A failing strategy for "keeping the violent peace"

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Last evening, admittedly a quiet Saturday when few viewers other than me were watching the prime-time news and every familiar anchor-figure had been replaced by someone from the second team – the lead story on all three networks was nonetheless American casualties in Iraq with much muttering about unfinished wars and guerrilla fighting. Americans are often riveted by the ritual of watching numbers rise, perhaps a spill-over from sports mania and the crush of statistics – you know, how many days X has been held hostage and the like.

Now, there’s now a new set of ever grimmer figures to follow. Yesterday, American dead since the war began just crested over 200. (Those hundreds could become important as 300, 400, 500 are hit.) Then there are figures on how many Americans have died since the war was declared “over” by this administration and all critics (including those in the military) were mocked for not predicting the shortness of the campaign (though many, in fact, had done just that). Those “post-war” dead are now subdivided into those who died in clashes or incidents with Iraqis and those who died by “accident.” In addition, the rate of American deaths has grown. “The number of deaths from hostile fire has more than doubled between May and June” reports the Los Angeles Times. (Note, as a reader of these dispatches pointed out to me, there seems to be no running tally of wounded, though it would undoubtedly be a larger and so more horrifying figure.)

Yesterday, the bodies of two Americans abducted from their Humvee were found. Last Wednesday, the first American was shot to death in the “safe” Shia south of Iraq in the holy city of Najaf. Incidents of sabotage of oil pipelines, power stations and the like are on the rise. Iraqi technicians working with Americans to restore services have been targeted for assassination recently. Last week as well, at least one American member of the Special Forces died and more were wounded in Afghanistan, the forgotten war, where Americans are far better protected than in Iraq, but where attacks are on the rise. What follows then is a round-up of building crises in the increasing number of hot-spots for which our leaders and leading dreamers have blithely taken responsibility.

In a recent long analysis of the global situation at the openDemocracy website (The failures of success), the reliable Paul Rogers has described what is now happening in a nutshell:

“The problem for the neo-conservative strategists, then, is that their belief that vigorous force will be followed by an immediate peace is wrong; tough military action in pursuit of its own security interests is much more likely to end up with the United States being directly involved on the ground, with its involvement extending to long-term counter-insurgency campaigns.

“A key implication of all this is that the real significance of what is happening in Iraq, and indeed Afghanistan, may relate to the very viability of the pre-emptive strategy of US neo-conservatives. The United States has formulated a military strategy designed to ‘keep the violent peace’ by the use of short sharp bursts of vigorous military force; but its likely result is to embroil US forces in dangerous, complicated and costly regional occupations – the very opposite of what was intended.”


Quotes of the day:

“A key implication of all this is that the real significance of what is happening in Iraq, and indeed Afghanistan, may relate to the very viability of the pre-emptive strategy of US neo-conservatives. The United States has formulated a military strategy designed to ‘keep the violent peace’ by the use of short sharp bursts of vigorous military force; but its likely result is to embroil US forces in dangerous, complicated and costly regional occupations – the very opposite of what was intended.”


Quotes of the day:

In Roselle, N.J., Renisse Phillippe, the father of Sergeant Phillippe [one of the murdered soldiers from that Humvee], said today: “People say the war is over. But the war is not over.” (Edmund L. Andrews, Bodies of G.I.’s, Missing 3 Days, Found in Iraq, New York Times,)

Iraq is a dangerous place to alienate the local population, which is one of the most militarised in the world. Most men have had military training, and many of them saw action in the ferocious Iran-Iraq war, and remain armed. Although the US force may look strong on paper, it is over stretched. There are only 12,000 soldiers available to patrol in and around Baghdad, a city of about six million people, and no effective police force.” (Ewen MacAskill, Surge of attacks claims US life in Shia city, The Guardian,)

Neo-con dreams of bringing democracy to the Middle East devolve into.:

You just didn’t know that what democracy really meant was those men on white horses (or were they camels?) According to William Booth and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post (Occupation Forces Halt Elections Throughout Iraq):

“U.S. military commanders have ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in provincial cities and towns across Iraq, choosing instead to install their own handpicked mayors and administrators, many of whom are former Iraqi military leaders.

“‘They give us a general,’ said Bahith Sattar, a biology teacher and tribal leader in Samarra who was a candidate for mayor until that election was canceled last week. ‘What does that tell you, eh? First of all, an Iraqi general? They lost the last three wars! They’re not even good generals. And they know nothing about running a city.’

“L. Paul Bremer, the civil administrator of Iraq, said in an interview that there is ‘no blanket prohibition’ against self-rule. ‘I’m not opposed to it, but I want to do it a way that takes care of our concerns.’

“But for now, [said Sgt. Jeff Butler of the U.S. Army’s 418th Civil Affairs Battalion from Kansas City, Mo., charged with running the city of Samarra, with a team of six civil affairs soldiers none of whom speak Arabic] the Iraqis need to be satisfied with ‘baby steps.'”

Vietnam on the brain:

In “Iraq: Descending into the quagmire,” retired Colonel Dan Smith (at the Foreign Policy in Focus website) considers what counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq may involve long-term. I’ve included his full piece at the end of this dispatch, but he comments in part,

“Having splashed the President’s declaration over their electronic and newspaper front pages and magazine covers, the media are edging ever so gingerly toward serious questioning of what kind of ‘war’ U.S. and UK troops (the ‘Authority’) are fighting in Iraq. ‘Counterinsurgency,’ a 1960s buzzword, has already re-appeared in some reports. The dreaded ‘quagmire’ has also been voiced. The Pentagon denies it is doing ‘body counts’–although the media always seems to know the number of guerrilla dead. Can ‘free fire zones,’ ‘five o’clock follies’ (the daily official U.S. military briefings in Saigon), and ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ be far off?”

In fact, if Vietnam is engraved in any set of brains, first and foremost it’s in military brains – and comments coming out of Iraq already have a distinctly familiar ring to them. As Alissa J. Rubin of the Los Angeles Times writes (U.S. Finds War in Iraq Is Far From Finished):

“Although the term is rarely used at the Pentagon, from every description by military officials, what U.S. troops face on the ground in Iraq has all the markings of a guerrilla war – albeit one in which there are multiple opposition groups rather than a single movement. For troops on the ground, there is a constant, uneasy sense that nothing and no one are what they seem. Civilians have approached checkpoints and lobbed grenades, and canvas-sided Humvees have become a liability.

“‘You’re not sure who your enemy is,’ said Sgt. Gary Qualls, who is stationed at the U.S. military’s base in Ramadi, a town in the heart of the Sunni Muslim area north and west of Baghdad that is long loyal to Hussein. ‘You don’t know who to trust.'”

A headline from the lead Los Angeles Times editorial today tells it all: U.S. Credibility Under Fire. Nothing more obsessed American policy-makers in the Vietnam era than the thought that a defeat in Vietnam would lose that elusive currency, “U.S. credibility.” Incredible but true – credibility has returned and once again seems to be on the line. The editorial goes on to say in part:

“Commanders in chief can’t always offer unequivocal candor about military affairs. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt quietly shipped destroyers to England; that act, history has decided, proved to be a blessing. But disaster followed when Lyndon Johnson exploited the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate the U.S. role in Vietnam.

“Now President Bush and his administration march perilously close to crossing the line in giving Americans – and the world – questionable information on the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

“The U.S. assault on a six-vehicle convoy earlier this month illustrates the problem. U.S. officials relied on what they first said was sound intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein and his sons were part of the convoy. Now they concede there’s no evidence they were. Instead, the world learned that U.S. troops wiped out a tiny village of Bedouins. U.S. military vehicles then sealed the area to prevent journalists from entering.”

Matt Bivens, who writes the Daily Outrage weblog for the Nation, suggests that for Iraqis an entirely different analogy might come to mind: resistance to the Russians in Chechnya. Considering a description of how American soldiers in Vietnam psyched themselves up for a “search” (if not yet “destroy”) mission using Wagner music from Apocalypse Now, he writes:

“That story goes like this: A superpower of Christian
invaders arrives to bomb and kill and occupy, but a
plucky underdog band of Muslims stands up for its
land, honor and women, and against all odds throws
back the invaders. The Muslim world is well acquainted with this
particular take on Chechnya thanks to, yes,
movies–videos, perhaps some even set to Wagner–of
footage from the war zone against the Russians. The
videos are circulated ‘from London to the Gulf,’ for
recruitment purposes. …”

Afghanistan, redux:

Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times in a pungently entitled piece, Hell Starts Now, suggests similar patterns developing in our two most recent triumphant “wars”:

“Iraq is a perfect replay of Afghanistan. In both cases there was no mass capitulation, but a sort of strategic retreat. The Taliban did not surrender: they retreated from Kandahar with most of their weapons intact. Saddam’s Ba’athist regime also did not surrender: it retreated from Baghdad with many of its best weapons intact.

“it is instructive to listen to Mohammed Hasan, an Afro-Arab specialist on the Middle East ‘there are two governments in Iraq. One of them controls the country by day, by the occupation and the military and psychological terror it seeks to impose. But it does not know what is really happening.

[Hassan also comments on a “crucial class division”] “for officers in the air-conditioned comfort of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, everything may be under control. But for the young and poor sons of the working class hailing from Kansas, Texas or North Carolina, frying their brains under 45 degrees in the shade this is hell: ‘In South Vietnam, the Americans had a supporter army of 1 million Vietnamese, a network of Vietnamese agents and policemen and a certain social base, limited but existant. In Iraq, there is no such base.'”

And here, also in the Asia Times, is Syed Saleem Shahzad’s assessment of the American military in Afghanistan (US shooting in the dark in Afghanistan):

“Despite the best efforts of its military and intelligence apparatus and political manipulation in Pakistan, in the year and a half since the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have failed to break the Taliban and al-Qaeda in that country. Indeed, the resistance movement in Afghanistan has fully re-organized itself, even setting up offices, and official claims to the contrary, US forces are fighting in the dark. The hard truth is that US intelligence simply does not really know what is going on in the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps. This is evidenced by the countless raids that have been launched in recent times, none of which have resulted in the capture of anyone in Afghanistan.”

Disorienting news from another front:

Oh yes, and then there’s North Korea: Among the more interesting items from the quietly simmering Koreas is an interview in the Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun in which Kenneth Quinones, Korea expert and former negotiator for the Clinton administration, suggests that the North Koreans could test a nuclear weapon by December and that the Bush administration concurs in this assessment. (North Korea could test nuke be Dec. — you have to scroll down to find the piece.) According to Quinones,

“The more I talked to my friends, the more I realized that it is possible for North Korea to have a nuclear weapon by December. It is possible they’ll have a test by December. There is nothing to stop North Korea from doing this It takes about six months to reprocess, and then about six months to make the bomb.”

So expect an end of the year Korean crisis, though it’s important to note that Quinones indicates the North Koreans are considered completely incapable of delivering a nuclear weapon anywhere by missile:

“I asked a specialist about that exact question: What is necessary to make a small nuclear warhead [small enough, that is, to put on a warhead]? And the answer I received was, it requires very sophisticated technology. It took the United States a very long time. So if they’re going to attack Japan, for instance, they’re going to send a cargo ship with weapons.”

Uncle Sam Wants You:

Desperately overstretched militarily, increasingly “bogged down” (on this image more later in the week) in Iraq, our imperial dreamers are beating the bushes (no pun intended) of the globe for “native” troops to do their military policing for them. Administration planners are leaning heavily on both Pakistan and India for troops, holding out the normal inducements combined with the normal set of threats. Below Eric Margolis of the Toronto Sun comments on the Pakistani predicament – demonstrations have already, by the way, broken out in that country against the idea. In the meantime, in the Hindu, P. Sainath has just written a powerful attack on such an Indian role from which a few excerpts follow (Chowkidar to the Empire):

“We’d be magnets for popular anger in one of the world’s most volatile spots What happens if Indian troops are stuck in Iraq when the U.S. moves for “regime change” in Iran? The possible consequences are mind-blowing. Think of the gains to be made from carrying ‘the White Man’s Burden.’ Might give us crumbs from the White Man’s Contracts

“Meanwhile the U.S. has bullied the Security Council (June 12) into giving its troops a year’s exemption from the new International War Crimes Tribunal. Only the American ‘peace keeping forces’ have got that. So much better to have Indians face that music. As they will, when hell breaks loose. Note that Indian troops are not even being spoken of as peacekeepers. They will be a ‘stabilisation force.’.

“No wonder the Americans are seeking our help. They are body shopping in a literal sense. This is one outsourcing of jobs their unions won’t protest. The job of dying for U.S. imperialism.”

When the U.S. says jump, it wants Pakistan to jump
Eric Margolis, Contributing Foreign Editor
The Toronto Sun
June 29, 2003

Pakistan’s military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, was granted the honour last week of an audience at Camp David with the Great White Father. U.S. President George Bush, who three years ago couldn’t even name Pakistan’s leader, hailed Musharraf as a “statesman” and “friend of freedom.”

Gen. Musharraf was offered a conditional $3 billion US aid package, provided: a) Congress, which hates Pakistan, approves; b) Musharraf continues to arrest Islamic militants and support the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan; c) makes no trouble with India over Kashmir; d) doesn’t supply nuclear technology to North Korea.

On the last item, the same Washington “experts” who assured us Iraq was bristling with deadly weapons that could annihilate the U.S. and U.K. “in 45 minutes” now claim Pakistan aided North Korea. Pakistan denies this questionable allegation.

To read more Margolis click here

Iraq: Descending into the Quagmire
By Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.)
Foreign Policy in Focus
June 2003

Between May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat in Iraq was over, and June 26, 57 U.S. and eight UK military personnel have died in Iraq. That is more than one death every day. To the U.S. and UK toll must be added the sometimes tens or scores of Iraqis, both Saddamists–military, intelligence, fedayeen, non-Iraqi volunteers–and innocent civilians.

Dan Smith <[email protected]> is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at, a retired U.S. army colonel and a senior fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

To read more Smith click here