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Catch 22 in Iraq

Why American Troops Can't Go Home

Michael Schwartz

Every week or so, the Department of Defense conducts a video-conference press briefing for reporters in Washington, featuring an on-the-ground officer in Iraq. On November 15th, that briefing was with Col. Jeffrey Bannister, commander of the Second Brigade of the Second Infantry Division. He was chosen because of his unit's successful application of surge tactics in three mainly Shia districts in eastern Baghdad. He had, among other things, set up several outposts in these districts offering a 24-hour American military presence; he had also made generous use of transportable concrete walls meant to separate and partition neighborhoods, and had established numerous checkpoints to prevent unauthorized entry or exit from these communities.

As Col. Bannister summed up the situation:

"We have been effective, and we've seen violence significantly reduced as our Iraqi security forces have taken a larger role in all aspects of operations, and we are starting to see harmony between Sunni and Shi'a alike."

The briefing seemed uneventful -- very much a reflection of the ongoing mood of the moment among American commanders in Iraq -- and received no significant media coverage. However, there was news lurking in an answer Col. Bannister gave to a question from AP reporter Pauline Jelinek (about arming volunteer local citizens to patrol their neighborhoods), even if it passed unnoticed. The colonel made a remarkable reference to an unexplained "five-year plan" that, he indicated, was guiding his actions. Here was his answer in full:

"I mean, right now we're focused just on security augmentation [by the volunteers] and growing them to be Iraqi police because that is where the gap is that we're trying to help fill capacity for in the Iraqi security forces. The army and the national police, I mean, they're fine. The Iraqi police is -- you know, the five-year plan has -- you know, it's doubling in size. ... [We expect to have] 4,000 Iraqi police on our side over the five-year plan.

"So that's kind of what we're doing. We're helping on security now, growing them into IP [Iraqi police].... They'll have 650 slots that I fill in March, and over the five-year period we'll grow up to another 2,500 or 3,500.

Most astonishing in his comments is the least astonishing word in our language: "the." Colonel Bannister refers repeatedly to "the five-year plan," assuming his audience understands that there is indeed a master plan for his unit -- and for the American occupation -- mandating a slow, many-year buildup of neighborhood-protection forces into full fledged police units. This, in turn, is all part of an even larger plan for the conduct of the occupation.

Included in this implicit understanding is the further assumption that Col. Bannister's unit, or some future replacement unit, will be occupying these areas of eastern Baghdad for that five-year period until that 4,000 man police force is finally fully developed.

Staying the Course, Any Course

A recent Washington Post political cartoon by Tom Toles captured the irony and tragedy of this "five-year plan." A big sign on the White House lawn has the message "We can't leave Iraq because it's going..." and a workman is adjusting a dial from "Badly" to "Well."

This cartoon raises the relevant question: If things are "going well" in Iraq, then why aren't American troops being withdrawn? This is a point raised persuasively by Robert Dreyfuss in a recent Tomdispatch post in which he argues that the decline in three major forms of violence (car bombs, death-squad executions, and roadside IEDs) should be the occasion for a reduction, and then withdrawal, of the American military presence. But, as Dreyfuss notes, the Bush administration has no intention of organizing such a withdrawal; nor, it seems, does the Democratic Party leadership -- as indicated by their refusal to withhold funding for the war, and by the promises of the leading presidential candidates to maintain significant levels of American troops in Iraq, at least through any first term in office.

The question that emerges is why stay this course? If violence has been reduced by more than 50%, why not begin to withdraw significant numbers of troops in preparation for a complete withdrawal? The answer can be stated simply: A reduction in the violence does not mean that things are "going well," only that they are going "less badly."

You can tell things can't be going well if your best-case plan is for an armed occupation force to remain in a major Baghdad community for the next five years. It means that the underlying causes of disorder are not being addressed. You can tell things are not going well if five more years are needed to train and activate a local police force, when police training takes about six months. (Consider this an indication that the recruits exhibit loyalties and goals that run contrary to those of the American military.) You can tell things are not going well when communities have to be surrounded by cement walls and checkpoints that naturally disrupt normal life, including work, school, and daily shopping. These are all signs that escalating discontent and protest may require new suppressive actions in the not-so-distant future.

The American military is well aware of this. They keep reminding us that the present decline in violence may be temporary, nothing more than a brief window of opportunity that could be used to resolve some of the "political problems" facing Iraq before the violence can be reinvigorated. The current surge -- even "the five year plan" -- is not designed to solve Iraq's problems, just to hold down the violence while others, in theory, act.

What Does the Bush Administration Want in Iraq?

What are the political problems that require resolution? The typical mainstream media version of these problems makes them out to be uniquely Iraqi in nature. They stem -- so the story goes -- from deeply engrained friction among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, frustrating all efforts to resolve matters like the distribution of political power and oil revenues. In this version, the Americans are (usually inept) mediators in Iraqi disputes and are fated to remain in Iraq only because the Bush administration has little choice but to establish relatively peaceful and equitable solutions to these disputes before seriously considering leaving.


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By now, however, most of us realize that there is much more to the American purpose in Iraq than a commitment to an elected government in Baghdad that could peacefully resolve sectarian tensions. The rhetoric of the Bush administration and its chief democratic opponents (most notably Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) is increasingly laced with references -- to quote Clinton -- to "vital national security interests" in the Middle East that will require a continuing "military as well as political mission." In Iraq, leading Washington politicians of both parties agree on the necessity of establishing a friendly government that will welcome the presence of a "residual" American military force, oppose Iran's regional aspirations, and prevent the country from becoming "a petri dish for insurgents."

Let's be clear about those "vital national security interests." America's vital interests in the Middle East derive from the region's status as the world's principle source of oil. President Jimmy Carter enunciated exactly this principle back in 1980 when he promulgated the Carter Doctrine, stating that the U.S. was willing to use "any means necessary, including military force," to maintain access to supplies of Middle Eastern oil sufficient to keep the global economy running smoothly. All subsequent presidents have reiterated, amplified, and acted on this principle.

The Bush administration, in applying the Carter Doctrine, was faced with the need to access increasing amounts of Middle Eastern oil in light of constantly escalating world energy consumption. In 2001, Vice-President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force responded to this challenge by designating Iraq as the linchpin in a general plan to double Middle Eastern oil production in the following years. It was reasonable, task force members decided, to hope for a genuine spurt in production in Iraq, whose oil industry had remained essentially stagnant (or worse) from 1980 to that moment. By ousting the backward-looking regime of Saddam Hussein and transferring the further development, production, and distribution of Iraq's bounteous oil reserves to multinational oil companies, they would assure the introduction of modern methods of production, ample investment capital, and an aggressive urge to increase output. Indeed, after removing Saddam via invasion in 2003, the Bush administration has made repeated (if so far unsuccessful) efforts to implement this plan.

The desire for such an endpoint has hardly disappeared. It became increasingly clear, however, that successful implementation of such plans would, at best, take many years, and that the maintenance of a powerful American political and military presence within Iraq was a necessary prerequisite to everything else. Since sustaining such a presence was itself a major problem, however, it also became clear that America's plans depended on dislodging powerful forces entrenched in all levels of Iraqi society -- from public opinion to elected leaders to the insurgency itself.

American ambitions -- far more than sectarian tensions -- constitute the irresolvable core of Iraq's political problems. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis oppose the occupation. They wish the Americans gone and a regime in place in Baghdad that is not an American ally. (This is true whether you are considering the Shiite majority or the Sunni minority.) As for a "residual" American military presence, the Iraqi Parliament recently passed a resolution demanding that the UN mandate for a U.S. occupation be rescinded.

Even the issue of terrorism is controversial. The American propensity to label as "terrorist" all violent opposition to the occupation means that most Iraqis (57% in August 2007), when asked, support terrorism as defined by the occupiers, since majorities in both the Sunni and Shia communities endorse using violent means to expel the Americans. Hillary Clinton's ambition that the U.S. must prevent Iraq from becoming a "petri dish for insurgency" (like the President's stated fear that the country could become the center of an al-Qaedan "caliphate") will require the forcible suppression of most resistance to the American presence.

As for opposition to Iran, 60% of Iraqi citizens are Shiites, who have strong historic, religious, and economic ties to Iran, and who favor friendly relations with their neighbor. Even Prime Minister Maliki -- the Bush administration's staunchest ally -- has repeatedly strengthened political, economic, and even military ties with Iran, causing numerous confrontations with American diplomats and military officials. As long as the Shia dominate national politics, they will oppose the American demand that Iraq support the United States campaign to isolate and control Iran. If the U.S. insists on an ally in its anti-Iran campaign, it must find a way in the next few years to alter these loyalties, as well as Sunni loyalties to the insurgency.

Finally there is that unresolved question of developing Iraqi oil reserves. For four years, Iraqis of all sectarian and political persuasions have (successfully) resisted American attempts to activate the plan first developed by Cheney's Energy Task Force. They have wielded sabotage of pipelines, strikes by oil workers, and parliamentary maneuvering, among other acts. The vast majority of the population -- including a large minority of Kurds and both the Sunni and Shia insurgencies -- believes that Iraqi oil should be tightly controlled by the government and therefore support every effort -- including in many cases violent resistance -- to prevent the activation of any American plan to transfer control of significant aspects of the Iraqi energy industry to foreign companies. Implementation of the U.S. oil proposal therefore will require the long-term suppression of violent and non-violent local resistance, as well as strenuous maneuvering at all levels of government.

Foreigners (Americans Excepted) Not Welcome

This multidimensional opposition to American goals cannot be defeated simply by diplomatic maneuvering or negotiations between Washington and the still largely powerless government inside Baghdad's Green Zone. The Bush administration has repeatedly gained the support of Prime Minister Maliki and his cabinet for one or another of its crucial goals -- most recently for the public announcement that the two governments had agreed that the U.S. would maintain a "long-term troop presence" inside Iraq. Such an embrace is never enough, since the opposition operates at so many levels, and ultimately reaches deep into local communities, where violent and nonviolent resistance results in the sabotage of oil production, attacks on the government for its support of the U.S. presence, and direct attacks on American troops.

Nor can the pursuit of these goals be transferred -- any time soon -- to an American-trained Iraqi army and police force. All previous attempts at such a transfer have yielded Iraqi units that were reluctant to fight for U.S. goals and could not be trusted unsupervised in the field. The "five year plan" Colonel Bannister mentioned is an acknowledgement that training an Iraqi force that truly supports an American presence and would actively enforce American inspired policies is a distant hope. It would depend on the transformation of Iraqi political attitudes as well as of civic and government institutions that currently resist U.S. demands. It would involve a genuine, successful pacification of the country. In this context, a decline in the fighting and violence in Iraq, both against the Americans and between embittered Iraqi communities, is indeed only a first step.

So surge "success" doesn't mean withdrawal -- yes, some troops will come home slowly -- but the rest will have to embed themselves in Iraqi communities for the long haul. This situation was summarized well by Captain Jon Brooks, the commander of Joint Security Station Thrasher in Western Baghdad, one of the small outposts that represent the front lines of the surge strategy. When asked by New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson how long he thought the U.S. would remain in Iraq, he replied, "I'm not just blowing smoke up your ass, but it really depends on what the U.S. civilian-controlled government decides its goals are and what it tells the military to do."

As long as that government is determined to install a friendly, anti-Iranian regime in Baghdad, one that is hostile to "foreigners," including all jihadists, but welcomes an ongoing American military presence as well as multinational development of Iraqi oil, the American armed forces aren't going anywhere, not for a long, long time; and no relative lull in the fighting -- temporary or not -- will change that reality. This is the Catch-22 of Bush administration policy in Iraq. The worse things go, the more our military is needed; the better they go, the more our military is needed.

Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. Among other books, he has written Radical Protest and Social Structure (with Beth Mintz). His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet sites, including Tomdispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and ZNET. His forthcoming Tomdispatch book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, will be published in the spring by Haymarket. His email address is

Copyright 2007 Michael Schwartz

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