The Perils, and Fears, of an Engagement Policy

Gen. David Petraeus is taking over command of the coalition forces in Iraq this weekend. Commentator Ken Harbaugh, who is a former Navy pilot, says if he was a soldier on the ground right now with orders to "engage with the locals," he would be terrified.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The new American commander in Iraq is set to arrive in Baghdad in a matter of hours.

Commentator and former navy pilot Ken Harbaugh says the new man in charge is entering a situation that's going to put U.S. troops in even greater danger than they face now.

KEN HARBAUGH: Tomorrow, General David Petraeus will assume 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. In his previous posting as commander of the Combined Armed 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. This works on paper. 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 Iraqis 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.

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 Humvee 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. In the short term, more Americans will end up dead. Those convoys speeding through neighborhoods aren't joy riding. They're trying not to get blown up. This is an ugly war. Nothing about it is certain, except that the 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, Iraqis who 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 is a handshake or a hand grenade.

That is a horrific thing to ask of any soldier or Marine.

SIEGEL: Ken Harbaugh is a former navy pilot who currently attends Yale Law School.

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