Now's the time for a clear-eyed look at where we are in Iraq

Knight Ridder NewspapersJune 1, 2005 

WASHINGTON—In a Memorial Day interview, Vice President Dick Cheney told Larry King that the Iraqi insurgency is in its death throes, Osama bin Laden "is on the run," we've dealt a major blow to al-Qaida and the terror suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been "treated humanely and decently."

Wait a minute. What did he say? That sounded suspiciously like a "light at the end of the tunnel" speech.

President Bush echoed his No. 2's conclusions the next day, declaring that the upsurge in violence in Iraq is evidence that the insurgency is on its last legs.

We haven't heard the like since July 3, 2003, when the president told those misguided souls who thought they saw an opportunity to kill Americans in Iraq: "Bring 'em on!"

Since the last good news in Iraq, the Jan. 30 elections, and a resulting but brief pause in the pace of attacks on Americans and Iraqis, more than 700 Iraqis have been slaughtered in a wave of terrorist bombings and attacks that are increasing in sophistication and viciousness. The death toll among American troops in Iraq is 1,665 and rising.

Rising while the president is "staying the course" and Dick Cheney still believes that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with bin Laden, on the verge of building a nuclear weapon and preparing to unleash clouds of chemical and biological agents on the world in general and Americans in particular.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld marches stubbornly on with his crackpot ideas about how to transform the military so it's lighter, faster and more agile. So far, he's succeeding only in breaking the Army and the Marine Corps.

As Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter reported this week, U.S. field commanders say we have so few troops along the Syrian border that the area has remained wide open for the free transit of Holy War folks from all over the Muslim world who come to drive cars packed with explosives to kill themselves and fellow Muslims in the name of God.

We arrived in Iraq more than two years ago knowing that more than a million tons of bombs, artillery shells, land mines, grenades, bullets, portable anti-aircraft missiles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 rifles were sitting in more than 600 ammunition dumps all over the country.

But because there aren't enough American troops on the ground, we've secured only about 25 percent of those ammo dumps. Some others have a frightened Iraqi security guard, armed with a rusty pistol, on the gate.

When a dump truck driven by heavily armed terrorists pulls up and they offer him a choice of a $100 bill or death, he waves them through. They load the dump truck with 500-pound bombs and 155 mm artillery shells to make the ubiquitous IEDs—improvised explosive devices—that kill American soldiers and Iraqis the next day or the next week.

In pursuit of Rumsfeld's holy grail of fast and light, Army divisions have been ordered to leave home half or more of their tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Tank and artillery crews have been dismounted, turned into light infantry and sent out in light transport vehicles, Humvees, to patrol the deadliest roads and streets in the world.

They've paid the price, and they continue to pay it.

These fine young soldiers, many of them National Guardsmen and Reservists, get only six or nine or 12 months between combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most are on their second or third time around.

There's an answer to this, if our intention is to stay in Iraq as long as it takes: Increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps so the burden can be shared and lightened.

This Rumsfeld refuses to do, even as he watches the force begin to crack and recruitment fall 25 percent and more below target. In Army towns in Georgia and Texas and North Carolina, headhunters are holding well-attended seminars on the opportunities for young captains and majors who leave the service.

Private contractors offer veteran Special Forces sergeants and warrant officers $20,000 a month to do the same jobs they've been doing in Iraq for much less, and the backbone of the force is leaving in droves. The Army offers a re-enlistment bonus of $197,000—about what a senior enlisted soldier can make in 10 months with a private contractor—to some of the same people in an effort to keep them.

This would be a good time to conduct a thoughtful review of where we are in this war, where we're going, what our exit strategy should be and what can be done to prevent a Vietnam-style disaster in the Middle East.

The answer isn't staying the course, if the course we're on points us in the wrong direction.

The answer isn't the false optimism of those who argue that more insurgent attacks are proof that the insurgency is dying, or that Iraqi boys will soon be doing what until now American men and women have had to do for them.

Their military and civilian superiors owe our soldiers—and all of us—more than political spin. They, and we, deserve realism and the truth.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young

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