“The Great Escape” – Hardball 24 August, 2005

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"Matthews" Our hottest story tonight, the great escape. Using tool made from materials their own American guards allowed them, hundreds of Iraqi prisoners at Camp Bucca in Iraq almost pulled off a great escape, movie- style, by tunneling out of the prison. How did they pull it off? Tunnelling the length of a football field — you`re looking at it now — under the noses of their American guards. What does this tell us about the resolve, discipline and cohesiveness of these guys we are up against.

Patrick Lang is a former defense intelligence official who specialized in the Middle East and worked in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Mr. Lang, I don`t know. We`re finally getting some answers tonight. The people we`re fighting in Iraq are overwhelmingly Iraqis. They`re the bad guys. They`re the members of the old regime, the hated murderous old regime of Saddam Hussein. But, as bad guys, they put together what looked like "The Shawshank Redemption" here.

Or maybe should I call it "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen. How did they get the length of a football feel, 15 feet in the ground, with ventilating system, lighting systems, a sophisticated prison escape system and route?

PATRICK LANG, Former Chief of ME Intelligence, DIA: I think most of these guys who were involved in this are not at all from the jihadi side of things. These are guys who were once members of the Iraqi army, former Baath Party people, government people.

And when I used to travel to Iraq a lot during the Iran-Iraq war for the US Government, I was impressed that they had a lot of internal discipline and some of the officers showed initiative and knew a lot about engineering and things like this. So, I`m not actually all that surprised about this.

It is interesting that in a camp like this, they could still organize themselves into committees and plan the thing. And that there was sufficient discipline that they got all this done, almost to the end, before someone ratted on them. Somebody is always going to rat on you if it goes long enough.

But it`s quite amazing. And it tells you a lot about the fact that a lot of people we are facing are in fact remnants of what was once a pretty disciplined army. The fact that we beat them so easily doesn`t really mean much in the context of the Third World. But this really shows you the fact that they are — they do have a lot of resolve to do whatever they`re going to do.

MATTHEWS: Well, the scary and the bad part is, we`re looking at what looks to be the innovation — now, obviously, they didn`t get away with it — but the enterprise in a negative sense of people who can work together in a cohesive unit and the kinds of things we see in them building this tunnel. We could also imagine them in the dark of night putting bombs together.

LANG: Oh, yes.

You know, if you look at what happened today in western Baghdad, there was an operation in which a group of about 40 of these guys in black uniforms wearing masks used a couple of car bombs to block off a street so that they could attack some police posts with machine guns, RPGs and rifles. And they slugged it out for an hour or so.

As Clausewitz, the German philosopher, said, war is the best teacher of war. And we`ve got these guys who already knew, some, quite a bit, in a hard school now. And we`re teaching them by beating the devil out of them all the time. And they`re steadily improving.

I mean, the jihadis don`t improve. They`re just going to come in and try to blow themselves up to go to heaven. But these guys, I think, who are 85, 90 percent of the insurgents, are learning steadily and will probably continue to get better at this.

MATTHEWS: You know, one of the confounding things, sitting here at this desk back in Washington and trying to get the information from the people in the field, I trust Richard Engel. He`s a young gutsy guy from NBC. I asked him again today. We are going to have a report from him tomorrow night on another subject.

But Engel tells me that the guys our troops are fighting over there, our men and women are standing up to, with the IEDs and everything else over there blowing us apart, when they can get with it sneakily, are all jihadists — not jihadists. They`re all Baathists. These are guys who worked for Saddam Hussein and want the country back to do with what they want to do with it.

Why does the president keep issuing statements saying they`re terrorists; they`re the guys that came after us on 9/11; they`re from outside; we have got to stop them there or stop them here? Nobody has ever accused Iraqis of coming to America and attacking us. Why doesn`t the president say, we`re going after Iraqi insurgents and fighting them? Why doesn`t he — why does he keep saying we`re fighting terrorists along the lines of the ones we had attack us 9/11?

LANG: Well, it has become a position of the administration to say over and over again that the insurgents don`t have any popular support. Now, you hear that over and over again.

I heard somebody the other day, just yesterday, say that, in fact, these people represent a minuscule portion of the Iraqi people. But, if you listened to Zal Khalilzad yesterday on television, he said the purpose of bringing the Sunnis into the constitution process is to split the Sunni population off from the guerrillas.

Now, you can`t have it both ways. It`s one or the other. And I think it is clear that the Sunni guerrilla, the Baathists, nationalists, whatever you want to call them, have a good deal of popular support, or they couldn`t exist. They have to have supplies and shelter and communications, intelligence, all that stuff.

So you`re right. There`s a great inconsistency with this. And we ought to get straight about this and admit what the truth is.

MATTHEWS: What did you think when you picked up the paper today, Pat, and you saw that tunnel in "The Washington Post" that the bad guys built over there, these insurgents who are in our prison detention camp, having the wherewithal, the materials, apparently, cinder blocks, milk — they used the milk they were given, quite generously, you would have to say, by our people, our guards, to harden up the walls.

They used cinder blocks, obviously, also to sustain the walls. They got flashlights strung all the way through that football field length of tunnel. These guys are right out of "Great Escape` with Steve McQueen and the rest of them.

LANG: Yes, I didn`t want to offend any Steve McQueen fans, but that was what I immediately thought of, because the only way you could do something like this, is to have a quasi-military organization created by the prisoners that assigns creates a digging committee and a concealment committee and a this committee and a that committee.

And for all that to work inside the jail, where they could go to the American guards at any time and inform on the whole thing, indicates  a military sort of organization with a great deal of internal discipline. And, you know, the only way they ever really found this thing initially was that a satellite photograph showed the color of the dirt in the compound was a different color from that outside, because the disposal committee was littering the grounds with this stuff.

So, I think this is an impressive thing, actually.  What it says to me is that this is going to continue to be a tough fight. It is not going to be just a matter of the constitution going down easily. These guys are going to hang in there. They`re going to fight for a long time.

MATTHEWS: You know, Ken Adelman, the arms expert and Shakespeare expert, I must say — he is a friend of mine — made it very clear that the initial fight in taking over that country from the Saddam regime and chasing him out of town into a spider hole were basically — was basically a cake walk.

And I think a lot of people don`t like that term because people got killed, but it was fairly quick and effective. Why were they so bad in defending their country against the onslaught by us and the other coalition forces and yet are showing such resilience in this guerrilla war that is being fought against — or a civil war, if you will, that is emerging over there?

LANG: When I used to talk to their officers a long time ago, they used to say that the one thing they knew was that they could never fight the United States, that there was no possibility they could ever win against us, and that to try and do so was futile.

So, I really think that they didn`t really very seriously try to fight our main armored forces until they got into the area of Baghdad. And in the big brigade sized Thunder Runs down — going downtown by the 3rd Armored Division, all of our hundreds of armored vehicles, every single one of them, had hits on them from anti-tank weapons.

But I think the main idea in this war from the Iraqi planning point of view was from the beginning a kind of stay-behind operation.  In other words, that they were going to launch a guerrilla resistance once the country was occupied. So, I think there`s some method to all this. I think we were a little bit deceived by the ease of our achievement at the beginning.

MATTHEWS: Why do you think they stood up to us and refused to participate in all the demands made by President Bush and the other allies if they couldn`t beat us and they were that smart?

LANG: I`m not sure they…

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: And they may still be smart, but they weren`t smart enough not to avoid this war.

LANG: Yes. Yes. I know that.

But I`m not so sure that they saw it exactly that way, because, if you look at the records of what the international inspectors were doing on the ground in there, they encountered some delays and things of that kind. But, in general, if they asked to go someplace, they ended up going there.

As we know, in fact, the Iraqis didn`t have anything to hide in the way of WMD things, because we looked all over the country for it and we couldn`t find it. You know, it is really difficult to prove a negative, isn`t it?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

LANG: If you`re going to try to prove you don`t have a nuclear weapons program and you don`t have one, it is pretty hard to prove that.

MATTHEWS: Do you think we`re winning this war against the insurgency?

LANG: I think that, if we want to wear these people down, the Iraqi nationalist Baathist insurgents, that we`re looking in fact at a campaign that will last six or seven more years, because it will require a process of grinding them down while the government is developed.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

LANG: The jihadis are different, you`ll never beat them — you`ll never beat them in Iraq.  They are an international movement and will have to be defeated on a world wide basis.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Patrick Lang."

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17 Responses to “The Great Escape” – Hardball 24 August, 2005

  1. b says:

    Nice one, thanks. Too bad Matthews didn´t follow up on the “prove negative”.
    The media still avoids to go the “lied us into war” discussion. That discussion would be wrong, because the lies were obvious lies for anybody who tried to stay informed.
    Anyhow, that is the discussion and meme that will be the official US history. Because the politicians and the media need that to save face.
    Maybe Fitzgerald will push a bit.

  2. Some Guy says:

    A question: which would be worse, for a civil war to start after our withdrawal or for us to stay in Iraq as it descends in to civil war? The current sectarian violence and open, uniformed militia assaults sure indicate a civil war brewing while we are there. Conventional wisdom has been that only after pulling out would that probably happen. What if it becomes inevitable either way? What is the best course of action (and by best I mean least worst)?

  3. ismoot says:

    Guy,
    Worse for whom?
    Civil War is defined by Wikepedia as:
    “A civil war is a war in which the competing parties are segments of the same country or empire. Civil war is usually a high intensity stage in an unresolved political struggle for national control of state power. As in any war, the conflict may be over other matters such as religion, ethnicity, or distribution of wealth. Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict.”
    In what sense are we not there now? pl

  4. Some Guy says:

    Well, that kind of was my feeling. What is happening over there has seemed like a civil war to me for months and months. Some folks are a little more particular about how they define such things.
    As for the worse for whom, I was thinking for the military when I wrote it. Again, it is a leading question, I would assume that in a civil war our soldiers should get out of it. And since I personally feel this is already a civil war, you can guess my opinion about withdrawal.
    But since some folks still consider this not-quite-a-civil-war, I was wondering.

  5. ismoot says:

    Guy,
    I guess some people want to see Lee and Grant at Gettysburg before they use the word.
    Sorry, but I think that is dumb. A civil war waged with guerrillas and terrorism is just as much a civil war.
    If we do not get out in the context of general combat between the government and the Sunni Arabs we will be trapped by our own nonsense into fighting for the installation of a clerical Shia government in Iraq. pl

  6. searp says:

    The thing that strikes me is that we don’t have a pony in the civil war, except for the Kurds, maybe. If there is a civil war, and we don’t have pony, then what do we hope to accomplish?
    Staying the course doesn’t mean much when you really have little impact on events. If the insurgency is simply one faction in a tripartite war, then haven’t we, by default, picked the faction that we don’t like as opposed to making a positive statement about what we want in Iraq?

  7. Some Guy says:

    Colonel,
    No need to “sorry” me about the dumbness of a war between the states notion of civil war. As I mentioned, this has looked like a civil war to me for a while.
    But your refreshingly rational answer (not that it is refreshing from you but in the context of general public discussion of withdrawal) has made me think, would there ever be a condition in Iraq that would meet such a stringent standard of civil war? It would seem to require two of the three major factions to declare autonomous sovereignty and organize a loosely centralized military. I can see Kurds meeting condition a, but condition b? And the Shi’a or Sunni? Like I’ve said, I am no military man, so all this is amateur speculation, but I find it hard to see two formal entities with associated militaries taking to the field with flags unfurled.
    In any case, the ‘architechts’ of this mess have a vested political interest in not calling it a civil war because that will smoosh the flagging support that still exists. And given that we could easily drag on for years with a sizable, effective insurgency that is not represented by any official governmental body . . . dangling the threat of Iraq “becoming” a civil war functions to keep straggling supporters in line.
    But as you imply, a distinction with out a difference in a mess of our own making.

  8. ismoot says:

    Guy,
    You are right. The insistance on a grandiose definition of civil war serves to insulate the administration from having to face up to its present reality.
    Sadly, this method of thought control seems to work. pl

  9. wtofd says:

    Read Juan Cole today if you still aren’t convinced there is a civil war in Iraq. Walks like, talks like… it is a duck.

  10. Some Guy says:

    Nero played his fiddles; Bush rides his bike.

  11. Some Guy says:

    fiddle, I meant fiddle . . . drat

  12. Matt says:

    Great seeing you on Hardball. And would a crazy story!

  13. Jerome Gaskins says:

    Sir,
    Why is it not better for Iraq to dissolve into what it was before “Iraq”? Why not let the 3 parties separate?

  14. Pat Lang says:

    Jerome
    I think most people who are familiar with the geopolitics of the region fear that the break up will result in wars that will be savage and prolonged.
    Pat

  15. Jerome Gaskins says:

    Isn’t a direct war that ends with a definitive conclusion better than a set of weak, protracted arguments that flair into “civil unrest” or insurrections over decades and maybe centuries?
    Even if it is prolonged, it would be better to get all of the need for revenge and other violence out of the resultant society, right?

  16. Pat Lang says:

    Jerome,
    You sound like you think it is a matter of choice. pl

  17. wtofd says:

    Jerome, you also sound like you think there could be some final, cathartic war with a clear winner and no regression into more violence.

Comments are closed.