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The Perils, and Fears, of an Engagement Policy—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh ’08

The following commentary originally aired on the February 9, 2007, edition of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

The Perils, and Fears, of an Engagement Policy
By Ken Harbaugh '08

Tomorrow, General David Petraeus will assume of command of coalition forces in Iraq.  His main task will be to implement a new security plan for Baghdad, one that hopes to turn things around.  But, it will require our Soldiers and Marines to take even greater risks by interacting with the local population.  General Petraeus literally wrote the book on this kind of warfare.  In his previous posting as Commander of the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Petraeus directed a comprehensive rewrite of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine.  The resulting manual says our troops must prepare to be greeted with “either a handshake or a hand grenade.”

On paper this makes sense.  Insurgencies are fueled, at least in part, by public support.  Engage that public positively and you take away some of that support.  What it means on the ground, though, is that our Soldiers and Marines will have to interact with Iraqi’s who may want to kill them.  It would terrify me to be in their shoes right now, having to take on extraordinary risks in an already deadly place.  As a pilot, my view of conflict was distant, even anti-septic.  For the guys on the ground it’s up close, and about to get worse.

Convoys that used to race through dangerous neighborhoods will now have to slow down.  Foot patrols will have to stop and “chat.”  I don’t envy those leaders in the field who have to get this message across to their troops, and I certainly don’t envy those troops.  How do you tell the Corporal driving a pitifully armored Hum-Vee, or the Sergeant leading a patrol, that they must “engage with the locals” even if it means endangering themselves and their buddies?

I understand the intellectual arguments for this new plan.  Defeating an insurgency requires connecting with civilians as much as killing insurgents.  But as a veteran, I cannot help but react viscerally.  In the short term, more Americans will end up dead.  Those convoys speeding through neighborhoods aren’t joyriding – they’re trying not to get blown up.

This is an ugly war.  Nothing about it is certain, except that consequences of failure would be catastrophic.  If American troops leave before Iraqi forces are prepared to fill the vacuum, the current level of violence would almost certainly escalate.  Just as important, Iraqi’s who’ve stood with us will be killed if we abandon them.  General Petraeus’s plan may be our, and their, best hope.  But it means that whatever chance of success there is left forces Americans even deeper into harm’s way, never knowing if that next outstretched arm means a “handshake or a hand grenade.”  That is a horrific thing to ask of any Soldier or Marine.