Debating Iraq December 2006

Blind to Choice

Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and a former assistant secretary of defense, comments on the military's reaction to the Iraq Study Group Report
Also see:

A Turning Point
The Iraq Study Group may be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. By James Fallows

The Iraq Study Group
A reaction. By Robert D. Kaplan

Will the Administration Listen?
A historical look at why the Iraq Study Group's report may end up as yet another casualty of war.

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

What a tale of woe we are told by the Iraq Study Group. The situation is deteriorating, the ISG has concluded, meaning we are losing. They then put forward 79 recommendations to rectify the problem, most prominently urging that we do less unless the Iraqi government does more. The problem is that President Bush has embraced the Prime Minister as a man of courage who will do the right things. Maliki, in turn, has demanded full control over the Iraqi security forces, while protecting the Shiite radical Moktada Sadr, his militia and death squads.

The report was most useful as a barometer of sentiment among the American political elite. Regardless of how things eventually turn out, Iraq has been judged a colossal geopolitical failure. Regardless of how President Bush responds to the report, no Republican will run for president by promising to maintain anywhere near 140,000 American troops in Iraq.

But how does the military view the report? "We're inundated out here," Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, our corps commander in Iraq who is just finishing up his tour, told me in a telephone interview. "I haven't had a chance to read all the recommendations carefully."

Chiarelli went on to stress two points. First, he liked the ISG recommendation that the number of advisers be increased by shifting soldiers from our combat battalions. "That has a lot of merit," he said. "We're all looking closely at that option." Inside military circles, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, overall commander of the Marines in Iraq, has been the prime voice urging this shift.

When I was visiting advisory units in Anbar Province in October, I was repeatedly told that without more advisers, the Iraqi army would pull out of tough Sunni areas as soon as U.S. combat units are thinned out. Chiarelli and Mattis, among others, are taking steps to bulk up the advisers. So that recommendation by the ISG has been favorably received.

Second, Chiarelli strongly endorsed the ISG recommendations for projects that increase Iraqi employment. "Look, a 50% level of unemployment in Anbar and parts of Baghdad provides foot soldiers for the insurgency," Chiarelli said.

He went on to point out that the rest of the U.S. government never showed up for the fight. It's the U.S. military that's been carrying the load—fighting the insurgents, jump-starting projects in hopes of providing basic services, and so on.

Our military also says that the Shiite government must reach out to reconcile with the Sunnis. In fact, General George W. Casey, our overall commander in Iraq, is more concerned with addressing the politics of Iraq than the military situation.

And how are the politics going? Our military, to put it mildly, is exasperated. When I spoked with Chiarelli, he was insistent that the armed Shiite militia must be dealt with. Prime Minister Maliki protests that he must take a political course to resolve the matter, especially with the radical Moktada Sadr and his Mahdi army. But the issue of Sadr is going to come to a head. Our military is not going to back off.

Presented by

Bing West

A Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, F. J. "Bing" West is the author of The Village, a Vietnam classic, and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, out in paperback in October.

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