Courtesy of my friend Tacitus, I came across this blog post. (Warning: Long Post)

It’s an email from SPC Joe Roche, who’s currently serving with the 16th Engineer Battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division. Yes, that’s the division that whose tour was extended by three months. They’re located in the Baghdad area, and they’ve seen some of the heaviest fighting during the insurgency.

At any rate, the email, which is the latest in a series he’s mailed to the National Center, states that what’s going on vis-a-vis Muqtada al-Sadr is the culmination of a year-old strategy that’s been carefully thought out and implemented. He said that there are four parts to this strategy:

1. Isolating al-Sadr.

2. Exiling him from his power base in Sadr City.

3. Contain his uprising from spreading beyond his militia.

4. Get both his hard-line supporters to abandon him, and encourage moderates to break with him.

So, given these four goals, how are we doing in terms of accomplishing them?

1. Roche says that the Mehdi Army is fighting alone, and that we’re defeating them day and night. Furthermore, he claims that the people of Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad are not supporting him.

2. Roche says that Sadr City is lost to al-Sadr, and that while he’s [Roche] still dealing with pockets of his followers, we have him on the run. Why do we have him on the run? Because he’s desperate. But we control Sadr City, and we’re destroying his one-time properties there.

3. Roche says that we’re containing his uprising because Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani hasn’t acknowledged al-Sadr’s call for jihad, and CPA Administrator Paul Bremer and CJTF-7 commander GEN Ricardo Sanchez negotiated a truce in Fallujah (thus stunning the Shi’a community). The latter shows the Shi’a leadership that we have a strong hand in Iraq, and so they’d better stick with the top cat.

4. Roche says that his Iranian patrons have abandoned him, most notably Ayatollah al-Haeri. He doesn’t say anything about moderates.

My impression?

First, I’m usually very wary of criticizing anyone who’s currently on the front lines when it comes to the ground truth. After all, they’re there, and I’m not. But given that this falls more on the broad, strategic end of things, and it isn’t as time-sensitive, I’m going to go ahead. I’m going to address Roche’s four goals, and then give my broader view of his email.


1. This actually doesn’t mean much. During Vietnam, the Army never lost a battle. Even the Tet Offensive, which was widely regarded as a staggering defeat for the U.S., was actually a victory for us; we utterly smashed the Vietcong, and for the remainder of the war, we were fighting the North Vietnamese army.

I think the Mahdi Army’s the equivalent of the VC here; and even if we beat them in every fight, what’s important here is not the military aspect, but the political—how much support does al-Sadr have among the population? All the signs, contrary to what Roche may want to believe, point to Sadr having a significant chunk of support. The latest poll taken in Iraq shows that 45% of Iraqis polled in Baghdad, and 67% of those polled in Basrah, support al-Sadr. Furthermore, 80% of all of those polled say they mistrust the CPA, and 82% don’t want Coalition forces occupying Iraq.

The scary thing: the poll, which was commissioned by the CPA, was taken before the Abu Ghraib scandal exploded all over the news, so God only knows how the Iraqis feel now. Far from being abandoned, al-Sadr still has a strong base of support. And not all of those supporting him need to be taking up arms; they could be aiding his forces by sheltering and feeding them, and supplying them with ammunition and other supplies.

Far from being isolated, I think al-Sadr still has a strong base of support, and it’s one that will not only likely survive his death or capture, but will only grow stronger in such an event.


2. al-Sadr’s base isn’t geographic; it’s political and spiritual. And far from exiling him from Sadr City, we should have kept him there. There’s no emotional attachment to Sadr City on the part of most Iraqis; it’s just a poor Baghdad slum (the poorest, in fact). There is, on the other hand, a very strong attachment to the cities of Najaf and Karbala on the part of most Iraqis, particularly Shi’a, given that those two cities are the holiest in Shi’a Islam.

While Roche mentions that they’ve been operating within 500 meters of the most sacred sites, we should remember that al-Sistani (the same man Roche lauds in his email), has repeatedly said that if Coalition forces set foot on those sites, he’ll call on the Shi’a to resist to the death. He’s not kidding. When I was in Iraq, we had a mosque nearby. We regularly had confrontations there, and we hated responding to them, because every time we drew near, it meant we’d be greeted by spontaneous demonstrations by the local populace. So you can imagine the response if we were to go into the Imam Ali Mosque in force in order to kill or capture al-Sadr, especially if we damage the mosque in the process.

By moving to Najaf, al-Sadr has us in check; any move that we make against him can be characterized as an attack on Shi’a Iraqis. It doesn’t matter that he’s annoyed the vast majority of the Shi’a clerical leadership and many Najafis and Karbalis; if we make a move against him, the popular reaction will force the leadership to support him, not us.

So the best strategy to pursue here is to let the Iraqis handle al-Sadr, peacefully if at all possible, but by force if necessary, and for us to lay off. Given what’s been happening the last couple of days, we’re not pursuing that option at this time, and we may come to regret not doing that. I hope everything works out, but I’m not terribly sanguine that it will.


3. Again, I think Roche’s mistaken here. al-Sistani hasn’t endorsed al-Sadr’s call for jihad yet; as I wrote above, if we were to move in force to capture or kill al-Sadr (which seems to be what we’re doing), al-Sistani’s on record saying that he’ll call on all Shi’a to resist.

Furthermore, he’s dead wrong concerning what happened in Fallujah. Bremer and GEN Sanchez had absolutely squat to do with the truce in Fallujah; it was a local initiative sponsored by the commander on the ground, Marine LTG James Conway. In fact, Bremer and GEN Sanchez were strongly opposed to the deal when it was first negotiated; they wanted to take Fallujah, and its inhabitants, down.

Far from showing that we have a strong hand in Iraq, the deal actually shows our weakness, if anything. Why? Recall that the commanders of the Fallujah Brigade are Saddam’s former commanders; in fact, the overall commander, GEN Mohammed Latif, was one of his intelligence chiefs. Furthermore, many of the troops in the brigade are the same insurgents that were fighting us there. Folks like Jim Henley’s correspondent Marine CPT Chris Chown may think that it’s not a defeat*, but that’s not how many Iraqis see it.

The fact that we allowed many of these people to return to positions of responsibility infuriated many Shi’a. They see it as a sign that we
’re prepared to allow the same people who participated in their oppression to return to power, and possibly reprise the same atrocities. Much of this is due to the appalling decision we made back in 1991 to abandon the Shi’a as they rebelled against Saddam. There truly is an attitude among the Shi’a of “Never again!”, and I suspect much of al-Sadr’s current support comes from this.

So far from seeing the U.S. as a strong figure, we’re seen as a weak figure, willing to negotiate with some truly shady figures, if it means that we’ll benefit.


3. Yet another error by Roche here. If anything, al-Sadr hates Iranians. Remember, the original reason we decided to move against al-Sadr was that he was supposedly implicated in the murder of Muhammad al-Khoei back in April of 2003. Many people, especially al-Sadr and his followers, believed that al-Khoei had the support of Tehran, and they used this as justification to oppose al-Khoei.

What I think Roche means is that al-Sadr supports the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih, or rule of the jurisprudent—that is, rule by the clerics, which the same doctrine that governs Iran. In contrast, al-Sistani comes from what is called the “quietist” doctrine of Shi’a Islam, which opposes rule by the clerics.

This isn’t the same as being backed by Iran, or supporting Iranian influence. In fact, al-Sadr’s on record as vigorously opposing Iran, and Iranian influence in Iraq. He’s much more of a populist than anything else, and that’s the tradition that he and his father embraced. The fact that many of his patrons (most notably, al-Haeri) live in Iran is due to the fact that they went into exile there during Saddam’s regime, not because they were particularly pro-Iranian.

If Roche and his friends are interested in extirpating Iranian influence in Iraq, I’d suggest they cast a long look at someone I’ve mentioned many, many times before: Governing Council member Iyad Allawi, whose Dawa Party waged a long guerrilla campaign against Saddam, openly supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and whose senior leadership (to include Allawi) have not only received support from the religious leadership in Iran, but have also been trained and sheltered by them.

But as I’ve said before, since Allawi’s on the GC, that means he’s our friend, and so we overlook him. I think that approach is mistaken, and while we don’t need to take him into custody, we should be a lot more wary of him than of al-Sadr.


So, to summarize: I think Roche’s wrong in every one of his points. I think that we blundered into our confrontation with al-Sadr; contrary to what Roche may have you think, this wasn’t some carefully thought-out strategy.

Moreover, there’s a real unwillingness in him to admit that we’ve made some real mistakes, both politically and militarily, over the past year. I say this because the only way we’re going to go forward, the only way we’re going to win this war is if we admit that we’ve made those mistakes, fix those mistakes, and then apply the fixes so that we can win. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of how the Army learns (through after-action reviews and lessons learned).

But Roche, rather than do that, would rather wax about the near-omniscience of our leadership in Iraq. I don’t think that’s how we’re going to win.

And if you don’t like my take, I’d humbly remind you that I’m not the only one who’s taken a skeptical look at how things are going in Iraq. MG Charles Swannack, for one, commander of the 82nd Airborne, which dealt with the brunt of the insurgency in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi this past year, thinks we’re losing strategically—which is where wars are won, after all. And he and I aren’t the only ones. There’s Ralph Peters, and Paul Cole, and Max Boot, and…well, you get the point.

I’d love to celebrate, and to think that we’re winning, and not just winning, but routing our enemies. Nothing would give me greater pleasure—nothing. I want our sacrifice—mine, and Roche’s, and everyone else’s—to be validated with victory. Ignoring the bad things that are taking place in Iraq, and claiming that the good things are what’s important, and what we need to pay attention to, makes failure more likely, and makes the sacrifice more tragic.

I think it’s great that we’ve restored so many schools, and rebuilt so many roads, and restored self-governance to many towns; I think it’s awesome, and nothing makes me prouder of my time in Iraq. But will any of that matter if Iraq descends into chaos? What good will that shiny school do, if parents are too scared to send their kids there because the brand-new roads are infested with brigands?

I think Roche, and the rest of his brothers and sisters in arms, are doing a great job in Iraq, against some truly awesome odds. They have my full support, and then some, and I hope that they succeed. But you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not as confident of their ultimate success as he is; the glass, I fear, is much more empty than it is full. He’s entitled to his opinion; he’s not entitled to make up the facts. And the facts, such as they are, tragically aren’t on his side.


By the way, this is my 100th post. Thanks for all of you for reading, linking, and commenting. I look forward to writing much more, and rewarding your support. Again, thank you.

*Like CPT Chown, I wouldn’t characterize what happened in Fallujah as a defeat. It was, I think, the least bad of all the options we were faced with. We really had two options beforehand: one, go into the city, and engage in serious urban combat; or two, withdraw.

The first option, I think, would have resorted in a horrific number of casualties, on both sides, and would have polarized Iraqi opinion against us. Of course, post Abu Ghraib, that’s a moot point, in some ways; but the combination of that and Abu Ghraib would truly have been lethal for us.

The second was unpalatable because we spoke loudly and often of the repercussions which awaited Fallujah; imagine how it would have looked for our forces to be withdrawing without having affected the situation in Fallujah one whit. That truly would have been a defeat, and, again, it might have sparked a wider rebellion.

The current solution works to both sides’ benefit: we get to pick who’ll run Fallujah, and we reserve the right to go in there in force should things turn sour. The Fallujans get to claim that they beat us, but that’s more of a face-saving measure than anything else. I’m bothered by the fact that we picked some unsavory individuals to run things, but who else were we going to pick? No one else had the necessary credibility to make a truce stick, and in the end, that’s what’s important.

Would that we had employed the same tactic in Najaf (the Romans called it, “divide and conquer”, and they knew a little something about waging and winning wars), but it seems we’ve decided differently, for the worse.


Comments are closed.