Whether the anti-terror wars in the Persian Gulf area have adversely affected the response to the terror inflicted on the U.S. Gulf coast from Hurricane Katrina will be debated next week and argued for months and years to come. At the very least, Iraq diverted forces and equipment and especially focus from domestic needs to an ill-conceived foreign adventure.
Incredibly, Pentagon officials concede they underestimated the possibility, the intensity, and the duration of the insurgency in Iraq. Equally incredible, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials concede they (and others) in the Bush administration concede they underestimated the extent and depth (figuratively and literally) of the damage from Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans and nearby areas.
The result? In both cases, inadequate or ignored prior planning, leading to uncoordinated responses that, in Iraq, indisputably has cost lives. And because Iraq diverted focus and took people and critical high-water equipment that otherwise would have been useful for homeland security, at the very least it contributed to the growing numbers of lives lost in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
What follows is a bifurcated look at the cost of terror inflicted by choice and terror inflicted by nature and how the first affected the course of the second.
The First Two Fronts Against Terror
It was August 24. Reporters were impressed. Given his falling poll ratings, President Bush’s reception by members of the Idaho National Guard, Reserves, and their families was enthusiastic.
Of course, the White House press office clearly marked in the posted transcript of the president’s speech the 61 times he was interrupted by applause in this heavily Republican state. What the churlish reader discovers on perusing the transcript is that 24 applause breaks 40 percent, about the same percentage that approve of the president’s handling of the nation occur when he is naming all the dignitaries or thanking individuals and the crowd for turning out.
Pointing out how quickly this White House rewrites (or reinterprets) history also might be considered churlish. Bush credits “terrorists” with taking “effective control of the failed state of Afghanistan.” While Osama bin Laden did give the Kabul government money, the ruling Taliban also were being supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with substantial monetary support from the latter.
Bush asserted that on “September the 11th, 2001 we saw the future that the terrorists intend for our country and the lengths they’re willing to go to achieve their aims.” Skipping over the obvious point that the future cannot be fathomed because human actions and reactions are inherently unpredictable, what September 11th resembles is December 7th, 1941 when in a daring, long-distance foray Japanese naval aircraft surprised U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. Then the country faced the same choices that Bush says confronts the U.S. today: “We could hunker down, retreating behind a false sense of security, or we could bring the war to the [enemy].” And as did Franklin Roosevelt, Bush declared the nation will fight and win these first wars of the 21st century: “The battle lines in Iraq are now clearly drawn for the world to see, and there is no middle ground.”
Leave aside for a moment the question whether or not total victory or total surrender are the only options when terror calls. Leave aside also what constitutes “winning” when it comes to subduing terror. What would be required to suppress the insurgent violence, allow U.S. forces to withdraw, and leave a governable Iraq?
To answer this question, it might be helpful to review what the cost of the occupation has been so far (September 8).
U.S. military, 1,894;
coalition military, 196;
coalition contractors and security personnel, at least 262;
Iraqi military and police, 1,803 just in 2005;
Iraqi civilians, at least 5,560 in 2005 and a minimum of 24,585 since the war began.
It’s worth noting that the 500th U.S. fatality occurred on January 8, 2004, nearly 10 months after the war started. The 1,000th fatality came on September 6, 2004, an interval of eight months. Six months later, on March 2nd, the 1,500th fatality was recorded. With the passage of another six months and eight days, the grim reaper is only 106 names short of 2,000. Twice before, U.S. monthly fatalities have exceeded that number, and with an expected increase of 12,000 “boots-on-the-ground” (also known as “real people”) for the constitutional referendum, those 106 may come all too quickly.
Wounded: at least 14,120, many with head injuries, many more with limbs missing, many others with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that will not surface for years or even decades.
Dollars: According to a May 2005 Congressional Research Service report, the Defense Department as of that month had received $277.1 billion for warfighting, occupation duty, and support operations for Iraq, Afghanistan, and for enhanced security. Of this amount, $192 billion can be identified specifically for the Iraq war. Another $45 billion “bridge appropriation” is in the Fiscal Year 2006 Defense Appropriation bill. This will bring the totals to $322 billion for regional activities paid by defense dollars and $237 billion specifically for Iraq. And there undoubtedly will be a 2006 defense supplemental appropriations bill.
What will it take to “win?” Assume that concept ONLY includes leaving an Iraq that:
– is territorially the same size as before the March 2003 invasion and not on the verge of civil war,
– produces more oil and has a higher Gross National Product and per capita income than under Saddam Hussein’s rule,
– has full diplomatic relations with its neighbors and controls and can defend its borders,
– provides basic services, health care, and education,
– collects and distributes tax revenue, and
– is no more corrupt than other countries.
As noted in a June 2003 article for Foreign Policy in Focus (“Iraq: Descending into the Quagmire”), the Pentagon needs more forces on the ground and on the borders to contain the size of the insurgent force and then begin to shrink it. But with commanders on the ground estimating insurgent strength fighters, suppliers, supporters at 20,000-25,000, the coalition does not have enough troops even to meet the traditional counter-insurgency standard of 10 to 1. Some Iraqi security forces are able to stand completely on their own, but not enough and not in the really “hot spots” such as Anbar province.
Then there is the money. Most pre-war administration estimates anticipated costs of $100 billion or less to fight and rebuild Iraq. Since summer 2003, official reconstruction estimates have become an endangered species. But from that summer come two estimates that serve as benchmarks: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences projected costs at between $106-$615 billion over ten years while Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated between $114-$465 billion.
The Third Front of Terror
While the administration chose war and occupation in its confrontation with Iraq, the continuing inability of coalition troops to stem the terror the Iraqi people endure has constrained Washington’s options in dealing with North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Army and Marine units are on their second or third tours in Iraq, and both services are already planning rotations to take place in 2008 at relatively the same number as today: 130,000-135,000 troops.
As politicians of both parties call for increases in Army and Marine Corps personnel to help relieve the stress on the ground forces, the White House juggles its rhetoric and its diplomacy with the three “rogues.” Rhetorically, with North Korea and Iran, “all options are on the table.” Diplomatically, the U.S. and North Korea have held direct discussions within the framework of the Six Party talks no threats there. The U.S. has let the European Union (EU) Three Britain, France, and Germany take the diplomatic lead and keep pressure on Iran to scale back its nuclear program no threat of war there. Syria poses so minor a challenge that intermediaries are not needed especially after world outrage over the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri forced Syria to pull is troops from Lebanon.
Keeping all these balls in the air was not easy, but it was doable. Then, on August 29, terror struck the U.S. again. It wasn’t one of the rogue states; it wasn’t a country or a sub-national terrorist organization. This “third front” had no direct connection with Bush’s wars on terror. It was simply one of Nature’s predictably unpredictable furies, this one named Katrina.
Terror Along the Gulf and in the Gulf
When Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf coast, it was a super strong Category 4 hurricane. But as a Category 5 less than 12 hours earlier, it had already set in motion the storm surge that was to reach as high as 30 feet when it finally struck coastal communities. Mississippi and Louisiana were hit hardest. Infrastructure roads, electricity grids, pipelines, communications towers and relays homes, hospitals, and businesses disappeared or were so badly damaged that some areas were compared to a war zone or to the December 26, 2004 Asian tsunami.
As the hurricane moved inland, the second associated disaster occurred. The levee system protecting New Orleans, a city with water on three sides that, like much of the Netherlands, lies below sea level, failed in three places. As the flooding continued, reporters on the scene began detailing the ever-growing numbers of people who had not evacuated New Orleans and other coastal zones. In New Orleans itself, local, state, and federal officials knew of the 25,000 who had sought refuge in the Superdome. What they didn’t know was that an equal number were in the city’s convention center and thousands more were scattered throughout the city and its surrounding communities. With floodwaters rising, food and clean water ran short in the Superdome and convention center, while those who had survived Katrina in their own or a friend’s home waved clothing, sheets, and signs asking for help as Coast Guard and military helicopters traversed the area.
And this is where the third, preventable disaster started. Sitting in Washington, DC watching television coverage from the scene, what quickly became apparent was that officials at every level were communicating with each other but no one was communicating with ordinary people those victims of the hurricane and the floods who were trapped in the area. Lacking official direction or any sense that aid would be coming, many grew frustrated, then angry, and a few violent. Others, in scenes reminiscent of Sudan and Ethiopia, simply began walking, seeking food, water, and shelter wherever they could reach it.
The death toll remains a rough estimate but is likely to run into the thousands.
What no one yet has explained is why substitute communication systems into and within the stricken area were not set up on a priority basis. Saving lives, of course, is paramount, but information and direction can contribute to life-saving efforts. In a major disaster, natural or man-made, should civilian communications are severely degraded or obliterated, the agency most able to re-establish communications links is the military.
In normal times, the initial response is assumed to come from a state’s National Guard. But the federal government had called up for warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan 121,000 Army National Guard and Army Reserves. Of these, some 3,700 are from Louisiana and another 4,700 from Mississippi. Units include aviation detachments, hospital units, a rear area command center, engineers, transportation companies with trucks capable of traversing high water, public affairs and numerous “forward detachments” that support combat forces. These units all have internal communications capabilities that, strategically distributed over a defined area such as New Orleans and nearby communities, would provide an information “network” through which government leaders could give direction, encouragement, and other instructions. Reports of conditions on-the-ground would flow to officials, and rumors and misinformation could be corrected more rapidly.
Moreover, infantry troops, simply by their presence on the streets with local police, would serve to dissuade those who otherwise might engage in criminal enterprises.
As commander-in-chief, the president also has the power to dispatch active duty units to support disaster relief efforts. In terms of the evident shortfall in communications, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, in conjunction with the 1108th Signal Brigade which is tasked to provide strategic communications for the president and Pentagon officials, would be able to net together distributed communications nodes to form a reliable system for two-way communications.
Given that one year ago, a “worst-case” disaster preparedness exercise postulated a Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans, one can only wonder why (or if) the probability that ordinary communications channels would fail apparently was never considered. Incredibly, the possibility that levees might fail and water inundate the city seems not to have been actively addressed during the exercise even though the levee system was designed to withstand no more than a Category 3 storm.
What is the nation to think? Looking at the broad “Persian Gulf” and Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, insecurity dominates the daily lives of the people when outright terror does not. Communications between occupation troops and the people are difficult not only because of a language barrier but also because of mutual mistrust. Violent death comes suddenly and unpredictably from insurgents, criminals, and coalition forces. Rebuilding is far behind despite the billions of dollars spent to date.
Looking at the U.S. Gulf coast, insecurity dominated the lives of those who could not or would not evacuate ahead of Katrina and the floods. They soon lacked food, water, shelter, and information. Death stalked the very young and very old the sick and infirm, and those critically ill who needed life support. Congress voted $10.5 billion in emergency funds for relief and rebuilding. A week later, the White House asked Congress for another $51.8 billion as FEMA was obligating $2 billion a day. Even this may not be enough as some estimates range to $100 billion.
It is futile to war on Nature. It is folly to wage war by choice. Yet America-the-last-remaining-superpower seems to believe it can do and win both and at the same time. Katrina has revealed the hollowness of this hubris, for government proved unable to meet in timely fashion the pressing needs of half (or more) of the approximately one million citizens severely suffering from Katrina and its aftermath. And while a fundamental failure was the nearly total absence of communications to replace those destroyed, one cannot help but wonder whether had the critical extended networks been reestablished quickly the cries of the poor would have been heeded faster.
In time, Iraq may fade into U.S. annals as one more strategic blunder of historic dimensions whose human and material costs should never have occurred.
In time, the experience of Katrina itself may eventually, slowly, also fade. But in this case, history will note that the New Orleans levee failure was preventable, as was the failure of government (with the notable exception of the Coast Guard) to employ assets available to rescue those stranded by Katrina from Florida to Louisiana.
And history will record something else: an image, one found repeatedly from biblical times right down to today in the poorest countries on the globe. It is the image of those, the victims of wind and flood, seemingly abandoned in the hours and days after Katrina, trudging like third-world refugees in search of water, food, shelter help of any kind in 21st century America.
Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005