Iraq: A Vet's First Hand View
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Iraq: A Vet's First Hand View

When asked if the Iraqis viewed Democracy as a political concept or a religion, the speaker stated the question could not be answered because "their is no such thing as an Iraqi."

That exchange took place at the Belle Haven Country Club on Veteran's Day during the monthly luncheon meeting of the Alexandria Rotary Club. Answering the inquiry, following his presentation on the Iraq War, 1991 and today, was Major Chris Varhola, U.S. Army, Civil Affairs Officer. He stressed that Iraqis could not be defined by the usual definition of nationalism.

Now a member of the Maryland National Guard who has recently completed a tour of duty in Iraq, Varhola told the audience, "Iraq is a complex situation. There is no answer as to how we can win or get out at the present time."

Varhola, a graduate of The Citadel, entered the Army as a young second lieutenant combat officer. He first went to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. "At that time I was just a young officer. Very naive about the Middle East and knowing little or nothing about the various cultures," he admitted.

However, he went on to become very knowledgeable about that part of the world. He is not only fluent in Arabic languages but has also served in a liaison position with the Jordanian Army and wears one of their medals on his uniform.

DURING ONE OF his tours of duty in Saudi Arabia he met and married his wife, another U.S. Army major. Eventually, they decided one of them had to leave the military service to pursue another career path. It was Chris that opted to leave.

He left the Army in 2001 to pursue his doctorate in Anthropology. He also joined the Maryland National Guard. Prior to his discharge from active service, he had changed his military occupational specialty from combat officer to Civil Affairs.

"My commanding officer at the time thought it was a bad mistake and would adversely affect my military career," Varhola related. "But, I told him that if we go to war again in the Middle East we'll have plenty of people to drive the tanks and fly the planes but we'll have very few that really know or understand anything about the culture. Unfortunately, it has turn out to be all too true."

Varhola's Guard unit was one of the first called up last year. He got to Kuwait in January 2003, and went into Baghdad in April. His specialty is intelligence gathering in order to expedite a nation building process. But, as he explained to the Rotarians, it is "a very complex task."

He recalled that in May there was a meeting with 270 tribal chieftains in an attempt to bring together a working government. The spokesperson for the military coalition was an Iraqi who had been an ambassador to Saudi Arabia pre-Saddam.

"One Chieftain first told the ambassador that no matter what happens they will all be grateful for the removal of Saddam. Then he asked if the Americans were here to liberate us or to occupy our country," according to Varhola.

"If you are here to liberate us you are our friends. But, if you are here to occupy our country you will die. I will die, my children will die, but we will kill you. No one will occupy our nation," the chieftain insisted Varhola emphasized.

THE AMBASSADOR tried to explain that it was neither a liberation or occupation but a mandate specified by the United Nations that called for a limited occupation until a new government was established, Varhola said. "Within 10 minutes the meeting disintegrated into a screaming match," he acknowledged.

"Two weeks later five British soldiers were ambushed and killed in that chieftain's area," Varhola said. "That's when we knew we had to develop better intelligence about what the people were thinking and why."

Varhola and his Chief of Intelligence undertook a series of survey excursions throughout Iraq meeting with village, city, and religious leaders. "We visited five mosques per week to evaluate what the leaders were saying. Most were preaching anti-occupation but they were not preaching violence at that time," he said.

"When I went into one Mosque the Cleric was telling the people "Do not attack the Americans," Varhola said. "My immediate thought was 'this is good.' Then the Cleric added, "because we are not organized. If we attack now we will all be killed. Wait until we get organized. Obviously, they are now organized."

But Varhola had a dual problem. "Whenever I would report back on our findings, the regular military wanted to blast right in and arrest the clerics for undermining the coalition. It was always a fight to convince them not to take that action. It would only strengthen their resolve to fight us," he confirmed.

IN SUPPORT OF his assertion that there is no one Iraq, Varhola explained that after World War I "three areas were formed into one. But, the Suni's were the landed aristocracy. Although they were a minority population."

It is this constant clash between the various religious factions, coupled with a true misunderstanding of the democratic process, that tends to thwart American aims to establish a western-style democracy, according to Varhola. In order to make his point he related the following story.

"When we questioned certain chieftains about their desire for democracy, one said that he could deliver to us 1,000 armed warriors on notice as his testament to democracy. Another, promised to deliver as many votes as we needed to install democracy," Varhola said.

Finally, he predicted that "the Iraqi people will never support us because they do not trust us. We have left them before and they feel we will leave them again." Varhola verified that suspicion by declaring, "And, we will leave them again."