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On Point

Austin Returns to Baghdad


June 21, 2005

BAGHDAD -- This trip to Iraq is deja vu with a difference. I served here as a soldier, and returning as a writer in part explains the change in perspective. This trip my job is assessment and analysis, not action. Even with a fast-paced itinerary that takes us to Fallujah, Tal Afar and Kirkuk, there is more time to reflect.

Today, the summer heat is just as hard as it was a year ago, the sand haze in the air just as thick. But the Baghdad of June 2005 is not the Baghdad I left in September 2004.

"Metrics" is the military buzzword -- how do we measure progress or regress in Iraq? The piles of bricks around Iraqi homes are a positive. Downtown, cranes sprout over city-block-sized construction projects. The negatives are all too familiar -- terror bombs and the slaughter of Iraqi citizens.

Last year -- on July 2, I recall -- I saw six Iraqi National Guardsmen manning a position beneath a freeway overpass. It was the first time I saw independently deployed Iraqi forces. Now, I see senior Iraqi officers in the hallways of Al Faw Palace conducting operational liaison with U.S. and coalition forces. I hear reports of the Iraqi Army conducting independent street-clearing and neighborhood search operations. Brigadier Gen. Karl Horst of U.S. Third Infantry Division told me about an Iraqi battalion's success on the perennially challenging Haifa Street.

In February of this year, under the direction of an Iraqi colonel who is rapidly earning a reputation as Iraq's Rudy Giuliani, the battalion drove terrorists from this key Baghdad drag. Last year, Haifa Street was a combat zone where U.S. and Iraqi security forces showed up in Robo-Cop garb -- helmets, armor, Bradleys, armored Humvees. Horst told me that he and his Iraqi counterpart now have tea in a sidewalk cafe along the once notorious boulevard. Of course, Abu Musab al Zarqawi's suicide bombers haunt this fragile calm.

This return visit to Iraq, however, spurs thoughts of America -- to be specific, thoughts about America's will to pursue victory. I don't mean the will of U.S. forces in the field. Wander around with a bunch of Marines for a half hour, spend 15 minutes with National Guardsmen from Idaho, and you will have no doubts about American military capabilities or the troops' will to win.

But our weakness is back home, in front of the TV, on the cable squawk shows, on the editorial page of The New York Times, in the political gotcha games of Washington, D.C.

It seems America wants to get on with its Electra-Glide life, that Sept. 10 sense of freedom and security, without finishing the job. The military is fighting, the Iraqi people are fighting, but where is the U.S. political class? The Bush administration has yet to ask the American people -- correction, has yet to demand of the American people -- the sustained, shared sacrifice it takes to win this long, intricate war of bullets, ballots and bricks.

Bullets go bang, and even CBS understands bullets. Ballots make an impression -- in terms of this war's battlespace, the January Iraqi elections were World War II's D-Day and Battle of the Bulge combined. But the bricks -- the building of Iraq, Afghanistan and the other hard corners where this war is and will be fought -- that's a delicate and decades-long challenge.

Given the vicious enemy we face, five years, perhaps 15 years from now, occasional bullets and bombs will disrupt the political and economic building. This is the Bush administration's biggest strategic mistake -- a failure to tap the reservoir of American willingness 9-11 produced.

One afternoon in December 2001, my mother told me she remembered being a teenager in 1942 and tossing a tin can on a wagon that rolled past the train station in her hometown. Mom said she knew that the can she tossed didn't add much to the war effort, but she felt that in some small, token perhaps, but very real way, she was contributing to the battle.

"The Bush administration is going to make a terrible mistake if it does not let the American people get involved in this war. Austin, we need a war bond drive. This matters, because this is what it will take."

She was right then, and she's right now.

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