The Good News in Iraq (Don't Count on It)

On March 19, 2003, as his shock-and-awe campaign against Iraq was being launched, George W. Bush addressed the nation. "My fellow citizens," he began, "at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." We were entering Iraq, he insisted, "with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice. We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people."

Within weeks, of course, that "great civilization" was being looted, pillaged, and shipped abroad. Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship was no more and, soon enough, the Iraqi Army of 400,000 had been officially disbanded by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority and the President's viceroy in Baghdad. By then, ministry buildings -- except for the oil and interior ministries -- were just looted shells. Schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, just about everything that was national or meaningful, had been stripped bare. Meanwhile, in their new offices in Saddam's former palaces, America's neoconservative occupiers were already bringing in the administration's crony corporations -- Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, Bechtel, and others -- to finish off the job of looting the country under the rubric of "reconstruction." Somehow, these "administrators" managed to "spend" $20 billion of Iraq's oil money, already in the "Development Fund for Iraq," even before the first year of occupation was over -- and to no effect whatsoever. They also managed to create what Ed Harriman in the London Review of Books labeled "the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East." (No small trick given the competition.)

Before the Sunni insurgency even had a chance to ramp up in 2003, they were already pouring billions of U.S. tax dollars into what would become their massive military mega-bases meant to last a millennium, and, of course, they were dreaming about opening Iraq's oil industry to the major oil multinationals and to a privatized future as an oil spigot for the West.

On May 1, 2003, six weeks after he had announced his war to the nation and the world, the President landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier returning from the Persian Gulf where its planes had just launched 16,500 missions and dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq. From its flight deck, he spoke triumphantly, against the backdrop of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, assuring Americans that we had "prevailed." "Today," he said, "we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians." In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, the initial shock-and-awe strikes he had ordered killed only civilians, possibly hundreds of them, without touching a single official of Saddam Hussein's "regime."

Who's Counting Now?

Since that first day of "liberation," Iraqis have never stopped dying in prodigious numbers. Now, more than five years after the U.S. "prevailed" with such "precision," a more modest version of the same success story has once again taken the beaches of the mainstream media, if not by storm, then by siege. When it comes to Iraq, the good news is unavoidable. It's in the air. Not victory exactly, but a slow-motion movement toward a "stable" Iraq, a country with which we might be moderately content.

The President's surge -- those extra 30,000 ground troops sent into Iraq in the first half of 2007 -- has, it is claimed, proven the negativity of all the doubters and critics unwarranted. Indeed, it is now agreed, security conditions have improved significantly and in ways "that few thought likely a year ago."

You already know the story well enough. It turns out that, as in Vietnam many decades ago, the U.S. military is counting like mad. So, for instance, according to the Pentagon, attacks on American and Iraqi troops are down 70% compared to June 2007; IED (roadside bomb) attacks have dropped almost 90% over the same period; in May, for the first time, fewer Americans died in Iraq than in Afghanistan (where the President's other war, some seven-plus years later, is going poorly indeed); and, above all else, "violence" is down. ("All major indicators of violence in Iraq have dropped by between 40 and 80 percent since February 2007, when President Bush committed an additional 30,000 troops to the war there, the Pentagon reported.")

Think of this as the equivalent of Vietnam's infamous "body count," but in reverse. In a country where the U.S. generally occupies only the land its troops are on, the normal measures of military victory long ago went out the window, so bodies have to stand in. In Vietnam, the question was: How many enemy dead could you tote up? The greater the slaughter, the closer you assumedly were to obliterating the other side (or, at least, its will). As it turned out, by what the grunts dubbed "the Mere Gook Rule" -- "If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]... " -- any body would do in a pinch when it came to the metrics of victory.

In Iraq today, the counting being most widely publicized runs in the opposite direction. Success now can be measured in less deaths; and, by all usual counts, Iraqi deaths have indeed been falling since the height of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in the early months of 2007. In part, this has occurred because millions of people have already been driven out of their homes and many neighborhoods, especially in the capital, "cleansed." At the same time, in Sunni areas, significant numbers of insurgents have joined the Awakening Movement. They have been paid off by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, while, assumedly, biding their time until the American presence ebbs to take on "the Persians" -- that is, the Shiite (and Kurdish) government embedded in Baghdad's fortified, American-controlled Green Zone.

As a result, cratered Iraq -- a land with at least 50% unemployment, still lacking decent electricity, potable water, hospitals with drugs (or even doctors, so many having fled), or courts with judges (40 of them having been assassinated and many more injured since 2003) or lawyers, many of whom joined the more than two million Iraqis who have gone into exile -- is, today, modestly quieter. But don't be fooled. So many years later, Iraqis are still dying in prodigious numbers, and significant numbers of those dying are doing so at the hands of Americans.

It's not just the family, including possibly four children under the age of 12, who died last week when a U.S. jet blasted their house in Tikrit (after their father, evidently believing thieves were about, fired shots in the air with a U.S. patrol nearby); or the manager and two female employees of a bank at Baghdad International Airport ("three criminals," according to a U.S. military statement) killed when their car was shot up by soldiers from a U.S. convoy; or the unarmed civilian, a relative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who died in an early morning American raid in the southern town of Janaja; or the men, woman, and child in a car "which failed to stop at a [U.S.] checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul because, according to a U.S. military statement, the two men were armed and one man inside the car made 'threatening movements'"; or, according to the U.N., the estimated 1,000 dead in Baghdad's vast, heavily populated Shiite slum of Sadr City, mostly civilians, 60% women and children, in fighting in April and May in which U.S. troops and air power played a significant role.

In fact, one great difference between the "liberation" moment of 2003 and the "stabilization" moment of 2008 is simply that what began as "regime change" -- missiles and bombs theoretically meant for that Saddamist deck of 55 leadership cards -- then developed into a war against a Sunni insurgency, and is now functionally a war against Shiites as well. Particularly targeted of late has been the movement headed by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the American occupation, who is especially popular among the impoverished Shiite masses in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In Shiite areas, his party, according to a U.S. intelligence estimate, would probably win upwards of 60% of the votes in the upcoming provincial elections, if they were fairly conducted. In recent months, the U.S. military in "support" of its Iraqi allies in the Maliki government has fought fierce battles in both the southern oil city of Basra and Sadr City against Sadr's militia, with the usual sizeable numbers of civilian casualties.

In other words, despite all the talk about onrushing "stability," looked at another way, the U.S. faces an ever more complicated and spreading, if intermittent, war. With it has gone another, somewhat less publicized kind of body count. Consider, for instance, a small passage from a recent piece by New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker on inter-service rivalries in Iraq. The U.S. Army, he reports, is now ramping up its own air arm (just as it did in the Vietnam era). In the last year, it has launched Task Force ODIN, the name being an acronym for "observe, detect, identify and neutralize," but also the uber-god of Norse mythology (and perhaps a reminder of the godlike attitudes those in the air can develop towards those being "neutralized" on the ground).

With its headquarters at a base near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's old hometown, the unit consists of only "about 300 people and 25 aircraft." Shanker calls it "a Rube Goldberg collection of surveillance and communications and attack systems, a mash-up of manned and remotely piloted vehicles, commercial aircraft with high-tech infrared sensors strapped to the fuselage, along with attack helicopters and infantry."

Here's the money paragraph of his piece with its triumphalist body count:

"The work of the new aviation battalion was initially kept secret, but Army officials involved in its planning say it has been exceptionally active, using remotely piloted surveillance aircraft to call in Apache helicopter strikes with missiles and heavy machine gun fire that have killed more than 3,000 adversaries in the last year and led to the capture of almost 150 insurgent leaders."

We have no idea how that figure of more than 3,000 dead Iraqis was gathered (given that we're talking about an air unit), or what percentage of those dead were actually civilians, but certainly some among them died in the recent fighting in heavily populated Sadr City. In any case, consider that number for a moment: One modest-sized Army air unit/one year = 3,000+ dead Iraqis.

Now, consider that the Air Force in Iraq in that same year, according to Shanker, "quadrupled its number of sorties and increased its bombing tenfold." Consider that significant numbers of those sorties have been over heavily populated cities, or that, according to the Washington Post, between late March and late May, more than 200 powerful Hellfire missiles were fired into Baghdad (mainly, undoubtedly, into the Sadr City area); or that the unmanned aerial vehicles, the Predator (armed with two Hellfire missiles) and the larger, far more deadly Reaper (armed with up to 14 of those missiles), carried out, according to Shanker, 64 and 32 attacks, respectively, in Iraq and Afghanistan between the beginning of March and June.

And we're not even considering here U.S. military operations on the ground in Basra earlier in the year (special forces units were sent into the city when the Iraqi military and police seemed to be buckling), or in campaigns in Sunni or mixed areas to the north of Baghdad, or simply in ongoing everyday operations. Although individual body counts are now regularly announced for specific operations (not the case in the early years in Iraq), who knows what the overall carnage amounts to. One thing can be said however: The pacification campaign in Iraq really hasn't flagged since the Sunni insurgency gained strength in late 2003. Reformulated by General David Petraeus in 2007, it's just the sort of effort that occupying Great Powers have long been known to apply to rebellious possessions.

Iraq as a Surge-athon

To fully assess just what lurks beneath the "good news" from Iraq, including those 3,000 "adversaries" that Task Force ODIN "neutralized," we would have to do a different kind of counting of which we're incapable, not because no one's doing it, but because we have minimal access to the numbers. Let me try, however, to outline briefly some of what can be known -- and then you can judge the good news for yourself.

American troop strength in Iraq now stands at about 146,000. That's perhaps 16,000 more than in January 2007 just before the surge began. It's also about 16,000 more than in April 2003 when Baghdad was taken. According to Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press, the latest Pentagon plans are to order about 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in 2009, which would keep troop levels at or above that 140,000 mark.

In addition, a vast force of private contractors, armed and unarmed, is in the country. There is no way to know how many of these hired hands and hired guns are actually there, but it's a reasonable guess that they add up to more -- possibly substantially more -- than the troops on hand.

Since February 2007 in the U.S., only one "surge" has been discussed, almost nonstop -- those 30,000 ground troops the President ordered largely into the Baghdad area. A surprising number of other surges have, however, been underway, even if barely noted in the U.S. These add up to a remarkable Bush administration urge to surge that puts American policy in Iraq in quite a different light.

Among these surges, for instance, has been a political surge of U.S. "advisors" and "mentors" to the Iraqi government, police, and military. In another of his superb reports for the New York Review of Books, "Embedded in Iraq," Michael Massing says that the main elements of this "little known political surge... were spelled out in a classified 'Joint Campaign Plan' completed in May 2007." It represented, he writes, a "sharp expansion."

"Specialists from Treasury and Justice, Commerce and Agriculture were assigned to government ministries to help draw up budgets and weed out sectarian elements. The Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers set up projects to boost nutrition and reinforce dams. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were stationed in Baghdad and elsewhere to help repair infrastructure, improve water and electrical systems, and stimulate the economy."

We know as well that American advisers are now deeply involved with local government bodies in contested areas; that American advisers, evidently hired from private contractors, are embedded in the key interior, defense, and oil ministries; that advisers, also hired from private contractors, are helping the Iraqi police and that a new multiyear contract with DynCorp International, which already has 700 civilian police advisers in the country, will raise that number above 800. Their mission: "to advise, train and mentor the Iraqi Police Service, Ministry of Interior, and Department of Border Enforcement."

In this period, even academics have surged into Iraq as the military has embedded anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists from the "Human Terrain System" in military units to advise on local customs and "cultural understanding." One of them, a political scientist completing her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, was recently killed in a bombing in Sadr City.

We know that more than 20,000 Iraqis are now in two U.S. prisons, Camp Bucca in the south of the country and state-of-the-art Camp Cropper on the outskirts of Baghdad. Both of these have been continually upgraded. In this period, though, it seems that a surge in prison building (and assumedly prisoners) has also been underway. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus reports that a new "Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center" -- i.e. prison -- is being built near Camp Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad. A "new contract calls for providing food for 'up to 5,000 detainees' [there] and will also cover 150 Iraqi nationals, who apparently will work at the facility." Another "reconciliation center" is to be opened at Ramadi in al-Anbar Province.

All of this is, again, being done through private contractors, including a contract for some company to "guard" the "property" of up to 60,000 Iraqi detainees. ("The contracted personnel will be responsible for the accountability, inventory, and storage of all property.") This, reports Sharon Weinberger of Wired's Danger Room blog, is evidently in anticipation of a "surge of approximately 15,000 detainees in the upcoming six months."

In addition, the Iraqi military, with its embedded American advisors, remains almost totally dependent on the U.S. military. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, based on "a classified study of Iraqi Army battalions," just 10% of them "are capable of operating independently in counterinsurgency operations and... even then they rely on American support." For logistics, planning, supplies -- almost everything that makes a military function -- the Iraqi military relies on the U.S. military and would be helpless without it.

More than five years after Baghdad fell, there still is no real Iraqi air force. The Iraqi military now depends ever more on the quick and constant application of American air power -- and U.S. air power in the region has surged in the last year and a half. The use of drones like the Predator and Reaper, whose pilots are stationed at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and other distant spots, has also surged, doubling since the beginning of 2007. Meanwhile, new machines, including a "platoon" of 30 of the Army's experimental Micro Air Vehicles, which can hover "in one place [and]... stare down with 'electro-optical and infrared cameras,'" are being rushed into action in Iraq, which is increasingly a laboratory for the testing of the latest U.S. weaponry.

In addition, for unknown billions of dollars, the upgrading of American bases in that country, especially the mega-bases, continues, while possibly the largest embassy on the planet, a vast citadel inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone meant to house 1,000 "diplomats" (and large numbers of guards and support staff of every sort), is nearly finished.

Finally, among the various surges of these last 18 months, there has been a surge in Bush administration demands for an American future in Iraq. In ongoing negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. negotiators have demanded access to nearly 60 bases, control of Iraqi air space to 29,000 feet, the right to arrest Iraqis without explanation or permission, the right to bring troops into and out of the country without permission or notification, the right to launch military operations on the same basis, and immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for troops and private contractors.

In other words, wherever you might have looked over the last year or more, a surge-athon was under way. It was meant to solidify the American position in Iraq for the long term as an occupying power. Not withdrawing or drawing down, but ramping up has been the order of the day, no matter what was being debated, discussed, or written about in the United States.

That ramping up makes some sense of the "good news" and "stability" of this moment. Among other things, it's hardly surprising that weakly armed guerrilla forces (whether Shiite or Sunni), when faced with such a display of power have no desire to take it on frontally.

Given the situation of Iraq more than five years after the invasion, to speak of this urge to surge and its results as "success" or as "good news" is essentially obscene. Think of Iraq instead as a cocked gun. It's loaded, it's held to your head, and things are improving only to the extent that, recently, it hasn't gone off.

Iraq itself is wreckage beyond anything that could have been imagined back in March 2003; liberation is, by now, a black joke; the Bush administration's "benchmarks" for Iraqi success remain largely unmet, and still we keep "liberating" that land, still we keep killing Iraqis in prodigious numbers. A Vietnam-style body count, once banished by an administration that wanted no reminders of the last disastrous American counterinsurgency war, is now back with a vengeance, even if violence is down. These days, in its statements, the U.S. military is counting scalps almost everywhere there's fighting in Iraq.

A Great Lie of History

"We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people." This was one of the great lies of history. And all the while, the price of oil -- the one product Iraq has and, in present conditions, can't get at adequately -- continues to soar. There is no "good news" in any of this, unless you happen to be an undertaker, nor is there any end to it in sight.

Of the political surge in Iraq -- all those advisers and Provincial Reconstruction Teams pouring into the country -- Michael Massing has written bluntly: "[I]t has been an utter failure. 'Dysfunctional' is how one visiting adviser described it, citing bitter inter-agency battles, micromanagement from Washington, and an acute mismatch between the skills of the advisers and the needs of the Iraqi government."

The same could be said -- and someday undoubtedly will be -- of the rest of the U.S. effort, including the much lauded recent counterinsurgency part of it.

So let me offer this bit of advice. When you read the news, skip the "good" part. The figures demonstrating "improvement" may (or may not) be perfectly real, but they also represent an effort to dominate (as well as divide and conquer) in an essentially colonial fashion; worse yet, it's an effort barely held together by baling wire and reliant on the destruction of ever more Iraqi neighborhoods.

If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn't be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.

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