We Have to Find a Way to Offer Hope to Iraq’s Youth
Touring a print shop downtown last summer, I tried to draw out one of the workers, a shy boy of 17 or so, about his daily life. Head down and hands behind his back, he spoke of the searing emptiness facing Iraqi youth; there are no discos, few cafes and little opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. His parents had banned visits to the local mosque after work, for fear he might be recruited by insurgents. So he returned every evening to an overcrowded home shared by many relatives and retreated upstairs to sit on the edge of his bed. “I . . . stare at the wall for a few hours,” he said. And it struck me that Iraq’s youth are experiencing a living death, one in which ending the pain of everyday life might be an attractive option.
The West must do a better job of bringing opportunity and dignity to these Muslim youths. If we can’t, the terrorists will continue to prey upon such vulnerable young people, convincing them that the path to glory and dignity lies along the road of suicide bombings and explosive devices. It seems obvious that the success of the terrorist movement rests on the vulnerability of youth worldwide. In military parlance, halting this trend would be considered the deep fight.
Take a walk along the dusty roads at the Baghdad Correctional Facility (Abu Ghraib), which is now mostly outdoors, and you’ll see many ghostlike faces — local teenagers who took $50 or $100 to plant an IED, shoot a mortar or fire a machine gun at coalition troops. No one told them that if they didn’t die, they would end up penned in with 20 other lost souls in a tent surrounded by barbed wire. For the foreigners in their midst, inglorious imprisonment in a faraway land was surely not what the young jihadists had signed up for. Angered as I might have been by their attacks on my countrymen, I still wondered, How do we rehabilitate some of these wayward souls? Or are they simply lost causes? And, more important, how do we persuade them not to join the insurgency in the first place?
One enemy video I obtained last summer shows a teenage boy awakened in the middle of the night and brought to a field to say his last goodbyes to his comrades before carrying out his suicide bombing mission. Toting their weapons, they circle around him. The bomber looks tired and somewhat reluctant, but forces a smile. The terrorist leaders have staged the ultimate act for him. He could not back down, even if he wanted to. It is tantamount to forced suicide.
Another enemy video shows an attack from the triggerman’s vantage point as he patiently waits for the right moment to detonate a bomb inside an old car a hundred yards down a busy Baghdad street. After U.S. soldiers pass by, a young boy and a girl walk between them and the car. Yet the bomber does not hesitate to detonate, and in the last frame, a fireball roars up the street toward the boy and girl. In Iraq, the young insurgents-for-hire are increasingly killing other Iraqi youths.
If the terrorists place no value on life, then we must give Iraq’s youth something to live for. We know that terrorists recruit Muslim youths when they make pilgrimages to holy sites. We know they often convince these young people that joining the insurgency is a way to redeem past sins or a family’s lost dignity. Yet we are failing to give Iraq’s young people much to feel dignified about. Western companies are making massive profits providing services to the coalition; why aren’t we building an entrepreneurial class from within the ranks of Iraq’s young? As it is, these kids walk their own land with sticks, picking up garbage in Baghdad’s once attractive parks.
The West must help bring opportunity and hope to the young people of the Muslim world. President Bush’s longtime aide Karen Hughes is coming on board to improve America’s image in the Muslim world. I propose that Hughes make promoting life and opportunity for Muslim youth one of her top initiatives. She should start by focusing on entrepreneurial opportunities, recreational activities and the opening of doors for young women. Recall the long lines of Iraqi women in black chadors waiting to vote in January’s elections? This scene surprised many Americans, but not me. Mothers are revered in Iraq — they bring life. While we dawdled, failing to take advantage of the momentum created by the success of the first Iraqi national elections, Iraqi mothers were acting. They began to openly challenge the terrorists and local insurgents for taking their children and tearing their families and communities apart. In this high-stakes battle we need all Iraqi mothers on our side — Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.
We should recruit Islamic social, political and religious leaders to join us in this initiative. We must not be condescending in our approach. We must be open and show our Muslim partners that even a powerful nation such as ours has social problems with its youth.
Muslim youths must be allowed to imagine the power of building a life rather than just existing. With Muslim leaders as partners we can shatter the culture of despair and nothingness that breeds thinking about death among the young. Promoting a culture of life and opportunity is the real battle we cannot afford to lose.
The writer, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, is a senior research analyst at Rand Corp. working in Iraq and the Middle East.
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on August 5, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.