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
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
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.