How (Not) to Withdraw from Iraq

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[Seasonal Note: In a town where the menu of any new corner diner immediately touts “our traditional” corned beef or roast beef sandwich, three years of tradition is no small thing. This year, then, will be the third in which Nick Turse offers Tomdispatch readers a holiday opportunity to feast on gift ideas from the military-corporate complex. (Last year, hot gifts ranged from the “talking Bush in Baghdad doll” and standard-issue women’s “assault shoes” to an assortment of missiles.) But while awaiting that priceless, mid-month dispatch, I thought I might suggest a few holiday gift possibilities that really were options for anyone in a bookish and generous mood.

For those of you who would like to offer a little extra support for Tom (of Tomdispatch), you might consider picking up for friends copies of my novel, The Last Days of Publishing, just out in paperback (check the review!), or my history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, The End of Victory Culture, which — given our President — never seems out of date.

The stocking-stuffer of the season is an inexpensive little paperback by the readers of the Nation magazine and its editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (with a small contribution from Tomdispatch). The Dictionary of Republicanisms is guaranteed to give outsized pleasure. If you want to crack up your friends throughout the holiday season and spur everyone, a couple of eggnogs later, to create their own Republican “definitions,” then hand this out left and right. (Here’s one of mine from the book: “Homeland Security Department: The new Defense Department known for declaring bridges yellow and the Statue of Liberty orange.”) It’s the perfect small gift for the holidays!

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a big book to sink your readerly teeth into, don’t miss Adam Hochschild’s monumental and riveting history of the British anti-slavery movement, Bury the Chains. The anti-slavery movement, which pioneered everything from direct mail campaigns to iconic posters, actually succeeded after decades of effort and vast slave uprisings in the Caribbean. His is the rare book that offers hope — as any holiday season should — by showing us how something (in this case, slavery) considered part of “human nature,” could actually be altered.

The deepest newspaper truths are not always found, by the way, in the news section of your daily rag. Last Tuesday, for instance, the detail that caught my attention in the New York Times appeared in the crossword puzzle. To the clue, “war correspondent in modern lingo,” the 5-letter answer I pause for a moment to give you a chance to guess was “embed.” Doesn’t that tell you just where the Bush era has left us in media terms? So much more reason then, to cherish a photo book aptly titled Unembedded and just out from Chelsea Green, an adventurous small press in Vermont. It offers the striking (and deeply saddening) photos of four independent photojournalists — two Americans, a Canadian, and the Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (who also does remarkable pieces for the British Guardian from time to time). The four of them managed to make their way, on their own, into embattled, partially destroyed Najaf in August 2004, among other places. In this book, Iraqi casualties and sorrows are front and center. It’s certainly not upbeat, but it is a powerful reminder of the world the Bush administration has created in Iraq and a project to support. Tom]

How (Not) to Withdraw from Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt

On the September 27th Charlie Rose Show, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick, Rose brought up the question of what the United States should do in Iraq. Should we “get out” — or, as Remnick so delicately put it, should we “bolt”? Here was how Remnick ended their discussion, while talking about those who had written on Iraq for his magazine:

On the September 27th Charlie Rose Show, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick, Rose brought up the question of what the United States should do in Iraq. Should we “get out” — or, as Remnick so delicately put it, should we “bolt”? Here was how Remnick ended their discussion, while talking about those who had written on Iraq for his magazine:

“There’s Jon Lee Anderson and George Packer and Sy Hersh and Rick [Hertzberg], they all look at it from different angles. But I think all of those people would agree — I don’t know about Sy — would agree that an immediate American withdrawal just, you know, just pick up your skirts and run, would not lead to a happy situation in the short term or the long.”

Pick up your skirts and run. Forget the Republicans, that more or less sums up the state of mainstream liberal opinion on Iraq just two months ago. Only that recently “withdrawal” was still synonymous with cowardice, or, in a classic phrase of the Vietnam era (that like so many others has taken an extra bow in our own moment), “cutting and running.” Withdrawal from Iraq was a subject for the margins and the political Internet (as well as secret Pentagon planning); certainly not something to be bandied about in Congress or taken seriously by the mainstream media. What a difference a few weeks can make — a few weeks and one hawkish congressman with heart (channeling the views of a panicky military facing an increasingly unwinnable war). When Congressman John Murtha stood up — and there wasn’t a “skirt” in sight (not, at least, until Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt accused him, briefly, of cowardice on the floor of the House of Representatives) — and suggested a withdrawal of American ground troops from Iraq on a six-month timetable, you could hear the administration’s angry heart thumping.

Then, Chicken Little, the sky began to fall and withdrawal proposals, withdrawal trial balloons, withdrawal op-eds, withdrawal hints, clues, and suggestions of every sort suddenly rained down on us like those cats and dogs of children’s books. It turns out that there was hardly a major mainstream figure anywhere who didn’t have some kind of “withdrawal” proposal in his or her hip pocket; or put another way, when Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden come out with positions that fit, however faintly, under the ever-widening label of “withdrawal” and only good ol’ Joe Lieberman is left twisting, twisting in the Presidential hot air of “progress” and “victory,” something is certainly afoot.

It gives one heart, really, to think about the strange processes that sometimes suddenly unclog the arteries of American discussion and debate, turning the previously impermissible into a topic quite suitable for the mainstream to take possession of. Give us another two months and who knows, maybe Judge Alito will actually go down to a filibuster; give us a year and maybe impeachment, just now creeping out from the margins, will find itself a topic in Congress and on the editorial pages of our papers. Like Charlie Rose, everybody knows what the proper limits of conversation are until, of course, they unpredictably change.

Watch the Words

That said, this new withdrawal season of ours will undoubtedly prove a difficult one to sort out. With the President’s speech at Annapolis, after a huge hint from Condoleezza Rice earlier in the week (“I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now because — for very much longer — because Iraqis are stepping up”), “withdrawal” or “pullout” or “draw-down” is everybody’s property. In some ways, it was the Iraqis, meeting in Cairo, who helped get the withdrawal ball rolling by calling for a withdrawal “timetable” — promptly rejected by the Bush administration. Now, Bush officials and military men are jumping on board in a thoroughly confusing way. No surprise there, since a lot of yesterday’s non-withdrawal people have a fair amount at stake in muddying the waters today.

We’ve just entered a period where you won’t be able tell the players without a scorecard and, unfortunately, nobody in the know is going to be selling scorecards. In fact, as the public withdrawal debate began, and the administration first “lashed out” in anger at its suddenly voluble opponents and then rushed to put forward its own “plans,” the news in our papers and on TV promptly shifted into full-frontal anonymity mode. Even Congressman Murtha spoke with, it might be said, more than one tongue. After all, as a key figure on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he is known for his closeness to the military brass; and, in laying out his proposal, he offered some startling figures (on soaring attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and on the 50,000 soldiers who are likely to suffer from “battle fatigue”) that clearly came directly from the military. Here’s how the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh explained the Murtha proposal in a recent interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:

“He’s known for his closeness to the four-stars. They come and they bleed on him So Murtha’s message is a message from a lot of generals on active duty today. This is what they think, at least a significant percentage of them, I assure you. This is, I’m not over-dramatizing this. It’s a shot across the bow. They don’t think [the Iraq war is] doable. You can’t tell that to this President. He doesn’t want to hear it. But you can say it to Murtha.”

So when, for instance, you read in the press about some general officially worrying that we may “draw-down” too quickly, you have no way of knowing whether at this point his real position is the one Murtha articulated. Get the hell out fast!

In a typical recent front-page piece on “withdrawal,” for instance (As Calls for an Iraq Pullout Rise, 2 Political Calendars Loom Large), David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker of the New York Times start with the “mounting calls to set a deadline to begin a withdrawal from Iraq.” By paragraph two, however, that “withdrawal” has somehow been pluralized: “But in private conversations American officials are beginning to acknowledge that a judgment about when withdrawals can begin” (“withdrawals” being, of course, something less than “withdrawal”). By the fifth paragraph (just after the jump to an inside page), anonymous “White House aides” are saying that the President “will begin examining the timing of a draw-down after he sees the outcome of the Dec. 15 election in Iraq.”

So in five paragraphs and a headline, you have pullout, withdrawal, withdrawals, draw-down and by then you’ve already met a plethora of pluralized sources as well — not just those “White House officials,” but even vaguer “American officials,” and lest even that give away too much, “several officials.” They’re soon joined by a roiling mass of other obscurely less-then-identified beings (“current and former White House officials,” “one former aide with close ties to the National Security Council,” “senior officers,” plain old “officers,” and “senior Pentagon civilians and officers”). And if that isn’t murky enough for you, just throw in the “ifs” that go with any story of this sort and tend to negate even the best proposed plan:

“[O]fficials in the Bush White House were already actively reviewing possible plans under which 40,000 to 50,000 troops or more could be recalled next year if ‘a plausible case could be made’ that a significant number of Iraqi battalions could hold their own.”

Here, for instance, are typical phrases from correspondent Rosiland Jordan’s withdrawal story on NBC national news last Sunday: “The debate is focusing on how many and when that depends on how quiet the situation is if conditions on the ground allow it provided the situation on the ground improves.” Or consider the following quote from a Los Angeles Times piece: “‘It looks like things are headed in the right direction to enable [a large drawdown of forces] to happen in 2006,’ said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But he said those hopes could be derailed if there were setbacks.” Or take this bit from the latest report on Hillary Clinton’s ponderously shifting position: “troops could be redeployed next year if coming elections in Iraq go well.” So our news is now filled with posses of unidentifiable officials offering limited “withdrawal plans,” which are actually draw-down plans, which are so provisionally linked to matters unlikely to unfold as expected that they may, in a sense, simply be meaningless.

The Return of Vietnamization

What then are the “plans” of those in power, as best we can tell?

The realities of the moment are, in a sense, simple and strange all at once. The grandiose preparations for planetary military and energy domination hatched by a group of utopian (or, if you prefer, dystopian) thinkers in Washington, aided and abetted by “native” dreamers and schemers in exile, and meant to begin but hardly end in Iraq, have by now run aground on the shoals of reality. A modest-sized but fierce and well-stocked insurgency, conducting a low-level guerrilla war — Americans are basically killed on roads on their way somewhere, seldom in regular battles or on their bases — fueled by our President’s hubris, by an unquenchable urge for national sovereignty, and by religious fundamentalism as well as fanaticism, has driven this administration from its emplacements.

Now, a second force has joined the fray, turning this into one of the stranger two-front “wars” in memory. Unlike in the Vietnam era, the second front at home remains something of a specter. Perhaps it’s not so surprising though that a President ever in fantasy-land and his utopian followers (many now set out to pasture) are being driven by publics that, at the moment, exist largely as sets of poll-driven numbers. The streets are seldom filled with demonstrators; the universities are not up in arms; and yet it’s quite clear that some ghostly form of popular pressure is indeed at work — in combination with growing pressures from Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald (think Watergate) and a military command that, as in the Vietnam era, fears, if something doesn’t happen soon, the wheels might truly start coming off the American military machine. Still, it is fascinating that, without a significant political opposition yet in sight, we’re witnessing what looks ever more like an administration and Republican meltdown. (For those of you who believe that the Republicans have put all election victories beyond anyone’s grasp, rising Republican fears about the 2006 congressional elections should indicate that this is not yet so.)

In the eye of its own strange storm, the administration is finally starting to put policy back into the hands of those who pass for “realists,” as journalist Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service has been pointing out recently. For instance, the astute and Machiavellian neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, our former ambassador to Afghanistan and present-day ambassador to the Green Zone of Iraq, has just been given permission to negotiate with the Iranians for help in Iraq and is, according to Newsweek, beginning to put American funds where they might actually matter — into bribes to Sunni officials. In the meantime — just a little straw in the gale — Secretary of State Rice recently met for the first time in who knows how long for a chat with her former mentor, the elder Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. (If Daddy’s men are ever actually called back in, then you’ll know for sure that the White House is in humiliating “withdrawal” mode.)

In the meantime, we are once again seeing the return of the repressed (that is, the Vietnam era) to American consciousness. It’s not just the language of that moment — White House aides “circling the wagons” and going into “bunker mode,” or Democratic Senator Jack Reed insisting that the President has a growing “credibility gap” — but the way the White House is digging itself ever deeper into the Big Muddy of that era’s playbook.

As if on cue this month — in fact, it’s hard to believe it could have been happenstance — Nixon’s Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the man who claims he invented the term “Vietnamization,” has returned as if from the dead (in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine) to argue that his policy actually worked, and so would “Iraqification.” Maybe Laird was simply called back into existence when Dick Cheney denounced those intent on “rewriting history,” but now we know from the horse’s mouth that we coulda, woulda, shoulda won — except for a pusillanimous Congress! (“The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973… I believed then and still believe today that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself, just as I believe Iraq can do the same now.”)

The essence of Laird’s Vietnamization policy was a realization that, on the draft-era home front, the Vietnam War was being driven by American casualties and that the Army itself was in a state of incipient revolt and disintegration. So Nixon abolished the draft, began the all-volunteer military, put an emphasis on building up the South Vietnamese army, and withdrew 500,000 American ground troops over a three-year period. What he replaced them with was a fiercely intensified air war over South Vietnam (and neighboring countries). And this policy was indeed successful in tamping down protest at home, though (despite Laird’s claims) it created insuperable problems in South Vietnam (as Iraqification will in Iraq). These led, after much further bloodshed, to the collapse of our allies in the south.

The Bush administration’s new “plan,” such as it is, to draw-down our troops (while pressing our shrinking set of allies not to do the same) is clearly modeled on Laird’s Vietnamization experience — a failed strategy being re-imagined as a successful one. By a shift of tactical priorities, it is meant to create the look of withdrawal before the 2006 congressional elections, and it, too, will emphasize the mayhem of air power. On the ground, American forces are to be slowly withdrawn from Iraq’s cities to their bases, cutting down on both casualties and, for Iraqis, that oppressive sense of being occupied by foreigners.

In draw-down terms, the plan seems to go something like this: While withdrawal was making onto the public agenda, our actual force in Iraq has risen in recent months from approximately 138,000 to about 160,000. So the first “withdrawals” (plural) the administration will be able to announce after the December 15 election — about 20,000 troops — will simply get us back to the levels that Donald Rumsfeld and his planners always meant us to be at.

General George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, and others have been letting the news ooze out for a while (despite rumors of presidential slap-downs for doing so) that, if all goes half-well, we will perhaps withdraw another 40,000 troops (the figures vary depending upon the leak) in 2006, leaving us with just under 100,000 troops there. In 2007 well, who knows, but the process, it’s clear, is meant to be more or less unending, and, mind you, that’s according to the Pentagon’s “moderately optimistic” scenario. (Seymour Hersh claims that the administration’s “most ambitious” plans call for all troops designated “combat,” which is not all troops, to be withdrawn by the summer of 2008.)

Nothing in the last two-and-a-half-plus years, of course, should lead anyone to be “moderately optimistic.” If you want a little dose of realism, just consider the latest report on the new Iraqi army from the Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows; or visit the rare Iraqi unit that has been more or less “stood up” with Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter and consider what it’s been stood up for (a Shiite revenge war in Sunni neighborhoods); or check in with “two senior Army analysts who in 2003 accurately foretold the turmoil that would be unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq” and now claim it is “no longer clear that the United States will be able to create (Iraqi) military and police forces that can secure the entire country no matter how long U.S. forces remain”; or visit with “the only non-American author on the U.S. Army’s list of required reading for officers,” Hebrew University military historian Martin Van Cleveld, who recently called George Bush’s little Iraqi adventure “the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions into Germany and lost them.”

In perhaps the most important piece of reportage of the year, Up in the Air, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh dissects the sinews of the administration’s Iraqification strategy. Unsurprisingly, while drawing-down troops (in hopes of lessening American casualties), the Pentagon is to intensify the air war, which means, of course, loosing the U.S. Air Force on Iraq’s urban areas where the insurgency thrives and undoubtedly increasing Iraqi casualties. Or as Hersh puts it:

“A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.”

As Hersh essentially points out, what this is likely to mean in practice — if combat is significantly turned over to the new Iraqi Army — is sending our Air Force against targets of that army’s choosing; that is, putting American air power in service to a Shiite and Kurdish revenge war against the Sunnis — not exactly a recipe for a pacified Iraq.

The thinking behind such strategies is, in fact, as recognizable to those of us who lived through the Vietnam era as “Vietnamization.” Here’s what I wrote about such “withdrawal” plans during the Vietnam era in my book, The End of Victory Culture, published a distant decade ago. See if it doesn’t have a familiar ring to it:

“The idea of ‘withdrawing’ from Vietnam was there from the beginning, though never as an actual plan. All real options for ending the war were invariably linked to ‘cutting and running,’ or ‘dishonor,’ or ‘surrender,’ or ‘humiliation,’ and so dismissed within the councils of government more or less before being raised. The attempt to prosecute the war and to withdraw from it were never separable, no less opposites. If anything, withdrawal became a way to maintain or intensify the war, while pacifying the American public.

“‘Withdrawal’ involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers — from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a ‘Vietnamization’ plan in which ground troops would be pulled out as the air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer; but if withdrawal did not withdraw the country from the war, the war’s prosecution never brought it close to a victorious conclusion.”

Clash of Languages

So now, having passed through much of the Vietnam era’s strategy and language in a mere couple of years, we find ourselves in the Vietnamization/Iraqification period. Forgetting for a minute that, among other differences with Vietnam, this seems increasingly to be a war not for national unification but for national disunification, we seem finally, as in those distant years, to be on the downhill slope of language and imagery.

To give but one example: Proud neocon neocolonials like Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the President himself, regularly talked about bringing “democracy” to Iraq in patronizingly parental terms. They liked to say that they were trying to figure out the moment to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike and let the toddler wheel around the nearest corner on his own. Now we find one of our many anonymous generals quoted in a Washington Post piece using that very image no less patronizingly but far more fearfully in military terms. “Another senior general likened an accelerated withdrawal to ‘taking the training wheels off of a bike too early.'”

Or here’s another example: American “senior officials” in the glory days of our Iraq adventure spoke regularly and without shame about the need to “put an Iraqi face” on Iraq. This was a wonderfully grim phrase which, in a strange way, expressed their deeper meaning exactly; they wanted to put a comforting Iraqi mask over the American face of the occupation. Now, we find a military version of the same, whose bluntness makes a certain sense of our moment, as quoted in a mid-November piece from Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor of the British Telegraph:

“Senior US military commanders have long argued that the way to defeat the insurgency is to reduce substantially the number of foreign troops in order to ‘reduce the perception of occupation’ and draw Sunnis into the political process.”

To “reduce the perception of occupation,” that’s a phrase to savor for its truth-telling essence. It catches something of the administration’s policy now that it’s actually on the run at home.

In the meantime, our President, in the first of several speeches he is to give on Iraq before the December 15th elections, took a roller-coaster ride through Iraqi Disneyland. As Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post commented, “President Bush’s safety zone these days doesn’t appear to extend very far beyond military bases, other federal installations and Republican fundraisers.”

Not exactly surprising, then, that his speech should have been so la-la-(out)landish. For instance, as Paul Woodward of the War in Context website pointed out, he promoted his “strategy for victory in Iraq” by referring to “progress” a mere 28 times before the assembled cadets of the Naval Academy. And then there was “victory,” once quite hard to find in administration documents that emphasized how we were in an endless multi-generational struggle against terrorism. Yet, at this desperate moment, the President managed to mention “victory” 15 times (and add another for the title of the speech) — and not just victory but the fact that we would not “accept anything less than complete victory.”

That had a ring not heard since Americans called for total victory and unconditional surrender in World War II, but then the President remains in a World War II dream world, that thrilling place he experienced in the movies of his childhood where the Marines always advance; our grinning native sidekicks are friendly and remarkably willing to die in our place; the enemy is destined to fall by their hundreds before our fire; and total victory is an American birthright. In fact, the President, who mentioned no post-1945 war (except the Cold one) — and there were so many to chose from — spoke of World War II twice. You know, that war so like the present one in which “free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism, and freedom prevailed.” (Just in case you’ve forgotten, that was the war in which the other side had the Guantánamos)

Perhaps there’s poetic justice in seeing a President trapped in his fantasy world being driven from pillar to post by a fantasy public, while his generals and top officials do their best to ignore him as they search desperately for ways out, and his advisers (and political supporters) hire lawyers.

How to Tell Withdrawal from Its Doppelgangers

If you pay attention not to the war of words or the storm of confusing withdrawal proposals, but to four bedrock matters, you’ll have a far better sense of where we’re really heading. These are air power, permanent bases, an “American” Kurdistan, and oil; and, not surprisingly, they coincide with the great uncovered, or barely covered, stories of the war. In the present flurry of withdrawal discussions, only air power, thanks to Hersh, is getting any attention. The others have so far gone largely or totally unmentioned — and yet, without them, none of this makes any sense at all.

Air Power: It remains amazing to me that Hersh’s report is the first serious mainstream piece since the invasion of Iraq to take up the uses of air power in that country. It’s a subject I’ve written about for the last two years. After all, we’ve loosed our Air Force on heavily populated urban Iraq, regularly bombing (and sometimes destroying significant sections of) Sunni cities and towns (and in 2004 Shiite ones as well). There have been hundreds and hundreds of reporters in Iraq, many embedded with the military — and yet it’s as if they simply never look up. Figures on the use of air power are almost impossible to come by, though Hersh tells us in his Democracy Now interview that the bombing has “gone up exponentially, certainly in the last four or five months in the Sunni Triangle.” He adds, however, that “we don’t have reporters at the air bases. We don’t know what’s going on with the air war.” Here’s just one passage that gives a modest sense of some of what the Bush administration has been doing from the air: “Naval efforts in Iraq include not only the Marine Corps but also virtually every type of deployable Naval asset in our inventory. Navy and Marine carrier-based aircraft flew over 21,000 hours, dropped over 54,000 pounds of ordnance and played a vital role in the fight for Fallujah.”

Add in another reality of America’s Iraq: L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, in a burst of blind pride in 2003, disbanded the Iraqi military. For well over a year or more, Pentagon plans for rebuilding it called for a future Iraqi military force (lite) of only 40,000 men with minimal armaments and essentially no air force at all! This is the Middle East, mind you. What that meant, simply enough, was that the Bush administration intended the American Army and Air Force to be the Iraqi military for eons to come. Under the pressure of the insurgency, the army part of that plan was thrown out the window. But “standing up” the Iraqi military has meant just that. Standing on the ground. There is still no real Iraqi air force. Iraq was never to “fly,” but to stay on that “bike” and under the tutelage of Washington.

The actual use of American air power will undoubtedly prove tricky indeed (without many American ground troops around) and probably no more successful in the long run than it was in Vietnam — except, of course, in terms of devastating the country. But watch the Iraqi skies as best you can. They will tell you something.

Permanent Bases: We were to control military-less Iraq and perhaps the region from a small series of permanent bases, already imagined and on the drawing boards as the invasion began. At the height of our base-building mania, we had about 106 bases there, ranging from multibillion-dollar Vietnam-era-sized mega-structures like Camp Victory North (renamed Camp Liberty) just outside of Baghdad to tiny base camps in outlying parts of the country. We now claim to be turning these over to the Iraqis. Part of our draw-down plan, according to Hersh, includes “heavily scripted change-of-command ceremonies, complete with the lowering of American flags at bases and the raising of Iraqi ones” — one of these occurred, conveniently enough, near the Syrian border the day the President spoke.

We have so many of these bases that we can hand them back one by one with appropriate special ceremonies almost in perpetuity without ever getting to the small core of 4-5 bases that the Pentagon planned on permanently garrisoning as American troops first crossed the Iraqi border. So here’s what to watch for: If any of these key bases are handed back, with flags lowered and troops removed, then you can begin to believe that an actual withdrawal may be in the offing.

Kurdistan: You would largely not know that the Kurdish parts of Iraq existed from most daily news reports on the war. But one major change from the Vietnam era is that we have potential “sanctuaries” in the area to withdraw to. Murtha suggested one of them, Kuwait, and it is the focus of attention at the moment. But Kurdistan, at present the quietest part of Iraq (despite fierce tensions between the two main Kurdish political parties and non-Kurdish residents of the as-yet somewhat undefined area), is also likely to be the most welcoming to American forces “withdrawing” from “Iraq.” Present-day Kurdistan was created under the American and British no-fly zones in the 1990s and its future autonomy, no less independence, would be at least temporarily guaranteed by the presence of American troops there. Even the Turks might prefer American forces in Kurdistan, if they restrained local forces from any kind of cross-border shenanigans in Kurdish regions of Turkey. The sole reference I’ve seen to this possibility was in a recent piece by veteran reporter Martin Walker who wrote: “There are other ideas circulating in the Pentagon, including the establishment of a major and possibly permanent base in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where U.S. troops are less controversial, and would be welcomed by the neighboring Turks, always worried at the prospect of an independent Kurdistan becoming a magnet for their own disaffected Kurdish minority.”

Were the rest of Iraq to fall completely out of our hands, it’s easy to imagine an “American” Kurdistan (conveniently near the Iranian border), possibly expanded to include the oil lands around the tinderbox city of Kirkuk, with its own set of bases. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times has just revealed that one of the Kurdish political parties signed a private oil exploration deal with a Norwegian company. Of course, the Kurdish areas would have their own set of explosive problems, but over the next year watch for Kurdistan to surface as part of any American draw-down which isn’t actually a withdrawal.

Oil: So here we are at another of the great, hardly covered stories of the Iraq war. As Mark LeVine has recently made so clear, the Bush administration, with its former energy industry execs and consultants, was thinking oil — and Iraqi oil in particular — from literally the first moments of its existence. “[T]he few documents that have been made public from [Vice President Cheney’s] Energy Task Force reveal not only that industry executives met with Cheney’s staff [in February 2001] but that a map of Iraq and an accompanying list of ‘Iraq oil foreign suitors’ were the center of discussion.” Hmmm These were people who already had “peak oil” on their minds. They entered Iraq, a nation sitting on untold amounts of oil, thinking about the global control of future energy resources. They sent soldiers to guard the Oil Ministry and the oil fields, while allowing pretty much everything else to be looted as the country fell to them. They have no desire to abandon either their permanent bases or that reservoir of “black gold” to others. But beyond pious statements about preserving the Iraqi “patrimony” (i.e. oil) in the early days of the war, they never broached the subject publicly and the media followed their lead. It’s rare today — though a perfectly obvious point to make — for someone to say, as Ambassador Khalilzad did recently, “You could have a regional war that could go on for a very long time, and affect the security of oil supplies.” Keep your eyes on this issue. It’s what separates Vietnam, which itself contained nothing special for a foreign power, from Iraq.

In the end, ignore (if you can) the whirlwind of withdrawal language that will turn all sorts of non- or semi-withdrawal schemes into something other than what they are, and try to keep your eyes on those shoals of reality. This is not Vietnam, which happened in slow-time. This war, as the historian Marilyn Young claimed in its first weeks so few years ago, is “Vietnam on crack cocaine” and, whatever anyone is saying now, it’s a fair bet that events will outpace all administration plans and fantasies in the explosive year to come.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt