October 13, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Fog of War

Those calling Iraq a quagmire don't know what they're talking about. 

Of course, those claiming that American, Iraqi and coalition forces are well on their way to defeating the Ba'athist insurgents and foreign Jihadi terrorists also don't know if they're correct.

That's what is known as the “fog of war.”  In 1941, pundits who asserted that America and Britain were losing the war against Germany, Japan and Italy would have had considerable evidence on their side.

A year after the defeat of Hitler, commentators who said – as some did – that the occupation of Germany was a disaster, also had ample evidence to support them.

The intelligence community may have a clear vision of how the war is going. But given their recent track record, it's hard to be confident. Even if they do know, they're not telling you.

So that leaves the media to inform us. There are many brave reporters working in Iraq today. But how can they judge whether this war is succeeding?

Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi recently wrote an email to friends explaining how difficult it is working in Iraq. 

“Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” she wrote. “I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't.”

In the past, carrying a press card made you a neutral. I remember covering Northern Ireland during the “troubles.” It never occurred to me that anyone would want to hurt me. Rather, I assumed everyone wanted to tell me their story.

Even in Iran in 1979, covering Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, I was convinced that a notepad, pen and open mind were all the protection required.

But with 21st century Islamo-fascists it's different. They know that talking points are persuasive – but not as persuasive as knife points. Their campaign of violence and intimidation has certainly affected Ms. Fassihi, who writes: “Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler.”

Ms. Fassihi just admitted that she can't do much reporting, can't “strike up a conversation,” can't “be curious about what people are saying doing and feeling.” So how does she know that Iraqis are ready for the return of the jackboot?

She's also says that “Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. … The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle.”

Ms. Fassihi is a serious and dedicated journalist. But she's 31 years old. How many wars has she covered? How could she know whether this “chaos and mayhem” are beyond control – or whether the coalition and its Iraqi partners will prevail? (And why is the blame, as usual, with America? Aren't those cutting off heads responsible for their actions?)

I know smart, expereienced military people who believe we're doing just fine. They insist that the American forces are slowly but surely figuring out how to fight this difficult, dirty and different kind of war.

They believe significant battles have been won in Najaf and Samarra, and that progress is being made in Fallujah (and they wish U.S. forces hadn't been reined in the first time they were getting the job done there).

Meanwhile, Shi'a militiamen are surrendering their weapons. And the Kurds have a measure of security, freedom and democracy in their corner of Iraq.

Iraq's Sunnis — under 20% of the population — may be harder cases. But if they get the chance to vote, they could prove as enthusiastic – and as brave – as the Afghans were when they were able to exercise their freedom of choice last weekend.

An Iraqi called Alaa recently wrote this on The Mesopotamian web log (www.messopotamian.blogspot.com ):

“[T]he streets are much more insecure, yet the security that existed in Saddam's days was like someone quietly waiting for certain death; like a cancer stricken individual carrying the disease in his guts with no hope or attempt at cure. …

”And here we are, trying to organize elections, trying to control the security situation, trying to restart the reconstruction, able to talk, able to think, able to watch satellite T.V., use the internet, the mobile etc. – in short everything that we have been forbidden to do before. …

”America, stay the course – God, Decency, Honor, Hope and everything that is virtuous and right is on your side, beside the majority of the Iraqi people. America do not waiver, for you have never waged a more noble and just campaign in your entire history.”

Is Iraq a quagmire? Or is it a nasty war that has to be won – and is well worth winning?

Perhaps we can't know for sure. But what we can discover is whether we have the will to fight the suicide bombers, kidnappers and decapitators. Or whether we think this enemy is too tough for us and we should try to run away.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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