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With last week’s announced escalation of the war in Afghanistan, including an Iraq-like "surge" replete with 4,000 more U.S. troops and a sizable increase in private contractors, President Barack Obama blew the lid off of any lingering perceptions that he somehow represents a significant change in how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy.
In the meantime, more reports have emerged that bolster suspicions that Obama’s Iraq policy is but a downsized version of Bush’s and that a total withdrawal of U.S. forces is not on the horizon.
In the latest episode of Occupation Rebranded, it was revealed that the administration intends to reclassify some combat forces as "advisory and assistance brigades." While Obama’s administration is officially shunning the use of the term "global war on terror," the labels du jour, unfortunately, seem to be the biggest changes we will see for some time.
Underscoring this point is a report just released by the War Resisters League, which for decades has closely monitored the military budget, revealing how many tax dollars are actually going to the war machine. The WRL puts out its famous pie chart annually just before tax time as a reminder of what we are doing exactly when we file our returns. Noting that 51 percent of the federal budget goes to military spending, the WRL said it does "not expect the military percentage to change much" under Obama.
While Obama — and public attention — shifted foreign policy focus last week to Afghanistan, lost in the media blitz was another important report that examines how taxpayers will continue to pay for the Iraq occupation for years to come, withdrawal or not. This report, released in March by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, provides a sobering look at Obama’s "massive and expensive" Iraq plan, identifying several crucial questions that have yet to be addressed.
Whether or not the Obama administration actually intends to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in numbers large enough to claim to be "ending the war" as many believe, this kind of official review of the U.S. reality in Iraq — and the congressional oversight to which Obama will (or will not) be subjected in the coming months — bears intense scrutiny.
First, there’s the money. "Although reducing troops would appear to lower costs, GAO has seen from previous operations … that costs could rise in the near term," according to the 56-page report, which is titled "Iraq: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight."
In addition to the massive funds required to move tens of thousands of troops, the GAO points out that the Army estimates "it would cost $12 billion to $13 billion a year for at least two years after the operation ends to repair, replace and rebuild the equipment used in Iraq."
The cost of closing U.S. bases will also "likely be significant;" even after military units leave Iraq, the Pentagon will need to invest in training and equipment to return these units to levels capable of performing "full spectrum operations." (The GAO report does not even mention the costs of providing much-needed medical and mental health services to veterans.)
The Obama administration is likely to portray the costs of "withdrawing" from Iraq as a painful necessity made inevitable by the Bush administration. But there are already calls for Obama to not allocate any new funds for such an operation. Retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a veteran diplomat who reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul after Sept. 11 (and, while in the military, worked on plans for an Iraq invasion), says, "Everyone in the Department of Defense — military and civilian — knows well the expense of going to war and the expense of bringing troops back to the United States.
"DOD has plenty of money to withdraw equipment and personnel and no doubt has had monies specifically for that purpose built into its budgets for years. The Congress should not provide additional funding for withdrawal, but instead require DOD to use existing allocations."
In fact, the GAO characterizes the Pentagon’s monthly reports on financial obligations under the global war on terrorism as being of "questionable reliability," adding that it "found numerous problems with DOD’s processes for recording and reporting its war-related costs."
"Without transparent and accurate cost information," the GAO warns, "Congress and DOD will not have reliable information on how much the war is costing, sufficient details on how appropriated funds are spent, or the reliable historical data needed to develop and provide oversight of future funding needs."
Dollars aside, the new GAO report report raises serious questions about how Obama will handle key challenges that will ultimately determine Iraq’s future and the extent of the U.S. presence in the country. Among the questions the Obama administration has yet to answer: How to dismantle or hand over the 283 U.S. installations in Iraq (including more than 50 large military bases); What to do with the 160,000-plus private U.S. contractors in Iraq; Who will provide security for the massive — and likely expanding — army of diplomats deployed in the country at the monstrous U.S. embassy in Baghdad?
Iraqis Could Vote the U.S. Out: Would Obama Listen?
Obama, of course, has always said that his Iraq policy is not set in stone and that he will adjust it according to "conditions on the ground" — a sweeping disclaimer that could mean a 180-degree shift on a dime.
The GAO report acknowledges that under the Status of Forces Agreement, Iraq and the U.S. can "extend the draw-down time frame" if necessary, adding, "Either government can unilaterally terminate the security agreement by providing 12 months advance notice." In the absence of clearly identified conditions for the stability of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, one scenario that could result in Obama extending the U.S. occupation is if the Washington-backed Baghdad regime is threatened by an uprising.
Statistics presented by the GAO are worth considering: "[T]he number of Iraqi army and police forces nearly doubled from about 320,000 in January 2007 to just over 600,000 in October 2008. However, according to the Department of Defense, over the same period, the number of Iraqi army units capable of conducting operations independently remained at about 10 percent of total units."
Iraq is scheduled to have a national referendum on the SOFA this summer, and the GAO report notes that "the Iraqi government has said it would abide by the results." This means that if Iraqis reject it, "U.S. forces would have to leave Iraq by as early as July 2010." At this point, it seems impossible to imagine Obama having all U.S. forces out of Iraq a year from now — and certainly not his residual force of up to 50,000 troops. The GAO report suggests that Congress ask the Obama administration, "What are the U.S. contingency plans in the event that Iraqis vote against the security agreement in July 2009?"
More broadly, the GAO asks, "To what extent will the United States attempt to renegotiate provisions of the security agreement if security conditions deteriorate or other conditions are deemed insufficient to draw down responsibly?"
These questions will prove crucial in determining the sincerity of Obama’s campaign pledge to end the war.
Will the U.S. Walk Away From its 283 Bases in Iraq?
In a dramatic understatement, the GAO notes that the U.S. "has an extensive basing footprint in Iraq. … Closing or handing over U.S. installations in Iraq will be time consuming and costly." With no fewer than 283 such installations throughout Iraq — 51 large bases and 232 smaller bases — the Obama administration has not said how it will approach this formidable task.
This is no minor detail. "According to U.S. Army officials, experience has shown that it takes one to two months to close the smallest platoon — or company — size installations, which contain between 16 and 200 combat soldiers or Marines."
However, the U.S. "has never closed large, complex installations — such as Balad Air Force Base, which contains about 24,000 inhabitants and has matured over five years. U.S. Army officials estimate it could take longer than 18 months to close a base of that size." Obama should explain clearly how he intends to dismantle these bases or to what forces he is going to give control over them.
It is very hard to imagine that the U.S. will simply walk away from large bases it spent years building. So, will they be turned over to Iraq? If so, to whom? What guarantee is there that they would not be used as operating bases for death squads? Will some be destroyed? What about the environmental impact?
In addition to the bases, the GAO reveals that, as of of March 2008, "the United States had in place about 170,000 pieces of equipment worth about $16.5 billion that would need to be removed from Iraq." Erik Leaver, a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, says,"An example of a tough question: What to do with MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles]?"
"The MRAPs are so heavy, transport back to the U.S., plus the rehab charges may make it cost-effective to actually destroy them," says Leaver. "Plus, if you need to move 120,000 soldiers in a rapid time frame, do you even have the space to bring them back if you take the MRAPs?"
Then there are the facilities in Iraq currently being run by U.S. contractors. According to the GAO, Defense Contract Management Agency officials estimate "there is at least $3.5 billion worth of contractor-managed government-owned property in Iraq."
Troops Withdrawal, Contractor Surge?
Despite his much-celebrated troop withdrawal announcement, Obama has said nothing publicly about what he intends to do with the 163,000 "security contractors" deployed in Iraq, whose ranks outnumber U.S. troops. This is most likely because, as the GAO reports, there is no plan.
"From late 2007 through July 2008, planning for the redeployment of U.S. forces did not include a theaterwide plan for redeploying contractors," the GAO report reveals.
In fact, the GAO raises the prospect that Obama will actually increase reliance on private contractors — including armed contractors like those who work for Blackwater — particularly given the Obama administration’s stated intention to increase diplomatic and reconstruction work in Iraq, which will create a greater need for "diplomatic security."
According to the GAO, the State Department spent about $1.1 billion from 2006 to 2008 on 1,400 private security contractors in Iraq. As of January 2009, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (the main employer of Blackwater and other armed contractors responsible for guarding U.S. diplomats and occupation officials), has already experienced a drastic increase in workload.
"State’s reliance on contractors may increase as the department currently depends on DOD to provide some services," says the GAO, citing the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo, where "contractors assumed responsibility for certain support functions that had been previously performed by military personnel."
Of course, executives at private security companies have long suggested that a U.S. military draw down could mean a greater role for private forces in Iraq.
"To what extent does State have contingency plans in place if Embassy Baghdad is unable to decrease its reliance on U.S. civilian government personnel over the next 5 years?" asks the GAO report.
The report also addresses question of accountability for contractors, noting that they are no longer officially immune from prosecution under Iraq’s legal system. Indeed, after the suspension of the Paul Bremer-era Order 17 and the signing of the SOFA, contractors are now ostensibly bound by Iraqi law — but not one has been prosecuted in Iraq for any crime, and it seems doubtful that any U.S. president would allow this to happen.
According to the GAO, "a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee is working to establish procedures and guidelines for exercising Iraqi jurisdiction for private contractors operating in Iraq, including those covered by the security agreement." In other words, believe it when it happens.
No More Bailouts Until Iraq Has Clean Drinking Water
The GAO report is a pretty dry read, but seasoned observers of the Iraq occupation might find humor in one of the report’s graphs. It maps the drastic decline in the number of nations participating in the Iraq occupation, the so-called coalition of the willing, from 2004 to the present.
"As of March 2009, only three coalition partners remain in Iraq — Australia, Romania and the United Kingdom," the GAO reports, illustrating the point with a sharp, steep slope. "These coalition partners have an agreement with Iraq to remove their troops by July 2009. At that time, the United States will be the sole remaining nation with troops stationed in Iraq."
Another important figure included in the report that is anything but humorous — and rarely talked about — is the huge number of people imprisoned or detained by the U.S. in Iraq: 15,000. Many of these prisoners are being held without charge or access to due process. Under existing agreements between Iraq and the U.S., they are slated to either be turned over to Iraq’s legal system or released.
Interestingly, the GAO report does raise concerns about the dismal shape of Iraq’s legal system, citing a December 2008 Human Rights Watch report that "concluded Iraq’s central criminal court ‘seriously’ failed to meet international standards of due process and fair trials." The GAO cites "concerns that detainees in Iraqi custody may be tortured or mistreated because Iraqi officials often rely on coerced confessions instead of physical evidence, particularly in criminal cases."
It is telling that the GAO raised this concern in a section about the prospect of U.S. contractors being stripped of immunity and subjected to the Iraqi justice system, not Iraqis handed over to the Baghdad regime by the U.S. Regarding the fate of the Iraqi prisoners, the GAO report dryly notes, "many implementing details for this process must be resolved."
Perhaps the saddest portion of the GAO report relates to what should be done to address the massive suffering in Iraq and what the U.S. responsibility should be for paying for the tremendous devastation of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure over the past 20 years.
Just take the issue of water. As of now, according to the report, "many Iraqis are without water or have access to water that puts them at risk of diseases such as cholera and dysentery, as evidenced by outbreaks in 2007 and 2008. According to the United Nations, only 40 percent of children have reliable access to safe drinking water; with water-treatment plants operating at only 17 percent capacity, large volumes of untreated waste are discharged into Iraq’s waterways. The health risks associated with a lack of access to potable water and proper sewage treatment are compounded by the shortage of medical professionals in Iraq’s health care system."
According to the World Bank, it would cost $14.4 billion to rebuild the Iraqi public works and water system. In other words, about five weeks of the overall cost of the U.S. occupation.
Instead of discussing U.S. reparations or restitution, as groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War have demanded, the report asks the Obama administration what more the Iraqi government can do to fund reconstruction projects. "We’ve just spent $700 billion to bail out Wall Street," says IPS’ Erik Leaver. "While the report notes that the U.S. spent $9.5 billion and Iraq budgeted for $17.2 billion for reconstruction of a war torn society. The scale of what we’ve done on the civilian end is absurd."
Before one more cent is spent on bailing out corrupt corporations that destroyed the U.S. economy, Iraqis should have clean drinking water. After all, it was the illegal U.S. wars that took it from them in the first place. And that is not logic based on lies.
JEREMY SCAHILL, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
This article originally appeared on Alternet.