Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What Are Our Troops Doing in Iraq?

Tonight our President will give a keynote address in which he will tell us that he is ordering 20,000 more troops to Iraq, most of them to go to Baghdad, in an effort to quell the civil war presently under way in the country. Supposedly, he will explain to us exactly what it is these tens of thousands of additional troops will be doing that the tens of thousands of troops over there are already not doing. The question that is the title of this post is not meant in the figurative or metaphorical sense, but in the literal one. What are our troops doing in Iraq? Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi tells us exactly what they're doing:
The whole idea that "more troops" are needed in Iraq is absurd on its face. They sell this idea in America as though our soldiers are being sent to patrol the streets like New York City cops policing Malcolm X Boulevard on foot -- spreading goodwill, talking to shopkeepers, collaring the occasional fare-jumper, and scaring off the odd stick-up kid by their very presence.

That's not at all the way it works in Iraq. For one thing, the majority of the troops in a place like Baghdad never leave the massive, seemingly Manhattan-size walled-in Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Battle-hardened soldiers derisively describe Army personnel who live in the FOBs as "Fobbits" and it is roundly accepted in Iraq that Fobbits make up a clear majority of our deployed military men. For soldiers who actually have to go out and risk getting blown up in patrols, Fobbits are a vile contagion, like malarial mosquitoes -- amazingly numerous and deeply annoying. One soldier laughed when I asked if he thought we needed more guys in Iraq. "Not more troops, but fewer Fobbit-motherfuckers," he growled.

It seemed to me that the reason there were so many guys on the base was that the Army higher-ups on the ground in Iraq had made the decision to limit as much as possible the exposure of Americans to the Iraq outside the wire. They did this not out of cowardice or a reluctance to engage the enemy (who takes on different faces in different regions), but out of a realization that there is almost no way for our troops to actively engage insurgents. You could send more men and women out of the base, but where are you going to send them?

As it is, a great many of the outside-the-wire activities are artificial, self-justifying exercises without any immediate hope of engaging armed antagonists -- "show of force" tours around certain neighborhoods, visits to Iraqi police stations, etc. The prophylactic value of these exercises seems minimal, and many soldiers privately grumbled to me that their main purpose seemed to be to give insurgents something to shoot at.

When I was in Iraq, commanders seemed to recognize this, and even units who did go out on patrols did so on an extremely limited basis, not more than one hour out of twenty-four or forty-eight. And even during that one hour, they never got out of their Humvees -- never even slowed down their Humvees. The rest of the time they spent on the FOBs, tending to their equipment, watching DVDs, chatting on the net with anxious girlfriends back home and getting bossed around by Fobbit captains and lieutenants.

Then there is sectarian violence. I knew one soldier whose job involved escorting a morgue truck around Baghdad every morning. Each morning, his unit would drive around and pick up the covert assassination victims who had been tortured, mutilated and left on the street overnight. They'd toss the bodies in the truck, then unload the bodies at the morgue later. Later that night, while the vast majority of American soldiers slept on FOBs or in police stations, the rival Sunni and Shia gangs would sneak back and forth across town and leave more bodies for the soldier's unit to find the next day. There are no American soldiers in between the gangs and their victims. We come in at the end, when it's too late.

The soldiers have all been trained to fight and they want to help, want to make a difference -- but there's no offensive mission for them. So what they spend most of their time doing is working to sustain their own presence. More than one soldier commented to me that the mission seemed mainly to be to keep the FOBs running.

This then is what I guarantee will happen in Iraq as this escalation truly picks up steam. If the 15,000 additional soldiers that are being sent to Baghdad continue to do only what they've been doing thus far, soldiers will die in greater numbers than we have seen to this point, even beyond the number that died at the end of 2006. If the additional soldiers are sent to patrol the streets more, to ride around even more in their Humvees as targets for IEDs, to be stationed next to insurgent targets, and to openly battle the Shiite militias in Iraq, then they will die in much, much greater numbers then they have to this point. And because 15,000 extra soldiers isn't nearly enough to bring peace to Baghdad, they will be unable to tamp down the ever-worsening civil war, and after months and months of casualties the likes of which we have not seen to this point, and failure the likes of which we have seen all too much of, we will come to the realization slowly that we are staring into a never-ending pit of violence and horror that our country has no power to contain. I find myself wondering what our President will have to say at that point, which will come far sooner than he fears in his worst nightmares.

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