The intrepid Michael Totten has some of the best reporting out of Iraq these days. Read his riveting eyewitness (minus night goggles, but armed with camera) account of a night raid in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne on the lookout for curfew violators, both dangerous and not so dangerous.
Problem is, it’s hard to tell at the outset which variety of unidentified night wanderer you’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s hard to tell even at the endpoint of the encounter. But Totten will help you understand what it’s like for the troops these days patrolling the darkened streets of Baghdad.
Note the following exchange between Totten and a soldier concerning the rules of engagement under which our military must currently operate:
“They have a little bunker up [on the mosque roof],” he continued. “You can’t see it from here, but it has sand bags and sniper netting around it.”
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a mosque.”
“They’re violating curfew,” I said, “and stalking us in the dark from a militarized mosque. And you aren’t going to do anything?”
“Our rules of engagement say we can’t interfere in any way with a mosque unless they are shooting at us,” he said.
You could say that this is what PC considerations run amok have led to: killers know they can set up shop with impunity as long as they do so in a mosque. On the other hand, they also know that as soon as they start shooting from there, they are fair game.
It’s a situation in which our forces can only react after the fact, not before, although we all know the truth of the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In this case, however, respecting mosques and their sanctity has the (supposed) added benefit of not inflaming the locals over what might be seen as random, poorly motivated attacks on Muslim places of worship.
It seems to me that when troops go into a mosque that’s been equipped with sandbags and sniper positions it ought to be understood as a necessary defensive action taking place in a mosque that’s already been “militarized,” in Totten’s phrase, by the insurgents/terrorists. The locals are not dummies; they’d get why this is being done, and that they themselves are ultimately also the targets of those taking refuge in that mosque.
But I’m not in Iraq (and unlike Totten, I’m not planning a trip any time soon). I truly don’t know which approach is best. I wish I knew whether these rules of engagement are in place because the military experts on the subject of fighting insurgencies have decided they are best in the long run, or whether it’s just a result of lawyers being ultra-careful and tying the hands of the military unduly.
I do know that the situation is a good example of the complexities of fighting this sort of war, which has to occur on so many levels—military, cultural, and psychological. That, unfortunately, includes the necessity to traverse the metaphorical minefield of Muslim religious sensitivities as well as the actual minefields of insurgent and terrorist explosives.
[ADDENDUM: Think about contributing to the tip jar if you so desire. And Michael, please stay safe.]
[ADDENDUM II: Oh, and I almost forget: here's the inspiration for the title of this post.]