George W. Bush says he's pleased with the progress in Iraq, and he singles out the training of Iraqi security forces as a particularly positive development. That's all well and good, but the next time the president makes one of those surprise turkey deliveries to the troops, perhaps he ought to talk with the U.S. soldiers who are trying to train the Iraq army's Charlie Company. That's what the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru have done, and their report shines a harsh light on the chasm between Bush's optimism from Iraq's reality.
"Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December," Shadid and Fainaru write. "And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don't respect them.
"In fact, the Americans don't: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis' courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military's goal of operating independently by the fall."
Shadid and Fainaru chronicle three days spent with Charlie Company and the U.S. troops assigned to train the unit. They write of Iraqi soldiers who hide behind "black balaclavas and green scarves to mask their identities" from other Iraqis who might retaliate against them, soldiers whose antiquated weapons break down and leave them outgunned by the insurgency. One Iraqi soldier carries an aging AK-47, his strap a green shoestring.
But perhaps the most incredible thing about the Post report: The military chose the unit the reporters would spend a few days following. If Charlie Company is the kind of outfit the Pentagon wants to showcase, just how little progress has been made with other elements of the Iraqi army?
"I know the party line," says 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, the executive officer of U.S. Army company training Charlie Company. "You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period. But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave. And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then."