Day One In Iraq

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

Greetings from Baghdad.

We’re part of the Bush administration’s effort to convince the American people of the progress the U.S. is making in Iraq since the end of major combat. The Secretary of Defense has decided to send delegations here to be briefed and exposed to realities on the ground. According to Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, these delegations consist of a “key” group of military analysts, journalists, and other national security “experts” who would travel to Iraq in order “to enhance their knowledge of the coalition’s progress toward reconstruction and self-governance in Iraq.”

The Defense Department invited 21 people to travel to Iraq from November 2 to 7 and told us that they would limit the delegation to 17. Of the original 21 invitees, only three of us accepted. Those who turned down the invitation included Fred Barnes, Jackson Diehl, William Safire and George Will. After they extended more invitations, eventually 10 people accepted.

Our delegation is made up of two journalists, three scholars from think tanks, three people from the private sector, and a clergyman (boy, was I glad to have him on board, especially after the Chinook helicopter was shot down the day we left). We were joined by three officials from the Defense Department.

The first delegation went to Iraq in early September and came back with different impressions. As detailed in dueling op-eds in the Washington Post, Jessica Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment, was skeptical of the progress while Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution was supportive of the perspectives of the Bush administration. Based on my first day in Iraq, I am leaning heavily in Jessica’s direction.

For security reasons, we are spending our nights in Kuwait City, flying into Iraq each day on a C-130. Except for the sometimes violent evasive maneuvers we performed in approaching the airport (in case a shoulder-fired missile was shot at the aircraft), the trip to Baghdad International was uneventful.

Once we landed in Baghdad, everything changed. Throughout the rest of the day, whether we traveled by Blackhawk helicopters or by vehicle, we were accompanied by heavily-armed soldiers.

We received briefings from the senior staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the Iraq Survey Group, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and the 1st Armored Division. From the top level down, they had a similar message: the situation, even with the attacks of last week, is not as bad as the media wants Americans to believe. Here’s the argument: Nearly 90 percent of the attacks are in one area (the Sunni triangle). The rest of the country is doing just fine. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is meeting its goals. The attacks of last week were caused by the progress we are making (“the bad news is the good news”).

We were told the U.S. military command does not need more troops, just better intelligence. Our briefers contended that more troops, even more Americans, would make the situation worse. Morale of the troops is good because they are aware of their mission, know they are making progress, and know when they are going home (asked about the Stars and Stripes survey, which cited three-quarters saying morale was low and nearly half saying they would not reenlist, they claimed the survey was distorted because it was taken during the heat of the summer). The line goes on: Just as we cannot control our border with Mexico, additional military forces cannot control Iraq’s border. Much of the violence is being caused by outside professionals or mercenary terrorists (when pressed, no one could come up with a figure above 50 for the number of outsiders). And of course, Saddam clearly “desired” to have weapons of mass destruction.

But when one looks out the window or talks to the soldiers a different perspective emerges. Baghdad is not bustling. Mortars are being fired. The soldiers are not sure of their mission. The situation seems at first glance to be getting worse instead of better. Iraqis who once may have, or still, support the U.S. are afraid to even tell their families for fear of what might happen to them.

Our soldiers are uncertain when they are going home (the date they were told was later than the one we read in the official briefings). Moreover, the 1st American Division which arrived in March 2003 is not even sure if they are going back to their home base in Germany. And if this uncertainty wasn’t enough, reaching out to their families is a costly undertaking. There are not enough telephones and our men and women are paying $2 a minute to call home.

More tomorrow…

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.