Accuracy in Media

Here is an interesting note from an officer in Baghdad (USAF, O-5 on the AWC staff ). 

—–Original Message—–
From: Tom Ruby
Sent: Monday, November 22, 2004 3:32 AM
To: Tom Ruby; Tom Ruby
Subject: Final Message From Baghdad

My Dear Family and Friends,

Lord willing, this will be my last letter from Baghdad.  I thought I’d send you a final update of our progress here and let you know how some things are going.  This might be a long letter, so if you feel like skipping to the end, you won’t hurt my feelings.  But if you want to know how we’re doing, please read on.

As I prepare to depart, I am still very busy coauthoring the strategic review of the Multinational Force’s campaign plan.  Gen. Casey, the commanding general here in Iraq, directed our two-star, Gen Steve Sargeant, to conduct a strategic review of the plan, where we stand with respect to that plan (i.e., are we on track to achieve our objectives), to determine what, if anything, needs to be done to get back on track, and what, if anything, needs to be re-written in the plan.  Gen Sargeant gave that task to my boss, Col Sandy Storrie, a top-notch Brit, for whom I’ve worked on this project for the last several weeks.  We send in our initial draft today and will make any updates or changes by the end of the week.  Sadly (for Col Storrie), I will not be here when he presents the findings to Gen Casey on the 1st of December as I will (Lord willing) be on my way to the Kuwait International Airport for an early morning flight home on 2 Dec.

I’ll try to do this following some outline.  I’ll first talk about what we found (as much as I can) in our review, then talk about what is going on in general outside the walls, and then about the people here and how they deal with life in the green zone.

It is funny that as I prepare to tell you that I am still optimistic (really, and not just for show), I find myself thinking about the election pollsters and analysts back in the states ahead of last month’s Presidential election.  They all knew it would be close, yet they were all pretty honest about how they qualified their optimism. They knew that if certain things happened in a certain order, they would likely win.  Then they set out to shape the environment to ensure those things happened while the other side tried to oppose those moves.  Likewise here in Iraq, we know that there are certain key events and decisive points that must be achieved at certain times and often in a certain order of precedence in order to achieve objectives.

The Iraqi government’s and the coalition’s desired end state is a free and democratic Iraq that is essentially self reliant.  Well, there are a ton of things that need to be done in the next 14 months to make that happen, but a small few of them are far more important than the rest, which will keep happening largely unseen by the general world media audience.   For the Interim Government and for the Coalition, the most important event is the democratic elections now scheduled for 30 Jan 05.

Why is this so important?  Because an election is huge momentum-builder for legitimacy, which in turn completely undermines the insurgency. So the insurgents have it in their interest to undermine legitimacy, and thus the elections.  So this is why operations such as the offensive against the insurgents in Fallujah are important.  First of all, leaving Fallujah alone affords the insurgents freedom-of action from which to plan and conduct their attacks against the government and coalition forces.  Second, not clearing out the insurgents prevents a large number of Sunni Arabs from voting in the upcoming elections, thus potentially undermining the Sunni representation in the government, which in turn would set into motion another set of bad events.

So what?  So we went and conducted operations against bad guys in a dusty city half-way around the world?  What does that have to do with optimism and the price of milk back home?  I don’t know that I have the time, nor you the interest to talk about the milk part, but I can tell you about the optimism part.  Like the presidential election analysts who looked for certain events, we here are doing the same.  And it is not in any way a cop out to say that while the majority here are optimistic (it is not a scientific poll, by any means, but there is a solid majority of optimists and I can tell you that it is not from group-think, either), they qualify that optimism by saying that as long as we can pull of the elections in January, most think the pieces will fall into place by the following year and we’ll largely see our objectives met.  Col Storrie was looking for the right words yesterday to write into the review and the analogies that I came up with all centered on the theme of walking a narrow path along a cliff, or a balance beam, or you get the picture.  As long as you stay on the path/beam, you are fine, but if you step off, you fall down.  At times I have felt like this was going to succeed despite what mistakes we have made, and other times I have thought that we made some great decisions at the right times.  It is easy to chalk it all up to Providence, but we have to remember that with Providence, we must be willing and active participants, so our decisions do matter.

So who are these insurgents and why is it important for me to bring this up?  We get to see the news here that people back home see, and it so superficial that you cannot grasp the importance of certain truths. These people are not merely freedom fighters that want the Americans out so they can get back on with their lives.  They are largely members of the former Ba’athist regime who are out of a cushy lifestyle that was gained at the expense of the vast majority of the country.

As my good friend Scott Bethel pointed out after spending the last five months here, the insurgents are neither patriots, religious purists, nor revolutionary thinkers.  They are thugs, street gangs, Mafiosi. Many are criminals, ignorant, and power-hungry.  What the Muqtada al-Sadrs and the al-Zarqawi’s want is to be enabled to conduct criminal enterprise without the encumbrance of a sovereign (i.e. the police on behalf of the government).  After the recent battles, we have discovered many areas where  the insurgents where holed up.  Inside our troops have found mounds of pornographic material, booze bottles, and drug paraphernalia.  This was actually reported following the battles in Najaf, but has not gotten the coverage it should, in my view.  Al Jazeera reports that our tanks drive through the streets looking for old women to run over when in fact there are none in the town.

In Fallujah, nearly every mosque had a large weapons cache inside, as did many of the cemeteries.  Our Media relations people briefed this to the press with the appropriate Geneva Convention provisions that remind people that once you use protected sites (like mosques and cemeteries) for fighting positions, they lose their internationally recognized protected status.  And as far as the Fallujah humanitarian crisis, it does not exist.  Seriously.  Gen Casey kept reading the media reports of the mass crisis during and after the battle, yet his field commanders kept telling him there was none.  So he sent a team headed by a Brit general out there to find out the ground truth.  That truth was that the population had very slowly, deliberately, and in an orderly fashion departed over a period of months and gone to live with family and friends in the surrounding area and towns.  This general looked at the population of the city from last year, the number of people the local commander estimates were left in town (far lower than expected), and then went to look for the tent cities and shanty-towns that the UN said were established in the local towns and villages. They went to each of these places and took aerial imagery and looked for all these displaced people.  The truth was that none were out and about.  There were no shanty-towns or tent cities or huddled masses. They were absorbed in the fashion of the millennia-old tribal custom of looking out for family and tribe.  Now they are slowly making their way, essentially in scouting parties, back into the city to check out their dwellings to see which are habitable.  And don’t overlook one of the most important points here, that being that most of these people were driven out of their homes by insurgents who used these buildings in an elaborate network of fighting positions and weapons storage sites.

So now we are pouring in there with food and supplies for people and there aren’t any lining up for the supplies.  The other thing we are pouring in there is reconstruction equipment and money to rebuild what the insurgents caused.  We found an entire section of town, the standard industrial park near the outside of town, that was a set of factories for producing vehicle borne bombs.  The pictures are amazing.

But that was just Fallujah.  We did much the same in Najaf earlier this year in the spring, and it took us a few months to see and recognize the extent to which that operation brought life not only back to normal in that area, but improved it significantly.  That is what we will see in Fallujah, but it will take some time to see the effect.  Now we are seeing the remnants of the insurgency spreading out to make a last stand before the election in January.  This leads to my second point – what is going on with the government and the people in general.

I am continually heartened by the strength of the human will for a better life.  These poor people are continually threatened as soon as they are known to work with or for the government or the coalition. The insurgency’s favorite tool these last few months is to intimidate people from working with or for the government by killing some and threatening others with death.  But two things are important here. First is that the actual level of attacks on Iraqis is very low across the entire country.  Even in Baghdad where it is highest, it is still far below levels of violence in many US cities today, let alone in other countries that survived insurgencies in the past.  The second point is that these people want so much for their country to succeed, there is always someone ready and willing to step in to fill an opening, despite the threat.  And if we can quickly fix some of the contracting issues we have with peacetime rules of open bidding for contracts that does not work in a tribal-based society in war (and we have just done that), we should see a small, but definitely measurable improvement in reconstruction prior to the election.

You may not see it on the TV, but the Atlantic Monthly had an interesting article in the 1 Oct 04 issue that talked about the full fruit stands at markets across the country with items that many Europeans would love to have available every day.  And you can’t go to any village, no matter how small, in this country without seeing a brand new satellite dish on the roof.  Nearly every house has a generator for running their appliances when the electricity is not flowing.  And speaking of electricity, more power is generated by a large margin than when Saddam ran the place, but there is such a greater demand now, that it seems like there is less to go around. This leads to the dilemma that the Iraqis’ expectations are based on their perceptions, and not on reality.  They say that since we put a man on the moon, we should be able to deliver power to the whole country on equipment that Saddam didn’t drop a dime into for the last 10 years.  Our engineers are afraid to open and look at some of the turbines around the country.  These projects will take big dollars, and lots of time.  Unfortunately, they will not employ large numbers of local workers and the work will be done largely out of sight.  But the expectations remain.  So while we fight insurgents in order to create and environment in which we can have free elections and build up Iraq’s own security forces, we have to fight an expectation gap as well.  The former we can win.  The latter, we will always be behind as long as they have these great expectations.

Finally, life around here continues apace.  It is hard for some people to remain vigilant.  I don’t know why this is true, but I only know that it is.  Last week, we had someone killed near the BX here when he was hit with shrapnel from a rocket attack.  He was hit in the chest, but was not wearing his flack vest, even though the rules here have us in helmet, flack vest, and armed any time we are outside a building. Another person was hit by a mortar blast here a few days ago and a rocket landed 5 feet in front of one of our contractors last week and failed to explode.  In the middle of Mass this weekend, right at the Eucharistic Prayer, there was an explosion which shook the windows and massive doors behind the altar.  Father turned his head, and then proceeded on.  They are going to keep trying, because they believe that at some point all of our civilians will suddenly want to leave and then we won’t have anyone to mentor and advise the new civil servants who are trying to learn what it means to serve a country and not a person. Thankfully, our people here, Americans, Brits, and all the others, especially Iraqis, are resolute.  It is a mistake the insurgents are making to underestimate this generation of Western leaders and people.

So as I look back on this letter, I can see where some would think that this was a propagandist rah-rah speech.  I assure you that it isn’t.  I have been on the watch for reason to be pessimistic here because that was our charge.  Find those things that need to be fixed and bring them up to the commanding general.  And yes, we found several things that need work that I won’t discuss here.  But you need to know that this decision to undertake this review by Gen Casey takes moral courage.  He cannot direct this review to take place and then ignore the findings. I suppose he could, but why ask in the first place.  Too many people were involved with being interviewed.  I think he intends to fix the areas that need fixing.  If he doesn’t then our path becomes even narrower.  But I don’t see that happening.  You should be proud of the people we have serving here, Americans and other coalition officers and enlisted.  They are some of the brightest people I have ever seen assembled in one place.  They support and encourage the leadership here with excellent staff work, analysis, and recommendations.  Their political leanings span the spectrum from far left to far right, but they all have a common vision of why they are here and why it is important to finish what was started here nearly two years ago.  Those who mistakenly and angrily believe that we are imperialistic in our conquests, w must remind them that when other countries throughout history conquered, they ruled and subjected.  We are shedding our treasure here (not only in money but in our precious people) to free people.

When I get home, my friend and fellow deployed officer, Mike Fiedler, and I will offer up an after action briefing at our school, and will have another one available to take on the road.  There will be more details about specific considerations for campaign planning.  But until then, we still have several days worth of work to do.   Keep praying for us, and for everyone else here.  I can’t wait to see everyone and get wrestled to the floor at home by the kids.

Peace be with you all and thank you so much for your prayers and support in my time here, tom

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