By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Fresh from a six-month tour working with the Iraqi army and police to help Iraqis fend for themselves as American forces begin returning home, state Rep. Joe Rice — a Littleton Democrat and a colonel in the Army Reserves — discussed recent developments and the long-term outlook in Iraq and Afghanistan at a meeting with constituents Dec. 7 at Littleton City Hall.
He expressed optimism that the transition in Iraq is proceeding as anticipated and a cautious belief that President Barack Obama’s plans for Afghanistan can produce good results for American interests.
“I don’t want to stay indefinitely,” Rice said, “but I think 18 months to try to build up security forces is reasonable. I think it’s worth that risk.”
A week earlier, in a speech at West Point, Obama had unveiled plans to add 30,000 troops to the 60,000 American military forces already in Afghanistan and to start bringing the additional troops back after 18 months.
“It’s unusual for a state representative to be doing a town hall on foreign policy issues,” Rice acknowledged, as he began a lively forum that lasted more than two hours.
“I don’t pretend to understand everything,” he said, noting that his reading of the situation is based on his personal experience.
That experience is substantial, amounting to several years on the ground in Iraq since 2003 helping the country rebuild itself after the American invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. During four separate tours, Rice worked to establish provisional councils — rudimentary local governing bodies — in Baghdad, and, most recently, worked under Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq and the NATO Training Mission Iraq.
Starting with the first year of the invasion, Rice has been a first-hand witness as American policy in Iraq has evolved from “chaos, unpredictability and violence” to naive optimism, and through a period he termed a “rush to failure.” During that period, Rice said, poor planning and insufficient resources doomed attempts to establish a stable, sustainable society. Then, he said, the Bush administration’s troop surge and switch to a counterinsurgency strategy laid the groundwork for substantial troop withdrawals.
“Now we’re in the development phase, in the transition phase,” Rice said, pointing out that day-to-day violence in Iraq has dropped 95 percent over the last year. “There will be bad days ahead for both Americans and Iraqis, but it looks like certainly the prospects are better.”
Quoting a military maxim, Rice said, “We’re not where we want to be. We’re not where we need to be. But, thank God, we’re not where we used to be.”
Rice pulled no punches describing mistakes he said led to the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were told we could go to war. It would be easy. It would be cheap, and it wouldn’t affect you too much.”
Shaking his head, Rice went on. “We were so cheap investing in Iraq and Afghanistan in the beginning, we’ve paid for it more because we didn’t do it right the first time.”
Noting that Iraq and Afghanistan are “vastly different,” Rice said he has concluded nevertheless that plenty of the hard-learned lessons of Iraq can be applied to the other, longer war.
“There’s a better case to argue Afghanistan was more in our national interest than Iraq,” Rice said. “You can’t have an area where people can build camps, conduct large-scale training and stockpile weapons. It’s in our national interest to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It was then. It is now.”
Rice delineated a range of options American forces have in Afghanistan, from a limited, strictly counterterrorism approach using strike teams and remote-piloted drones to take out the bad guys, to a more demanding counterinsurgency strategy similar to what helped turn the corner in Iraq.
“All you’re doing is playing the odds here,” he said. “Doing nothing isn’t a viable option. Eventually there are good odds the Taliban could get their hands on the government of Pakistan, or at least their nuclear weapons.”
He said that would be a disaster for the region and would threaten the United States.
Given the choices, Rice said he believes applying a version of what has worked in Iraq makes the most sense.
“We can’t allow [Afghanistan] to be a terrorist haven,” he said. “Having a larger presence of troops gives you the ability to protect the Afghan people” while developing more stable structures that could keep the country from falling to the Taliban.
There’s no sure path to success — only weighing the odds, Rice said.
“We could do everything right and still lose, or do everything wrong and still win,” he said. “And I would argue that, until a few years ago, that was our strategy.”
Responding to questions from the crowd — a group of more than 50 residents of Rice’s south metro House district, including many veterans — Rice tried to dispel what he called wrong impressions about Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“People are misunderstanding the 18-month timeline,” Rice said. “It’s not ‘18 months and we’re gonna be out,’” but 18 months until American forces begin to draw back down to pre-surge levels.
All along the way, Rice noted, the Afghan government must do its part — or American troops could start returning even sooner.
“If the Afghan government is not stepping up the way the Iraqi government did, there are off-ramps,” or opportunities to revise American commitments.
Rice also scoffed at the notion that announcing an 18-month window makes it easy for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to wait out a surge.
“It’s not a secret that we’re leaving,” he said. “The question is what we’re leaving in place when we’re gone.”
If the surge works as planned, Rice said it will be easy to bring Americans home.
“After this 18 month drawdown, I don’t think large numbers (of American troops) are required. We had 40,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia 10 years ago. Now we have a couple hundred.”
Still, some constituents at the town hall asked, “How will we know when we’ve won?”
“It’s not going to be like World War II, and Osama bin Laden comes out and signs a peace treaty,” Rice acknowledged. “Winning will be countries that are relatively stable and do not pose a threat to the United States. A close second will be that the people there have a decent life, with the rule of law, some basic human rights — that sort of thing.”
Although he said he isn’t anxious to spend more months away from home — a hardship that weighs heavily on his wife and three young children — Rice said that, if it becomes necessary, he would embark on another tour.
“We’ve invested so much already,” Rice said. “I’m willing to go over again, if that’s what it takes to try to give this the best chance of working.”
Since returning home last month, Rice said his work in Iraq has given him perspective on the Colorado Legislature, where he is serving his second term in the House.
“I’m very appreciative,” he said. “Though our problems are serious, they are small in comparison.”
One lesson Rice said was driven home by his work with Iraq’s nascent, “very, very fragile” democratic system is that it’s “critically important” that citizens participate in their government.
“We do have elections where incumbents lose. That doesn’t happen in a lot of places,” he said.