WHAT THE president and proponents of the "surge" in Iraq have underestimated is the loathing Iraqis have of foreign troops bursting into their houses, shoot-to-kill checkpoints, and the humiliation occupation brings. Foreign troops legitimize insurgency.
A photograph by Agence France-Presse reminded me why the surge is unlikely to achieve anything more than temporary success, and is doomed to ultimate failure.
An Iraqi holds his mother after she suffered a panic attack following the questioning and near-detainment of her son by US Army soldiers from the 5-20 Infantry Division during the launch of Operation Arrowhead Strike Six in the Shaab neighborhood of northern Baghdad, 06 February 2007. (AFP/David Furst)
The photograph shows four American soldiers, dressed in full, intimidating battle gear, around the periphery of a Baghdad living room. In the center, on the carpeted floor, lies a collapsed woman in a traditional black dress.
A man, identified as her son, is holding her in his arms. His feet are bare, as if he were caught by surprise. But what arrests the eye is the look of horror and terror on his face as he looks up at an armed, gesticulating soldier. Another soldier has taken the liberty of making himself at home on the sofa. The caption tells us only that the mother has fainted when her son was "questioned."
The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow recently wrote about how American soldiers tried to be friendly and kind. "During their six-hour patrol they handed out Iraqi newspapers and packets of gum . . . But machine gun-toting Americans rooting through bedrooms, inspecting weapons, and demanding identification cards clearly unsettle some residents."
They do more harm than unsettle. One US soldier told Partlow: "I was here the last time, in the beginning. Now that's totally changed. They don't even respect us anymore. They spit at us, they throw rocks at us. It wasn't like that before."
When the president and surge proponents talk about restoring law and order to Baghdad, they underestimate the fact that it is the very presence of American soldiers themselves who are sparking the resistance, and thus the chaotic conditions in which criminals can operate, and militias appear to be the population's only salvation. Americans may try to do their jobs humanely, but the nature of their business is coercive, brutal, and ultimately counterproductive.
But aren't the American soldiers there to stop sectarian violence -- to stop Iraqis from killing each other? Colonial powers, when they take over a foreign land, can keep the remaining power structure, as the British did in Iraq by ruling though the Sunnis, or they can upset the existing order and empower the previously down trodden, as the Americans did with the Shia. In America's case, the United States now doesn't like what it wished for, and has decided to fight both the Sunni insurgents and the Shia militias, inserting itself into a civil war.
In the end, however, both the Shia and Sunnis will oppose us because they don't want foreign soldiers in their land. As the occupation enters its fifth year, the Iraqis on America's side, or working for Americans, are seen increasingly as collaborators.
The longer American troops stay the longer they will be seen as oppressors, and because they have to do their job, the more pictures we will see of cowering, frightened, and humiliated Iraqis. The British have domestic reasons for beginning their pull-down, but they also realize that they are now more part of the problem than the solution. The coalition of the willing is becoming increasingly unwilling as it sees that foreign troops just aren't the answer.
To say American soldiers are creating stability in the cause of Iraqi national reconciliation doesn't wash. All the Iraqi political leaders live near or in the Green Zone, and they could cut their deals in perfect security anytime they wanted. The point is they want power not reconciliation.
And so conquering foreign soldiers will be resisted in Iraq, as they have always been everywhere down the centuries. In early April 1775, the British governor of Boston sent John Howe out to gather intelligence in that hotbed of insurgency now called the western suburbs, but then the Anbar province of its time. Howe met an old man cleaning his rifle who looked too old to hunt game.
The old man said he expected foreign soldiers -- "a flock of redcoats" -- would be arriving soon, and he thought they would make good targets. Arrive they did, and with them the American revolution that in many states degenerated into civil war. The British soldiers were mostly of the same race and religion as the people they fought, but they were by then foreigners, and eight years later they were gone.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
Copyright 2007 Boston Globe