In the last couple of weeks, Americans have learned something about our troops in Iraq: They hate it there. They are hot, tired, and surrounded by a population they don’t understand who occasionally tries to kill them. The left isn’t demanding that the United States “come home,” because, while it abhors war, it likes nation-building. But the homesick men and women of the military may prove a far more compelling lobby—and the more the public focuses on their plight, the more pressure the United States will feel to cut and run before it has planted the seeds of liberal government in Iraq.
Why are American GIs so unhappy? Partly, because no one likes being shot at far from home. But that’s not the whole story. American troops are also paying the price for the Bush administration’s dysfunctional approach to peacekeeping. Since they took office, the Bushies have been declaring their opposition to U.S. peacekeeping. And, since last fall, they have been declaring their opposition to long-term U.S. peacekeeping in Iraq. Yet, eleven weeks after Saddam Hussein’s fall, well over 100,000 American troops are hunkering down for a peacekeeping mission with no end in sight. “My guys question why we are going from warriors to peacekeepers, because the belief in what was told to us was that we would fight and win and go home,” Sergeant Eric Wright told the Associated Press last week. “I don’t know why they’re keeping us around here,” Corporal Anthony Arteaga told The Washington Post. “We’re not peacekeepers. We’re heavy-combat engineers.”
To understand why Wright and Arteaga are so frustrated and confused, go back to 2000, when Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney said the United States should withdraw its troops from Bosnia and Kosovo, and Colin Powell promised a review of all U.S. peacekeeping missions worldwide. The assumption was that, while rebuilding obscure, tormented countries might be nice, it was irrelevant to U.S. national security. But that assumption hit a snag on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda used an obscure, tormented country, Afghanistan, as a base from which to murder 3,000 Americans. Ever since, the Bush administration has struggled to preserve its pre-September 11 anti-peacekeeping bias in the face of post- September 11 reality, and U.S. foreign policy has suffered as a result.
After overthrowing the Taliban in late 2001, the Bushies solemnly vowed the United States would never abandon Afghanistan again. Taking those words to heart, America’s handpicked leader, Hamid Karzai, began asking the Bush administration to expand the international peacekeeping force from Kabul to the rest of the country. For more than a year now, the administration has been saying no. Eight thousand American troops are in Afghanistan hunting for remnants of Al Qaeda, but the Pentagon won’t use them for peacekeeping. It won’t even allow other countries to send their own peacekeepers beyond the capital, for fear they might get in America’s way. The result is that warlords run most of the country, and, as Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin recently told the Inter Press Service, “our policy in Afghanistan is definitely on track to fail.”
At first, it appeared the Bush administration would handle postwar Iraq the same way. In February, when then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told a Senate committee that winning the war and guaranteeing postwar stability would require “several hundred thousand soldiers,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the estimate was “wildly off the mark.” After the war, the initial Pentagon schedule called for drawing down American troop levels to just 30,000 by this fall. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, the U.S. military spokesman in Qatar, declared that “the U.S. won’t be a police force.”
But it hasn’t turned out that way. Faced with mass looting and disorder after Saddam’s fall, the Bush administration has scrapped its plans for a quick troop withdrawal and settled in for a protracted bout of—you guessed it— peacekeeping. American officials had hoped they would get 60,000 foreign troops to help, but they have procured only 20,000, partly because they won’t give other countries any real authority in postwar Iraq. And so American troops, after being promised a short tour of duty, are settling in, unhappily, for an indefinite stay.
Keeping them there is wise, but there are costs to reversing years of stated policy on the fly. Few American soldiers in Iraq have extensive peacekeeping training. And that’s no accident. Since Donald Rumsfeld became defense secretary, the Pentagon’s Office of Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations has been renamed the Office of Stability Operations and has reoriented away from peacekeeping. And, on Rumsfeld’s orders, the Army will close its Peacekeeping Institute this September, making the United States practically unique among its allies in not having a center that trains troops for exactly the kind of situation they face today in Iraq.
Although American troops are doing their best, the lack of training shows. The United States has deployed only 3,000 military police in Iraq, who have been shown in Kosovo to perform better in peacekeeping roles than their regular military counterparts. In fact, as Thomas Withington, a defense analyst at King’s College, London, recently noted in Newsday, with their armored personnel carriers and combat gear, American troops are outfitted poorly for the interaction with civilians that peacekeeping requires. British troops, by contrast, many of whom did extensive peacekeeping in Northern Ireland, have been quicker to take off their helmets and sunglasses and present a nonthreatening face to ordinary Iraqis. This may be part of the reason that, while the United States has lost 92 troops since Saddam fell, Britain has lost only six. “We weren’t trained for this stuff now,” Corporal Michael Richardson told London’s Evening Standard last week. “It makes you resentful they’re holding us on here.”
In Iraq, the Bush administration finally seems to have struck a deal with post- September 11 reality: It will conduct peacekeeping, it just won’t prepare troops for it, since that would imply peacekeeping is important. So men like Corporal Richardson are left to pursue one of the most complicated, dangerous missions in U.S. history without the preparation they need. No wonder they’re angry.
This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.