ON SUNDAY, seven soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Iraq penned a passionate opinion piece in the New York Times that further illustrates the complexity of what is “really” happening in Iraq. Of the almost 3,000 soldiers from the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division currently serving in the hottest of Iraqi neighborhoods, seven felt confident enough in their misgivings to sign an opinion piece. They should not be surprised that many of their comrades–including the seven undersigned here–find their work to be misguided.
The 2nd Brigade is responsible for two dangerous areas of Baghdad: Adihamiyah and Sadr City. Airborne troopers there have seen the worst al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army can throw at them and the Iraqi people. But the whole story is that the Iraqis and soldiers in their sector have not yet been fully affected by the surge of troops and operations, which have barely been in place two months.
Currently, American and Iraqi Forces are clearing sections of southern Baghdad before turning north to the 82nd Airborne’s neighborhoods. As such, the portrait these soldiers painted, while surely accurate and honest, is more representative of pre-surge Baghdad: sectarian strife, lawlessness, and indiscriminate slaughter.
This is not, however, the picture elsewhere in Iraq, or even most of Baghdad. Additional American combat brigades first surged to the outlying areas around the capital, disrupting the flow of suicide bombers and car bombs and denying haven to al Qaeda.
The result? Attacks against civilians are at a six-month low and large al Qaeda-style truck and suicide bombings have dropped 50 percent in Baghdad. With additional troops and a sound strategy, the same results can occur in even the worst areas of Baghdad, including the 82nd Airborne’s sector.
Take Anbar Province. In 2006, al Qaeda controlled the capital of Ramadi and Marine intelligence officers declared the province effectively lost. A leaked Marine Corps report concluded, “the prospects for securing western Anbar province are dim and there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there.”
Today Ramadi is peaceful and Anbar no longer a haven for al Qaeda. The tribal awakening that brought about political reconciliation and stability in Ramadi and Anbar primarily resulted from an improved security environment provided by American forces. Americans not only cleared Ramadi, they also held it by occupying over 65 outposts.
This security environment allowed local tribal leaders to stand up to their former al Qaeda occupiers, and now American and Iraqi forces are improving security beyond Anbar in places like Diyala and Babil Provinces.
The 82nd Airborne soldiers quoted an Iraqi saying, “We need security, not free food.” We could not agree more, and what American and Iraqi forces are doing now–for the first time in this war–is providing lasting security at the neighborhood level after driving insurgents out.
It’s true that political reconciliation has not suited so-called “benchmarks,” but political progress will only happen when the battlefield and political realities are congruent. We know that street level security is a necessary precondition for real political progress, and as such, the preconditions are finally being fulfilled. And as we’ve seen, Iraqi leaders–whether Sunni or Shia–will stand up for moderation and stability only when provided with a secure environment in which to do so.
We understand the frustration our fellow soldiers feel. All of us were in Iraq before the “surge” and lament never seeing a coherent, security-based counterinsurgency strategy. In truth, we were only clearing–not holding.
But we also know what’s possible when even small portions of counterinsurgency strategy are applied. Insurgents are exposed, leaders stand up, and stability occurs. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker understand the principles of counterinsurgency and are applying them up and down the chain of command. It’s unfortunate that soldiers in the 82nd Airborne have not yet benefited from the new strategy, but it will ensure that their actions, and those of their fallen brethren, will not have been in vain.
Meanwhile, we applaud our brothers in the 82nd Airborne for their courage under fire, thank them for their commitment to our nation, and pray for the recovery of their injured co-author.
David Bellavia, Pete Hegseth, Michael Baumann, Carl Hartmann, David Thul, Knox Nunnally, and Joe Dan Worley all served with either the Army or Marine Corps in Iraq, and are all members of Vets for Freedom. This Op-Ed was originally submitted to the New York Times, which declined to publish it.