Mike Tharp: Endstate in Iraq -- two answers

August 1, 2009 

Endstate.

That's the U.S. military's strategic term to describe their "commander's intent" --their goal -- before they leave Iraq in 2011.

For most Americans, the fancy word will help answer two key questions:

1) Did we win or lose?

2) Was it worth it?

Three tours in Iraq -- six weeks this year, six weeks last year, 100 hours in 1991 with "visa" provided by the sappers of Fort Bragg's 37th Engineer Battalion -- don't make an expert.

But there are several reasons to try to answer, even with limited expertise, those questions. Five reasons are the names inscribed in granite at Courthouse Park, the Mercedians who died in Iraq.

Other reasons include the vets who came back whole, more or less, to live and work among us. They returned home with scars and wounds, mostly inside, that they never talk about but carry with them every day.

The Twitter Generation, the Thumb Tribe -- kids today in high school and below -- need answers because they'll be the next to go to the next war.

Finally, there's you -- Mercedians who are paying for this war and the one in Afghanistan. Paying money most of you can't afford. Money that could be spent well here. You'll pay it if you believe it has been spent to make you safer.

To answer the two questions, we need to look at Iraq now and over the next 28 months. At the end of 2011, U.S. troops must leave Iraq, under terms of last year's Status of Forces Agreement, unless the government of Iraq asks them to stay.

One important measuring stick, especially if you live in Iraq, is the level of violence. It's been falling for almost two years. Each week, 60 to 80 Iraqis are killed and a couple hundred wounded, but U.S. KIA/WIA have dropped to their lowest point since the 2003 U.S. invasion. (In June more Iraqi civilians were killed than in any month over the past year.)

The drop-off in dead and maimed has continued after the historic pullback of U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities on June 30. That bodes well for Iraqis and Americans alike, if it can be sustained. The violence metric -- another military term of art -- suggests that the insurgency which brought Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007 is losing.

But only if you look at the insurgents as a monolith, as were the Viet Cong. They are not. They are tribes still fighting centuries-old blood feuds.

They are Shia, who see their chance to run a country surrounded by Sunni-led regimes (except Iran).

They are Sunni, outsiders now after dominating Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

And they are Kurds, the ancient Indo-European millions who live in a crescent encompassing Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and feel displaced wherever they are.

All of them have buried homemade bombs. All of them have forced their neighbors of a slightly different creed to leave their homes in the dark of night at the point of a gun. All of them have attacked and killed one another -- and Americans.

So is the insurgency losing? Parts of it are. Parts of it, such as al-Qaida in Iraq, are regrouping, biding their time, keeping their IEDs dry. They're waiting to see what the Iraqi security forces do. And what the Americans do, or don't do.

Shia gunmen are lying low. For them, things couldn't be better. They control the government, the security forces and the Americans are leaving.

For Sunnis, there's a lingering fear that as Americans withdraw, Shia groups like Jaysh al Mahdi will return to sectarian violence. The Kurds fear their loss of autonomy.

Most Sunnis believe faith-based slaughter won't happen again because so many Iraqis are just plain tired of violence. But they also worry they'll be discriminated against by the government and security forces when the Americans pull out.

The issue is whether they can tolerate this discrimination. Some already have given their answer: No. There's been an uptick this month in Sunni-related violence by Jaysh al Islami, the 1920s Revolutionary brigade and outsiders.

On the ground, where the questions will be answered, it's clear that the government of Iraq is serious about the new "no Americans in cities" orders. Several U.S. patrols have been turned around, says a soldier who used to go out on them.

Unless a patrol is with one of the new Transition Teams, which include Iraqi forces, or unless Iraq's Baghdad Operations Center greenlights them, Americans are confined to their perimeter bases. "Logpack" or supply convoys can move on their own from midnight to 4 or 5 a.m.

Some Americans, especially those who served earlier tours when they were the Jolly Tan Giants and could run passenger cars off the roads, don't like the new rules.

"If some higher-ups are trying to get around them (the rules), it's because they are used to having their own way," says this soldier. "Arrogance, in my very, very quiet opinion."

Another American soldier in Baghdad says that "most combat units, where I am, are spending time training. No one is sitting idly by. No one wants to be caught with their pants down and are training to keep from getting too complacent."

Hashim Ammar, a 31-year-old government employee, speaks for many Iraqis about the June 30 handover of security to Iraqi forces: "I feel the situation is a little bit better, but my hope is not to see them (Americans) in Ir aq at all."

Most Iraqis want us gone. For all the soccer balls handed out to Iraqi street kids by American grunts--the "soft power" the best analysts say is required for a successful counterinsurgency--nearly every Iraqi has been touched by American "hard power." Nearly every Iraqi knows someone who has been killed or wounded by an American.

They see Americans as occupiers. They want the occupiers out.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the strongest leader since Saddam, must balance all these competing domestic interests, plus the U.S., plus Iran. So far, he's done better than most anybody would have predicted. One sheikh who's dealt with him described him as a man holding a pen with all eight fingers and two thumbs. "Can this pen ever write anything useful?" he asked.

But let's say, as author Tom Ricks does in his latest book, "The Gamble," that we're only about halfway through the Iraq adventure. That means men and forces we don't even know about today can influence or determine Iraq's destiny.

After eight years of Bush administration bluster about missions accomplished, and eight months of Obama's vaporous hope and change, it's best to remain skeptical about official pronouncements. But it's clear that Iraq is now at a crossroads, a tipping point.

Iraqis are in charge. Americans are leaving. Can tribal sheikhs control sectarian violence through the traditional blood-money compensation system? Can they reconcile past and present grievances before they spin out of control, as happened two years ago? Can Maliki's administration keep the Kurds from seceding in the north? Can it keep Iran's influence benign?

Historically, says one American army officer, "The hardest part in winning any battle is conducting a successful pursuit to exploit an unexpected victory. The first step is recognizing when is the time to begin the pursuit. Is it time to begin the pursuit?"

Some bright people are optimistic. Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaida'ie, said in June that he was.

"Iraq will come out right," he told a conference sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. "The alternative is just too awful to contemplate -- a collapse, a failed state."

Retired Gen. Jack Keane told the conference that Iraq "wants a relationship with the Iranians, to be sure -- but they want to be an ally of the United States of America."

And however patchy elections in Iraq have been, the nation remains the only elected Arab Muslim government in the region. John Nagl, president of the center and a former infantry officer, believes the Iraqi army and federal police "are a good foundation on which to build."

Twelve weeks plus 100 hours in Iraq lead to this answer: Unless the military foundation laid by the U.S. become the framework for enough stability to jump-start Iraq's non-oil economy, the endstate will be too awful to contemplate. With 30-40 percent joblessness among young Iraqi men, burying a bomb for $300 looks like a good deal.

Sometime in 2007 one of McClatchy's Iraqi Baghdad reporters had to cross checkpoints at both ends of a bridge across the Tigris River. Guards at one end asked drivers and passengers if they were Sunni. If they were, they were killed or disappeared. At the checkpoint at the other end, the question was, are you Shia? If they were, the result was the same as at the other end of the bridge.

Sometimes the guards at each end were the same men.

They were killing for money.

So to answer the first two questions, a third one must be posed: "Is this what victory in a foreign counterinsurgency looks like?" asks the American officer in Baghdad. "We've been involved in this war for so long that for many people, it's simply hard to imagine what victory looks like."

The last time the U.S. won a foreign counterinsurgency was in the Philippines in the early 1900s, so the officer adds, "Nobody is quite sure just what victory looks like in this type of war."

Will it look like Iraq under Saddam when he was defanged by sanctions and inspections, a threat to nobody outside his borders? Will it look like Lebanon, with religious factions running their own rigged games? Or Iran, with a nutty political figurehead, rising middle-class and boisterous young people still under the thumb of black-turbaned mullahs? Or Israel, another Middle Eastern political theocracy, except Iraq won't have Israel's nuclear weapons?

Somebody once said the commonest form of human stupidity is forgetting what we set out to do.

1) Did we win or lose?

2) Was it worth it?

Historians will answer both questions with far more information and perspective on which to base their judgments. As of today, based on 12 weeks plus 100 hours, the answers are:

1) A draw.

2) No.

That's the endstate for both Iraq and America.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com

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