- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Two weeks ago, while waiting for a flight at BWI, I was watching dramatic footage on cable news that showed insurgents ambushing a combined American and Iraqi convoy. The person next to me remarked how brilliantly our young men and women took charge by firing their weapons and rendering first aid to wounded Iraqis.

I’m a Vietnam vet, and I guess my background got the best of me ,as I observed that we were witnessing the ambush of heavily armored American vehicles. Our soldiers managed to survive unharmed, while the Iraqis, protected by nothing more than the glass and tin of their pickups, suffered four dead and several severely wounded. “What do you think those surviving Iraqi soldiers were thinking?” I asked. “If I were them, I’d be asking why I didn’t have armor and weapons at least as good as the people who promised to protect me.”

My mind wandered back to Vietnam, where I remember a Vietnamese officer telling me that his unit would perform as well as ours if they only had our weapons. Now I understand the wisdom of his observation. We are moving into a different yet decisive phase of this war, where the weight of effort will be transferred from main-line Army and Marine units to the Iraqis. So far the results have been mixed. Some Iraqi units, particularly in the fight for Falluja, did very well indeed. Others, poorly led and equipped, melted into the population as soon as the first shots were fired.

Soon Gen. Gary Luck will return from Iraq with unvarnished opinions about the advisory effort in Iraq. He will tell the president that the resources so far devoted to this effort reflect neither the urgency nor the strategic importance of our effort to “Iraqify” the war. As in Vietnam we are too focused on ourselves and not focused enough on those who will ultimately guarantee victory. Here’s what I believe Gen. Luck will say:

First, convince our Iraqi partners that our strategy is to Iraqify, not cut and run. Our record is not all that good. The Iraqis are well aware of our past perfidy. We must match words with deeds. There is some evidence that the U.S. command is doing just that. It now puts advisers into the field with Iraqi units, sharing their dangers and experiencing war from their perspective. I’ve been told that two advisers have died so far in combat with Iraqi units. A sad but true axiom of combat: The surest way to demonstrate sincerity to an ally is to share the shedding of blood.

Second, build trust. The task of advising alien militaries is far more art than science. It is a manpower-intensive function that involves commitment and cultural sensitivity to an exceptional degree. These are not stupid men. In many ways they understand how to fight an insurgency better than we do. We must recognize and honor their skills, listen to them and build a bank of mutual trust that we will be able to draw upon when their will to fight is tested most severely during the coming spring and summer.

Third, give them fighting gear at least as good as ours, both to make them better fighters and to convince them that we value their sacrifices as much as our own. We cannot allow them to be outgunned by a rag-tag assortment of Islamists equipped with leftovers from the Saddam regime. Spare no expense to give them an abundance of first-class body armor, radios, armored vehicles and automatic weapons. Our continued contribution should be those combat functions that we do best: air support, logistics, and strategic and operational intelligence.

Fourth, have patience. Experience in El Salvador and Vietnam demonstrates that we are good at building effective partners, even during wartime. The only thing we seem to lack is patience. Effective armies are not created overnight. It takes a decade and a half to create a good platoon sergeant or battalion commander. Begin the withdrawal of main force units as soon as practicable. But recognize that our advisory effort, to be credible, may last for decades.

I remember a colonel telling me once about his never-ending nightmare. It was 1975 and he was waiting to board one of the last helicopters leaving Saigon. Intelligent, patriotic and professionally competent Vietnamese officers and their families were waiting to hear something hopeful from him as he shook hands and bid them a tearful farewell. “Don’t worry,” he said, “The next helicopter is for you and your families.” Of course he knew that there would be no helicopters … just decades of suffering and death for those foolish to believe in him and the United States. We cannot afford to repeat the nightmare. The stakes are simply too high, both for the United States and the Iraqis who trust us.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is the former commander of the Army War College.

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