The Myth of the Surge
“I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated. It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
— President Barack Obama
One of the enduring myths of the Iraq War is that George W. Bush’s “surge” of 30,000 US troops into Iraq in 2007, reduced the number of attacks on US troops and effectively defeated the Sunni-led insurgency in Baghdad. This is entirely false. The surge was largely a public relations campaign that was designed to conceal the activities of US-funded and trained Shia death squads that were killing or expelling millions of Sunnis from Baghdad in what turned out to be one the greatest incidents of ethnic cleansing in the modern era. While the MSM still refuses to acknowledge what was actually taking place on the ground even before Bush deployed his meager 22,000 US troops to Baghdad, a disturbing article in last week’s Guardian helps to connect the dots. Here’s an excerpt from the article titled “From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads”:
“In 2004, with the war in Iraq going from bad to worse, the US drafted in a veteran of Central America’s dirty wars to help set up a new force to fight the insurgency. The result: secret detention centres, torture and a spiral into sectarian carnage….
For over a year the Guardian has been trying to contact (Retired Colonel Jim) Steele, 68, to ask him about his role during the Iraq war as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s personal envoy to Iraq’s Special Police Commandos: a fearsome paramilitary force that ran a secret network of detention centres across the country – where those suspected of rebelling against the US-led invasion were tortured for information.
On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion the allegations of American links to the units that eventually accelerated Iraq’s descent into civil war cast the US occupation in a new and even more controversial light. The investigation was sparked over a year ago by millions of classified US military documents dumped onto the Internet and their mysterious references to US soldiers ordered to ignore torture. Private Bradley Manning, 25, is facing a 20-year sentence, accused of leaking military secrets.
Steele’s contribution was pivotal. He was the covert US figure behind the intelligence gathering of the new commando units. The aim: to halt a nascent Sunni insurgency in its tracks by extracting information from detainees.
It was a role made for Steele. The veteran had made his name in El Salvador almost 20 years earlier as head of a US group of special forces advisers who were training and funding the Salvadoran military to fight the FNLM guerrilla insurgency. These government units developed a fearsome international reputation for their death squad activities. Steele’s own biography describes his work there as the “training of the best counterinsurgency force” in El Salvador.” (From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads”, Guardian)
It’s worth noting that the article in the Guardian has been universally ignored in the US media presumably because its revelations suggest that the civilian leadership (Bush, Rumsfeld and Co.) may be guilty of war crimes. Here’s more from the article:
“Celerino Castillo, a Senior Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who worked alongside Steele in El Salvador, says: “I first heard about Colonel James Steele going to Iraq and I said they’re going to implement what is known as the Salvadoran Option in Iraq and that’s exactly what happened. And I was devastated because I knew the atrocities that were going to occur in Iraq which we knew had occurred in El Salvador.”
It was in El Salvador that Steele first came in to close contact with the man who would eventually command US operations in Iraq: David Petraeus. Then a young major, Petraeus visited El Salvador in 1986 and reportedly even stayed with Steele at his house.
” …..A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.
Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.” (Guardian)
So, Petraeus not only knew what was going on, he must have been directly involved. In fact, he must have given the green light to his subordinates to carry out their operations. Knowledge of this report may explain why Petraeus recently stepped down as director of the CIA using a sex scandal for cover. Here’s more from the Guardian:
“Just before Petraeus and Steele left Iraq in September 2005, Jabr al-Solagh was appointed as the new minister of the interior. Under Solagh, who was closely associated with the violent Badr Brigades militia, allegations of torture and brutality by the commandos soared. It was also widely believed that the units had evolved into death squads.
The Guardian has learned that high-ranking Iraqis who worked with the US after the invasion warned Petraeus of the consequences of appointing Solagh but their pleas were ignored.
The long-term impact of funding and arming this paramilitary force was to unleash a deadly sectarian militia that terrorised the Sunni community and helped germinate a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. At the height of that sectarian conflict, 3,000 bodies a month were strewn on the streets of Iraq.” (“Revealed: Pentagon’s link to Iraqi torture centres”, Guardian)
Think about that for a minute: The author is admitting that US support for the Shia deaths squads is what caused the downward spiral of violence and the vicious sectarian war that persisted for years. Was that what the Bush administration had in mind from the beginning?
Probably not, but clearly by 2004 Rumsfeld saw that the war could not be won with the number of troops he had which is why he resorted to unconventional means to achieve his objectives. Enter Steele, and a way to pacify Baghdad without admitting that General Shinseki had been right from the onset and that the US occupation would require 500,000 troops to establish security.
Keep in mind, that the Bush administration had also commissioned the Rand Corporation “to develop a Shaping Strategy for pacifying Muslim populations where the US has commercial or strategic interests.” The conclusions of the document–which was titled called: “US Strategy in the Muslim World after 9-11”– are fairly consistent with the approach on the ground. Rand said that the US, “Align its policy with Shiite groups who aspire to have more participation in government and greater freedoms of political and religious expression. If this alignment can be brought about, it could erect a barrier against radical Islamic movements and may create a foundation for a stable U.S. position in the Middle East.”
In any event, Rumsfeld and Petreaus threw their weight behind the Shia in an attempt to rebuild the state according to their own neoliberal specifications. But as the Sunni-led resistance gained momentum and attacks on US soldiers increased, the US high-command tried to fuel sectarian animosities to divert attention from the occupation. Beginning with the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque (Askariya Mosque)–which many Shia including Mahdi Army chief, Muqtada al-Sadr, still believe was carried out by American Intel agents and not Sunni fighters–the US media changed the prevailing narrative on Iraq from insurgency to civil war. This change in the storyline downplayed the struggle against foreign occupation and replaced it with incidents of Sunni-Shia violence. The MSM never mentioned the fact that Iraq had no history of sectarian clashes.
As veteran journalist Robert Fisk said at the time:
“Iraq is not a sectarian society. People are intermarried. Shi’is and Sunnis marry each other…Some from the militias and death squads want a civil war (but) there has never been a civil war in Iraq. The real question I ask myself is: who are these people who are trying to provoke a civil war? The Americans will say that it’s al Qaida or the Sunni insurgents; it is the death squads. Many of the death squads work for the Ministry of Interior? Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads? We do; the occupation authorities.” (Robert Fisk, “Somebody is trying to provoke a Civil War in Iraq”)
Interestingly, Fisk goes on to support his thesis by suggesting that agents provocateur may have been responsible for bombings that were killing hundreds of Iraqi civilians at the time. In his article, “Seen through a Syrian Lens” (UK Independent 4-29-06) Fisk recalls a conversation he had with a trusted “security source” who told him that: (the US) “is desperately trying to provoke a civil war around Baghdad in order to reduce its own military casualties.”
“I swear to you that we have very good information,” Fisk recounts, “One young Iraqi man told us that he was trained by the Americans as a policeman in Baghdad and he spent 70 per cent of his time learning to drive and 30 per cent in weapons training. They said to him: ‘Come back in a week.’ When he went back, they gave him a mobile phone and told him to drive into a crowded area near a mosque and phone them. He waited in the car but couldn’t get the right mobile signal. So he got out of the car to where he received a better signal. Then his car blew up.”
As incredible as it sounds, Fisk assures us that he heard the same story many times from many different sources. As he says later in the same article:
“There was another man, trained by the Americans for the police. He too was given a mobile and told to drive to an area where there was a crowd – maybe a protest – and to call them and tell them what was happening. Again, his new mobile was not working. So he went to a landline phone and called the Americans and told them: ‘Here I am, in the place you sent me and I can tell you what’s happening here.’ And at that moment there was a big explosion in his car.”
Whatever the truth may be, Fisk’s stories add to the growing body of hearsay evidence that western Intel agencies may have been directly involved in inciting sectarian violence. The idea that the Bush administration might have given the go-ahead for acts of terror seems more plausible now that the Guardian has produced evidence of US involvement in the torture and training Shia death squads.
But what does any of this have to do with the surge?
It explains the context in which the surge was carried out. There were three factors that came into play that reduced the attacks on US troops. First, Moktada al-Sadr ordered a temporary cease fire that lasted for nearly a year. Second, the US persuaded 90,000 Sunni tribesman to join the the “Awakening Councils” in order to put an end to al Qaida’s random attacks on civilians. (This seriously weakened the resistance.) And, third, the US assisted the Interior Ministry’s Special Police Commandos in their effort to kill or displace tens of thousands of Sunnis across Baghdad in order to pacify the capital. The point is, the ethnic cleansing succeeded in reducing the attacks on US troops, while the surge had no impact at all. Here’s another clip from the Guardian that helps to illustrate the savagery of the policy:
“With Steele and Coffman as his point men, Petraeus began pouring money from a multimillion dollar fund into what would become the Special Police Commandos. …
With Petraeus’s almost unlimited access to money and weapons, and Steele’s field expertise in counterinsurgency the stage was set for the commandos to emerge as a terrifying force. One more element would complete the picture. The US had barred members of the violent Shia militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army from joining the security forces, but by the summer of 2004 they had lifted the ban.
Shia militia members from all over the country arrived in Baghdad “by the lorry-load” to join the new commandos. These men were eager to fight the Sunnis: many sought revenge for decades of Sunni-supported, brutal Saddam rule, and a chance to hit back at the violent insurgents and the indiscriminate terror of al-Qaida.
Petraeus and Steele would unleash this local force on the Sunni population as well as the insurgents and their supporters and anyone else who was unlucky enough to get in the way. It was classic counterinsurgency. It was also letting a lethal, sectarian genie out of the bottle. The consequences for Iraqi society would be catastrophic. At the height of the civil war two years later 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Iraq — many of them innocent civilians of sectarian war.” (“From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads”, Guardian)
While the article mainly focuses on the criminal mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by the US-trained police commandos, (Guardian: “We’d be tied to a spit or we’d be hung from the ceiling by our hands and our shoulders would be dislocated,” one told us. The second said: “They electrocuted me. They hung me up from the ceiling. They were pulling at my ears with pliers, stamping on my head, asking me about my wife, saying they would bring her here.”) what we’re interested in is how the surge was used to cover an equally-heinous war crime, the massive ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s Sunni population, millions of who were either killed, tortured or forced to flee to Jordan or Syria.
The plan to purge the Sunnis from Baghdad preceded the surge and, in fact, was going on months before the new deployments arrived. Jon Swain of the Times-online provided a chilling description of the military onslaught that was being carried out in the predominantly Sunni Haifa neighborhood just a few hundred yards outside the Green Zone:
(The operation involved over) “1,000 American and Iraqi troops backed by Apache helicopters and F-18 fighter jets; it was one of the most spectacular military operations there since the American invasion in spring of 2003. Flames and clouds of smoke filled the area as the battle against Sunni insurgents raged. Helicopters raked the rooftops with rocket and machine gun fire, jets swooped down to almost rooftop level, and tanks and fighting vehicles took up supporting positions as innocent people cowered inside.”
As one 55 year old resident of Haifa queried, “Is this the new paradise the Americans said they would give us when they invaded our country?” Then he added, “When is this nightmare going to end”?
Another article which appeared in Azzaman news service titled “US Warplanes bomb Baghdad as Street Battles Rage” provides a similar account of US attacks on neighborhoods in the capital:
“US troops are deploying massive air and ground fire against heavily populated residential areas in Baghdad as a prelude to the start of a campaign to retake the city they invaded nearly 4 years ago….The victims have been innocent Iraqis and the city’s rickety infrastructure.”
The US military provided the necessary firepower so the Shia militias could do their dirty work and expel entire families from their homes and eventually, from the capital. This is how Bush pacified Baghdad, by unleashing a campaign of terror that wiped out tens of thousands of innocent civilians and reducing the majority Sunni population into a dwindling and powerless minority.
A few prescient observers knew what was going on at the time from reports from their sources in Baghdad. Here’s how journalist Dahr Jamail summed it up in his article titled, “Southern Tribes are joining the Armed Resistance”:
“A political analyst in Baghdad told IPS that he believes occupation forces have been working in tandem with death squads. We have been observing American and British occupation forces supporting those death squads all over Iraq, but we are still hoping for reconciliation.’”
Author Max Fuller was even more explicit. He said:
“What we do know, however, is that hundreds of Iraqis are being murdered and that paramilitary hit squads of the proxy government organized by US trainers with a fulsome pedigree in state terrorism are increasingly being associated with them.”
The surge was merely a PR charade intended to disguise the vast war crimes that were perpetrated against the Iraqi people. We can only hope that someday their voices will be heard and that the people responsible will be brought to justice.
Watch “James Steele–America’s mystery man in Iraq” : 58 minute video.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.