President Barack Obama–who won last November’s election with millions of votes from people who saw him as the antiwar candidate–has decided on a plan for “withdrawing” from Iraq that has more support from Republicans in Congress than from Democrats.
Obama extended his promised timeframe for withdrawing “combat troops” to 19 months. But even more telling is the aspect of Obama’s policy that remained vague during the campaign–plans for a “residual force” of up to 50,000 soldiers to remain in Iraq through at least 2011.
This isn’t a plan to end the occupation of Iraq, but to continue it in another form.
“You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. “You can’t be in and out at the same time. We must bring a conclusion to this sorry chapter in American history.”
Obama’s policy on Iraq has been shaped by a new consensus that has developed among the U.S. political establishment over the past year and a half. It holds that the surge of U.S. troops ordered by George W. Bush in 2007 stabilized the country, the war is now winding down, and the U.S. occupation will soon come to an end.
This is all an illusion–and a new book by Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post journalist and author of Fiasco, about the disaster of the U.S. invasion and the early years of the occupation, shows why, even if Ricks himself doesn’t draw all those conclusions.
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RICKS’ BOOK The Gamble is the most thoroughgoing analysis of the surge. It affirms much of the establishment consensus, but concludes that the surge failed to achieve its main goal of political reconciliation in Iraq. Instead, Ricks argues, it created conditions that will likely lead to more civil war and regional instability, which can only be contained by an unending occupation.
Ricks isn’t an antiwar author. He is the conduit for the opinions of dissident generals and establishment figures who didn’t oppose the invasion of Iraq or the Bush administration’s war aims, but instead advocated different strategies and tactics for victory in Iraq.
Ricks’ first book Fiasco argued that the U.S. deployed too few troops to occupy Iraq and created an incompetent occupation bureaucracy that failed to rebuild the country. This was the source of the resistance to the U.S. occupiers–which was swelled by the indiscriminate and brutal repression of the population.
Indeed, by 2006, the U.S. faced a massive, though splintered, Sunni and Shia resistance; a raging civil war; and the economic breakdown of the country.
In The Gamble, Ricks recounts how Gen. David Petraeus, retired Gen. Jack Keane, Gen. Raymond Odierno and a coterie of establishment critics like Stephen Biddle, Eliot Cohen and Robert Kaplan collaborated in developing a new strategy to solve this crisis.
This group argued for the U.S. to abandon its strategy of holing up on massive bases like Camp Victory and of trying to offload security to an unreliable Iraqi military. Instead, they agitated for the U.S. to adopt a counter-insurgency strategy.
According to Petraeus and Co., the U.S. needed to increase overall troop numbers, move its forces out of the large bases and deploy them in smaller ones throughout the cities of Iraq. There, they would be assigned to protect the people, separate combatants in the civil war and win over Iraqis to inform on the sectarian forces, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The counter-insurgency advocates developed the idea of a “surge” of 30,000 troops to provide security in Baghdad and contain the spread of the civil war to the rest of the country.
In Ricks’ account, they had to overcome resistance not only within the Bush administration and the military establishment, including Joints Chief of Staff Chair Gen. Peter Pace and Centcom chief Adm. William Fallon, but also among the Democratic Party and the Iraq Study Group, which advocated a drawdown of troops, regional diplomacy and greater responsibility for managing the crisis handed off to the Iraqi government.
The Republicans’ defeat in the 2006 elections gave the dissidents the leverage they needed. They were able to win the Bush administration, which was jettisoning many of the original architects and managers of the war, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Bush appointed the dissidents Petraeus and Odierno as first and second in command of Iraq and gave them the green light to implement the surge. The Democrats who won control of Congress barely resisted the surge strategy, casting a symbolic, nonbinding vote against it, but turning about-face and voting to fund it.
Ricks claims the new strategy was a success. The U.S. forces were able retake much of Baghdad. According to Ricks, they protected residents from the sectarian militias, brought down the level of violence, and thereby stabilized the country’s capital.
Ricks is by no means a Pollyanna about the new situation in Iraq. He admits that violence in Iraq merely returned to the already intolerable level of 2005, which still makes the country one of the most dangerous places on earth.
But he does note that U.S., in effect, had abandoned its fantastical aims of transforming Iraq and the whole Middle East region. As he writes:
This new sobriety was the intellectual context for the reduction in the goals of the war…Instead, the quietly restated U.S. goal was to achieve a modicum of stability, to keep Iraq together and to prevent the war from metastasizing into a regional bloodbath. That meant finding what one official called “a tolerable level of violence” and learning to live with it.
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WHILE RICKS admits that other factors were involved, he contends that Petraeus, the new counter-insurgency strategy and the U.S. military were the primary factors for success, as measured by these more modest goals.
But Ricks’ case doesn’t hold up to closer inspection. In reality, Iraqi political developments, not the U.S. surge, caused the drop in violence.
The only reason that the U.S. surge could have any effect in Iraq at all was because the Iraqi resistance had no political leadership capable of uniting mass Arab opposition to the occupation and wining over Kurds with the promise of defending their right to national self-determination. If the resistance had developed such political leadership, Petraeus’ vaunted strategy of counter-insurgency would have failed, as it did in Algeria, Vietnam and many other colonized countries.
Even so, the real reasons for the relative stabilization of Iraq have nothing to do with the surge.
What were they? First, the civil war between Shia and Sunnis had played itself out before the U.S. deployed its new troops. U.S. forces merely stabilized a Baghdad that had been effectively carved up into ethnically partitioned neighborhoods–the U.S. went so far as to erect concrete barriers to separate Sunnis and Shia.
Second, faced with defeat in the civil war, the Sunni tribal leadership in Anbar Province and Baghdad called off its resistance to the occupation and cut a deal with the U.S., agreeing to turn their guns on al-Qaeda in Iraq, in return for money, training and weapons funneled through the so-called Awakening Councils.
Third, the main Shia resistance leader, Moktada al-Sadr, concluded his forces had no chance of victory in a direct confrontation with the Shia government and the U.S. occupation forces. Instead, he has opted to bide his time and wait for a decrease in U.S. forces.
Finally, contrary to U.S. allegations that Iran fueled the conflict in Iraq, the Shia-led Iranian government used its relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as with Sadr, to stabilize Iraq. While Iran is happy to cause trouble for the U.S. in Irag, it doesn’t want to see a conflict emerge that would threaten its goal of establishing a Shia-dominated regime as an ally.
Though Ricks wrongly lionizes the surge, he concludes that it failed to achieve its principal aim–political reconciliation between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.
Ricks blames the various Iraqi factions for their failure to reach an accommodation. While there is no doubt that antagonism existed between Iraq’s three main communities–Shia, Sunnis and Kurds–the truth remains that there had been no civil war before the U.S. occupation. The U.S. divide-and-rule strategy in Iraq exacerbated the divisions, precipitated the civil war and has left the different sides armed to the teeth.
The U.S. built up a new Shia-dominated state, with Maliki as prime minister, backed by a reconstructed military and security apparatus that is predominantly Shia and hostile to the Sunni population. At the same time, the U.S. funded and armed the Sunni tribal leaders who oppose the Shia government. And, over the years, Washington fostered the development of an expansionist Kurdish autonomous area.
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WHILE RICKS wrongly blames the Iraqis for these conflicts, he is right when he predicts that the current stability is likely to be transitory. As he writes:
The surge, while making short-term gains, also may have carried long-term costs that will only become fully apparent when Obama is president.
“The surge may have brought transitory success…but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism,” argued Steven Simon, a Council of Foreign Relations expert on the Middle East. If continued, he predicted, the U.S. support for tribes, local militias and other centrifugal forces will undermine central authority and lead to a divided dysfunctional state “that suffers from the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan.”
The only way that the U.S. can even remotely claim such a scenario as a success is to lower what it expects of the “new Iraq,” and hope for a central government not all that different from Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Ricks argues that this outcome is unlikely “to be something that American recognize as victory.” As he continues:
Instead, additional years of sacrifice promise to be made for markedly limited objectives. A senior intelligence officer in Iraq described the long term-goal American goal as “a stable Iraq that is united, at peace with its neighbors, and is able to police its internal affairs, so it isn’t a sanctuary for al Qaeda. Preferably a friend to U.S., but it doesn’t have to be.” He paused and pointedly noted that his list doesn’t include democracy or the observation of human rights.
And this, according to Ricks, is the best possible outcome. More likely, he says, would be a future of military coups; intensified civil war, not only between Shia and Sunni, but also between Arabs and Kurds over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk; and the spillover over of these conflicts into the rest of the region.
Thus, he argues that instead of the war and occupation winding down, the U.S. planners aim to manage these crises with a tens of thousands of troops for as long as 20 years. He quotes one aide to Petraeus admitting, “I don’t think it does end. We are going to be in this centrally located Arab state for a long time. There will be some U.S. presence, and some relationship with the Iraqis for decades.”
However reluctantly, Ricks sees the U.S. occupation as necessary to manage this unending crisis. He concludes his book:
No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may only be halfway through it…In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.
The antiwar movement should heed this conclusion and not be lulled into passivity by the current consensus that the war is over.
We should reaffirm our anti-imperialist analysis that the U.S. war was never about fighting terrorism, liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein or bringing about political reconciliation.
The U.S. went to war in Iraq to assert its domination over an oil-rich country and region; remake the Middle East on its terms; conduct regime changes against other powers like Iran and Syria; and block any international competitor, especially China and Russia, from developing independent relationships with the the countries of the region.
We must continue to demand that the U.S. immediately withdraw all occupying forces–not just “combat troops, but Obama’s misnamed “residual” ones–and pay reparations to the Iraqi people so they can repair their own society, however they see fit.
ASHLEY SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: