They came, they saw, they... deserted.
That, in short form, is the story of the recent Iraqi government "offensive" in Basra (and Baghdad). It took a few days, but the headlines on stories out of Iraq ("Can Iraq's Soldiers Fight?") now tell a grim tale and the information in them is worse yet. Stephen Farrell and James Glanz of the New York Times estimate that at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, or more than 4% of the force sent into Basra, "abandoned their posts" during the fighting, including "dozens of officers" and "at least two senior field commanders."
Other pieces offer even more devastating numbers. For instance, Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post suggest that 30% of government troops had "abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached." Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times offers 50% as an estimate for police desertions in the midst of battle in Baghdad's vast Sadr City slum, a stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
In other words, after years of intensive training by American advisors and an investment of $22 billion dollars, US military spokesmen are once again left trying to put the best face on a strategic disaster (from which they were rescued thanks to negotiations between Muqtada al-Sadr and advisors to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, brokered in Iran by General Qassem Suleimani, a man on the U.S. Treasury Department's terrorist watch list). Think irony. "From what we understand," goes the lame American explanation, "the bulk of these [deserters] were from fairly fresh troops who had only just gotten out of basic training and were probably pushed into the fight too soon."
This week, with surge commander General David Petraeus back from Baghdad's ever redder, ever more dangerous "Green Zone," here are a few realities to keep in mind as he testifies before Congress:
1. The situation in Iraq is getting worse: Don't believe anyone who says otherwise. The surge-ified, "less violent" Iraq the general has presided over so confidently is, in fact, a chaotic, violent tinderbox of city states, proliferating militias armed to the teeth, competing regions armed to the teeth, and competing religious factions armed to the teeth. Worse yet, under Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. has been the great proliferator. It has armed and funded close to 100,000 Sunnis organized into militias reportedly intent on someday destroying "the Iranians" (i.e. the Maliki government). It has also supported Shiite militias (aka the Iraqi army). In Basra, it took sides in a churning Shiite civil war. As Nir Rosen summed matters up in a typically brilliant piece in the Nation, Baghdad today is but a set of "fiefdoms run by warlords and militiamen," a pattern the rest of the country emulates. "The Bush administration," he adds, "and the U.S. military have stopped talking of Iraq as a grand project of nation-building, and the U.S. media have dutifully done the same." Meanwhile, in the little noticed north, an Arab/Kurdish civil war over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and possibly Mosul as well, is brewing. This, reports Pepe Escobar of Asia Times, could be explosive. Think nightmare.
2. The Bush administration has no learning curve. Its top officials are unable to absorb the realities of Iraq (or the region) and so, like the generals of World War I, simply send their soldiers surging "over the top" again and again, with minor changes in tactics, to the same dismal end. Time.com's Tony Karon, at his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, caught this phenomenon strikingly, writing that Maliki's failed offensive "shared the fate of pretty much every similar initiative by the Bush Administration and its allies and proxies since the onset of the 'war on terror.'"
3. The "success" of the surge was always an expensive illusion, essentially a Ponzi scheme, for which payment will someday come due. To buy time for its war at home, the Bush administration put out IOUs in Iraq to be paid in future chaos and violence. It now hopes to slip out of office before these fully come due.
4. A second hidden surge, not likely to be discussed in the hearings this week, is now under way. U.S. air reinforcements, sent into Iraq over the last year, are increasingly being brought to bear. There will be hell to pay for this, too, in the future.
5. A reasonably undertaken but speedy total withdrawal from Iraq is the only way out of this morass (and, at this late date, it won't be pretty); yet such a proposal isn't even on the table in Washington. In fact, as McClatchy's Warren Strobel and Nancy Youssef report, disaster in Basra has "silenced talk at the Pentagon of further U.S. troop withdrawals any time soon."
Since April 2003, each administration misstep in Iraq has only led to worse missteps. Unfortunately, little of this will be apparent in this week's shadowboxing among Washington's "best and brightest," who will again plunge into a "debate" filled with coded words, peppered with absurd fantasies, and rife with American symbolism that only an expert like professor of religion Ira Chernus is likely to decipher. "It's time," he writes, while considering the upcoming Petraeus testimony, "to insist that war should be seen not through the lens of myth and symbol, but as the brutal, self-defeating reality it is."
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, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
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