CAMP AL-SAQR, Baghdad - I saw my first sign of it through a Humvee window. Out on a patrol through the beautiful farmlands south of Baghdad, I noticed children walking home from school, doing what children do all over the world: playing, talking and running around like banshees.
These kids can go down one of two roads: a stable future with a job and family, or the road of "jihad" and misery. It's really their choice in the end, but we have to show them the better of the two.
Unfortunately some of them will go down the "jihad" road, and we'll probably end up killing them when they're adults. I hate to say that. None of my friends in the tank companies and cavalry troops here likes killing anyone. We are in a war, even if it's a highly questionable one, and people are trying to kill us.
Of those we do convince to take the stable route, we need their help stabilizing their country. The insurgents, terrorists or whatever you call them are like a gang. We'll need those kids to help us get them.
Though I see a growing danger of civil war here, the greater danger is a failed state of Iraq. What I see are results similar to what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviets' withdrawal and civil war: a raging conservative and traditional Islamic theocracy, and a hotbed for terrorism.
Foreigners will take advantage of the situation and move in. They'll set up camps and train other terrorists. Those camps, breeding grounds, will send those men, and possibly women, out to destabilize other fragile governments in the region like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They might even chance another attack on us.
A friend of mine recently told me he doesn't believe a massive civil war will happen. He thinks the country will break up into three distinct areas - the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in the middle and the Kurds in the north. There might be some fighting at first, but because most areas are ethnically separate, the process will be stable.
I agree to a point. But I believe that fighting will be long-term and disastrous.
My friend also said other countries will take advantage of the vacuum. Iran will make a play for the Shia part. Saudi Arabia won't like that one bit and will make a play, too. Turkey, eternally fearful of an independent Kurdistan, will roll across the borders. So a regional war will happen. It won't be pretty.
What does that mean to us? Plenty.
It means the loss of every bit of credibility we have left. No one will want to work with us if a more legitimate problem arises in the future.
Invading this place may have been a big, big mistake - but leaving prematurely will only invite a disaster.
I'm not turning into one of the people who says, "We can fight them here or at home." Their argument is a valid one, though. We are killing terrorists here. But I'm not so sure we'll fight them back home if we don't here.
What I am turning into is someone who hated the war yet realizes the consequences of a hasty withdrawal.
How this future can be stopped before it really takes root is fairly simple. Other nations in the region and Europe have to realize that the consequences of Iraq as a failed state are bad for the world, not just for the United States.
Then they should pony up the resources to help. Syria needs to stop paying lip service to their own pledges to seal their border with Iraq; most of the foreigners entering this place come from there. Saudi Arabia can stop the imams inciting young men to enter Iraq. More importantly, countries in Europe can help us train more Iraqis to stabilize this place.
If those things happen - and it's looking likely - maybe some of those young people I saw will be in those training sessions. Just maybe this place can be stabilized. Let's hope my thoughts of a failed state once called Iraq won't turn real, and those kids of today can have kids of their own.
Bill Putnam is a former Pacific Publishing Co. employee. A member of the National Guard, he was called into active duty and sent into Iraq a year ago. He can be reached c/o email@example.com.