by Austin Bay
March 22, 2005Discussion Board on this On Point topic
It was a very early morning in July 2004, and after makingmyself a steamer-sized cup of hot tea at my desk in Corps Plans, I walkedinto the coalition military's Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Al FawPalace, Baghdad.
Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) hadleft Baghdad a couple of weeks earlier, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi'sinterim Iraqi government was --as the bad pun went -- an interim rockygovernment. But Allawi's government not only had popular support, it hadspine. Day by day, Allawi emerged as a smart, adaptive and courageousleader. The Allawi government was rapidly building a democratic Iraqifuture.
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 theaterscreen divided into ceiling-high panels capable of displaying multiplecomputer projections. A viewer could visually hopscotch from news to weatherto war. In the upper right-hand corner of one panel, Fox News flickeredsilently -- and for the record, occasionally CNN or Al Jazeera would flickerthere, as well. Beneath Fox ran my favorite channel, live imagery from aPredator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circling somewhere over Iraq.
The biggest display, that morning and every morning, was aspooling date-time list describing scores of military and police actionsundertaken over the last dozen hours, The succinct, acronym-packed reportsflowed like haikus of violence: "0331: 1/5 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division,arrests suspects after Iraqi police stop car"; "0335 USMC vicinity Fallujahengaged by RPG, returned fire. No casualties."
The spool spun on and on, and I remember thinking: "I know we'rewinning. 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 thepast. But the drop-by-drop police blotter perspective obscures that."
Collect relatively isolated events in a chronological list andpresto: the impression of uninterrupted, widespread violence destroyingIraq. But that was a false impression. Every day, coalition forces weremoving 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 thatone rig on CNN and, "Oh my God, America can't stop these guys," is theimpression 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 sellingthe false impression of nationwide quagmire -- selling post-Saddam Iraq as adysfunctional failed-state, rather than an emerging democracy .
Only July 19, I attended a meeting in Najaf where the governorsof Najaf and Diwaniya told the corps commander that they needed clean waterand better sewer systems. Citizens in the city of Najaf wanted Marines inthe area to start spending money. As I said, we were winning.
Were there severe security issues? Absolutely -- in August Najafwas the scene of a most curious battle. The Mahdi militia took over the ImamAli Mosque -- but were slowly chewed to bits by U.S. troops and forced toleave the mosque by the political efforts of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistaniand the local populace.
In World War II, destroying Nazi divisions and taking islandsfrom the Japanese provided hard yardsticks to gauge military success.Irregular warfare rarely offers such a clarifying quantitative measure. Overthe summer of 2004, I had the benefit of anecdotal measures. Iraqis I talkedto would tell me they intended to vote in the January elections.
The elections would be "the big island," the defining moment inthe post-Saddam political struggle, and it would be the Iraqi peopleproviding the public yardstick.
That's precisely what happened. The Jan. 30 election providedthe broad and deep perspective the police blotter obscures: This is a war ofliberty against tyranny, and it's a war we are winning.