US troops in Iraq not sure 'surge' will help

As senior US military commanders prepare for the addition of 21,000 troops to their battle force to secure Iraq — specifically Baghdad — several media interviews with US troops already on the ground reveal doubts about whether the new troops can "make a lasting difference." The Washington Post reports that soldiers who have patrolled Baghdad for months say they feel their job is a " thankless struggle" and that more troops will not change that.

"Just trying not to give everyone a bad impression of Americans is the hardest thing," said Staff Sgt. Andrew McKay, 27. "Being courteous, being nice to the kids, being nice to the families, but still maintaining your military bearing and doing your job -- it's a fine line to walk."

Faced with an often distrustful, frightened populace, members of the task force said they doubted that adding thousands more US troops would change this frustrating dynamic. One soldier, on his second tour in Iraq, said the attitude of the Iraqi civilians toward the Americans continues to deteriorate.

"Whatever new plans they come up with, it won't work out here. It's getting worse and worse," the soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he worried about a reprimand from his superior officers. "I was here last time, in the beginning. Now it's totally changed. They don't even respect us anymore. They spit at us, they throw rocks at us. It wasn't like that before."

The Post also reports that American officers, however, believe that the additional troops will increase security and encourage Iraqis to cooperate more with US and Iraqi forces. The influx of troops will allow soldiers to move into smaller, often violent areas, and this will lead to an increase in the "intelligence about insurgent and militia activities."

McClatchy Newspapers reports, however, that it found a similar sense of foreboding among US troops, particular in Baghdad. Troops interviewed said the violence is so out-of-control that while a troop surge may momentarily suppress it, "the notion that US forces can bring lasting security to Iraq is misguided."

"What is victory supposed to look like? Every time we turn around and go in a new area there's somebody new waiting to kill us," said Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Gill, 29, of Pulaski, Tenn., as his Humvee rumbled down a dark Baghdad highway one evening last week. "Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for thousands of years, and we're not going to change that overnight."

"Once more raids start happening, they'll (insurgents) melt away," said Gill, who serves with the 1st Infantry Division in east Baghdad. "And then two or three months later, when we leave and say it was a success, they'll come back."

McClatchy says almost every foot soldier it interviewed during a week of patrols in Baghdad repeated sentiments similar to the ones expressed above. Their reasons include "incompetence or corruption among Iraqi troops, the complexities of Iraq's sectarian violence and the lack of Iraqi public support, a cornerstone of counterinsurgency warfare." Yet most of the troops also said that their Iraqi counterparts can not yet operate effectively without help from the US military.

Once again, US military officers had a different view of the situation. Many believe that if security can improve in the next four to six months, US troops can withdraw to the edge of the capital.

Maj. Christopher Wendland, a senior staff officer for [2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, which oversees most of east Baghdad] said he thinks there's a good chance that by late 2007 American troops will have handed over most of Baghdad to Iraqi troops.

"I'm actually really positive," said Wendland, 35, of Chicago. "We have an Iraqi army that's actually capable of maintaining once we leave."

USA Today reports on a joint US-Iraqi patrol where Iraqi soldiers were expected to take the initiative in a raid. But when the soldiers arrived at the compound, US soldiers immediately took charge, and swept the buildings, while Iraqi troops hesitated, "waiting for someone to tell them what to do."

"This [Iraqis taking the lead in military operations] is occurring slower than we originally projected," Gen. George Casey, the outgoing top US commander in Iraq, acknowledged last week in congressional testimony.

A major US intelligence report released last Friday said that Iraqi security forces lack the training, equipment and skills necessary to replace US troops. The National Intelligence Estimate said that, if US troops were withdrawn in the next 12 to 18 months, "this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq."

As the USA Today article points out, it is often just as difficult a transition for US troops as it is for Iraqis. American officers and soldiers are trained to be aggressive during their entire military careers. Now that they are being told to "lay back" and advise, it can be an uneasy role to fill. Officers are often encouraged to read the works of WWI British officer T.H. Lawrence, better know as Lawrence of Arabia.

"Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence wrote in a 1917 article in The Arab Bulletin. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

The Los Angeles Times reports on US troops working in Haditha who are trying to build new relationships with Iraqi civilians against the backdrop of the killing of 24 residents by US troops in 2004. A complicating factor is that two other groups of soldiers who had been stationed in the town to build community relationships were eventually moved to Fallujah to fight insurgents. When they left, insurgents returned to the town and killed everyone who had cooperated with the US troops.

The dozens of deaths have resulted in suspicion and hostility and made the Marine mission here exceedingly difficult and dangerous.

"The betrayal [by the US] of the tribes and the local leadership ... has created a climate that we've struggled mightily to make right," said Capt. Matt Tracy, commander of Echo Company of the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, which occupies a former school near the town center.

Finally, it also getting a little harder for US troops even away from the battlefield. In a cost-cutting move, Stars and Stripes reports that US Army Europe (USAREUR) has cancelled elaborate welcome home celebrations for troops returning from Iraq and their families. While USAREUR will continue to host ceremonies "where the soldiers march in formation and the colors are unfurled," free food, beer and entertainment that had been provided at previous ceremonies will be stopped until the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30.

Families of troops based in Germany, currently serving in Iraq, are trying to organize some kind of potluck for returning troops and their families. A military spokesman said that any such activities will have to be completely organized and funded by people in the community, and not the military.

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