The Ten Year Occupation

It is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. occupation of Iraq will last as least as long as the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.

General David Petraeus, the new military commander in Iraq, told PBS’s Jim Lehrer last week, “The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock.” A former Pentagon official advised the Washington Post, “The time scale to succeed is years” and an anonymous Iraqi official admitted to Thomas Ricks of the Post that “There is no way to defeat this insurgency by summer To defeat it completely is a five- to 10-year project, minimum.”

Given the Democrats’ refusal to pull the budgetary plug on the war and Bush’s commitment to soldier on in a messianic stupor, we can be fairly sure that U.S. troops, now on fifteen-month tours of duty, will not be coming home next year or the year after that. Limited and temporary “success” stories in Iraq will either actually take place or be invented, thereby allowing the current administration and its successors to continue funding the occupation for well into the next decade.

Despite the media babble about the “surge” (a term connoting force and brevity), the shift in strategy announced by Bush in January has always been a long-term proposition. General Petraeus, cast as savior by the politicians, knows this better than most. As the co-author of the new field manual on counterinsurgency (COIN, FM 3-24) published in December of last year, he wrote: “Clear-hold-build objectives require lots of resources and time. U.S. and HN [host-nation] commanders should prepare for a long-term effort.”

The joint Army-USMC manual, co-authored with Marine Lt. General James Amos, is an exhaustive exposition of a strategy that purports to win heart and minds yet refers to insurgents as “amoral and often barbaric enemies.” Similar ideological tensions cut across the entire manual.

For example, the traditional stereotype of Marines as the ultimate killing machine runs up against their new role carrying out what the manual calls “armed social work”: “The environment that fosters insurgency is characterized by violence, immorality, distrust, and deceit; nonetheless, Army and Marine Corps leaders continue to demand and embrace honor, courage, and commitment to the highest standards.”

In every chapter of the manual, the military’s attempt to cloak itself in a mantle of righteousness is shot through with irony. A short section on why the French were defeated in Algeria is titled “Lose Moral Legitimacy, Lose the War,” a particularly awkward word choice in the wake of Abu Ghraib and other U.S. atrocities.

More important, even a cursory reading of the manual confirms that the new campaign will be a protracted one and in the current context is probably too little too late and in all probability doomed to fail.

In order for counterinsurgents to be successful, the manual teaches, “The local populace should be small and constant.” In other words, U.S. effectiveness will depend on the small size of the area to be controlled. But Baghdad is a sprawling city of some 6 million people, and the areas that surround the city like Diyala province must be included in any comprehensive security operation. Even with the recently added U.S. troops and Iraqi army and police units, there is no way they can approach the manual’s “density recommendation” of “20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents.”

And so American forces have begun the process of segmenting the city into smaller sectors with the goal of pacifying one area at a time, a tactic described by Robert Fisk in last Wednesday’s The Independent. Large sections of Baghdad will be chopped up into walled enclaves, their inhabitants subjected to extreme policing methods and the latest in 21st-century psychological warfare.

The Generals’ Laboratory

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is now many different conflicts (what the field manual calls a “mosaic war”), but current operations in the Iraqi capital are both a military response and a social experiment in which the Iraqi people and American troops will be used to test the validity of the new counterinsurgency doctrine. General Petraeus’s field manual calls this process “learning in execution.”

The manual’s opening analogy is a medical one. In order to defeat the insurgency, the Americans must operate in three stages: “Stop the bleeding. Inpatient care-recovery. Outpatient care-movement to self-sufficiency.” After four solid years of occupation, the Iraqi government continues to be a patient in crisis. With its population still bleeding, Iraq has yet to arrive at the hospital.

Recovery will be slow and painful.

The manual’s second metaphor suggests an equally drawn out process: “The relationship of logical lines of operation (LLO) to the overall operation is similar to the stands of a rope. Each LLO is a separate string. Operations along it cannot accomplish all objectives required for success in a COIN operation. However, a strong rope is created when strands are woven together.” The meticulous weaving together of military, economic, political, and ideological efforts into a solid cord of pacification will take years.

At the heart of the counterinsurgency effort is the propaganda war.

The field manual’s recommendations resonate with the language of the Republican National Committee and even some postmodern cultural theory. “Control of the narrative” and “shaping the information environment” are the primary objectives:

Command themes and messages based on policy should be distributed simultaneously or as soon as possible using all available media Polling and analysis should be conducted to determine which media allow the widest dissemination of themes to the desired audiences at the local, regional, national, and international levels.

In recent days, events on the ground have shown that the stated goal of the psychological war–“Discredit insurgent propaganda and provide a more compelling alternative to the insurgent ideology and narrative”-will be difficult to achieve. What exactly is at the core of the “American narrative” for Iraq? In chapter 5 of General Petraeus’s manual, we discover it buried in an elaborate flow chart, a large arrow pointing toward the optimal result of COIN operations: “Establish a free market economy.”

On the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s collapse, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to reject the U.S. narrative and demand “liberation.” As has been the case in every foreign occupation, the occupiers and their puppets cannot and will not win the “war of narratives.” This week’s prolonged street battle in the Al-Fadhil section of Baghdad in which local residents joined insurgent forces after Iraqi and U.S. soldiers raided a mosque suggests just how unappealing the government’s message is to the common Iraqi.

Although the first two months of the COIN campaign has produced small pockets of relative safety in some neighborhoods, the director of the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement this week saying that the overall security situation in Baghdad has not improved. Thursday’s suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building was only the most dramatic example of the on-going chaos.

Wherever earlier applications of the counterinsurgency model achieved temporary success-in the cities of Tal Afar under the command of Colonel Herbert R. McMaster and Mosul under General Petraeus himself-conditions now have deteriorated and security is once again a major problem.

If the “democratization” of the Middle East was the neocons’ mad theory, the pacification of Baghdad is the U.S. military’s clinical trial with innocent Iraqis and the American volunteer military cast in the role of lab mice. As the mayor of Tal Afar told Colonel McMaster shortly before he handed over the city to a new U.S. commander: “What you are doing is an experiment, and it isn’t right to experiment on people.”

“We were neck deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on.”

The American public is being told, “We will know if the surge is working sometime this summer.” What they are not being told is that even if the surge “works” only isolated sectors of Baghdad will be pacified and then only temporarily. The danger is that politicians from both parties will argue that the new counterinsurgency model has been validated and the illusion of “victory in Iraq” will begin to circulate in the media and the Congress.

The ultimate goal of counterinsurgency is nation building, a lengthy and unpredictable endeavor even according to Petraeus’s field manual. The daunting tasks of extending a limited and short-term pacification of select Baghdad neighborhoods to the every Iraqi city, constructing an elaborate infrastructure throughout the entire country, and then waiting for the stabilization of a central government in which a majority of Iraqis is willing to invest will take many more years of U.S. occupation. The promise of victory will always be a cruel lie whether it is Bush or his successor who peddle it.

In his study of the early years of the U.S. war in Viet Nam, Dereliction of Duty, Colonel McMaster, the warrior-scholar who helped shape the new counterinsurgency doctrine, argued that rather than tell the truth about the war’s progress military leaders simply told the politicians what they wanted to hear.

The question for General Petraeus, Joint Chiefs chairman Pace, and other senior commanders is whether or not they will be guilty of the same dereliction of duty. If they are, McMaster’s conclusion will require only minor revisions (Iraq instead of Vietnam; Bush instead of Johnson) for some history book of the future:

The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers.

The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.

JORGE MARISCAL is a Vietnam veteran and director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of Project YANO (San Diego). Visit his blog at: He can be reached at: