Cautious optimism

Posted: Nov 12, 2004 12:00 AM

 CENTRAL COMMAND HEADQUARTERS, Tampa -- By following the movements, updated every eight minutes, of blue icons on a screen here displaying a satellite photograph of Fallujah's streets, a four-star general could monitor, in real time, the movements of a squad through an intersection in that city. He could, but Gen. John Abizaid does not, having many more worries. As commander of Central Command, he is director of the military responsibilities -- especially the war on terror -- in 27 nations from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East, and through South and Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

           But operations in Fallujah, and perhaps in three or more other Iraqi cities, may determine whether elections scheduled for late January midwife the birth of a viable state. And as the operations began, there was an expectation here that of the eight Iraqi military units collaborating with U.S. forces, three or four would perform reasonably well, two or three might reveal significant inadequacies and one might flunk the test.

     Military professionals have a realism born of familiarity with military history -- America's (e.g., the U.S. Army's poor performance in its first major engagement of World War II, at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943) and others' (e.g., the disintegration, along ethnic and religious lines, of the Lebanese army in the 1970s).

     As events unfold in Fallujah, the two great questions are: In a region where there is little tradition of armies loyal to the state, can Iraq's military be reconstituted while a new Iraqi state is being constituted? And can this be done before Americans' patience is exhausted by the suspicion that the current Iraqi government is prepared to ``fight to the last American''?

     Such loss of patience might infect the morale of U.S. reserve and National Guard units in Iraq. American impatience would be exacerbated if Iraq's government, partaking of an Arab culture of alibis, blamed failures of the new Iraqi military on American trainers.

     Officers here believe that the problem of foreign fighters in Iraq has been vastly exaggerated -- that only a few hundred of 10,000 people detained in Iraq are foreigners. In Fallujah, a Darwinian dynamic may be at work -- survival of the most dangerous. That is, many insurgents fled before the Marines came, while the stupid ones stayed. The core of the insurgency -- former regime elements -- may include a few who want to return to the good old days of the seventh century, but many more who want to return to the good old days of power in Baghdad and shopping at Harrods in London.

     Abizaid believes radical Islam today is roughly akin to Bolshevism in 1890 and fascism in 1920 -- there is time to stop its rise, but it must be stopped. Military success is certain. The enemy dare not mass. In Vietnam, American battalions suffered defeats. In Iraq, there has been no platoon-size defeat, and regular U.S. infantry units perform tasks that would have called for Delta Force skills a decade ago.  

     Abizaid laconically dismisses the idea that U.S. military energies are being depleted by ``nation-building'' duties: ``We're doing more fighting than fixing. The enemy gives us ample opportunity to fight.'' But while almost 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, there have been fewer than half that many military deaths in three years since the post-9/11 fighting began, in Afghanistan. And one reason why terrorists have killed no Americans in America since 9/11 is that, as one officer puts it,  ``we're so much in their knickers abroad.''

     Success in Iraq, people here believe, is contingent on three ifs: if Iraqi military and security forces can stay intact during contacts with the insurgents; if insurgents are killed in sufficient numbers to convince the Sunni political class that it must invest its hope in politics; if neighboring states, especially Syria, will cooperate in slowing the flow of money and other aid to the insurgency. If so, then America can -- this is the preferred verb -- ``stand up'' an Iraqi state and recede from a dominant role.

     Abizaid, who speaks Arabic and has studied the region (and in the region, at the University of Jordan) believes that the Fallujah operation begins a 12-month period from which America will learn the parameters of the possible. When a visitor suggests that in two weeks we will know much, another officer tersely replies: ``Two days.''

     That was said on Monday. So far, the performance of Iraq's apprentice military, now working with U.S. units denoted by the blue icons on that screen, permit tentative -- very tentative -- optimism.