Iraq Trip Report

Col. Bill Cowan
I was in Iraq from Friday, October 8th through Thursday, October 14th. That’s not much time, but it was filled with meetings with both Iraqis and Americans. Iraqis with whom I met were people who were in Iraq during Saddam’s time. They were not in the military; some served in government before Saddam took total control, and they are now primarily businessmen. The Americans were a combination of non-State Department employees of the Embassy who have been in Iraq for extended periods, and Americans who work with some of the personal security companies and have been there literally since day one. I met some American military people but didn’t have the opportunity to garner their experiences or views. Although I’ve not had time to completely sort out all of my thoughts, here are a few observations and conclusions.

First, the bad news:

The security situation on the ground is VERY difficult.  We’ve not even secured the main highway from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP)  to the Green Zone, a five mile, multi-lane road which looks almost identical to the first five miles of the access road from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C. There were 20 attacks on that road in the past 30 days, one of which was a  VERY sophisticated, midday attack which killed four Americans and in which the 15 to 20 insurgents safely escaped. It’s not easy for Iraqis to have overall confidence in us when they see that we can’t even safeguard what could arguably be considered the most important road to us in Iraq — and it’s only five miles long!

Unemployment is well over 50% (many of them former military, at home with weapons).  Lack of employment is driving some Iraqis to the insurgency. They NEED money to take care of themselves and their families, and they’re being offered money by entrenched insurgents and foreign fighters to take up arms, sometimes as suicide bombers. For many it’s not ideology, it’s simple economics. 

Lack of progress on reconstruction makes it hard for Iraqis to believe it's going to happen at all.   We’ve been there 18 months and NOT ONE Iraqi city has potable drinking water. According to all with whom I spoke, electricity is still at levels lower than they had during Saddam’s time. In Sadr City, home to over 2 million people, the sewer system is completely broken-down and people are living in their own filth. How can they have faith in us when nothing has gotten better?

Iraqis with whom I spoke were optimistic about their upcoming elections, but clearly dismayed that so many former (current?) Baathists are now in power at various levels of the government, including Prime Minister Allawi. They indicated that some people seeking work with the government are required to show Baathist credentials, although it’s certain that the U.S. is unaware or unwilling to admit it’s happening. Moreover, the gentleman in charge of “de-Baathification” has been closed out of his offices in the Green Zone by the interim government.  That should tell us something.

Now, some good news:

Although skimmed over in the media, some residents of insurgent-infested cities are giving insurgents a hard time and telling them to get out. There were unreported minor confrontations between locals and insurgents in Najaf, Samarrah, and Sadr City. People are tired of the fighting and want progress. That alone, however, is unlikely to drastically alter the actions of those with weapons.

The training and employment of Iraqi forces is far from where it could be, but is showing signs of success. Even Iraqis agreed that disbanding the Army (read L. Paul Bremer) was a disastrous mistake. Now there are signs that some of the new units are acquitting themselves well.  However, only time and their underlying attitudes and opinions of us and our presence will determine how successful they really are. 

Iraqis with whom I spoke have overall faith in us, want us to stay the course and succeed, but believe we need to make some fundamental changes if we have any hopes for a relative end to the insurgency and a real chance for some form of democracy. More importantly, they all agreed that if we pull out we face bigger problems everywhere. 

Some simple recommendations which could have a short-term impact:

Hire Iraqis to clean their own streets. Forget giving this to Halliburton, KBR, or the other big guys. Do it through local sheiks. They would probably skim some money off the top, but it would pale by comparison to what big contractors are charging for overhead, G&A, and fee, while getting little done. No technology required. This would be a jobs program, quickly implementable and with discernable results.

Consider picking one safe city and making it a model of what could be done. Within three months, any Navy Construction Battalion (SeaBees) could have some level of water, sewer, and electricity functioning to a degree wherein Iraqis could see progress – nothing perfect, but progress. Then bring in influential sheiks from other regions and cities and tell them this can be done in their cities as soon as security is established.  Make them part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

BOTTOM LINE:  We haven’t lost, but there’s no compelling evidence that we’re winning.  Success won’t occur just because we’ve had tactical military victories in Najaf, Samarrah, Sadr City, or Fallujah, no matter how well or hard fought they are.  “Hearts and minds” is not just a cliché. We virtually won every major battle in Vietnam, but lost the war. When we pulled out in April of 1975, there will still hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who loved us, worked for us, and wanted us to stay. Nonetheless, we lost. In the final analysis, hearts and minds matter.  Wonderful stories of helping a schoolhouse here or rebuilding a hospital there are heartwarming and noteworthy. But they are contrasting microcosms of what’s going on elsewhere. In my judgement we need some urgent successes, visible and viable to all Iraqis.

Col. Bill Cowan is a military analyst for FOX News Channel. A retired Marine Corps officer, Cowan spent three-and-a-half years on combat assignments in Vietnam.