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On Point

Bullets, Money, Ballots


by Austin Bay
October 5, 2004

Bullets, money, ballots: Call this trio of words the highly condensed version of coalition strategy in Iraq, with recent operations in the Sunni-Triangle town of Samarra as a pertinent example.

For that matter, "bullets, money and ballots" also describes America's "strategic three-step" in the Global War on Terror. The upcoming Afghan presidential elections, scheduled for Oct. 9, testify to that.

Perhaps the political scientists among us would substitute "combat and security operations" for bullets, "financial, reconstruction and developmental aid" for money, and "consensus-based governmental institutions" for ballots.

They'd be right -- the fancier descriptions add depth and important specificity. They also echo what Iraq interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi calls the three key "lines of operation" in his fight against the anti-government forces: (1) security and the rule of law; (2) a prosperous economy; and (3) an "inclusive, collaborative" political system.

However, the old soldier's guide to successful military planning, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), is good advice for newspaper columnists and political leaders. In the most complex of circumstances -- and the War on Terror is history's most intricate war -- focus on communicating the essential concepts as clearly and succinctly as possible.

I've no doubt that the coalition attack on the Sunni town of Samarra (north of Baghdad) was a difficult and complex military operation. Samarra had become an outlaw town like Fallujah, where holdout supporters of Saddam's regime mixed with criminal gangs.

Time to apply the "bullets."

Press accounts indicate the U.S. 1st Infantry Division launched simultaneous attacks on insurgent "safe houses" inside the city. Controlling a "swarm" attack on dozens of separate targets scattered throughout neighborhoods is tough -- it requires highly detailed, timely intelligence and very well-trained soldiers. Then add these vital goals: The attacks must defeat the bad guys and establish local security while avoiding civilian casualties and limiting property destruction.

That's because "ballots" -- democratic political legitimacy -- are part of the bigger security plan for Samarra. Insurgencies are political battles as well as gun battles, and destroying cities isn't politically savvy.

U.S. sources report 1st Infantry Division's assault killed "over a hundred" insurgents with no U.S. loss of life and few civilian casualties. Iraqi police and national guard moved into Samarra with U.S. forces to provide local security. As for money: The Iraqi government immediately announced a $40 million aid program to rebuild Samarra.

That aid money (if it is spent quickly and effectively) will be an important political statement. Saddam's old cronies and the criminal gangs robbed Samarra. Their legacy in Samarra is merely death and destruction. The smart and timely application of "money" (economic development) by the new Iraqi government sends the message that the insurgents and criminals were destroying the city, not the U.S.-led coalition. This is a message the Iraqi government wants the citizens of Fallujah to hear. Saddam's pals and Zarqawi's suicide bombers don't build sewers and hospitals. Their law is the local tyrant's personal whim. Their version of policing the streets it old-time thuggery.

If Samarra's citizens fully participate in January's Iraqi national elections -- and that question remains open -- the coalition's "bullets, money and ballots" operation in the city will be a significant victory.

Afghanistan illustrates the strategic trio on a nationwide scale. Three short years ago, the Taliban ruled, imposing its iron-fist version of Islam on the country while providing Al Qaeda with training bases. From October 2001 through April 2002, U.S. and allied forces fought several major battles -- big "bullets" that achieve basic security. We've had another two and half years of low-level warfare, with the security situation slowly improving.

Over the summer of 2003, aid and economic assistance -- the money -- finally began to make a difference in a country savaged by three decades of war. The job isn't easy -- working in Afghanistan remains dangerous, progress is often incremental. Training programs for Afghan police (aid programs directly designed to improve security) are just starting to pay off. However, Afghanistan has reached the ballot phase.

Taliban remnants vow to stop the presidential elections, because free elections in Afghanistan signal a political victory for Hamid Karzai's Afghan government, a victory that pushes the Taliban ever closer to the dustbin of history.

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