Recently I raised the question of why we are doing sweeps in Iraq when the history of counter-insurgency tells us sweeps don’t work. I was motivated to write that column by the death of fourteen Marines in one Amtrack during a sweep conducted by 3/25, Cleveland’s Marine Reserve unit.
The previous day, 3/25 had lost six men, two sniper teams, under circumstances that were unclear. I recently received information on that incident that raises a very important question, a question with strategic, not merely tactical significance. I was told (not by anyone in 3/25) that the six Marines were ambushed and killed by Iraqi troops they were attached to.
Let me say up front that I cannot confirm this report. Because I cannot confirm it, I am using it not to make a point but to raise some questions. The questions are, did this happen? If it did, why were the American people not told? And — this is the question with strategic importance — how often is this happening in Iraq today?
The reason the question has strategic meaning is that the Bush administration’s strategy, if it can be called that, for avoiding outright defeat in Iraq is to build up the Iraqi armed forces and police until the war can be turned over to them. If those same Iraqi forces are attacking American troops on a fairly frequent basis, that is a significant piece of evidence the strategy is not working.
History suggests that it was never very likely to work. Over and over, invaders have tried to raise proxy armies to do much of the fighting for them. Only a minority of the troops Napoleon used to invade Russia were French; most were coerced from reluctant "allies" the French had previously defeated, like Prussia. Not surprisingly, as soon as it could get away with it, the Prussian corps went over to the Russians.
World War II offers a similar lesson. Hundreds of thousands of Russians taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht changed sides. Many were absorbed into regular German units as Hiwis, "willing helpers." Others formed a whole separate pro-German Russian Army under a Russian general, Vlasov. As a friend in Washington recently said, compared to "our" Iraqi forces, the Vlasov Army looked pretty good. But like most such forces, when faced with real combat, it and the Hilfswillige melted away.
Of course, there is also our own experience in Vietnam. Remember "Vietnamization"? It reflected the same strategy the Bush administration is now following: build up the armed forces of a friendly local government and let them do the fighting. Some ARVN units did fight. But the Vietnamese on the other side had a whole lot more motivation. As Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, will Baghdad one day be Sadr City or, worse, Osama City? I seem to see the Clio nodding "yes."
If the American public is to assess whether or not we are succeeding in Iraq, it needs to be told when Americans are attacked by the "friendly" Iraqi government forces they are working with. Again, I cannot confirm that this happened to the six snipers from 3/25. But if it did happen and the public was not told, the Bush administration will have been caught in yet another lie. That, too, has strategic significance in a war we were lied into in the first place. If a strategy initially based on lies must rely on more lies for its continuation, it is probably not pointed toward success.
Other evidence already suggests that our attempt to create our own Iraqi armed forces is not working. The police do an excellent job of disappearing whenever the insurgents show up. Most of the latest Iraqi Army recruits are Pesh Merga or Shiite militiamen who are putting on different uniforms while maintaining their old loyalties. The insurgents have infiltrated everywhere; recently, U.S. forces have begun disbanding — sometimes forcibly — the Iraqi National Guard we previously created, because it has been so thoroughly penetrated.
If, on top of this, our troops in Iraq are being attacked frequently by Iraqi government troops, and this information is deliberately being withheld from the American people, the crystal ball has turned black. So, President Rove, just what did happen to those six snipers from 3/25?