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katrina

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This will start out as a trip report and morph into a

"think piece" (if I am still capable of such) later

during my travels.



I am among a group of six retired military media

analysts, think tankers and authors invited to Baghdad to

view the current situation, operations in western Iraq,

security planning for the all-important 15 October

"referendum," training of Iraqi forces and strategies for

dealing with the increasingly pesky insurgencies in

both Iraq and Afghanistan. We will meet senior military

leaders and Iraqi political officials and most

important, we will have free access to the troops involved in

the missions - from experience I know they will give

us the straight word about what they think.



I have so many questions: how are we doing; are we

making progress; how do we know; what is our strategy; is

it working; what is an acceptable end state to us, to

the Iraqis; how is this playing in other mid-East

countries; are the Syrian and Iraqi connections serious,

or being overplayed; what is the latest make-up of the

insurgency; how do we get the Sunnis to enter the

political process; how do operations in western Iraq -

destroy homes and villages, leave, the bad guys comeback

- make any sense in a war for the hearts and minds of

the Sunnis; is there now a civil war going on by a

different name (insurgency); tell me again how this is

not like a Vietnam-style quagmire.and the questions go

on and on? I can't wait to hear the answer from those

high up and those behind the wheels of the trucks and

Humvees and those pulling the triggers.



For security reasons I cannot identify where we are

going, nor whom we will meet until after meetings are

complete. Today we spent in Kuwait at the "new" Camp

Arifjan, south of Kuwait City. Arifjan which replaces the

old Camp Doha, is a giant logistics base, miles and

miles of desert covered with lines and lines of

containers full of supplies, ammo, air-conditioned tents and

modular buildings full of personnel (some 17,000 in

Kuwait, much reduced from a year ago), lines and lines of

trucks, Humvees, Bradleys, Strykers, tank

transporters, mess halls, a swimming pool, library, phone-calling

center, movie theater, gymnasium, Taco Bell, Subway,

et.al. Arifjan is an inhospitable place, the air full

of choking dust (and today there was no wind or

terrible heat), bumpy roads and razor wire. Few will chose it

as a retirement haven. Traveling the roads of Arifjan,

one cannot be but impressed with the massive costs of

war in money and the oppressive human footprint caused

by all that necessary

to support it, all in someone else's country.



We were briefed by Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb,

Commanding General Coalition Forces Land Component Command

(CFLCC), and his capable staff. Gen. Whitcomb, an

affable spit and polish officer with a dry sense of humor

and quick wit, offered straight forward briefings on

support operations - he moves north everything going to

the coalition in Iraq, the convoys that are attacked,

and trains and houses those going and coming. He lost

four soldiers last week. It weighs heavily upon him.

He is also a diplomat throughout the region, traveling

widely and maintaining relations with military

officials throughout the CENTCOM area to include major

portions of northeast Africa and "the Stans." We had

questions on the recent loss of Uzbekistan and its

implications. His is a fulltime job.



In the current rotation, 77% of Gen. Whitcomb's troops

are from the Guard and Reserve, some on their second

or third tour in the GWOT from Iraq to Afghanistan,

Kosovo and the Balkans. These troops, along with those

from other services and coalition nations, are the ones

who move supplies from port to Arifjan, onto, into and

out of trucks and move them north into "Indian

country." These troops and many contractors are also fixing

damaged vehicles and providing newly modified

"up-armored" vehicles that brave the gauntlet of fire north of

Kuwait throughout Iraq. We have all heard the stories

of recruiting and re-enlistment difficulties being

faced by all services - you wouldn't know it at Arifjan -

morale is high, people look sharp, know their jobs and

seem well motivated. I had long sessions with active

duty, Guard and Reserve troops in group sessions and

one-on-one. They all wanted to go home. Some had a few

days to go, some had just arrived, but all understood

what they were doing in

a dusty, awful place with mostly invisible,

inglorious jobs. Their stories were compelling - a gold-miner;

the owner of a welding shop, a policeman; a

landscaper; a high school dropout - all proud of what they were

doing - one showed me a drastically wounded Humvee,

full of holes hit by an IED - he was on the mission - he

is now involved in "up-armoring" and making safer

Humvees for his buddies who follow - he has 12 days left.



One cannot help but be impressed by our young

soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen - they

are AWESOME - they never let us down - I hope we don't

let them down with flawed strategies, flawed visions

or bad leadership - I'll let you know what I think

about that when I see more - for now - NORTH TO BAGHDAD!



Oh yes - one difference between this war and Vietnam -

when we got to our Kuwait hotel we were given body

armor and Kevlar helmets to be worn in Iraq. When I got

off the airplane in Saigon, 38 years ago, no one gave

me body armor - it wasn't necessary - hmmm.



*****************************Day Two



More Iraq Travel Log



As I said, this will, early on, be more of a travel

log - a thinkpiece will come out after I have a chance

to see more, talk to more troops at all levels and

digest what I have seen, but first - I knew my wife was

wrong. I am glad I came on this trip, even if she isn't

- what a fascinating opportunity to experience history

in the making.



Today was a fast ride in the new Lockheed Martin

C-130J-30, a Rhode Island Air National Guard plane flown by

Baltimore ANG pilots with a California backend crew.

On board, a furloughed airline pilot, a foxy female co

who is a civilian flight instructor, an FBI agent, an

active duty troop, a dozen sleeping grunts, a

generator and the beat goes on. An hour and a half after

takeoff from Kuwait we were making a fast descent into

Baghdad IAP, then hopping on an Army Blackhawk helo and

donning our body armor and Kevlar helmets for the ride

into Baghdad With my helmet askance, I'm sure I look

like a dork playing war to the real pros who tote the

guns in their desert cammies.



I have always known that the only purpose of Army

aviation is to scare the hell out of Air Force pilots. You

have not been low until you go by Army air and

although "fast" is relative in a helo, when palm trees are

swaying and goats flash by at eye level, one knows he is

for sure, low and fast.



As the pilot pulls up on the collective to slow for

landing, the old Republican Guard area of Baghdad above

the loop in the Tigris River - the one we covered from

the CNN floor during the war comes into full view.

Yep, there are the places that Miles O'Brien and Kyra

Phillips and I "tele-strated" during the night of "shock

and awe" - familiar territory, the buildings still

showing the roof entry points of smart bombs, the

workings of which we carefully explained to the worldwide

audience. I was proud of our coverage then, still am.



For security reasons I am going to leave out the

location of our meetings, but let's just say we entered one

of Saddam's palaces for a full day of classified

briefings given by smart, thoughtful, knowledgeable general

officers who are also tough as nails. If your kid has

to go to war, you would be pleased to have them led by

men such as these. We spent several hours examining

strategy, rationale, predicted effects, future plans,

what-if options, the economy, Iraqi infrastructure,

election predictions, operations in western Iraq, the

"new" vehicle borne IEDs, American public attitudes, the

nature of the insurgency - Butch Cassiday and the

Sundance Kid - "who are those guys?" These were the

newly-formed "Strategic Effects" division and they are

impressive.



We lunched with embassy personnel, diplomats (it's

easy to forget there are many heroes who don't wear

uniforms) and discussed the economy, inflation, the

referendum, U.S. and Iraqi politics, mid-East attitudes,

Persian history, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, then back

into more classified briefings.



We took a restroom break - through the marbeled halls,

under the hanging chandeliers, past the expensive

pottery and paintings, into the john with the gold-rimmed

sinks and commodes. I'm surprised Saddam didn't use

rolls of $100 bills for toilet paper - how could any

ruler live in such ostentacious surroundings while his

people starved? Such palaces are replete throughout

Iraq.



The mid-afternoon session was planned for 45 minutes

with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad - we ended up

spending 1:30. America finally has the right ambassador

at the right time in the right place. Born in

Afghanistan, fluent in Arabic, handsome like Clark Gable and

with a sense of humor and panache - the perfect storm

for Iraq. This man has a clue. What he has done to

quietly encourage, influence and facilitate Sunni

cooperation and inclusion in the political process, will

someday be legend in the annals of diplomacy. The Sunnis

finally feel they have a friend in Iraq while the Shia

feel they have a wise and fair-minded American with his

head on straight with whom they can deal. The

ambassador has a foot in both worlds, maybe many. If this

referendum and election come out OK, all Iraqis should

replace Saddam's statue with one of Khalilzad.



We ended the day with more briefings and discussions,

then a night-vision goggle helo ride over the

brightly-burning lights of Baghdad (despite their electrical

"shortages") back to our quarters for the evening -

another old palace with all its orgasmic opulence,

gold-rimmed toilets and bidets.



After freshening up, we are off to the quarters of

General George Casey, Commander of Multi-National Forces

Iraq for dinner. You saw him last week testifying on

the Hill about conditions in Iraq. Every soldier's

nightmare is to testify on Capitol Hill about a

highly-charged political issue - it is easier to be shot at and

a helluva lot more fun. Around a large table we

gathered with he and his staff for robust and raucous

discussions about past and present wars, history, good books

we are reading and friends and enemies long and

recently gone. We shared facts, views and opinions. We

laughed, at ourselves, not others. We all agreed - Iraq is

one tough place, perhaps the most difficult

political-military dilemma ever faced by this country.



One thought upon which I will expand after the trip in

a thinkpiece - I am disturbed by the dichotomy I see

between the high level of optimism displayed by the

troops and commanders in Iraq and what I deem to be

increasing skepticism at home. The troops are proud of what

they are doing and understand the mission and its

importance. From top to bottom they see Iraq as a terribly

difficult place but utterly doable "IF" we stay the

course. They see victory as us departing with an Iraqi

government that can survive, be at peace with its

neighbors, be an ally in the GWOT, maintain internal order

with rights for all citizens and not be a haven for

terrorists. They see signs of this happening and great

hope for the future. According to recent polls, so do

the Iraqis.



Americans remain skeptical. Much is riding on this

referendum and election and all know it, the terrorists

and insurgents included. I must admit that I share some

skepticism due to personal history. I was a 27

year-old fighter pilot in Vietnam during Tet, flying missions

over North Vietnam, going down the chute, getting my

ass shot off, while a four-star general was talking

about Tet as a "great American victory," saying there was

"light at the end of the tunnel" and asking for more

time and more troops. Then, President Johnson declared

a bombing halt above the 17th parallel and made my

life even worse. To top it off, Congress cut-off funds

and abandoned an ally after many promises As I watched

the last helicopter depart the roof of the U.S. embassy

in Saigon in 1975, my eyes misted, a lump came in to

my throat and I realized it had all been in vain. Every

time I visit the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. the same

lump comes back.



This war does not have to be in vain - but it can come

out in many different ways - the troops have the guts

and will to pull this off. I wonder if the American

people do? - I have much to sort out. It is late and I

must go to bed before a long exciting and

adventure-filled day tomorrow. My body armor and helmet are near my

bed - deja vu - I have been here before - Don Shepperd



***********************Day Three



A day a journalist would kill for - or in Iraq, maybe

be killed for:



A great breakfast at our palace quarters cooked by the

Houston Army National Guard, standing in for their

buddies from New Orleans who are home to tend their

families - scrambled eggs with salsa, breakfast burritos

and French toast, fresh fruit - no wonder my body armor

doesn't fit - I need a "tall, fat."



The Al Faw palace is impressive, but Major General

"Fuzzy" Webster (sobriquet from his days as a West Point

footballer) is even more impressive. He is Commander,

3d Infantry Division (Mechanized), Operation Iraqi

Freedom - the man who "owns" Baghdad and all its

environs. We spend about two hours discussing "bad guy

country" and visiting his modern-day command post filled with

walls of computer screens displaying real-time data

and views from blimps and UAVs. Baghdad is the "center

of gravity" for the insurgency, where they do their

dirtiest of work, IEDs and VIEDS aimed at coalition

military vehicles and auto or vest-equipped suicide bombers

toting death and destruction for crowds of their

innocent Islamic brothers lined up for jobs. So much for

brotherly love and Muslim chivalry. Can Allah really be

pleased?



So, Fuzzy, Baghdad is a mess right? Full of car bombs,

murders, kidnaps... "Well, not only no, but HELL NO!

Where do you guys come up with this stuff? You must be

from the media. In fact we are making great progress,

and here are some facts:"



"20% of Baghdad battle space has been turned over to

Iraqi security forces and they are GOOD, in fact better

than us, because they know the territory and speak the

language. Their leadership is excellent and I would be

proud to fight with those units anywhere. In fact we

gave them one of the toughest areas - Haifa Street

neighborhood - one of our most dangerous places - they

cleaned it up when we couldn't. It is now considered

"safe," at least Baghdad safe."



"Crime in downtown Baghdad is still a major concern,

bad crime. The quicker we can get properly trained

Iraqi forces to take over battlespace, the quicker Baghdad

will get cleaned up. Iraqi forces are the answer, not

U.S forces, and we are working hard to get them ready.

But, be sure, we will not turn over territory and

responsibility until they are ready."



"Some regular airline travel has resumed at Baghdad

airport."



"Further, we get very few IDF (indirect fire -

mortars, rockets) rounds in the Green Zone anymore or at

Baghdad IAP. Also 'Route Irish,' the reputed 'most

dangerous road in the world' that runs from Baghdad Airport

into town and the Green Zone, has been cleared - no

more IEDs, an occasional sniper, but nothing of major

concern - haven't had a major incident in a long time -

in fact we are going to drive you into town on Route

Irish today to show you."



(No ****, Fuzzy? Boy, we can hardly wait).



A couple of hours later we mount up for our "safe"

ride along Route Irish - a pre-mission brief, full body

armor (well almost full - mine does not have crotch or

arm protection - I suspect they don't issue crotch

protection for males on Medicare), and we are told if we

get hit, stay in the vehicle and they will "extract"

us when it is "safe." We launch with about 15

up-armored Humvees, spaced in disciplined combat formation,

gunners protruding out the top - hell, if I was an

insurgent I wouldn't attack this convoy with a nuke. Shows

of force work. We see that Irish has indeed been

cleaned up - it would be hard to hide an IED along this

route, now well-patrolled by Iraqi forces. As we pass

Iraqi civilian vehicles, they pull dutifully to the side.

Traffic joining from on-coming ramps is carefully

watched, the convoy even slowing to ensure clearance.

Everyone is wary and alert. We pass the on-ramp where the

Italian journalist was killed - her car ran a

checkpoint and failed to heed

warning shots, we are told.



Arriving in the Green Zone we navigate the maze of

repeated checkpoints - this area would be really hard to

breach. We pull up to the headquarters of the 4th

Brigade Combat Team - these guys are in charge of the REAL

"Indian Country" - big, bad downtown Baghdad, Sadr

City, Shia and Sunni neighborhoods, the high crime areas

- this is as ugly as duty gets - or is it? The

briefers describe much progress, many problems, major

advances in Iraqi force training and unbridled optimism about

the future of Iraq, the future for Iraqi forces and

the future of Baghdad. The troops with whom we lunch

echo this - these are the trigger pullers - interestingly

enough, there is little talk of combat or shooting.

They relate that there is always danger, little

shooting, no combat, occasional IEDs, major concern about the

varied militias of all types - these people are more

about civic action - company commanders who have to

become diplomats, negotiators, town mayors, city

managers, police chiefs, judges

rather than grenade throwers. They display toughness,

but compassion. They genuinely like the Iraqis, talk

fondly of them, admire their courage and toughness - in

fact their concern is not about Iraqi security forces,

or Shia-Sunni sectarian violence or civil war, but

about the competence of an elected government that has

had no experience in democracy and is called upon to

form a country and write a Constitution in the middle of

a war against an insurgency, and change a culture of

tribal violence and corruption that has been part of

middle-Eastern life for centuries - a tall order in the

best of times and these are not the best of times.



These guys and gals want to go home - and the Iraqis

want them to go home, but not just yet - they won't

predict a date, but feel it will be sooner, rather than

later - there will be no long term occupation of Iraq,

they assure us and it won't take a decade.



Two of our enlisted lunch companions were wounded in

IEDs incidents - patched-up and rehabbed in-country

they are back on light duty describing how their

up-armored Humvees, body armor, no-mex clothing and blast

glasses saved them - wear your gear properly, they advise

- and they repeat they are proud of what they are

doing and eager to resume full duty status.



Not surprisingly, our visit with Prime Minister

al-Jaafari is cancelled. Five days before the election, he

is a busy guy. We drive to another palace to meet the

Minister of the Interior, the Iraqi equivalent of our

head of the Department of Justice, the Attorney

General. It is clear Minister Bayan Jaber's mind is

elsewhere. Accompanied by his official in charge of election

security, Major General Aidan, he carefully describes

the precautions to be taken for the 6500+/- polling

places for the up-coming referendum. Yes, he expects

attempts at major violence. Yes, the Iraqis will handle it

with U.S. backup. Yes, he is confident the Sunnis will

join the voting, but he doesn't know how they will

vote. Through an interpreter he shows us pictures of two

car bombers intercepted and killed five minutes ago.



Our next stop is with Minister of Defense, Dr. Saood

Dulaimy, the Iraqi Donald Rumsfeld - a tall, bearded,

thoughtful, soft-spoken psychologist, an obvious

intellect, he headed a research institute, a think tank,

under the Saddam regime - it must have been an

interesting time. He is a Sunni in a Shia-dominated government.

He describes the insurgency, the problem with Sunni

involvement in the referendum, and leaves no doubt he

will give no quarter to foreign or domestic terrorists

who target innocent civilians, or base their ideology

on hate rather than politics. His eyes are steeled as

he predicts Zarqawi will make a mistake and he will be

captured and hanged in Iraq by Iraqis. He is

optimistic that the Sunnis will join the political process and

Iraq will find its own democratic future, but it will

be a tough row to hoe and won't look like America. He

genuinely thanks us for American help and says we need

you to stay "for now."



The military advisor to the Prime Minister calls,

apologizes for the Prime Minister's absence, and asks to

meet with us. We change our schedule and Major General

Talib al Alkinani describes being a general in the

military under Saddam - he was one, but has obviously

passed the vetting that allows only levels 5-6 Baathists

join the new administration. Levels 1-4 are prohibited

and that causes some level of discontent and

eliminates some very capable personnel from a future with the

new military - oh, well. He feels Syria is a major

factor in the insurgency and is confident about a new

Iraqi military - he is well-spoken, thoughtful and warm.



We helo out and our last session is with Lt. Gen. John

Vines, Commanding General, XVIII Airborne Corps and

CG, Multi-National Corps, Iraqi Freedom. A Ranger,

Special Forces soldier and paratrooper, he is tall, tough

as nails, and veteran of Afghanistan, both Gulf wars,

Panama and Desert One - how much combat can one stand?

He is in charge of all combat operations in Iraq, U.S

and coalition. We have a long talk - strategy,

politics, worries - he has many, but re-iterates that this

country can do it, and probably, hopefully, faster than

we think. We have just met a soldiers' soldier.



On our last stop after a long day we visit Gen. Vines'

star-wars command center and night-vision-goggle helo

back to the Green Zone for a night time dinner with

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey and staff - an outside barbeque

- they train the Iraqi forces and also help the new

government ministries. O'Douls is the closest we come to

alcohol in Iraq as we down steaks and chicken before

one last night helo back to our palace and a restful

night.



I am too tired to begin assessing all I have seen.

Besides, we have one more action-filled day tomorrow that

I cannot yet describe for security reasons - but one

thing for certain - there is great disparity between

what is reported in the press and what I have seen and

heard from the troops - some of that is natural. Iraq

is not a safe place. Iraq has problems that would

befuddle most American politicians, but the Americans with

whom we spoke and the Iraqis with whom we met are VERY

optimistic. They feel they are making great progress.

They are confident the Sunnis will vote. They don't

know if the Sunnis will vote for, or against, the

Constitution, but they feel the Sunnis know they made a

mistake last time and know they need to find a way to join

the process now or later - either way it is win for a

fledgling democracy. It will be a rocky road forward -

they know it and many of them will die in the process

if the insurgents have their way - we wished them well

- they thanked us

with firm handshakes and hands over their hearts -

the Iraqi way.



As I write this log, there were two loud explosions

outside - someone said it sounded like it came from the

Green Zone - I'll check the morning reports - after

all, this is Iraq - Don Shepperd



********************************Day Four



It was near a perfect end to a trip - Air Force was

going to beat Navy and I was going to get to watch it

from Baghdad; University of Arizona was going to beat

USC and I was going to get an early morning, nap of the

earth, helo flight to Taji to view Iraqi forces

training.



We got back late from the Green Zone, another

night-vision-goggle mission and I saw Navy beat Air Force in

the last minute. The fact that my son graduated from

Annapolis doesn't enter the equation, he barely mentions

Navy victories.



Then, AZ scared USC through 50 minutes, but forgot the

last 10 - have you ever heard of a team gaining 724

yards? - it sounded like a track meet.



The two nighttime booms were harassment mortars -

almost ignored by the troops - probably coming from the

nearby town.



The early morning Blackhawk helo flight took us over

open fields, low over villages, past palm groves, over

the Tigris River and into the Taji, largest Iraqi

military base. It was the home of Saddam's Hammurabi

mechanized infantry division during the war and heavily

attacked by U.S. airpower. The Iraqis are now rebuilding

the facilities with our help - be careful what you

bomb in war, you might have to paint it later.



Taji is now home for the HQ, 9th Iraqi Division under

the command of Maj. Gen. Bashr, also a general under

Saddam. He rose through the ranks as a company,

battalion and brigade commander of a tank division in the

Iran-Iraq war. Later he was imprisoned by Saddam, given

an eight-year sentence for refusing to put Saddam's

picture in his office, but served only four, for which he

was supposed to be grateful. Taji is a large training

center for Iraqi forces and also home of the 1st

Brigade (mechanized) - two mechanized infantry battalions,

one armor.



The brigade is commanded by Brigadier General "X" (for

his security). His hands are bandaged (burned)and both

he and Gen. Bashr were wounded last week by an IED

during fighting against insurgents north of Taji. "X" was

a POW during the Iran-Iraq war and escaped, though

badly wounded. You can see the fire in his eyes when he

talks about terrorists. These men are true Iraqi

nationalists and their brigade, the first Iraqi brigade to

stand-up, is purposely composed of Sunnis, Shias and

Kurds.



The Brigade S-3 (Ops), Col. "Y" (personal security),

briefs us on the status of training, current operations

against terrorists and recent successes against

insurgents including numbers killed, IEDs disabled, caches

found and HVIs detained - it has been a good month.

They show plans for maintaining their "battlespace" north

of Baghdad. It is a good plan. A long Q&A follows.

Bashr speaks good English and with passion and emotion as

he tells stories of standing up the division including

his experience under Saddam as he was ordered to "rid

his unit of Kurds" - his best tankers.



We are shown equipment, Russian T-72s and BMPs (Bashr

likes them - he would love the Abrams) for which they

have scrounged parts. They proudly take each of us for

a spin in the BMPs - it is a hot, dusty ride. I got

the longest ride, by far - they thought my driver and I

were headed for Iran.



The Iraqi troops look good, seem proud and

well-motivated. They have already been given responsibility for a

sector north of Baghdad, really bad guy country. They

are pacifying it better than could we. They know the

terrain, the actors, the accents. These guys are in

heavy combat regularly - their forte is intelligence.

They can spot a jihadist miles away by clothing,

mannerisms, speech patterns, appearance.



We lunch with Colonel Abbas, the base commander. He is

decidedly pro-American. Insurgents made attempts to

kill him. They didn't, but they did kill his young

daughter He speaks excellent English and gives a short talk

thanking us and asking us to pass his personal thanks

to Americans for ousting Saddam. When Katrina hit

Louisiana, Abbas asked his men to contribute. He

personally contributed half a month's salary and they sent it

to hurricane relief.



Abbas gets a sack of money, $10M, on the 26th of every

month to pay his troops (no central bank in Iraq). He

returns $3-400,000 for those missing duty. This is an

honest, dedicated man who has been personally touched

by terror. Saddam also killed his uncle and cousin and

imprisoned his father. His father just died from the

results of imprisonment Abbas is the future of Iraq -

men like he, Bashr, Kassam and Mohammed will clear out

the terrorists, quicker and better than we -

Inshallah.



As we depart, Abbas grabs my shoulder, puts his hand

over his heart and says - "Goodbye. Thank you for

coming. Tell Americans, thank you." I promised I will.



On the bus back to the helos, the American trainers

and liaisons officers stationed with the 9th tell their

stories - these guys are tigers - they are in combat

weekly - they are good leaders, good men, good Iraqi

nationalists - lets hope Iraq is full of them - 75% of

their troops are former military. Some are also

probably insurgent spies.



As we helo back at low level to Baghdad International

Airport (BIAP) to catch our C-130 back to Kuwait, I

have much to mull. I must let this settle-in before I

write a thinkpiece. Obviously, we have drunk the

Kool-aid - hearing what the U.S forces wanted us to hear,

seeing what they wanted us to see. BUT - it's hard to

fool old military men - our group had access to anyone we

wished, to ask anything we wanted. We did - we know

what to look for and how to ask hard questions to draw

out honest opinions from grunts. We know how to judge

troops and how to look into their eyes for blank

stares. We know how to look at equipment and how to assess

weapons discipline and safety. We know how to read

through charts to sort valid data from bullshit. The six

of us have over 180+ years in the military. We have

several wars between us. We have shot at and hit. We know

how to tell good soldiers from bad. We come back

encouraged, impressed - cautiously optimistic is the block

I would check on a

survey, very cautiously. Right now my worry isn't on

the U.S military side, nor that of the Iraqi security

forces, but on the civilian governments and public in

both countries. Much rides on the referendum this

coming weekend. Much rides on the government to be elected

in December, their first under the new constitution

Much rides on the U.S. public and whether we will stay

the course.



As we depart Taji, I ask Gen. Bashr if it would make

things better if the U.S. left sooner rather than later

- "NO!" he says, "We need you for 4-5 years. We will

defeat this insurgency sooner than you think, but you

cannot leave. You must not leave. We will fight and die

for Iraq, but we need you now." - I believe him.



We C-130 back to Kuwait City, looking down along the

coast. I remember Iraqi tanks, helicopters and troops

invading from the north - watching on Pentagon command

post TV monitors on 3 August 1990. It was an ugly

sight.



We go into the "tent" restaurant at our hotel for a

Ramadan "Iftar" dinner - a traditional dinner to salve

the daily fasting at sundown. It is a splendid buffet

of middle-East delicacies. We talk late for an early

get-up. I can't sleep. I have much to think about.

Perhaps I will stay up for the "Sohoul" buffet at 10:30.



I remember the President in his post-9-11 speech; "We

will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail."

- I wonder - much to think about, indeed - thinkpiece

later - Don Shepperd
 

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