Monday, June 20, 2005

US Army in Iraq: The Police as the Target

Let's imagine we decided to make a small change in the police force here in New York City: instead of driving police cars, have them drive around in Brinks armored trucks with a million dollars in cash in the back of each. And, whenever they go out on foot patrol, we'd make them carry thousands of dollars worth of diamonds in their pocket. And, while we're at it, we'll store a sizeable stash of gold bullion in every police station.

Let's think about what would happen. Criminals would stop robbing banks and burglarizing houses, and focus their attention on robbing the police instead. The police's focus would shift from protecting the community to protecting themselves. And, while they would get good at protecting themselves, this would erode their effectiveness as police officers.

Would that make New York a safer place? Obviously not. And, while this whole question may sound asinine, this is not far off the situation the American army is working with in Iraq.

Yesterday, I was chatting with an Iraqi friend who lives in Baghdad, and I sent him a link to a news article. He was incredulous at seeing this picture below, of a Canadian military patrol driving in traffic in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was shocked that there were cars and people driving along the street around the military patrol, with people just carrying on as if the soldiers were not there. As he told me, you would never see anything like this in Baghdad: the US soldiers would shoot anyone who gets closer than 50 meters to them.

A Canadian military patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan
Photo: Sgt Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera Posted by Hello

One might wonder why the Canadian troops are able to drive freely in Kabul with this type of impunity. Is it because they are somehow better armed or better trained? Definitely not! The Canadian troops can operate like this because they know they are not targets. Nobody really hates Canada, so there isn't a big interest in attacking Canadian troops. As a result, the Canadian troops can drive around Kabul in the middle of traffic without being overly concerned about their own safety.

The US military is the most effective fighting force in the world, and unfortunately, this also makes them the biggest target in the world. If you are a terrorist and want to lash out at the "Great Satan", you don't need to send people all the way to the US - you can just load up a car full of explosives, drive across the border to Iraq, and find your target driving around in Humvees. One might easily wonder what percentage of the Iraqi insurgency have no real interest in Iraq, and are only fighting because they want to hit out at the United States.

The result is that the American troops who are trying to provide security in Iraq instead become the biggest targets in town. And, this hurts their effectiveness, since they are forced to focus on protecting themselves rather than providing security.

I am sure the US army is painfully aware of this problem. What is less obvious is what the solution to it is.