Colonel Kline Reports On Iraq

John Kline, my Congressman and good friend, retired from the Marine Corps as a Colonel after 25 years of service. He fought in Vietnam and commanded all Marine aviation forces in Somalia. He flew Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, and served on a small committee of Marines who planned the Corps’ long-term procurement needs. John’s character and steadiness of nerve were recognized when, during the Carter administration and, more briefly, the Reagan administration, he was selected to travel with the President, carrying the briefcase containing the codes to launch our nuclear arsenal. He was a good choice, too; John might be the least excitable man I know.

Col. Kline brings to his Congressional duties a rare knowledge of military affairs and ability to assess conditions on the ground. He recently returned from his third trip to Iraq, this time as a member of the House’s Armed Services Committee. I had a long talk with him last week, and recorded our conversation so I could quote him accurately. I asked John how this trip compared with his prior visits:

It was different in two respects. One, overall the level of violence was down. We were able to stay in Baghdad, not Kuwait, and we spent the whole time inside the Sunni Triangle. And in the time I was there I didn’t hear a gunshot or explosion. But the most important thing was the prevalence of the Iraqi security forces. They are really out there now, and they are doing a good job.

A key focus of this trip was to evaluate our progress in training Iraqi units. I told John that my impression is that there was a false start in Iraq, and we have had to revise our approach to readying the Iraqis to take over responsibility for security. He confirmed that this is correct:

It was obvious from the beginning that we needed to train Iraqis to maintain security so that we could get out. But what we did initially was, we gave Iraqis some guns and sent them out there. And it was a disaster. We saw what happened in Fallujah, they ran away from the battlefield. So we changed how we do business. Lt. Gen. Petraeus went back to take over the training mission for a year.

There were clearly mistakes made in understanding what the situation was. The security situation turned out to be more challenging than had been expected. Al Qaeda under Zarqawi dug in there, they are recruiting hard core jihadist terrorists, there are more hard core Saddam loyalists, and so on. There was a lot more resistance and a lot more fighting than had originally been anticipated.

It was thought it would be a terrible thing to re-field the Iraqi army, because they were Baathists, they were Saddam loyalists, and if you inflicted them on the country as a whole it would be disastrous. You couldn’t just take these guys who ahd been thugs under Saddam Hussein and send them out there. And that was right. But what happened was, they started a recruiting process and a vetting as best they could, and they handed these folks weapons and they gave them some really rudimentary training and said OK, now go out there and guard power lines and refineries and so forth, and as they tried to get them engaged in real security operations, real combat, it collapsed.

So there was a change in strategy. We decided that we needed to do better training, more intensive training. We needed to improve the morale and capability of these Iraqi forces by giving them better equipment, body armor and so on. We needed to recruit across ethnic and sectarian lines, and properly train and equip them. And very importantly, we need to put some mentors, some American advisers, in the unit. These are small: there may be several hundred Iraqis and ten Americans that are part of the mentoring team. So we now have better trained Iraqi soldiers, functioning units with leaders who can lead, functioning equipment, and mentoring by Americans that has more to do with command and control than anything else.

John was impressed by the quality of the Iraqi soldiers he met and observed, and by the pace at which they are taking over responsibility for their country’s security:

What’s happened is progress, really measurable progress. You can see it. The Iraqi battalions–there are now over 40 of them in the lead, which means that you have an American battalion that’s partnered with an Iraqi battalion, but when you go to do an operation, it’s the Iraqi battalion that is leading the attack, and the American battalion that is hanging back, both in the planning and in the execution. And then you have over 30 Iraqi battalions that actually control territory. We’ve turned over geography to them, and said, call us if you need us.

He observed an elite Iraqi unit carry out a training exercise involving a hostage situation:

There is a unit called the Iraqi counterterrorist force that was trained by our special operations forces. These guys are the elite of the Iraqi forces. They are composed of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia. They fight all over the country, they are a focused unit in that they are going after Zarqawi and the like. And they are darned good and they are very very proud of themselves. That’s something that Americans can’t have a sense for, how proud the Iraqi forces are. Their allegiance is to an Iraqi nation, not to a militia, not to a warlord, not to a particular religious sect.

And they are good. We saw a live-fire demonstration of them taking down a building with a simulated hostage in it. It was lightning-fast, very professional. And when it was over they came and formed up ranks and we went over and talked to them and told them how good they were and even though all the soldiers had balaklavas on, you could see their smiles right through it. They were really proud of themselves.

One of the missions of John’s group was to assess the morale of the Americans stationed in Iraq:

The thing that they can’t understand is that these soldiers don’t want to be brought home before the job is done. The soldiers’ morale is high. One of the great things about my trip was I got to spend some time with my son, who is stationed outside Tikrit. He is an Army Major, the executuve officer of a Blackhawk helicopter battalion that is stationed just outside Tikrit. Part of the 101st Airborne Division.

I met with him and many of his colleagues in Fort Campbell this summer, and we sat in a room and we talked about their upcoming deployment. And my very firm impression was that their morale was absolutely sky-high, they were eager to go, they were confident that they were going to get things done, and the only concern they expressed was, with all this news reporting, are we going to keep the support of the American people? And I said, absolutely you are, the vast majority of Congressmen are supportive, we understand that failure is not an option, we’re not going to send you over there for nothing, we’re not going to betray your trust.

Now that they’re over there and they’re engaged, it’s still their only concern. Their morale is still high. And now they’re there so they can see that they‘re making a difference. They are excited about what they‘re doing, they are confident about what they’re doing, they believe in the mission, and they’re glad to be there. So what some of these politicians are saying is annoying to them, it kind of makes them mad. I don’t like that it’s their only expressed concern, they shouldn’t have any concern about that at all. But in general they’re getting on with business, and their morale is high.

John rarely utters a harsh word about anyone, so I found his comments on Democrats like Howard Dean and Jack Murtha espcially striking:

Just the fact that the level of debate has gone up, and you have some leaders, Kerry, Pelosi, Dean, saying we can’t win and we’ve got to get out, that’s not reassuring to our troops, that’s not supporting our troops, and what is always lost in this discussion is, by God it’s not reassuring our allies, including the Iraqi leadership.

Howard Dean’s casual comment that we can’t win is not just irresponsible, it really is a betrayal of the trust of our men and women in uniform. That’s what makes me so angry about Jack Murtha, more than any of the others, because he was a Vietnam vet, and he did serve many years in the Marine reserve and he ought to know better. Howard Dean, I just have so little regard for his opinion on anything, but he is the leader of the Democrat party, and for him to come out and say that is certainly irresponsible, but even more than that, I think it is harmful to our service men and women, it is a betrayal of their trust, it is very damaging to our allies.

What does this say to our coalition partners who are small countries who have made large commitments of men and equipment, because they trust us and they think that what we’re doing is right and is important? And you have national leaders who come out and say things like that.

What I tell these folks is, you really are not supporting the troops if you are not supporting what they are doing. Because the troops don’t feel like it’s support if you say, “What you guys are doing is not working. It’s a disaster, we can’t win and we’re going to pull you out. So all of the sacrifices that you’ve made have been for nothing.” They don’t think that’s support. It sounds very hollow to them. It does wear on them.

As a professional soldier who has seen with his own eyes the progress that is being made in Iraq, John is convinced that the critics are dead wrong:

The good news story is just shamefully lost where you get somebody like John Murtha saying, we’re not making any progress, and you get someone like Howard Dean saying we can’t win. What is that possibly based on? Because all information on the ground in Iraq refutes that.

How can it be that the press fawns over every pronouncement from Jack Murtha, while studiously ignoring the observations and opinions of the far more experienced and better-informed John Kline? Well, that was a rhetorical question, of course.

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