As an Iraq War veteran, I disagree with how President Bush has assessed the war and how we should be conducting it. The president has mischaracterized the debate as a simplistic black and white challenge: "Is the sacrifice worth it?" But this mischaracterization clouds the debate and avoids two essential questions: What are the real conditions on the ground? And what must be done to win this war?
Unfortunately, the president continues to obscure the truth of the current conditions in Iraq. My personal experiences in Iraq confirm statements made by numerous officers there, including General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command – that the insurgency shows no signs of weakening, and its numbers continue to grow. The Bush administration must first recognize this serious problem in order to rectify it. Denial is not the path to success.
As a Marine Corps civil affairs officer serving for seven months in Ramadi, a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency, my job was to cultivate economic, governmental and civil society development. This work was part of a strategy to inculcate Iraqis with the desire and capacity to defeat the insurgents themselves, allowing America’s withdrawal. The gap between President Bush’s rhetoric and the reality that I saw on the ground is enormous.
To support the positions that the insurgency is in its "last throes" and that we are winning, President Bush in his speech to the country last week stated that in Iraq, "We’re improving roads and schools and health clinics. We’re working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity, and water."
However, these goodwill physical infrastructure projects, while generating some positive public sentiment, are poor measures of success against the insurgency. While in Ramadi, my fellow Marines and I repeatedly received direction from our seniors to distribute soccer balls to local kids in smaller versions of the same goodwill campaigns. But like the scattered infrastructure improvements, we became cynical about their impact. The running joke became, "If we hand out just one more soccer ball, we will have the war won."
As we realized in Ramadi, winning in Iraq requires much more than building schools and health clinics. However, without trained personnel to staff them and equipment to supply them, these are simply empty buildings. Without social and civil infrastructure, such as parent-teacher associations and public health campaigns, to institutionalize their benefits, these efforts remain disjointed with minimal total impact. We struggled to involve USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Red Cross, and a myriad of other non-governmental organizations with expertise in crucial issues required to establish stability. However, none of these organizations could establish a presence in Ramadi, or most of the Sunni Triangle, because of pervasive violence.
Iraqi troops will not be able to provide security for a long time, despite President Bush’s assertions. President Bush has argued that the Iraqi Security Forces will soon be capable of providing security for Iraq. However, his assertion that "Iraq has more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions," is misleading. President Bush’s 160,000 includes Iraqi forces that: 1) have no uniforms or weapons; 2) don’t show up for work regularly; 3) have no more than three weeks of training; and 4) are actually working for or with the insurgents.
Most Americans in Iraq have had personal experience with one or more of these problems. In fact, one of my unit’s convoys was attacked with machine gun fire from an Iraqi police station. One Iraqi National Guard colonel told me personally that he works well with the insurgents.
To date our counterinsurgency efforts have focused on cordon and search operations: sweeping neighborhoods looking for weapons and fighters and then returning to our bases each night. When in the streets, we asked Iraqis to turn in insurgents and provide intelligence. At times we patrolled with the explicit goal of building relationships with local leaders as well as facilitating economic, political and social development.
But reminiscent of Vietnam, each time we returned to base we lost the ground we had gained and had to repeat the same operations in the same areas, a few weeks later. In our absence those suspected of "collaborating" were punished, often turning up headless in the street with a note pinned to their chest as a warning to others. Consequently, Iraqis have been too terrified to work with us.
After seven months patrolling Ramadi, I know that most Iraqis are ambivalent towards the American presence in Iraq. They are happy we removed Hussein, but frustrated we are still there. They are also angry that we haven’t provided them everything we promised: peace and safety, or even water and electricity. Fortunately, while they don’t trust our government, they trust the insurgents even less.
My experiences in Ramadi tell me that we need to find ways to dramatically increase the boots on the ground—whether American or troops from other countries—to increase security. Without basic law and order, Iraq will see no progress. Nevertheless, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have consistently resisted calls for increasing troop levels. In his speech President Bush said that "our commanders tell [him] they have the number of troops they need." Virtually every Marine and soldier I met in Iraq complained that more troops were needed to win.
Until President Bush speaks candidly regarding Iraq and admits we have made mistakes, we cannot solve the problem. Ultimately, the United States must decide whether winning the war is our priority and if we therefore will allocate the resources and troops necessary to win.
Jonathan Morgenstein was a Marine Corps civil affairs officer in Ramadi, Iraq, and received a master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University.