RAMADI, Iraq -- "If everything went as planned, they wouldn't call it 'war.'" That was the tongue-in-cheek assessment of a U.S. Marine Major as to why our helicopter flight from Baghdad to Ramadi had been delayed for half a day. By the time we arrived on the LZ at this outpost of freedom it was the middle of an unusually cold, damp night. A proffered hot cup of coffee was gratefully accepted as the Major helped us load our backpacks, camera gear and satellite broadcast equipment aboard a dust-encrusted Humvee. Just hours later, this widely respected and much admired Marine officer and two brave U.S. Army soldiers were dead, killed by an IED -- an improvised explosive device -- the insidious weapon of choice for terrorists in Iraq.
The tragic loss of three more Americans in bloody Al Anbar province -- like the four who were killed in a CH-46 crash the day we arrived for this, our eighth "tour of duty" in Iraq -- will be cited by critics of this war as proof that it cannot be won. That's the essence of an exchange earlier this week between Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Defense:
Sen. Levin: "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?"
Gates: "No sir."
Gates hastily added that, "we're not losing either," but also said he sees "the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration." In short, his testimony was seized upon in Washington as yet another depressing appraisal of the war in Iraq.
To the so-called mainstream media and our political elites it hardly matters that President Bush disagrees with such dismal assessments. White House spokesman Tony Snow noted that the president still believes the United States is winning in Iraq. "What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission," Snow added.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with whom we're embedded here in Ramadi concur with their commander in chief. Not one of the many with whom we have spoken since arriving here believes that they are failing in their mission. They see the growing ability of the Iraqi army and police as proof of their effectiveness -- and evidence that this war is heading toward a favorable outcome for the country that they volunteered to serve -- and the people of Mesopotamia.
Unfortunately, the judgment of those with "boots on the ground" doesn't seem to much matter to the masters of the media and many of the power brokers on the Potomac. Just a day after Gates delivered his negative prognosis, President Bush tersely announced that he had received the much-leaked final report of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group (ISG). Flanked by committee co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Bush described the report as a "tough assessment" that he will take seriously in seeking a strategy for the way forward in the Middle East and Iraq.
Eyewitness participants here are understandably reluctant to comment on a report that they have not read in its entirety, but privately many express grave concerns that it appears to be at odds with what those who are fighting this war are seeing. After a single four-day visit to Baghdad the ISG finds the situation here to be "grave and deteriorating" and accused the Pentagon of "under-reporting" the violence in Iraq.
The report calls for a "new" emphasis on training Iraqis to assume greater responsibility for their own security. Yet, it pays scant attention to dramatic improvements in the capabilities of Iraqi police and Army units being wrought by Military Transition Teams (MTTs). One MTT officer who has lived with his Iraqi counterparts for months dryly observed, "I wonder what the hell they think I've been doing out here?"
As forecast in a stream of pre-release "leaks" the ISG recommended that, "Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively." And in a strange conclusion ignoring the long-term, global jihad being waged against the West, the committee found a link between a successful outcome in this war to a "right of return" for Palestinians who left Israel since the founding of the Jewish state.
Negative news is nothing new in war -- neither Gates nor the Iraq Study Group is unique in that. In 1944, after the Japanese began making Kamikaze suicide attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, there were those who suggested that winning the war was becoming too costly. They were wrong then -- and they are wrong today. Winning that war was crucial. Winning this one is too, if the sacrifices being made today are to be worth anything.