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On Point

A War We Are Winning


by Austin Bay
March 22, 2005

It was a very early morning in July 2004, and after making myself a steamer-sized cup of hot tea at my desk in Corps Plans, I walked into the coalition military's Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Al Faw Palace, Baghdad.

Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had left Baghdad a couple of weeks earlier, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim Iraqi government was --as the bad pun went -- an interim rocky government. But Allawi's government not only had popular support, it had spine. Day by day, Allawi emerged as a smart, adaptive and courageous leader. The Allawi government was rapidly building a democratic Iraqi future.

I took a seat in the back of the JOC's eight-tiered ampitheater. A huge plasma screen draped the JOC's front wall, like a movie theater screen divided into ceiling-high panels capable of displaying multiple computer projections. A viewer could visually hopscotch from news to weather to war. In the upper right-hand corner of one panel, Fox News flickered silently -- and for the record, occasionally CNN or Al Jazeera would flicker there, as well. Beneath Fox ran my favorite channel, live imagery from a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circling somewhere over Iraq.

The biggest display, that morning and every morning, was a spooling date-time list describing scores of military and police actions undertaken over the last dozen hours, The succinct, acronym-packed reports flowed like haikus of violence: "0331: 1/5 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division, arrests suspects after Iraqi police stop car"; "0335 USMC vicinity Fallujah engaged by RPG, returned fire. No casualties."

The spool spun on and on, and I remember thinking: "I know we're winning. We're winning because -- in the big picture -- all the opposition (Saddam's thugs and Zarqawi's Al Qaeda) has to offer is the tyranny of the past. But the drop-by-drop police blotter perspective obscures that."

Collect relatively isolated events in a chronological list and presto: the impression of uninterrupted, widespread violence destroying Iraq. But that was a false impression. Every day, coalition forces were moving thousands of 18-wheelers from Kuwait and Turkey into Iraq, and if the "insurgents" were lucky they blew up one. However, flash the flames of that one rig on CNN and, "Oh my God, America can't stop these guys," is the impression left in Boise and Beijing.

Saddam's thugs and Zarqawi's klan were actually weak enemies -- "brittle" is the word I used to describe them at a senior planning meeting. Their local power was based on intimidation -- killing by car bomb, murdering in the street. Their strategic power was based solely on selling the false impression of nationwide quagmire -- selling post-Saddam Iraq as a dysfunctional failed-state, rather than an emerging democracy .

Only July 19, I attended a meeting in Najaf where the governors of Najaf and Diwaniya told the corps commander that they needed clean water and better sewer systems. Citizens in the city of Najaf wanted Marines in the area to start spending money. As I said, we were winning.

Were there severe security issues? Absolutely -- in August Najaf was the scene of a most curious battle. The Mahdi militia took over the Imam Ali Mosque -- but were slowly chewed to bits by U.S. troops and forced to leave the mosque by the political efforts of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the local populace.

In World War II, destroying Nazi divisions and taking islands from the Japanese provided hard yardsticks to gauge military success. Irregular warfare rarely offers such a clarifying quantitative measure. Over the summer of 2004, I had the benefit of anecdotal measures. Iraqis I talked to would tell me they intended to vote in the January elections.

The elections would be "the big island," the defining moment in the post-Saddam political struggle, and it would be the Iraqi people providing the public yardstick.

That's precisely what happened. The Jan. 30 election provided the broad and deep perspective the police blotter obscures: This is a war of liberty against tyranny, and it's a war we are winning.

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