The mainstream media has done a disservice — especially to the Democratic Party — by inadequately reporting the positive changes in Iraq during the last two years
When the Barack Obama World Tour arrived in Baghdad last month, the candidate, wearing shades and a cool suit, smiled and waved before descending the stairs from the plane. Later the Senator toured the city, and sat for interview with reporters. In shirt-sleeves, he gamely sunk a basketball shot from far out at the three-point line before grabbing a mike to address troops who assembled to cheer him on, and applauded wildly. (His shot caught only the net, no rim or backboard. Truly the man has a light shining upon him.)
What we did NOT ever see was the candidate wearing a flak jacket, because during his time there he never needed to put one on.
For American viewers this lack of flak jacket, a Holmesian “dog that didn’t bark,” may have come as a surprise since over the last two years they had repeatedly been told, by the major network news programs, by the New York Times and The New Yorker, and by the Democratic leaders in Congress, that “the war” was being lost, or indeed had been lost. As it happens, last month US casualties reached their lowest level since the ’03 invasion. In his remarks during the tour, Mr. Obama recognized the change made “recently,” and underscored that such success had come as a surprise to him, as it had as well, he suggested, to President Bush and Senator McCain.
In fact, the inevitability of such success could clearly be seen a year ago, and was explicitly noted then by Mr. Bush. With his trademark eloquence, the President added, “We’re kicking al Qaeda’s ass in Anbar,” referring to the so-called “Wild West” region, the restive province encompassing Fallujah, Tikrit, and that had largely fallen into the control of insurgents and al Qaeda, irrevocably it had been said. Despite such salty language, and the prospect of a new “Mission Accomplished” petard on which Bush might be hoisting himself, the President’s declaration was left off the front pages. At the same time, in-theater commander General Petraeus, appearing before Congress, vastly underplayed the change of which he was well aware, yet nonetheless was shamefully hectored and labeled an administration mouthpiece.
The seeds of this success actually took root not one, but two years ago, were planted by a young adaptable Army Captain, and until recently went largely unreported in the US. It is this success that will soon allow a draw-down of forces, or redeployment, always planned, that has been kicked around like a football on a muddy field by politicians from all quarters.
Curiously, the British left-leaning media, who had been so critical of Prime Minister Blair for his support of the 2003 invasion and for his stalwart alliance with “the hated Bush,” was quicker to note these changes than the supposedly-impartial New York Times. With Mr. Blair out of office, it was perhaps easier for UK journalists and reporters to recognize that an unstable state situated at the heart of the Middle East was really in no one’s interest. The NYT editorial page, in contrast, this winter called for an immediate withdrawal, even at the price, which they deemed not unlikely, of population displacement and division of the country-a description that sounded to many like “a managed ethnic cleansing” with the prospect of genocide.
The Guardian, in contrast, posted a clear-eyed video account of Iraqis in “the most dangerous province turning on al Qaeda.” Their report was taken from a late winter broadcast by UK’s Channel 4 News, whose host, Jon Snow, was criticized recently in Standpoint for openly declaring and exercising his own left-wing bias. (For the record, I’m a life-long Democrat and I voted for Barack Obama in this year’s primary.)
Instrumental in the change noted by the Guardian, and last week (under pressure from McCain) by Mr. Obama, was Army Colonel Sean MacFarland. Two years ago, on September 29, 2006, MacFarland briefed the media on the fruits of his brigade’s implementation of a counter-insurgency strategy in Anbar province. Of particular note were the efforts of Captain Travis Patriquin, an Arabic speaker with a sophisticated understanding of Iraqi tribal society, who had initiated discussions with US adversaries in Ramadi. Essentially, it was Patriquin, together with MacFarland, who convinced Sheikh Abdul Sittar Bezea al- Rishawi, a young but senior tribal sheikh, son of the chief of the abu Risha clan, to expel the al Qaeda insurgents they had been hosting and to join sides with the Iraqi police and army. Sheikh Sittar’s effort lead to other sheikhs, and then many others. This was the beginning the Sahawat al-Anbar, or Anbar Awakening Council.
Patriquin was able to do this because he recognized common ground between them and because he gave his word that if the Sheikh would change sides, U.S. forces would stay around to guarantee his people protection from retaliation. The Sunni Tribes of Anbar had begun to chafe under a yoke that al Qaeda in Anbar (or aQA if you wish) had attempted to impose upon them. Beginning in 2004 jihadis who’d moved into the region as guests, along with local gangsters looking to legitimize themselves with the mantle of holy warrior, attempted to control daily life through adherence to their Salafist prescriptives, forced “marriages” upon local women, conscripted local children to fight for them, and in time began to commit atrocities against uncooperative but innocent other Muslims.
What Rep John Murtha, in November 2005, on the floor of the House accused US Marines of doing (“cold-blooded murder”) in Haditha, and filmmaker Brian DePalma in his film “Redacted” depicted US soldiers doing nearby, aQA did over and over in Anbar Province. Foreign al Qaeda jihadis in Buquba perpetrated a massacre that went largely unreported. Michael Yon, the longest- serving journalist in Iraq, videotaped the exhumation of a dozen decapitated children, and weeks later reported that many similar sites were being unearthed nearby. After observing such practices, as well as the killing of hostages, the Anbar Sheikhs concluded that their jihadi guests, who were trying to establish an expanding Caliphate centered in their land, were in fact “un-Muslim.”
This was, more to the point, a decisive judgment of bin Ladenism as not a religion but instead a perverted ideology. In the coming years, one should watch the people of Anbar, the only people ever to live under a bin Ladenist Caliphate-they may in fact now be the one population in the Middle East most inoculated against this ideology.
Captain Patriquin was killed in Ramallah by an IED on 6 December 2006. On hearing the news of his death, Sheikh Sittar broke down in tears. Captain Patriquin was a descendent of “Honest John” Hart, with whom he identified. Hart was a signer of the Declaration of Independence who during the Revolutionary War lost everything as he helped his country free itself. Reflecting Patriquin’s rich mix of heritages, services for him were held at a Catholic Church, he was interred on December 15, 2006, with Full Military Honors, at Carty Cemetery in Dent Co, MO, and the Pawnee Nation honored him with songs in their native language and with gifts for his children.
Patriquin earlier won the Bronze Star with Valor for his participation in a fierce battle in Afghanistan. In Ramallah, Iraq, where a building has been named after him, he was honored by the locals as “Martyr Husham” – the brave and generous martyr. In September 2007, Sheikh Sittar, Captain Patriquin’s interlocutor, was martyred as well. Two of Sheikh Sittar’s brothers, and other members of the family, had earlier been killed. A fourth brother soon assumed his position in the Sahawat al-Anbar.
In the run-up to the 2006 congressional elections, news of the truly remarkable events in Anbar was largely ignored. In the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks, author of “Fiasco,” distorted a classified report by Captain Peter Devlin discussing the feasibility of a troop surge, then just being debated. Ricks, writing from Washington, DC, incorrectly suggested that the Marines in Anbar had concluded in the report that al Qaeda could not be defeated. Some months later, Ramadi re-inaugurated its annual 5-K race through the center of town, and the pack of runners included a number of US Marines. (Local jogger Ahmed Rashid took an early lead and won with a time of 16:17. At the finish line the provincial governor and the town’s mayor presented him the award.)
With Colonel MacFarland’s success largely ignored by the media, he, along with Major Niel Smith, offered his own account of the Anbar Awakening, which can be found on-line. Though participants in the events, their report compares favorably, in clarity, nuance, and fidelity to fact, to the news reporting by major new outlets or, in the parlance of bloggers, “the main-stream media”
Last year, in Congress, Senator Charles Schumer declared that “the violence in Anbar has gone down despite the surge, not because of the surge. The inability of American soldiers to protect these tribes from al Qaeda, said to these tribes: ‘We have to fight al Qaeda ourselves.'” Senator Obama echoed this last month when he suggested to CBS News that “We don’t know how things would have gone without the troop surge,” a policy which he had opposed. Sunday, Senator John Kerry, appearing on Mr. Obama’s behalf, said the same.
One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam era was the danger inherit when the Pentagon provided inaccurate or biased reports assessments to the White House, Congress, and the American people. In a strange reversal, we must now ask ourselves: have the leading news organizations done a disservice to the Democratic Party by inadequately reporting the positive changes that have taken place over the last two years in Iraq? Early this month, as if following the script of the insurgents in Anbar, Muqtada al Sadr instructed members of his Shiite Militia, the Mahdi Army, to lay down their arms. These extraordinary changes have caught Democratic leaders off-guard and scrambling to spin their recent calls for “immediate withdrawal” in, as they saw it, “the face of looming defeat.”
Colonel MacFarland was made a brigadier general this spring, recommended by a promotion board that included General Petraeus. His 2006 news briefing on the nascent change in Ramadi was never televised. It has, however, made its “world premiere” recently on Youtube and should be instructive to Senator Obama and his staff regarding the time-line for the change in Iraq that has been so much discussed over the last few weeks.
If, as President, the Senator pursues his much vaunted policy of “talking with an adversary” he might recognize the wisdom of Patriquin and MacFarland’s practice of, before embarking, determining whether there is genuine common ground on which to base those discussions. He might also heed the warning of the British experience in Basra, who last summer made an accommodation with al Sadr’s Mahdi Army that obliged them to sit on the side-lines this spring while the Iraqi Army fought to take back that city. If as President Senator Obama begins a partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq, he should acknowledge that US forces are able to leave a stable Iraq because of their success in changing strategy and tactics, a change that began in Ramadi, Anbar Province.