Colonels' Corner: Talk to the Troops!

October 20, 2006

The weekly military press conference in Baghdad didn't have much positive news to pass on, and for good reasons. October is on its way to becoming one of the deadliest for U.S. forces since the battle for Fallujah, and there are no clear indications that things are about to turn around. While the current wave of violence is being attributed to the Ramadan holy days for Muslims, the fact is that it will continue long after the fasting month has ended. U.S. and Iraqi forces are having an extremely difficult time quelling the bloodshed, and the insurgents are feeling empowered by their successes. Worse yet, they're even more empowered when they see the discord here in the U.S., the polls indicating dissatisfaction with the administration, and a constant drumbeat from those calling for a pullout.

While most adamantly hope there won't be a precipitous pullout, we still argue that there must be a shift in strategy. Two years ago, I wrote an opinion piece which appeared on this Web site, stating that, “For our own long-term security, we can't afford to leave Iraq a more dangerous place than it was when we first went in. A fractured state, with areas dominated by radicals and insurgents, would be just that.” The statement remains as accurate as ever, although I would never have guessed two years ago that we would still be struggling to achieve our goals there.

If there's going to be a new strategy, from whence should it come? For starters, the congressionally-mandated commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker will issue its thoughts after the upcoming elections, although bits and pieces unfavorable to the administration have already been leaked. While the commission was certainly led and staffed by highly credentialed people, I already ask myself how viable the recommendations can be without the benefit of having been embedded in Iraq and seeing, as up close as possible, what we're dealing with.

If we are to expect any new policy to come from the Pentagon, it's not likely any of us should be encouraged by what they would have to say. President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld continuously say that they are listening to the generals, but Americans need to understand one thing — the generals got us where we are! They did so either by faulty logic on their own, or by acquiescing to Rumsfeld's wishes. Either way, we shouldn't be hopeful that they'll have a solution anytime soon.

In fact, those of us who served in Vietnam know that with a few notable exceptions, most generals there never really had a grasp of what was going on in the field. They were stymied by their own experiences in World War II and Korea, where “might was right.” Even Secretary Rumsfeld said this past week that the U.S. military is too strong to lose the war in Iraq. Of course, he would be right if we were talking about fighting a conventional enemy on a conventional battlefield, or if we were talking about the insurgents massing on a regular basis and engaging us head-on. But that's not what's happening, and no matter how mighty or powerful our military is, and despite the extreme sacrifices and unrelenting efforts of our young men and women, this war will be ultimately be won or lost by Iraqis, not by Americans.

How about academics, diplomats, and the gentile elite? To be sure, many of them have been right in what they have had to say in dissecting our performance to date. But, none of them have the individual or collective clout to push for a new strategy in Iraq. Besides, it's pretty clear to all concerned that neither the White House nor the Pentagon want to hear anything that anyone else has to say.

How about this, then, as an idea? If we really want to develop a strategy to put us on a path to success, we should start by talking to the men and women who have been on the frontlines of this effort.

They're the ones who see what we're dealing with, who know what has worked and not worked at the tactical level and who've seen the successes and failures up front instead of at a briefing. They have a sense of the Iraqi people and their response — positive and negative — to our efforts. If we, instead, continue to count on generals, politicians both here and in the Iraqi government, the media, intellectuals, and even pundits like me, we'll not likely find what it is we're looking for. Asking our frontline-experienced men and women what they think is surely a different approach, but it's perhaps an approach whose time has come. It's pretty clear little else seems to be working well up to this point.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.