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Counter-Insurgency Deceptions in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Myth of Humanitarian Catastrophe

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

Despite a 2008 U.S.-Iraqi agreement requiring a total withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011, U.S. Admiral and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen is now “warning” Iraqi leaders that they only have a few weeks to decide if they want troops to remain in the country past the formal withdrawal date.  In recent weeks, Democrats and Republicans have also recently taken up “debate” over Obama’s alleged plan for “withdrawal” from Afghanistan.  U.S. military planners love to frame their violent occupations as necessary “humanitarian” interventions, aimed at “saving” the poor and downtrodden of the third world.  These claims have always been disingenuous, and the gravity of recent evidence suggests that efforts to entertain the humanitarian myth amount to little more than propaganda.   

Take for example, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Both occupations were vehemently defended by liberal and conservative political officials, as well as their counterparts in the mass media under the guise of pure intentions and selfless sacrifice.  Both occupations are opposed by the majority of Americans, Afghans and Iraqis on the grounds that the destruction they’ve caused leave countries worse off than if the U.S. had simply not intervened in the first place. 

In the case of Afghanistan, the Obama administration announced that the beginning of a phased withdrawal could begin as early as July of 2011, and continue through 2014.  The 2011 withdrawal date was promised as far back as late 2009, at the same time that Obama announced his “surge” of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  Obama’s ‘09 withdrawal announcement, made simultaneously alongside his announcement of the escalation of war, was unprecedented in U.S. history.  Rarely do aggressors provide an “exit strategy” at the onset of their onslaughts.  This novel development, however, reflected not so much the “democratic” responsiveness of the Obama administration to the public (considering that most Americans opposed the war at the time, and continue to do so today), but rather a begrudging concession on the part of the Democrats that they can no longer pursue (a la Bush) bloody wars without a (at least vague) promised end in sight.  Still the unprecedented escalation-de-escalation strategy should hardly be viewed as a “revolutionary” development in U.S. foreign policy.  After all, under Obama the Afghan war is set to endure for a grueling 13 years at minimum, considering the initial escalation of the conflict began immediately following the September 11th attacks.  Furthermore, through the first four years of his presidency, Obama will have spent more on the military than even George W. Bush did by the end of his first term.  If anything, Obama has demonstrated that imperialist policies and military escalation can be even more effectively pursued under Democratic regimes, with “anti-war” figures like Obama farcically celebrated as a proponent of “de-escalation” and “peace.”

Predictably, the even more hopelessly war-addicted Republicans have attacked Obama’s “withdrawal” timetable as dangerous, irresponsible, and naïvely “anti-war.”  John McCain announced shortly following the ’09 Afghanistan escalation that any inclusion of a withdrawal date was “dispiriting,” and would guarantee that Afghans would be less likely to “risk their lives to take our side in this fight.”  The withdrawal date, McCain argued, is one that “enemies can exploit to weaken and intimidate our friends.”  In March of this year, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman similarly announced that he was skeptical of a possible withdrawal, considering the “security interests in Afghanistan that we must accept…we need to make sure that the Taliban don’t take over the country.”  Coffman’s comments came at a time when a non-binding House resolution calling for a full, accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan (by year’s end) was defeated by a vote of 93-321, with only eight Republicans voting in support.

Efforts to establish a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq were similarly lambasted at every turn by liberals and conservatives during the early years of that war, and later by conservative hawks once mainstream liberals decided the war was no longer “worth it” in terms of financial cost and American lives.  U.S. officials repeatedly warn (no matter the conflict) that a withdrawal will inevitably result in increased instability, chaos, and bloodbath.  In 2008, for example, the neoconservative editors of the Washington Post were still chastising President Obama for his “unrealistic” withdrawal plan (7/8/2008).  The editors celebrated the U.S. for its supposedly successful “counterinsurgency strategy” which “helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence.”  They warned that “it would be folly to begin a forced march out of the country without regard to the risks of renewed sectarian warfare and escalating intervention in the country by Iran and other of Iraq’s neighbors.”

The occupation of Iraq never really ended, although one wouldn’t know this due to the meager-to-non-existent coverage of the conflict in the mass media.  The Associated Press reported in March of this year that, “Eight years later [after the U.S. invasion], thousands of U.S. troops remain in Iraq — and their mission may not be accomplished until far into the future.  Despite a security agreement requiring a full U.S. military withdrawal by the year’s end, hundreds if not thousands of American soldiers [47,000 more accurately] will continue to be in Iraq beyond 2011.”  It is true, as USA Today reported last year, that as of September 2010 the mandate for U.S. troops under the newly declared “Operation New Dawn” is to “focus on training Iraqis to handle their own security and have U.S. combat authority curtailed.”  This point, however, is extremely important because it establishes a marker date, which helps in comparing violence in Iraq prior to and following the end of major combat operations (excluding special ops campaigns, which have continued following August 2010). 

How has Iraq fared after the end of major U.S. combat operations?  As the New York Times reported in December of 2010 (four months after the U.S. “withdrawal”), violence in Iraq was at its lowest levels since the start of the occupation in 2003.  Total recorded civilian casualties for 2010, as reported by the Iraq Body Count project, stood at 3,976, down from 4,680 in 2009, and from the high of 2,327 a month in 2006 at the height of Iraq’s civil war.  Monthly deaths in the last four months of 2010 (after the U.S. “withdrawal”) stood at 270 a month, amounting to a 27 percent reduction from the 370 a month average for the first eight months of 2010.  Casualties in early 2011 have remained at generally lower levels, as the country averaged 314 deaths a month – a 15 percent reduction from the first eight months of 2010 (before the end of major U.S. combat operations). 

The implications of these figures were ignored in typical Orwellian fashion by the editors of the Washington Post, who celebrated “a good year in Iraq” in 2010, in which “violence, has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades” (12/22/2010).  Presumably, the paper expected Americans to forget it had incompetently predicted that the exact opposite would happen if Obama was allowed to follow through with his tepid July 2008 call for a “phased redeployment of combat troops” that would culminate in a removal of “combat brigades” by July of 2010.

Anyone who critically followed the war in Iraq was aware of the poverty of warnings that withdrawal would lead to national collapse and civil war.  Quite the opposite, violence steadily escalated under the U.S. occupation and transformed into full-blown civil war throughout the first five years of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. 

At every step of the war, the U.S. was responsible for escalating the conflict and violence – as consistently recognized by the majority of Iraqis themselves in surveys done over the years.  Bush’s staggering incompetence in dissolving Iraq’s military, government, and security forces led directly to the country’s deterioration into civil war, as Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish sectarian militias and “insurgents” stepped in to compete for control and in order to fill the power vacuum.  The U.S. washed its hands of responsibility for the destruction, as it announced its abandonment of reconstruction funding in January of 2006 – thereby ensuring that there would be no progress in improving Iraq’s infrastructure, devastated by decades of (U.S.-sponsored) war and sanctions.

The United States could hardly be divorced from Iraq’s destabilization in light of its own bombings and counter-insurgency operations, which were estimated to have led to more than half of the total 655,000 deaths in Iraq by 2006 (at the height of the country’s civil war).  Total deaths under the occupation were calculated to reach as high as 1.2 million by 2007, following the onset of Bush’s allegedly humanitarian “surge.”  Such destruction does not even take into account the humiliating torture suffered by countless Iraqis (a la Abu Ghraib) who were often collectively detained and terrorized during counter-insurgency operations, typically based on flimsy to non-existent evidence.

The Bush administration’s own support for the “Salvador Option,” in which the U.S. employed and trained death squads to help in “counter-insurgency” efforts was an ominous example of the United States’ total contempt for stability and human rights in Iraq.  Such efforts directly contributed to the deterioration of security throughout the country, encouraging the growth in violence between Kurdish, Shia and Sunni populations, and inciting the indiscriminate targeting of Iraqi civilians across ethnic-sectarian lines.

The presence of more than 150,000 American troops served as a lightning rod for attracting Islamist suicide bombers and other terrorists who played a key role in the emerging civil war.  The occupation and the Bush administration’s opposition to democratic elections (later begrudgingly reversed by the administration after mass national protests) also provided much encouragement for Iraqi nationals (who made up the vast majority of the “insurgency”), who wished to take up arms against an unresponsive, repressive foreign power.  Such animosity toward the U.S. was hardly surprising in light of Bush’s “pacification” campaign, which collectively punished entire towns and cities by cutting off their food and water, or by destroying them altogether (as in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi).  The “logic” behind such attacks was that these cities were the sites of strong insurgent activity; in essence, collectively terrorizing the civilians in these areas was seen as a legitimate tool for coercing the Iraqi people into turning against the “insurgency.”

The last defense of the occupation typically starts by citing the 2007 “surge” of another 20,000 troops into Iraq as succeeding in reducing sectarian violence and ending the Iraqi civil war.  Careful analysis of the events surrounding the surge, however, suggests that this escalation succeeded in disarming Sunni communities in Baghdad, thereby enabling a massive ethnic cleansing (undertaken by Shia militias working under the cover of the Baghdad security forces) that eventually culminated with a decline in violence (only after large areas of the city were effectively cleared out of their Sunni inhabitants).  Even the National Intelligence Agency challenged the “surge worked” narrative, admitting in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that “population displacement [a la U.S.-enabled ethnic cleansing] has resulted from sectarian violence…the polarization of communities is most evident in Baghdad…where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves.”

Enter the war in Afghanistan.  Long promoted by Bush and Obama as necessary in fighting terror and promoting regional stability and democracy, the war has done anything but accomplish these goals.  Reconstruction was always a joke, as numerous critics have documented the overwhelming lack of funding allocated for rebuilding this war torn country.  Additionally, violence in Afghanistan remains at high levels today, as symbolized in a recent April attack in Kabul in which the New York Times reported that “an insurgent wearing an Afghan Army uniform and a vest laced with explosives opened fire inside the heavily fortified Ministry of Defense headquarters, killing at least two soldiers.”  The attack was intended to strike at France’s Minister of Defense, Gérard Longuet, who was supposed to be visiting the compound. 

The targeting of NATO and U.S. forces has grown in light of Obama’s ‘09 escalation, as Taliban forces seek to expel the United States and its allies from the country.  Since the U.S. escalated its campaign two years ago, violence has increased significantly.  Afghan civilian casualties increased by 15 percent from 2009 to 2010, as the total number of recorded dead totaled 5,189 for both years (total deaths from 2007 to 2010 have reached nearly 10,000). 

It is true that more than two-thirds of those killed in 2010 were the result of Taliban attacks (compared to sixteen percent that can be traced back to NATO and Afghan government forces).  Any attempt to exonerate the U.S. in light of the above statistics, however, is highly dubious.  As the Guardian reports, a now-declassified U.S. State Department cable (released via Wikileaks) one year before Obama’s ’09 escalation indicated that the U.S. had hoped for “a rising tide of chaos and violence, caused by increased NATO operations.”  As the cable explained, U.S. intelligence expressed support for putting increased pressure on the Taliban “in order to bring out their more violent and radical tendencies…this will alienate the population and give us an opportunity to separate the Taliban from the population.”  In other words, an active part of the U.S. plan was the encouragement of violence against civilians, in the hopes that the terror brought by the U.S. “surge” would end in the Afghan people turning against the Taliban.  It is within this context of U.S.-terror escalation that one should evaluate the steady growth in attacks (and the ensuing destabilization) that have taken place since Obama began his surge.

An honest evaluation of U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrates that the U.S. is responsible for escalating, rather than reducing violence and destabilization.  This inconvenient truth is predictably ignored by media pundits and political officials who retain a vested political interest in perpetuating the myth that “humanitarian catastrophe” will ensue if the U.S. withdraws.  Critics of these wars know the opposite is true.  The sooner the U.S. fully withdraws from Afghanistan, the greater the chances that mass violence and social deterioration will subside. 

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the co-author (with Paul Street) of the forthcoming “Crashing the Tea Party” (Paradigm Publishers) due out in May 2011.  He is also the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu