Back from Iraq
Local veteran reflects on Iraq's past, present and future

by Anna Thomas

In February of this year, the war in Iraq was the top issue concerning Americans. In October, the economy moved to the top of that list, according to a USA Today-Gallup poll. So much has seemed to trump the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few months, pushing what many consider foreign policy fumbles out of the limelight.

But the war is still very much on the minds of a lot of Americans, and on the radar of a lot of the world. President-elect Barack Obama will be the first president to take the oath of office during an ongoing war since Richard Nixon in 1969. In the wake of Veteran’s Day last Tuesday, it seems a fitting time to wonder: is there an end in sight?

There are some that cite Obama’s lack of military experience as a severe detriment to his ability to make informed policy decisions about the war. There are others, like 25-year-old Colter Boita, a Fort Lewis College student, former Army sergeant and Iraq War veteran, who count this as a blessing.

“Sometimes it’s best to have a leader with a different perspective than that military ideology,” said Boita.

Boita is a bit outspoken among his fellow veterans. It wasn’t always so. He remembered a peace rally held at Fort Lewis after the 9/11 attacks. “At that time I wasn’t ready for peace,” he said. “When you see war firsthand, it kind of changes your mind.”

Boita’s calm, poised demeanor belies the boiling intensity of his frustration with military operations in the Iraq he saw firsthand as a combat soldier. The tactics Boita witnessed were usually far from efficient or effective. However, Boita is also quick to point out that “speaking out against the war must be distinct from speaking out against those who have fought and those who continue to fight.”

Most of the expectations he had about Iraq and the war quickly flew out the window after his deployment.

“The insurgency that they talk about is mostly these people who don’t have homes, who don’t have jobs,” Boita said. “If we as Americans were occupied and people did this to us, we would be outraged, we would be fighting against it. They’re not terrorists; they are people just like you and me.”

A look at Obama’s campaign website gives a glimpse into a very different strategy than the seemingly stagnant one of which Boita was a part. He is planning a “responsible and phased” withdrawal of combat troops by the summer of 2010, more seven years since the war started.

The problems of the current Bush-backed strategy, according to Obama, echo some of Boita’s sentiments. Obama claims that “American troops have found the right tactics to contain the violence in Iraq, but we still have the wrong strategy to press Iraqis to take responsibility at home.”

Boita agreed. “I participated in many raids and patrols with Iraqi trained troops,” he said. “I asked them why people deserted and why they did not want to take control over their area, having U.S. troops only back them up. One Iraqi troop said, ‘Why am I going to risk my life if I know you will do it for me?’”

Obama attributes this lack of accountability, specifically of the Iraqi government to take control of its own security, to the Bush administration’s “blank check approach.” Only recently has the Iraqi government actually stated that we might be overstaying our welcome when, earlier this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

One suggestion Boita had for instilling a sense of responsibility and national pride in Iraqi troops was to offer better incentives for joining, and staying, in the military. The Iraqi troops he trained earned about ten dollars a day, a better wage than some jobs, but not worth risking your life for.

“There’s not a real sense of ‘this is our country’ like we have,” Boita said of the problem. “You can’t just expect people to do it for low wages.”

He recalled the frustration he felt when an Iraqi troop who defected would continue to receive a paycheck due to a lag in bureaucracy. The government did not have the infrastructure to track who was in and who was out of the military, according to Boita.

“Why are you going to show up to work when you’re going to get paid anyway?” Boita pointed out.

Even as a combat soldier, Boita was able to observe firsthand the potential room for improvement within the Iraqi government. The government Boita saw was a localized, fear-based way of ruling, one that relied on local “amirs,” or leaders, to look out for the people, and hopefully not just themselves. With no oversight, such a system, Boita maintained, leaves room for corruption, as well as the persistent use of faltered methods out of ignorance of any other. Further, Boita said these local leaders have no system in place to receive funding from a larger government and no materials to plan and execute public programs without outside support.

Obama has asserted that a “phased” withdrawal will encourage the Iraqi people and their government to take responsibility for their country as they see U.S. troops departing. This is not to say that there will be no U.S. forces left after the summer of 2010. Under Obama’s plan, a residual force will be left in place to provide support for counter-terrorism efforts, security for diplomatic and civilian personnel, and training for Iraqi troops.

This redeployment of a more specialized force is in line with Boita’s thinking. He recalled participating in “hearts and minds” campaigns for which he and his fellow infantry soldiers were untrained. This included everything from meeting with community leaders to food drops.

“We need to reduce the number of targets we have, that would be soldiers in general, and replace them with people who are trained with a specific mission,” said Boita. “When we went in there and changed everything, we did gain some responsibility. Troop withdrawal does not mean withdrawing all Iraqi support.”

In short, brute force, and more of it, is not the answer.

With such a major policy shift from what has become the norm of the Bush administration, the “withdrawal = surrender” mentality, the world will be holding its breath until our new president is sworn in, just two months away.

In the meantime, we as Americans can do well to take Boita’s words to heart: “On Veterans Day the focus should not be on right or wrong or good policies or bad, but rather on honoring those men and woman who…have risked their lives for each other.” •