Iraq: Bing West dispatches

Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense and former Marine, is again filing dispatches from Iraq. These are an excellent source of perspective on current status, and What Lies Ahead, filed May 25th.

West has been on patrol in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi – arguably the worst locales in Iraq today. In this latest dispatch West surveys what he has learned about the core problem with Iraqi leadership, plus what to watch for to gauge the progress of the Iraqi army and police, and a workable compromise between the Shiite-majority government and local Sunni insurgents. Excerpt:

At this stage, no one can predict how Iraq will turn out. American leadership is not the determining factor. The criticism of the secretary of defense from six retired generals had scant impact among the battalions and training teams I visited. Soldiers on the front lines have more important things to think about and little time to gossip about matters far removed from them.

The problem is the lack of Iraqi leadership. The singular intelligence failure was not the missing weapons of mass destruction; it was not understanding that 30 years of dependency enforced by murder had eradicated both trust and initiative.

Yet the three critical tasks demand Iraqi, rather than American, leadership. First, the government in Baghdad must drive a wedge between Shiite extremists and the Shiite militias and similarly split al-Qaida and the religious extremists from the Sunni “mainstream” insurgents. Second, the ministries in Baghdad must support their police and army forces in the field. As matters stand, U.S. advisers and commanders have to apply pressure repeatedly before Baghdad will respond. At all levels in the Iraqi system, there is an instinct to hoard—and too often to steal and skim—that deprives the fighting units of basic commodities. Third, the police must be reformed. How Sunni police can be effective and not be assassinated in their own cities is still unclear. Conversely, the Shiite police in Baghdad have lost all credibility and trust among the Sunnis.

On the positive side of the ledger, three major hurdles were cleared during the last 12 months. First, elections were held and a government was chosen. Second, an Iraqi army at the battalion fighting level emerged. Third, Iraq weathered the sectarian strife in February without a political collapse.

With U.S. forces drawing down and a bisectarian government emerging in Baghdad, the “mainstream” rejectionists have lost their rationale. The insurgent leaders, however, avoid risk in battle by paying impoverished youths $40 to emplace IEDs. Spending more than $300 billion in Iraq, the United States never created a jobs program to compete with $40 IEDs. As for the insurgent leaders, if captured, they face a porous and corrupt judicial system that frequently releases them. Before they quit, they will ask what reward they will receive and how they can stay alive to enjoy it. What’s more, the insurgency enjoys the support of hundreds of Sunni imams who preach sedition knowing the judicial system will do nothing.

In Ramadi, al-Qaida must be destroyed before there can be any local settlement. Watch Ramadi to see if the Iraqi army and police will fight together.

In Fallujah, though, al-Qaida does not control the local insurgents. Watch Fallujah to see if a political settlement can be reached between a predominantly Shiite national government and the local Sunni insurgent leaders.

The “Print” link produced all four of his dispatches from this tour, in increasing chronological order. It isn’t clear whether there will be further reports.