The Iraq War is coming up on its fourth anniversary. Increasingly embattled, even desperate, President Bush has decided to send another 21,500 American troops into the fight. They will join over 150,000 U.S. soldiers already deployed in Iraq.
In the speech on January 10 explaining his decision, President Bush argued in almost apocalyptic terms that “failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.” The echoes of America’s war in Vietnam are hard to miss. In March 1967, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “As our commitment in Vietnam required more men and more equipment, some voices were raised in opposition. The administration was urged to disengage, to find an excuse to abandon the effort But if we faltered, the forces of chaos would scent victory and decades of strife and aggression would stretch endlessly before us. The choice was clear. We would stay the course. And we shall stay the course.”
American forces in Iraq are still far short of the military deployment the United States had in Vietnam. U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam increased from less than 20,000 in early 1964 to more than half a million by 1969. But the difference between the force levels–and the two situations — is a lot less than most people think. There is, after all, not just one U.S. army in Iraq.
U.S. Army #2
In December 2006, according to the Washington Post, “There are about 100,000 government contractors operating in Iraq, not counting subcontractors, a total that is approaching the size of the U.S. military force there, according to the military’s first census of the growing population of civilians operating in the battlefield.”
These contractors, many founded and staffed by former American soldiers, provide essential services for the U.S. military, including interpreters who go out with military patrols, intelligence analysis, security guards, interrogating prisoners (including during the torture at Abu Ghraib), maintaining and even operating military equipment, constructing military bases, and cooking and cleaning for soldiers. Soldiers would ordinarily perform these jobs. Many contractor employees live with U.S. troops on military bases. At least 650 have been killed. These numbers suggest that the effective U.S. military commitment to Iraq is already about 250,000 strong and may be significantly larger.
While private military contractors are paid for by the U.S. government, and are an increasingly important part of the U.S. occupation in Iraq (and its military activities elsewhere), they have been subject neither to local law nor U.S. military law. To take but one example, a U.S. military court tried and sentenced some of the American soldiers involved in torture at Abu Ghraib, but the civilian interrogators involved, employed by U.S. contractors, faced no punishment.
According to Peter Singer, an expert on U.S. private military contractors, “Not one contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with any crime over the last three and a half years, let alone prosecuted or punished. Given the raw numbers of contractors, let alone the incidents we know about, it boggles the mind.”
This may be about to change. A little noted clause in the 2007 Defense Bill, enacted last October, placed contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military laws that govern the U.S. armed forces.
U.S. Army #3
The third American army in Iraq is an invisible army, driven not by duty, or greed, but by need. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed some of the ugly truth about the sub-contractors that are paid to do the menial work for the bigger U.S. and other military contractors. An international network of such companies has apparently brought thousands of laborers to Iraq. The Tribune reporters found that “subcontractors and brokers routinely seized workers’ passports, deceived them about their safety or contract terms and, in at least one case, allegedly tried to force terrified men into Iraq under the threat of cutting off their food and water.” The U.S. military has confirmed that laws banning human trafficking have been violated and has ordered contractors “to return passports that have been illegally confiscated from laborers on U.S. bases.”
It is hard to see how adding a few tens of thousands of soldiers will make much difference to an American force of at least a quarter of million already in Iraq. It is likely only to make things worse, and many people see that.
Recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans oppose Bush’s decision to send yet more troops to Iraq–a CNN poll found 66% of American opposed. About half (53%) of Americans think the new Congress should block the Bush plan. It should come as no surprise. More than half of Americans (57%) now think that the United States is losing the war in Iraq (up from 34% in December 2005).
The Bush decision has also attracted a lot of opposition and criticism from insiders. The highest levels of the U.S. military, the officers who make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, were opposed. The Washington Post reported that “White House officials [are] aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Colin Powell, who served as National Security Adviser and earlier as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before serving as Bush’s Secretary of State from 2001-2005, said that “I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work.”
Another former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski passed an even harsher verdict. Writing in the Washington Post, Brzezinski described the Bush plan for a military “surge” in Iraq as “a political gimmick of limited tactical significance and of no strategic benefit. It is insufficient to win the war militarily. It will engage U.S. forces in bloody street fighting that will not resolve with finality the ongoing turmoil and the sectarian and ethnic strife, not to mention the anti-American insurgency.”
For Brzezinski, the war in Iraq was always doomed. He has argued that “America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating. That is the fatal flaw of Bush’s policy.”
America’s three armies in Iraq exceed a quarter of a million. It is a commitment of people and money that is comparable to the Vietnam war. But it has not proved to be enough. The experience of Vietnam showed that adding more troops (or changing the local leadership, which may be the next US policy initiative in Iraq) cannot rescue a doomed mission. America’s imperial adventure in Iraq has failed. The choice is now whether the United States will accept defeat and withdraw quickly or, as in Vietnam, become more ruthless, turn against the very people it once claimed to protect, and seek to widen the war. As the violence grows, politics will fall silent and hasten an end that is becoming more pitiless, bloody, and bitter.
ZIA MIAN is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This report is a slightly revised version of an article published in Economic and Political Weekly on January 20, 2007.