U.S. Military Hunts for Soldiers and Abductors
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces are scouring a volatile area south of Baghdad searching for the three U.S. soldiers who were kidnapped over the weekend there. Today, the group Islamic State of Iraq issued a warning to the U.S. It said, what you are doing in searching for your soldiers will lead to nothing but exhaustion and headaches. If you want their safety, do not look for them.
I asked retired Army General Robert Scales about the tactics and the justification for conducting such a wide scale search for three men.
General ROBERT SCALES (U.S. Army; Retired): There's a creed going back to the days of Vietnam that says: soldiers never leave their buddies behind. It's part of our ethos. It's what soldiers do. But the nightmare is to have a soldier captured and hold off by the enemy. And this, of course, excites emotions in Army units to an exceptional degree.
And so the fact that troops in the area have literally stood down and moved out to scour the area looking of these soldiers is the type of thing that soldiers do.
SEABROOK: And when there is, it's put the war on halt.
Gen. SCALES: You could say that this operation puts the war on hold. It certainly puts conventional operations on hold. What the U.S. Command there has done is establish essentially a cordon operation, where they block off all of the roads that go into the areas where these soldiers were seized, and then they go house to house, quite literally, in a cordon operation to eventually push in the perimeter until they get to the point where the soldiers can be found.
SEABROOK: We don't know yet if there's been any kind of success, or what the measure of that might be at this point. We do have a statement from Major General William Caldwell who said that the soldiers are using every asset and resource available to the United States and Iraqi allies in these efforts. At what point do they stop searching for the soldiers?
Gen. SCALES: It's important to understand how difficult this is. The triangle of death is a Sunni insurgent area located about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Virtually every citizen there is under the sway of al-Qaida in Iraq. In addition to that, this is an area that's made up of farmlands, palm tree farms. It's swampy and it's covered with caves and bushes and trees. And it's a very, very difficult place to search through.
Iraqi smugglers have using this area for years to smuggle goods in and out of Baghdad. So this is an extremely difficult place to find anybody, much less American soldiers.
SEABROOK: So at what point to they stop? At what point does the mission searching for these soldiers endanger as many troops as they're looking for, or more?
Gen. SCALES: In time, of course, if the soldiers aren't found within the next few days, the effort to isolate this area and find the American soldiers will begin to taper off, but I can't imagine it will ever end. I'm quite sure that the division commander - the 10th Mountain Division is going to dedicate resources to finding these soldiers for as long as it takes.
SEABROOK: General Scales, the U.S. mission in Iraq is already pretty unpopular among Iraqis. There's a push like where soldiers are going door-to-door, forcibly searching people's homes. Do these have consequences for the hearts and minds of war over there?
Gen. SCALES: This situation puts a huge burden on the U.S. command. They are left with two unacceptable alternatives. One is to go in hard, if you will, into this area, kicking in doors and going door-to-door in an attempt to put pressure on the local population to give up the Americans. That, of course, will have the opposite of the intended consequences of winning hearts and minds.
But if they go in too soft, so to speak, if they go in with a balanced hand and in the minds of the insurgents will convince the local population that the Americans are losing their grip on the area.
SEABROOK: Are weak.
Gen. SCALES: So, we'll appear weak. And of course, that, again, plays to the hands of the enemy. So the obvious approach will be to conduct this search with balance.
SEABROOK: One thing that seems so different looking at this from other situations where there have been prisoners in other wars is that in this war, there aren't any POWs. There aren't - there don't seem to be prisoners of war on either side. The American side has enemy combatants, the other side is sort of terrorists, so they end up dead somewhere.
Gen. SCALES: It's cynical to say but the days of conventional warfare are over. Three captured Americans simply become tools of the enemy - a means to achieve a psychological rather than a physical end. It's obvious that al-Qaida and Mesopotamia's concerned that they may be losing the psychological high ground, the information war as the surge begins to take effect.
And so this is a cold, diabolical calculated effort to regain, if you will, the psychological high ground.
SEABROOK: Thank you very much for talking to us today.
Gen. SCALES: And thank you very much for having me.
SEABROOK: Retired U.S. Army General Robert Scales.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.