and exciting times. Yet, as the end of January arrived we had still not received any mobilization orders.

On February 8 I flew to Orlando for the weekend to see my family. When my wife dropped me off at the airport one more time we didn't really say good bye. Our emotions weren't able to take it anymore. On February 15 our unit was mobilized. We were to spend the next five weeks in Ft. Bragg waiting for an airplane ride that would not seem to come. During that time my 25th wedding anniversary on March 10 came and went. I was to spend our 26th wedding anniversary in Kuwait waiting to return home.

On a cold, rainy evening on March 19 in the drafty, wooden barracks where we had been living I listened to a radio broadcast of the President's speech announcing the beginning of the war. After all the work and preparation I was disappointed that we were not in Kuwait. In two days, though, I boarded a United Airlines Boeing 747 bound for Kuwait. For me, the war had begun.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Europeans

In less than two decades, there have been American campaigns of rescue in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of these American wars, the ones in the Balkans, were on behalf of Muslims stranded in a hostile European landscape. In its refusal to acknowledge the debt owed American power, Muslim society tells us a good deal about its modern condition, and about that false, mindless anti-Americanism on the loose in Muslim lands.

- Fouad Ajami, in the Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008

In April 1996 I traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a part of NATO's Implementation Force or IFOR. I still have my IFOR identification card. When I was stationed in Germany from 1975-1978 I traveled throughout Europe and even Yugoslavia, but I had never before been to Bosnia. In 1978 I traveled along the Dalmatian coast through what is now Croatia, then around Albania and through Macedonia to get to Greece.

In April 1996 Bosnia was still very much a war torn country. This fragile nation was bisected by the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL), a scar of fortifications, minefields and shattered buildings. The most remarkable part of my journey was seeing the Muslim minarets rising from the center of European towns. Bosnia had the misfortune to be at the geographic center of the battle between three religions: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and Islam. To this day I can't understand why such a conflict in the back yard of the European Union required the assistance of the United States military and my own precious time to resolve.

Fortunately, in 1999 the United States was able to lead the helpless Europeans to the assistance of the Kosovar Muslims with out my help. I would have gone if asked, but at that time I was busy assisting the Colombian military to fight a vicious thirty year insurgency.

Considering the Europeans could hardly handle the smaller Bosnian and Kosovo problems we are asking a lot that they travel half way around the world to save Afghanistan from Islamic extremism. They are providing troops for the effort, and we should be grateful for small favors. But their instructions to the troops that they offer are to avoid risk, which means no casualties and definitely very little fighting. Except in self defense, of course.

While Fouad Ajami rightly brings up the unreasoning attitudes of the Muslim lands to American accomplishments, I see plenty of "false, mindless anti-Americanism" in European lands that we have rescued on multiple occasions. But I shouldn't complain. The actions we took were not done to seek approval of the world, but because they were the right thing to do.

For this reason, I am not disturbed at the current unpopularity of the U.S. in the world. I am proud that we have the clear vision to be able to do what must be done.