Last One to Leave, Please Turn On the Lights
Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms in Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt
Recently, our top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., was brought back to the United States, officially to consult with George Bush on what the President still calls “our strategy for victory.” Along with retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, Centcom Commander Gen. John Abizaid, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Casey then testified before Congress on military “progress” in Iraq. As Rumsfeld confidently told the Armed Services Committee, “Every single week that goes by, the number of [Iraqi] security forces goes up, the total.” In a statement from the White House Rose Garden after meeting with his generals, the President made the same point: “The growing size and increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces are helping our coalition address a challenge we have faced since the beginning of the war. And General Casey discussed this with us in the Oval Office Now, the increasing number of more capable Iraqi troops has allowed us to better hold on to the cities we have taken from the terrorists We’re on the offense. We have a plan to win.”
Before Congress, however, Casey painted a rather different picture of the Iraqi national-army-that-isn’t. In fact, on a crucial point, his testimony bore little relation to the assessments that either George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld claimed they had heard. Last June, the Pentagon informed Congress that three Iraqi battalions were finally at “Level 1” of preparedness — that is, “fully trained, equipped, and capable of operating independently” of U.S. forces. On Thursday, Casey lowered this estimate to one battalion (evidently not even one of the previous three), calling it a “step backward.” In other words, of the 100-plus battalions in the American-created Iraqi army, only one — perhaps 1,000 soldiers — is capable of heading off on its own to fight, out of sight of its American protectors. Donald Rumsfeld has often talked about the “metrics” of success. Well, here’s perhaps the most significant metric we have on the Iraqi military — the essence of what passes for a Bush administration plan for the pacification of Iraq — and it speaks the world.
When queried on this dismal statistic, after at least a year of an intensive American focus on “standing up” the Iraqi army, the general said defensively, “It’s not going to be like throwing a switch, where all of a sudden, one day, the Iraqis are in charge.” This was perhaps an ill-chosen image in a country in which the Bush administration and its crony corporations have been unable to deliver electricity with any regularity to the inhabitants of that country. (During a blistering summer, parts of the capital got less than eight hours of electricity a day.)
To put all this in perspective, remember that Saddam Hussein’s military was disbanded in May 2003 by L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority and a new Iraqi military officially reconstituted in August of that same year. The first units of the new army didn’t even finish basic training (and it was evidently basic indeed) until early 2004. Ever since, they have been woefully equipped and poorly led. The earliest units (with the exception of borrowed Kurdish militiamen) broke and fled in battle. The record since hasn’t been much better. (And who knows, as Juan Cole points out at his Informed Comment website, what happened to those three battalions that are no longer at Level 1 status. “Did some melt away at Tal Afar?” he asks of a recent U.S. campaign near the Syrian border. There, Iraqi troops, fighting with Americans, were asked to take the lead. The newest round of that campaign, launched in the area just days ago, seems to lack Iraqi troops altogether.)
As the Bush administration became more desperate about developments in Iraq, the Pentagon began placing ever greater emphasis on training the Iraqi military to replace American troops. Thousands of American military advisors under the command of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was put in charge of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, were assigned to Iraqi units in “military transition teams.” For a while, Petraeus got much good press here from pundits like David Ignatius of the Washington Post as our possible military savior in Iraq, and many relatively hopeful stories were written about the always “slow” development of the Iraqi forces. Money for the new army and its equipment poured in (striking amounts of which, $1-2 billion or more, have evidently simply been stolen at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad). In addition, the new Iraqi troops are lightly armed, partially out of American fears of what they might do with more powerful weaponry.
By this summer, about the time Cindy Sheehan first landed on the Presidential vacation doorstep, the “Iraqification” effort had been turned into a jingle-style slogan for George Bush. It was the President’s only real response to calls, not only from war critics, newspaper editorial pages, and a growing few in Congress, but from within the top ranks of the military, for a withdrawal plan and a timetable of some sort for getting American forces out of the country. He intoned it again and again: “Our strategy is straightforward: As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down. And when Iraqi forces can defend their freedom by taking more and more of the fight to the enemy, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”
The truth of the matter, however, is plain enough for all to see. There is no Iraqi national army. “The only really effective units of the new security forces,” as Time magazine’s Tony Karon pointed out at his blog recently, “are essentially militias of the Kurdish and Shiite parties loyal to their party leaders rather than to a new state.” (Little wonder, by the way, that they are so hated and feared in largely Sunni areas of Iraq.)
When it comes to the rest of the Iraqi military: The Iraqi Air Force essentially doesn’t exist — or rather, the assumption clearly is that, for the foreseeable future, the Iraqi “Air Force” will be the U.S. Air Force. As for the Iraqi Navy, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently visited the port of Umm Qasr in “safe” southern Iraq. He had to be “outfitted in body armor” for the crossing of the Kuwaiti border, because IEDs have begun to be planted along the road to the port. With a kind of perverse admiration, he adds, “The enemy just keeps getting smarter. After the coalition forces introduced jamming devices to block roadside bombs detonated with cell phones, the insurgents started using infrared devices from garage door openers. So much ingenuity for so much malevolence.”
His visit to the exceedingly modest 1,000-man Iraqi Navy, being trained at the port by the Brits, led to the observation (regularly made by Americans about every aspect of the Iraqi military) that “progress is slow. One day last week a boatload of Iraqi sailors decided to take a long lunch break and blew off the afternoon training. Too hot.” The problem is that “middle-management Iraqis” won’t “take the initiative.” To correct this, it seems, would require “a huge cultural shift. Saddam’s tyrannical rule over nearly three decades conditioned people here never to assume responsibility.”
That certainly explains it; and it’s pretty typical of American explanations, all of which might make sense, if those fiendishly clever insurgents weren’t just down that road, exercising their ingenuity, taking the initiative like mad, upgrading their skills constantly, and fighting fiercely without the help of American trainers. I guess they just underwent a huge cultural shift that our reporters and pundits have somehow missed.
This stuff would, of course, be priceless and completely comic, if it weren’t quite so tragic; if it weren’t leading down desperate roads; if so many weren’t dying in Iraq; if the possibility of civil war, driven by a very minority “Sunni death cult,” weren’t growing; and if that country hadn’t turned into a terrorist training ground. Or, as Gen. Casey put it in his testimony, in perfect militarese: “I’ll tell you that levels of violence are a lagging indicator of success.”
The question, of course, is: How come we can’t find that switch the general spoke of, and “they” can? Or to propose a novel theory, what if the “huge cultural shift” Friedman mentions was us? What if we turned out the lights and smashed the switch. What if we invaded a country under false pretenses; occupied it;, began building huge, permanent military bases on its territory; let its capital and provincial cities be looted; disbanded its military; provided no services essential to modern life; couldn’t even produce oil for gas tanks in an oil-rich land; bombed some of its cities, destroyed parts or all of others; put tens of thousands of its inhabitants in U.S. military-controlled jails (where prisoners would be subjected to barbaric tortures and humiliations); provided next to no jobs; opened the economy to every kind of depredation; set foreign corporations to loot the country; invited in tens of thousands of private “security contractors,” heavily armed and under no legal constraints; and then asked large numbers of Iraqis, desperate for jobs that could be found nowhere else, to join a new “Iraqi” military force meant to defend a “government” that could hardly leave an American fortified enclave in its own capital. After that, our military trainers, our generals, our politicians, our reporters, and our pundits all began fretting about this force for not fighting fiercely, being independent, taking the initiative, or “standing up.” The question should be, but isn’t: Standing up for what? (Not dissimilarly, as corporate looters move in to get their “relief riches,” what will those evacuees driven off by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, now homeless, car-less, and job-less, be standing up for when they sign on the dotted line for military recruiters who seem to have had less trouble getting to them with offers of help than most of the rest of our government?)
This phenomenon — two sides that seem to come from different planets: our natives who just don’t or can’t or won’t fight, who need years and vast sums of money and equipment, and then hardly stand up without an American “backbone” nearby; and theirs, who fight willingly, eagerly, fiercely, bravely, and with initiative — was also a phenomenon of the Vietnam War era. Then, American officers regularly spoke admiringly of the other side, the Vietcong, the NVA, “Charlie,” as brave, resourceful fighters and had scorn for “our” Vietnamese. But generally, even when, as in Friedman’s piece, the descriptions of Iraqis who fight and those who don’t can be found side by side, no comparisons are made, and the farce of attempting to “stand up” an Iraqi Army simply goes on.
If you set aside, for a moment, what is believed in, it obviously helps to believe in something if you plan to “stand up” and fight. At the most basic level in our age, it helps if you feel your country has been violated and occupied by foreigners. In the last two centuries, no emotion has mobilized more people in arms than the one we call “nationalism” when other people take up arms and “patriotism” when we do so. Call it love of country. Add religion to that — or the belief that your country or region has been taken over by unbelievers — and you have a powerful combination. The issue here is not years of training, it’s motivation. And our Iraqis have next to none — with the exception of Kurdish and Shiite militiamen who want to take out those Sunnis they think of as their enemies and a potential peril to their existence.
Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms
So let’s return for a moment to the President’s “plan.” “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” But what about some contingency planning? This administration has been notoriously weak on planning for lesser alternative futures. Despite having Colin Powell for Secretary of State, for instance, Bush officials never had an exit strategy for Iraq, not just because they had no urge to leave, but because they didn’t believe they would ever have to. So if you reverse the President’s little jingle, there’s no there there. “As Iraqis stand down, we will” Well, what?
The options are increasingly limited, and yet, even for this administration, the need is increasingly obvious and pressing. The President could not be more isolated internationally when it comes to his war. Most of the Europeans are now simply doing their best to look the other way. The Chinese leadership undoubtedly dances in the streets of the Forbidden City every morning, because the Iraqi quagmire ensures that, for another day, China will not be the next enemy of enemies. The newly elected Norwegian government has announced that it will withdraw its few trainers from Iraq. The Poles and Italians are on their way out along with the Ukrainians. A Dane was just killed by a roadside bomb in the Basra area and the keeping of a Danish contingent in the country, never popular, has grown less so. The Japanese troops are locked into their “base” in the south, doing nothing; and, while Tony Blair swears fealty to Bush Iraq policy for another 1,000 Arabian nights, the British have, in fact, been hemming and hawing about withdrawal as their situation grows ever hotter in the Basra area (where Shiite militias have taken over and, as Robert Dreyfuss of Tompaine.com points out, former Baathists are being assassinated in startling numbers). Meanwhile, the Bush administration was just rebuffed by NATO on a Rumsfeld proposal that NATO troops take over parts of the American counter-guerrilla war in southern Afghanistan, freeing up our hard-pressed troops for duty elsewhere.
So what’s left in Iraq — other than the stood-down Iraqi Army and the embattled Iraqi police (both forces evidently well-infiltrated by insurgents)? Well, there are always those 25,000 or so private mercenaries with the run of the country; there’s a nearly non-functional Iraqi government in disarray over the constitution the Bush administration has been shoving down its throat on an unpalatable schedule; and, of course, there’s the U.S. military, which is losing not quite two soldiers a day in the country (and many more wounded). Fifty-one American troops died in September along with several American “contractors” and a diplomatic official. As has been true for the last two years, the insurgents remain capable mainly of picking off Americans as they travel from one place to another on Iraq’s embattled roads and highways. But a suicide car bomber was caught recently inside the well-guarded Green Zone in Baghdad before his vehicle could explode. That is, perhaps, an omen of what’s likely to come. Sooner or later, catastrophic events are a near certainly if the war goes on.
In the meantime, our military in Iraq is fraying in all sorts of ways; while, back home, the publicity attendant on the war has been terrible and recruitment continues to prove a problem, despite heightened resources going into the effort. Publicity. Ah, there’s an issue. Karen Hughes, presidential confident and America’s newest public diplomat, was hoofing it around the Middle East last week on a disastrous public diplomacy tour for the administration, highlighting her ya-gotta-love-me qualifications as a “mom” and Americans’ qualifications as a people “of faith.” (As Fred Kaplan of Slate writes, “Put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans’ image of Islam. It’s doubtful that he would send as his emissary a woman in a black chador who had spent no time in the United States, possessed no knowledge of our history or movies or pop music, and spoke no English beyond a heavily accented ‘Good morning.'”)
In the meantime, the real “public diplomacy” work is being done elsewhere by an administration that, from the first moments of its global war on terror, was intent on mayhem, destruction, and torture; that wanted, in Donald Rumsfeld’s words, to “take the gloves off.” All evidence continues to indicate that, in behavioral terms, this spirit spread like a pandemic throughout the imperium and into the deepest reaches of the U.S. military, the CIA, and even American embassies abroad. Just in the last couple of weeks, such “public diplomacy” has consisted of an actual porn website that has been posting military “war porn” for all to see — photos of American troops exulting in blistered and mutilated Iraqi and Afghani corpses; and the news that an Army captain who reported ongoing military abuses against Iraqi prisoners, both before and after Abu Ghraib (including the use of those tell-tale human pyramids), found himself and two sergeants from his unit, who supported his testimony, the only ones under investigation by our military. (“Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration, you show up at the PUC [prisoner] tent. In a way it was sport.”) Or try this one on for publicity size: This week, the global managing editor of Reuters sent a letter off to Senator John Warner claiming that “American forces’ conduct towards journalists in Iraq is ‘spiraling out of control’ and preventing full coverage of the war reaching the public The Reuters news service chief referred to ‘a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by US forces in Iraq.'” (I can’t think of another example of such a letter being written from a mainstream news outlet to the U.S. government.)
Believe me, you can’t buy negative publicity like this on the street. And then, just for good measure, consider the anti-publicity value of the latest ad from the joint team of Boeing and Bell Helicopter for their vertical-lift Osprey aircraft — a shot of U.S. Special Forces rappelling onto a smoking mosque with the tag line: “It descends from the heavens. Ironically it unleashes hell… Consider it a gift from above.” The ad caused another little storm, and there’s an awesome shock!
Put it all together and it adds up to a tsunami of unsustainable reality. So somebody answer me this question: Based on the evidence, what favor exactly have we been doing the Iraqis these last two disastrous years by occupying their country? I suspect a lot of military people have been asking similar questions as they worry (as their predecessors did in the later Vietnam years) about the future viability of the Army.
Withdrawal from Iraq, one way or another, is now probably unstoppable, no matter how many times generals, administration officials, and politicians may step back or create “withdrawal plans” that are intent on keeping us in Iraq. President Bush continues to speak of how the terrorists will not “break the will” of the American people. But all evidence indicates that support for his war has all but collapsed here in the United States, even increasingly among his own base of support. And it’s almost as clear that the military leadership knows the score. The Army high command, after all, never wanted to be in Iraq in the first place and can see not only that the “war” is unwinnable, or even salvageable, but that it threatens the cohesion and future of the Army itself.
Gen. Casey, for instance, has been floating supposedly unauthorized withdrawal balloons for a couple of months now, despite being officially chastised for doing so by Washington (or so the story goes, anyway). Recently, in Washington, he began more publicly counseling for, if not a full-scale withdrawal, at least a “gradual” draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq. As Mark Mazzetti of the Los Angeles Times wrote, he based his thinking on the novel thesis (for this administration) that “the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.” Sound familiar, any of you war critics out there?
Unfortunately, this is likely to prove too little too late, Iraqi dependence having long been fostered because it was exactly what was wanted. It’s now late in the game to — as administration officials used to love to say — put “an Iraqi face” on “our” Iraq.
Oh, by the way, when someone actually starts developing those withdrawal plans for real, the mercenaries shouldn’t be forgotten. The Iraqis don’t deserve them, although evidence seems to indicate that some of them are already coming home. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out recently, “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is awash in soldiers and police. Nonetheless, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has hired Blackwater USA, a private security firm with strong political connections, to provide armed guards.” The North Carolina-based Blackwater Consulting, with its strong private security presence in Iraq, has just hired former Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and former ambassador Cofer Black as its vice-chairman and Joseph E. Schmitz, former Inspector General of the Department of Defense, as its Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel; while “overseas opportunities,” assumedly in Iraq, offered by its website include: explosive-detection dog handler, designated defensive marksman, and protective-security specialist. So batten down the hatches, there’s surely more killing and chaos to come. Lots more.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“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.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt