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Be Not Afraid

Thoughts flow on the eve of a great battle. By the time these words are released, we will be in combat. Few ears have heard even rumors of this battle, and fewer still are the eyes that will see its full scope. Even now—the battle has already begun for some—practically no news about it is flowing home. I’ve known of the secret plans for about a month, but have remained silent.

This campaign is actually a series of carefully orchestrated battalion- and brigade-sized battles. Collectively, it is probably the largest battle since “major hostilities” ended more than four years ago. Even the media here on the ground do not seem to have sensed its scale.

Al Qaeda and associates had little or no presence in Iraq before the current war. But we made huge mistakes early on and are pumping blood and gold into the region to pay for those blunders. When we failed to secure the streets and to restore the stability needed to get Iraq on its feet, we sowed doubt and mistrust. When we disbanded the government and the army, and tolerated corruption and ineptitude in reconstruction, we created a vacuum and filled the ranks of an insurgency-hydra with mostly local talent. But when we flattened parts of Fallujah not once, but twice, primarily in response to the murders of four of our people, we helped create a spectacle of injustice and chaos, the very conditions in which Al Qaeda thrives.

There is no particular spark, no single bolt of lightning, errant campfire or careless cigarette flicked out a window that caused this conflagration. We walked into a dry, cracked land, where the two arteries of Mesopotamia have long pulsed water and blood through scorched lands into the sea. In a place where everything that is not already desert is tinder, sparks tend to catch fire.

When we eviscerated Fallujah, Al Qaeda, who had not been here before, swarmed in and grew like a tumor. There were many insurgent groups already infecting Iraq with many conflicting ideologies and goals, and just as many opportunistic thugs, and some that only needed the band-aids and aspirin of open markets and electricity and a feeling of normality. But Al Qaeda has been trying to start a civil war here for several years; chaos speeds the decay they feed on.

During about the first three months of 2005, when I was in Diyala Province (whose capital is Baquba), I first wrote that Iraq was in Civil War. I felt the backlash from that throughout 2005-2006, and worse, we all watched the sad unfolding of greater and greater lies until now, in 2007, when the civil war is systemically toxic.

Today Al Qaeda (AQ) is strong, but their welcome is tenuous in some regions as many Iraqis grow weary enough of the violence that trails them to forcibly evict AQ from some areas they’d begun to feel at home in. Meanwhile, our military, having adapted from eager fire-starting to more measured firefighting, after coming in so ham-fisted early on, has found agility in the new face of this war. Not lost on the locals was the fact that the Coalition wasn’t alone in failing to keep the faith of its promises to Iraqis.

Whereas we failed with the restoration of services and government, AQ has raped too many women and boys in Anbar Province, and cut off too many heads everywhere else for anyone here to believe their claims of moral superiority. And they don’t even try to get the power going or keep the markets open or build schools, playgrounds and clinics for the children. In addition to destroying all of these resources, and murdering the Iraqis who work at or patronize them, AQ attacks people in mosques and churches, too. Thus, to those listening into the wind, an otherwise imperceptible tang in the atmosphere signals the time for change is at hand.

We can dissect our Civil War, or World War II or Vietnam, but there is no way to dissect the current war. Only the residue of those prior wars remains with us today—the scars and headstones, memorial statues, history books, and national boundaries. We only dissect that which is dead. Pathologists who autopsy those wars can no longer affect the outcomes. There is little left to the corpse of a war, but the sculptors of history take the clay and give it shape and substance. But even the most masterful among the artisans—Michelangelo himself—chipping and slicing at marble from Carrara, could not breathe life into the statue of David. Twice I stood in Florence, staring up at David, clad only in his slingshot, the rock with which he would change history cupped in his hand.

But as I write these words, the explosions—cannon fire reverberating day and night, rockets exploding on base, the rumbling and crumpling sounds of car bombs—are the very pulse of this war. This war cannot yet be dissected because it still lives—wounded, angry, thrashing on the table, but alive. We can only hack into it, diagnose it, treat it, knowing each attempt at a cure affects the pulse. Doing nothing causes tachycardia. Much of what afflicts Iraq was here before America was born. But when we elected to perform surgery on this sick land, we used hacksaws and sledgehammers, and took an already sick patient and hacked off some parts while pulverizing others.

Meanwhile, there are stadiums full of people shouting at the doctors, threatening to fire them or revoke their licenses, or at the very least to cut off the lights mid-surgery. In the din of the mob, few seem to notice that the patient, screaming to be healed, is much more alive than dead. The patient roils in agony with every new cut, slashing at doctors and self. Some say we’ve done enough and it’s time for the patient to heal itself. Others are saying we should put it out of its misery, but surely this thing will live, and drag its mutilated self out of the hospital and follow us home, no longer seeking a cure but intent on revenge.

For far too long our media and government have failed to fully inform us—even to the point of lying—about Iraq. I came to this ill-begotten war searching for people who knew the truth and would tell it. After those early embeds in places such as Diyala Province, back when I first began a five-month embed in Mosul, I attempted to trace what had gone right and wrong with Nineveh Province during 2003, 2004, and 2005. Nineveh is a reasonable microcosm of an ethnically, religiously and culturally divergent Iraq—clearly affected by the whole, and affecting the whole—and I got in with one of America’s best fighting battalions, the 1-24th Infantry Regiment. They were at war. Out of the battalion of about 700, the soldiers were awarded about 181 Purple Hearts. And they were winning, clearly winning, in their tough battle space. I traveled around to many units in different provinces, but nowhere was the pulse of this war as palpable as it was with the 1-24th, also called the “Deuce Four.” Importantly, even perhaps presciently, feeling that pulse with my own fingers in 2005 led me to a specific person: David Petraeus, the first Coalition military leader in Nineveh, a general whose many successes in Iraq were at that time already behind him.

I finally reached General Petraeus after following the Deuce Four back home. He was stationed in Kansas, though why he was in Kansas was beyond me. Having just spent most of 2005 in Iraq, I thought he should be back in Iraq where he was needed. During a phone call to his home early in 2006 we must have talked for about two hours. He was honest, almost blunt and always cogent, and the conversation added to my growing belief that Petraeus was the doctor who might be able to save this place.

Throughout 2006, my belief grew that Petraeus should be running this war. And though I had reached my own conclusions, others thought the same. I had seen and written about much progress during 2005, but had repeatedly written that the Civil War could undermine the effort. During 2006, people finally began to admit that there was Civil War in Iraq, and that it was growing, but as 2006 drifted into 2007 without any measurable response to increasingly untenable conditions on the ground, my confidence was eroding rapidly. At the rate things were going, I figured I might soon be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with deeply and richly experienced people like Joe Galloway, who thinks we should be out of Iraq yesterday.

Some folks attack Joe for his opinion, saying he was never a soldier, what can he know? But that argument is facile at best. There are deep reservoirs of wisdom from people who never wore uniforms; in fact, most people never were soldiers. And there are few journalists who know more about the American military in the last four decades than Joe Galloway, who’s been on enough frontlines to know things usually only combat soldiers know. Furthermore, this is not a “soldiers only” matter. Most of the people who will be affected by the outcome will never wear a uniform.

But today, based on what I know firsthand about this war, I respectfully disagree with Joe and the crowd of people who share his view that this war cannot be won. On this one point, because I just happen to be a person who has seen this doctor operate on a part of this patient, and I was able to see firsthand that the work he did in 2003/4 is still holding today, I think we don’t call the code unless and until Petraeus says so.

In the short time since Petraeus took charge here, Anbar Province—“Anbar the Impossible”—seems to have made a remarkable turnaround. I just spent about a month out there and saw no combat. I have never gone that long in Iraq without seeing combat. Clearly, some areas of Anbar remain dangerous—there is fighting in Fallujah today—but there is also something in Anbar today that hasn’t been seen in recent memory: possibilities. There are also larger realities lurking up on the Turkish borders, but the reality today is that the patient called Iraq will die and become a home for Al Qaeda if we leave now.

But now the AQ cancer is spreading into Diyala Province, straight along the Diyala River into Baghdad and other places. “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (AQM) apparently now a subgroup of ISI (the Islamic State of Iraq), has staked Baquba as the capital of their Caliphate. Whatever the nom de jour of their nom de guerre, Baquba has been claimed for their capital. I was in Diyala again this year, where there is a serious state of Civil War, making Baquba an unpopular destination for writers or reporters. (A writer was killed in the area about a month ago, in fact.) News coming from the city and surrounds most often would say things like, “near Baghdad,” or “Northeast of Baghdad,” and so many people have never even heard of Baquba.

Baquba has been an important city in this fight for several years, and for various reasons. It’s critical to keep in mind that AQM and others had the specific goal of starting a civil war, and this was plainly clear by early 2005. When the Golden Dome was obliterated in Samarra in 2006, and blood gushed into the streets, the politically inconvenient truth about the malignant potency of Al Qaeda was undeniable. In a perverse anniversary commemorated earlier this month, the two lone minarets left standing in Samarra after the 2006 bombing, were unceremoniously flattened in attacks that resulted in reprisals nearby in Babil Province and as far removed as Basra.

At least part of the reason we are not seeing even wider-spread open-necked reprisals for the recent bombings (though the reprisals have been serious) is because our current leadership under Petraeus is adroitly pushing political buttons behind the curtains. Based on things I saw, heard, and even videotaped while out among Iraqi tribal leaders in Anbar, unseen hands are reaching out and finding peace with tribes where others found war. Based on what I see all around Iraq, and not just in Anbar, I believe intuitively that most of this war can be ended through smart politics.

Smart politics is not transparent. The best politician leaves no traces of his handiwork in the resolution of complex issues, because if the resolution is to hold, the local parties must be able to claim responsibility with confidence, even to the extent of believing they did it themselves. Further, success in complex negotiations involves compromise, which (after open hostilities) can be perceived as caving and taken as an indication of undue influence from outsiders. That kind of perception gets people killed over here.

Smart politics leaves more people standing with their heads, and so discretion has to be seen as vital to the war effort. Reports claiming that no political progress is happening here because the Iraqi parliament seems stalled are tantamount to claiming that when the US Senate bogs down the stop lights don’t work on Main Street USA. At the same time, no one is interested in going for the broomstick once they’ve seen the man behind the curtain, so smart politicians don’t let that happen, especially when the stakes are this high.

Al Qaeda was never at this table and no one is planning to set a place for them now. They are mass murderers anywhere they can be: Bali, Kandahar, London, Madrid, New York and now, Iraq. This enemy is smart, resourceful and tough, and our early missteps created perfect conditions for the spread of their disease in Iraq.

Political solutions only work with people interested in a resolution where all parties can move forward. Al Qaeda is more interested in an outcome where they dominate through anachronistic anarchy. Our philosophies are so fundamentally different that fighting is inevitable. They want to go backwards and are willing to kill us to do so. We are unwilling to go backwards, and so they started killing us. Finally, we started killing back, but only seriously so after they rammed jets into our buildings, by which they hoped to cause the same chaos and collapse in America (where they failed) that they are fomenting in Iraq (where they are succeeding).

The doctor has made a decision: Al Qaeda must be excised. That means a large-scale attack, and what appears to be the most widespread combat operations since the end of the ground war are now unfolding. A small part of that larger battle will be the Battle for Baquba. For those involved, it will be a very large battle, but in context, it will be only one of numerous similar battles now unfolding. Just as this sentence was written, we began dropping bombs south of Baghdad and our troops are in contact.

Northeast of Baghdad, innocent civilians are being asked to leave Baquba. More than 1,000 AQI fighters are there, with perhaps another thousand adjuncts. Baquba alone might be as intense as Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah in late 2004. They are ready for us. Giant bombs are buried in the roads. Snipers—real snipers—have chiseled holes in walls so that they can shoot not from roofs or windows, but from deep inside buildings, where we cannot see the flash or hear the shots. They will shoot for our faces and necks. Car bombs are already assembled. Suicide vests are prepared.

The enemy will try to herd us into their traps, and likely many of us will be killed before it ends. Already, they have been blowing up bridges, apparently to restrict our movements. Entire buildings are rigged with explosives. They have rockets, mortars, and bombs hidden in places they know we are likely to cross, or places we might seek cover. They will use human shields and force people to drive bombs at us. They will use cameras and make it look like we are ravaging the city and that they are defeating us. By the time you read this, we will be inside Baquba, and we will be killing them. No secrets are spilling here.

Our jets will drop bombs and we will use rockets. Helicopters will cover us, and medevac our wounded and killed. By the time you read this, our artillery will be firing, and our tanks moving in. And Humvees. And Strykers. And other vehicles. Our people will capture key terrain and cut off escape routes. The idea this time is not to chase Al Qaeda out, but to trap and kill them head-on, or in ambushes, or while they sleep. When they are wounded, they will be unable to go to hospitals without being captured, and so their wounds will fester and they will die painfully sometimes. It will be horrible for Al Qaeda. Horror and terrorism is what they sow, and tonight they will reap their harvest. They will get no rest. They can only fight and die, or run and try to get away. Nobody is asking for surrender, but if they surrender, they will be taken.

We will go in on foot and fight from house to house if needed. We will shoot rockets into their hiding spaces, and our snipers will shoot them in their heads and chests. This is where all that talk of cancer and big ideas of what should be or could be done will smash head-on against the searing reality of combat.

These words flow on the eve of a great battle, but are on hold until the attack is well underway. Nothing is certain. I am here and have been all year. We are in trouble, but we have a great general. The only one, I have long believed, who can lead the way out of this morass. Iraq is not hopeless. Iraq can stand again but first it must cast off these demons. And some of the demons must be killed.

And while the battle rages, that prayer card will be in my pocket:

Be Not Afraid

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid.
I go before you always;
Come follow me, and I will give you rest.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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