Sunday, January 14, 2007

Michael Yon Reporting, January, 2007

Michael Yon's reporting is truly excellent. His on-the-ground accounts from two years ago are a gold standard for wartime journalism. Rather than cobble together reports by interviewing key people from the relative safety of the Green Zone or other secure location, he chose to "walk the line" with CSM (Command Sergeant Major) Mellinger.

He's back in Iraq, again travelling with CSM Mellinger, and turning out more good reports. Pay particular attention to the maps.

West of Baghdad, Al Anbar Province is a vast, lawless frontier stretching to the Syrian border. The population is almost exclusively Sunni Arab, leaving little cause for sectarian violence but plenty of room for other reasons to fight. (View the region on this map and see the breakdown of religious affiliations on this one.) Major cities in Anbar Province, such as Fallujah, are fantastically dangerous. Yet the Marines and Army, along with some Navy and Air Force personnel, are probably stretched as thin here as the Border Patrol between the U.S. and Mexico. No matter how they spread it, our fighters simply do not have enough paint to cover the barn called Anbar.

The fighting is brutal. Snipers on both sides take their toll on heads, while hidden bombs can take America’s toughest tank—the mighty M1, weighing in at roughly 150,000 pounds—and heave it into the air, sending its heavy turret sailing a hundred yards, and flipping the rest of the burning hulk on its back like a giant, exploding turtle in what is called a catastrophic attack. When such bombs detonate under Humvees, the scattered remnants can fit into the trunk of another Humvee. Smaller IEDs and platter charges rip through the vehicles like a cannonball through fog, leaving some dusty mud-cratered roads looking like the moon.

As with “shaped charges,” which have been falsely touted as high-technology imports, EFPs or Explosively Formed Projectiles (a new and fancy name for a “platter charge”) are often just easy-fab cheap weapons that an illiterate person can be taught to make. That said, there is evidence that some EFPs in Iraq are higher-tech “factory made” bombs.


Ramadi is the capital of Al Anbar Province and is the location for several stops on this patrol. The enemy snipers here have become good and even excellent. Just during the time we were in the area, they killed four of our people. No matter the metric, whether per capita or in absolute numbers, Baghdad is surely dangerous, but Anbar is worse in every measure, and Ramadi is the worst place in Anbar, which explains why CSM Mellinger keeps driving out there, walking the line.

The enemy follows different rules. Any attempt to explain the fate of two of our soldiers who were captured by terrorists in 2006 south of Baghdad would defy decency. It should suffice as coda that the enemy rigged their tortured and mutilated bodies with explosives. CSM Mellinger said that Iraqi forces had just caught one of the perpetrators and handed him over to our people. I asked if we were going to turn him back over to the Iraqis. The CSM said firmly, “We don’t give back people who kill Coalition Forces.”

Then he told me a story about a courageous and respected Iraqi commander who’d accompanied his patrols all over Iraq for nearly a year. When the dead body of this same Iraqi commander was brought into the morgue, doctors found gruesome signs of torture. His legs were beaten by planks of wood. A drill had been used to bore holes into all of his ribs, his elbows, his knees, and into his head. Doctors estimated the man endured this torture for days. Apparently when the fun was over, or they’d extracted what they needed, or the terrorists were worried about being discovered, or they had another victim waiting for their attentions, they shot him. CSM Mellinger, with just a momentary flash of anger in his eyes, said the Iraqi forces know who did this, and it’s only a matter of time. But time bends when every day in Iraq brings with it a hundred new stories of murder, torture and bodies scattered by bombs.

There is no question that Michael Yon knows what's happening in Iraq as well as anyone. His writing rings true and his objectivity is tempered only by patriotism and sensitivity to the human elements of his reports, whether ally or enemy. I found this by Joseph L. Galloway in his online magazine (already drawing hostile verbal fire in the comments):

Hoping for a Miracle
January 10, 2007

There’s an old sign posted at U.S. Army Ranger School. It says simply: “Hope is not a method, unless you are the chaplain.”

President George W. Bush went on national television this week and laid out for the American people a plan for a “New Way Forward” in Iraq that appears to be based on nothing more than hoping for a miracle.

He did precisely what was predicted: Announced a temporary escalation of American forces in Iraq by the curious number of 21,500, or approximately five brigades. Four brigades will deploy into the bloody streets of Baghdad and one brigade into the equally bloody towns of Anbar province to the west, the seat of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgency.

The Decider said that he’s laid down the law to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki cannot put the huge Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City off-limits to American forces, and he must begin disarming all sectarian militias, especially the Mahdi Army commanded by radical, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

The president made a perfunctory nod at humility, noting that if there’ve been mistakes in the conduct of the Iraq War _ and, boy, have there been some doozies _ that he bore responsibility for them.

Then he turned belligerent and uttered thinly veiled threats of unspecified U.S. military action against Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. President Bush already had underlined and telegraphed those threats by ordering a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf and sending additional minesweepers to the same theater.

Let’s review the bidding on this. As the Iraq misadventure heads toward its fifth year, everyone, including Bush, has admitted that the situation is grave and deteriorating and that constant combat deployments have stretched our Army and Marines to the breaking point.

Before the announced “surge” of the additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, we were already tapped out for any combat-ready reserve to deal with emergencies elsewhere in this troubled world. We have fewer than 10,000 troops who could in theory respond to trouble somewhere else. Say, Korea.

Iran occupies a very long and largely unguarded and unpoliced border with Iraq, whose Shiite majority shares the religious beliefs of the Iranians. Those Shiites sit squarely astride the U.S. supply lines that stretch some 300 miles through southern Iraq from Baghdad to Kuwait City.

Iran also sits on the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which supertankers haul Middle East oil to Japan, Europe and, yes, the United States.

Does anyone suppose that we can send bombers to strike Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants _ widely dispersed and dug deeply into the granite under mountains _ and not expect that action to set the Middle East on fire and paralyze economies at home and abroad by sending the price of oil beyond $100 or even $200 a barrel?

Does anyone think that Iran’s ayatollahs wouldn’t signal Iraqi Shiite militias and Iran’s own deeply embedded commando teams inside Iraqi to launch new and deadly attacks against our troops scattered across the Iraqi battlegrounds and cut our long and vulnerable supply lines that feed, fuel and provide ammunition to our forces? And what signals might the Iranians send to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and beyond, and to their Shiite allies in western Afghanistan?

The Iraq Study Group certainly urged the Bush administration to engage with Iran and Syria, but they recommended diplomatic engagement, not military engagements.

Throwing another 21,500 American troops into the cauldron that is the Iraq civil war is not a new way forward. It’s not even new: We’ve done this several times before, and it won’t work.

Expanding a war that we’re losing in Iraq to a neighboring nation three times larger, with a much better army and far more whacked-out religious fanatics, is hardly something that our commander in chief should even be dropping hints about at this juncture in a growing disaster.

Good God, man, what were you thinking during the last six weeks of supposedly listening to advice from all comers? Is this the best you can do?

Just when we begin to think that things couldn’t get much worse, they do.

Pardon me if I’m reminded of a time long ago when another disaster of a President, Richard M. Nixon, thought that he could turn a losing war in Vietnam around by bombing and invading neighboring Cambodia.

It didn’t work in Cambodia. It only set the stage for a Communist Khmer Rouge genocide that took as many as 2 million Cambodian lives after Indochina fell.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to hope for a miracle. We can all hope, and pray too, that this commander-in-chief comes to his senses before he sets our world afire in the two years he has left in the highest office in the land.

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