By Tom Engelhardt
A Little Background Music
Shakar Odai, the head of the Internal Affairs Department of the Baghdad police was recently interviewed by David Enders of Mother Jones magazine who wrote: “‘More than 98′ percent of the police officers (a force known alike for its use of torture and its widespread corruption) returned to work after the war, [Odai] said, and added that the police force has been greatly expanded as well. Some of the officers definitely sympathize with the resistance, he says. As he speaks, a bomb goes off outside, rattling the windows. Odai doesn’t even turn around to look. ‘That happens sometimes fifteen times a day,’ he sighs before continuing. ‘Before the war, we had six months to do background checks on any police officer we hired,’ he said. ‘After the war, the Americans just began appointing officers.’
“Before he refers me to the seventh floor, where the MOI’s human rights department is located, he offers me a piece of wardrobe advice, specifically in regard to the power-blue Oxford I’m wearing, the same color the police wear. ‘You should change your shirt. Someone might try to assassinate you.’”
Caryle Murphy and John Ward Anderson of the Washington Post offered the following on the opening of the Iraqi National Assembly inside “little America,” also known as “the Green Zone” in a completely shut down Baghdad: “Amid tight security and the sound of explosions, Iraq’s new parliament met for the first time Wednesday as Iraqi politicians and citizens alike urged lawmakers to stop bickering, form a new government and tackle the country’s numerous problems, particularly the violent insurgency. The source of the blasts, which apparently came from mortars, was under investigation by the U.S. military. The explosions rattled windows in the auditorium inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where lawmakers gathered… for the first meeting of a freely elected parliament in Iraq in almost 50 years. U.S. helicopters hovered overheard, and several bridges approaching the Green Zone were closed because of the threat of suicide bombings, car bomb attacks and other potential insurgent strikes.”
A Little Road Static
Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor reports on the difficulty of leaving Baghdad in safety heading in any direction now that guerrilla and criminal “no-go” areas have spread so completely around the capital: “Mohammed Ghazi Umron has a front-row seat for the perils of Iraq’s roads: the cab of his truck. And while this Shiite in his 30s enthusiastically voted in Iraq’s January election, from where he sits the country is as dangerous as ever. The road north through Baquba? ‘Pretty dangerous,” he says. Due south through Mahmudiyah? ‘It’s bad, but I haven’t heard of any drivers being killed there in a few weeks.’ How about west through Abu Ghraib and on to Fallujah? ‘Very, very dangerous. We try not to go past Abu Ghraib.’… Nearly two years since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, Baghdad is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It is ringed in peril. Travel in any direction a few miles outside city limits and the risks intensify.”
Juan Cole at his Informed Comment blog reminds us that: “US Embassy employees are forbidden to travel by land the ten miles [from the Green Zone] to Baghdad airport because it is so dangerous, and have to be helicoptered in and out of the capital.” Too bad they didn’t bother to tell that to the Italians before intelligence operative Nicola Calipari headed by car for the airport with the freed Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.
A Little Vietnam Buzz, or Thanks for the Memories (how brief they are!)
Back in late January, John Hedren of the Los Angeles Times reported: “The latest attempt to overhaul the U.S. approach [to the Iraqi forces] will incorporate lessons of military training successes in Afghanistan — where American advisors remain with Afghan units for two years — and will address what commanders describe as the scarcity of mid-level Iraqi leadership.” In the minds of American planners, this represents a “sea change in methods” enabling “U.S. military strategists to assign an expanded cadre of American advisors to work closely with Iraqi units after they receive basic training… Under one proposal being considered, Americans would lead Iraqi military units, which U.S. commanders say suffer from a ‘leadership gap.'”
This Friday, in a piece on exceedingly modest American troop cuts planned for Iraq in 2006 (if everything goes peachily), Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported: “To speed the training, General [Richard A.] Cody [the Army vice chief of staff] announced Thursday that 666 Army officers and senior enlisted soldiers would be dispatched to Iraq to work with the Iraqis as part of a shift away from combat operations. In addition, he said 1,140 officers and senior enlisted troops would be drawn from Army units already in Iraq to comprise 10-member training teams to work with Iraqi forces.” (It’s surprising, given this administration, that the Pentagon would ship exactly 666 soldiers anywhere — that number, of course, representing the Mark of the Beast.)
On the plan to station “advisors” with Iraqi forces over the long term, Hedren quotes Centcom commander Gen. John Abizaid as saying, “There are certainly lessons that we can take from Afghanistan and apply to Iraq.” Of course, those of us of a certain age can actually remember the odd event from the dark ages that preceded the military glory that is now America; and, in that murk of history, the “lessons” that come to mind are from Vietnam, not Afghanistan, where our “advisors,” despite endless years of effort, could somehow never quite turn “our” Vietnamese into the sort of fighting force the other side had. (Anyone wanna lay a bet about which model better applies to Iraq?)
Donald Rumsfeld recently put the new policy this way: “I think that you will see over the coming weeks and months a modest refocusing of U.S. efforts towards increasing the mentoring and training and assisting of the Iraqi forces as the Iraqi forces take over more and more responsibility for the security in the country.” “Mentoring,” it sounds so darn nurturing and sensitive as we start into year three in Iraq.
The Killing Fields
Way back in March 2002, then-Centcom Commander Tommy Franks, speaking of the Afghan dead in our recent war, famously said, “I don’t believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered… You know we don’t do body counts.” (At least in that distant year, there was still a fighting man implicitly ready to claim some memory of the “lessons” of Vietnam!)
Even as the Bush administration moved its operations forcefully to Iraq, which has since become a monster killing field, its officials, military and civilian, have remained consistent on this matter. The American dead are to be slipped home in the dead of night — none of those disturbing Vietnam-era “body bags” in sight – and foreign “body counts” are out. No toting up of Iraqi bodies, no matter how many may be lying around or how civilian they might be.
Nonetheless, in a piece published last year in the British medical journal The Lancet, a group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad did a household study of civilian deaths in Iraq (knocking on doors in 33 places in the country for almost 8,000 interviews, a dangerous task indeed). They estimated, based on their work, that somewhere around 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a majority of them women and children, had died due to the invasion and the ongoing occupation of the country and the insurgency. This study, for reasons well explained by Lila Guterman (Dead Iraqis) in the Columbia Journalism Review, was barely reported on in the American press, though the figures, approximate as they must be, are nonetheless probably conservative, or so concludes Guterman. Based on this study, it would not, she adds, be unreasonable to assume that in the five months since the paper came out, if “the death rate has stayed the same, roughly 25,000 more Iraqis have died.”
Oh, one figure on the Iraqi and Afghan dead did come to light last week. One hundred and eight of them managed to die “in American custody,” and “most of them violently, according to government data provided to The Associated Press. Roughly a quarter of those deaths have been investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel.” This is assuredly but the tip of some iceberg or other.
As it happens, when it comes to the grim statistics of death, we know far more, and far more precisely, about the non-Iraqi (and Afghan) dead.
For American troops, 1,521 died between March 19, 2003, when the invasion of Iraq began and March 19, 2005; 1,384 since our President essentially declared the war won. According to Pentagon figures (which are in dispute), 11,344 of our troops have officially been wounded. In Afghanistan, there have been 153 American military deaths.
Some Americans, as it happens, are far more likely to die in Iraq and Afghanistan than others: “43 percent of those killed in action in Iraq and 44 percent killed in Afghanistan through mid-February came from towns of 20,000 people or fewer. Less than 23 percent of the U.S. population lives in towns that size.”
Among other nations whose governments sent troops to Iraq, there have been 171 deaths, ranging from 86 British troops to 1 Hungarian soldier. Among contractors working in Iraq, there have been at least 212 deaths and this has to be a partial listing, given that the privatized world of contractors remains firmly hidden in the shadows of our Iraqi policy.
Among journalists (and “assistants”), 48 seem to have died since the war began; according to the Columbia Journalism Review, Iraq remains “the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist” and (depending on whom you are counting) between 33 and 39 of them died in 2004 alone. Above all, according to CJR’s Mariah Blake, you don’t want to be an Arab journalist in Iraq. It’s practically the equivalent of a death sentence. As a result, while Iraq’s insurgency has grown ever fiercer, devolving events in the country have become ever harder to cover. “[E]ven the Arab media are finding themselves increasingly reliant on secondhand accounts and official reports from Washington and Baghdad, and less able to gauge how events are playing out in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. ‘We can no longer get close to people’s suffering, people’s hopes, people’s dreams,’ says Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya‘s executive editor for news. ‘We no longer know what’s really going on because we can no longer get close to reality.'”
All sides (including Iraqi criminals) are now, it seems, targeting journalists in one fashion or another. Steve Weissman of the Truthout.org website has done the most interesting work on the American aspect of this, a four-part, open-ended, open-minded investigation of the subject.
On the home front, Newsweek reports that “as of last week 1,043 American children had lost a parent in Iraq. To put it another way, nearly two years after the invasion on March 19, 2003, among the 1,508 American troops who have died as of March 11 were an estimated 450 fathers, and 7 mothers.”
All in all, this is no small record for a mission our President declared “accomplished” back in the spring of 2003.
The mayhem in Iraq can be measured in other ways as well. Here, for instance, are some figures from the air war: Total air sorties, 41,000; Strike Sorties, 15,500; Bombs Dropped, 27,000. And that only covers the pre-“Mission Accomplished” phase of the war. Since then, even as our Air Force has been loosed on Iraq’s cities, the air war has simply fallen out of the media. Even though the old city of Najaf and just about all of Falluja were essentially destroyed, in part from the air and numerous other cities bombed, missiled, and strafed, American reporters have evinced no interest whatsoever in the destruction of heavily populated urban areas from the skies.
Or perhaps instead of more figures, a description might do fuller justice to the Iraqi mayhem — this one from Juan Cole. (Had we not had his Informed Comment blog, we would be in the dark on all sorts of matters.):
“Readers often write in for an update on Fallujah. I am sorry to say that there is no Fallujah to update. The city appears to be in ruins and perhaps uninhabitable in the near future. Of 300,000 residents, only about 9,000 seem to have returned, and apparently some of those are living in tents above the ruins of their homes…. The scale of this human tragedy — the dispossession and displacement of 300,000 persons — is hard to imagine. Unlike the victims of the tsunami who were left homeless, moreover, the Fallujans have witnessed no outpouring of world sympathy. While there were undeniably bad characters in the city, most residents had done nothing wrong and did not deserve to be made object lessons–which was the point Rumsfeld was making with this assault. He hoped to convince Ramadi and Mosul to fall quiet lest the same thing happen to them. He failed, since the second Fallujah campaign threw the Sunni Arab heartland into much more chaos than ever before. People forget how quiet Mosul had been. And, the campaign was the death knell for proper Sunni participation in the Jan. 30 elections (Sunnis, with 20 percent of the population, have only 6 seats in the 275 member parliament). However much a cliché it might be to say it, the US military really did destroy Fallujah to save it.”
The Killings Fields
While the killing has gone on ceaselessly in Iraq, the country has also essentially been looted, as has the American treasury, to the tune of multi-billions of dollars by Bush-friendly corporations on the make. Tales of the corruption involved pour out weekly, one more unbelievable than the next (or is it all too believable?) in what can only be called the “killings fields” of Iraq.
Not surprisingly, our Veep’s former company, Halliburton, has been right up there at the front of the line with its corporate hand out for hand-outs. In the last week alone, David Ivanovich of the Houston Chronicle revealed that Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary “charged the Pentagon $27.5 million to ship $82,100 worth of cooking and heating fuel” to Iraq. (And critics assume that this but a fraction of the overcharges Halliburton dumped on the Pentagon — and so on us all.) At the same time, Ken Silverstein and T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times discovered that a pet project of Iyad Allawi, the creation of a tank division for the new Iraqi Army (to the tune of $283 million), overseen by an American task force headed by Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, may have resulted in enormous cash kickbacks to officials of the Iraqi Defense Ministry through a Lebanese middleman. Dale Stoffel, a contractor/weapons dealer who tried to expose this scheme by emailing a Petraeus aide, was shot to death in an ambush near Baghdad only 8 days later. (Good luck to the FBI agents who are now investigating his death.) As a little footnote to the above, even after Stoffel’s killing, the Americans evidently didn’t blink an eye about continuing to work with the Lebanese middleman who promptly took over part of Stoffel’s contract.
And that’s just this week’s news. Iraq is quite literally a cesspool, when it comes to the American taxpayer’s dollar. If you want a little glimpse of how it all works, in the case of Halliburton’s KBR, check out Vanity Fair writer Michael Shnayerson’s, The Spoils of War.
On Enthusiasm for the War, or Voting with Their Feet
As news of the Iraq War filters into this country, recruits for our all-volunteer military, many having signed on for the promise of a good education in return for their time, are proving increasingly resistant to taking classes in Baghdad or environs:
“The Marine Corps for the second straight month in February missed its goal for signing up new recruits.”
“The Army in February, for the first time in nearly five years, failed to achieve its monthly recruiting goal.”
With the military being stretched to its limits, “part-time soldiers now make up about 40 percent of the 150,000 troops in Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.” And the National Guard and the Reserves are fairing even worse than the regular military when it comes to volunteers: “Recruiting for the Army’s reserve component — the National Guard and Army Reserve — is suffering even more as the Pentagon relies heavily on these part-time soldiers to maintain troop levels in Iraq. The regular Army is 6 percent behind its year-to-date recruiting target, the Reserve is 10 percent behind, and the Guard is 26 percent short.”
In early January, “Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly — commander of the Army Reserve — … said morale was slipping and that the reserve might become a ‘broken’ force because of the burdens it has taken on since the 9-11 attacks. ‘I do not wish to sound alarmist. I do wish to send a clear, distinctive signal of deepening concern,’ Helmly wrote in a memo to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.” All this, despite skyrocketing financial incentives and bonuses meant to get people into the military and keep them there.
Even the look of the military has been affected: “Since fiscal 2000, when African Americans made up 23.5 percent of Army recruits, their numbers have fallen steadily to less than 14 percent in this fiscal year, officials said. A similar trend has reduced the number of female Army recruits, who have dropped from 22 percent in 2000 to about 17 percent of this year’s new soldiers.”
Among Americans more generally, enthusiasm for the war, according to the latest Washington Post poll, continues to sink below the horizon. Asked in mid-March, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq?” 39% of Americans approved and 57% disapproved. Compare that with the 75%/22% response to the same question in late April of 2003.
The Coalition of the Willing Is Increasingly Willing to Go
Loss of enthusiasm isn’t just a national phenomenon. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson recently put the matter, the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq is turning into the Coalition of the “Wilting.” Even in countries (other than the United States) whose governments were willing to send troops, the war in Iraq was never anything but unpopular. But the enthusiasm of those governments is now fast receding. The Netherlands and the Ukraine are withdrawing their troops. The Poles are planning to do so, and even Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, our President’s closest non-Anglo war-pal, made his first withdrawal sounds last week, pressured by future elections and the war’s immense unpopularity in Italy, before the Bush administration pressured him into backing down on his modest statements.
If you want to see the figures on foreign withdrawals, check out this New York Times chart (scroll down and click on “graphic”). What no one counts when counting forces in Iraq, however, are the possibly tens of thousands of mercenary security types, who make ever more money as the situation gets ever worse.
Other than the mercenaries, for whom the going gets good only when it gets really bad, the sole major players unwilling to speak of setting up schedules for withdrawal are Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Just this week, our President refused to discuss a “timetable” for withdrawal and insisted, “Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself,” which, given present realities, is more or less like saying: Never!
War Architects Heading for Other Planets, or Will This Be the Year of Consolidation?
Something else may be wilting — the neocon grip on the upper levels of the Bush administration. Two key neocons crucial to pushing through an Iraq invasion policy at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz (“the Mr. Magoo of American foreign policy… the Mozart of ineptitude, the Einstein of incapacity.”), are heading out of the administration, while former State Department Neanderthal John Bolton has been farmed out to — from the Bush point of view — the minor leagues. (Senator Jesse Helms once recommended him in the following way: “John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, or what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and evil.”) Feith announced that he was leaving his job as undersecretary of defense “for personal reasons… citing the desire to spend more time with his four children. ‘For the last four years, they haven’t seen me a lot.'” (Why is it that important men suddenly discover the need for family time only when their jobs evaporate?) Wolfowitz (the World Bank) and Bolton (the UN) are evidently being dumped on the international community (as in the Vietnam era, President Lyndon Johnson also dumped his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the World Bank). Donald Rumsfeld is reputedly planning to leave town within the year (possibly ceding his post to former State Department hardliner and “realist” Richard Armitage), and Dick Cheney is said to be spending much of his time on the President’s social security package.
Meanwhile, the so-called realists are evidently being brought in to clean up shop and possibly consolidate the gains, such as they are, out there in the imperium. Evidently Afghanistan is the model they have in mind. While the hard-headed John Negroponte flies off from (or is it flees?) Baghdad for Washington to become the nation’s first “intelligence czar,” the administration is reputedly getting ready to fly in our present ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former oil company consultant who has steered the ex-Taliban principality into a Bush-style democracy — that is, a warlord-divided narco-state of a grim sort with a desperately weak “central” government.
But look on the bright side, just the other day and possibly a tad early, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers proclaimed Afghanistan “secure” and promptly suggested that “the United States is considering keeping long-term bases here as it repositions its military forces around the world.”
Perfect! Now that the Khalilzad-installed government of Hamid Karzai is, we are told, seeking what’s so charmingly referred to as a “strategic partnership” with the United States. U.S. Major General Eric Olsen added to the picture by mentioning our desire to hang onto the sprawling Soviet-era base at Bagram, north of Kabul. Already a major American base, he called it “a place where we see a long-term presence of coalition and, frankly, U.S. capabilities.”
Right now, Baghdad may be ungovernable, the insurgency remains fierce, the new Iraqi government unable to chose its leaders, gas lines endless in Baghdad, electricity supplies desperately low in significant parts of the country, allies dropping away, and security dismal, but what-we-worry. After all, above all, chaos or not, we’re still there, the self-invited guests who came for dinner, and stayed on and on and on….
In fact, though it’s hardly mentioned in our media, we’ve been digging in. Joshua Hammer of Mother Jones magazine reported in a recent issue that approximately $4.5 billion dollars has gone to — who else? — KBR for the construction and maintenance of up to 14 “enduring camps” or permanent military bases in Iraq. Many of these bases have a look of permanency that undoubtedly has to be seen to be imagined. But here’s Hammer’s description of just one:
“Camp Victory North, a sprawling base near Baghdad International Airport, which the U.S. military seized just before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Over the past year, KBR contractors have built a small American city where about 14,000 troops are living, many hunkered down inside sturdy, wooden, air-conditioned bungalows called SEA (for Southeast Asia) huts, replicas of those used by troops in Vietnam. There’s a Burger King, a gym, the country’s biggest PX — and, of course, a separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and logistical support. Although Camp Victory North remains a work in progress today, when complete, the complex will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo — currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.”
And let’s just remember what those 14 bases sit on.
The Word That Cannot Be Spoken or Written
There’s a word that can’t really be spoken, or written, not at least in conjunction with “Iraq,” or off the business pages of our papers (even though this week, the price of a barrel of the stuff broke $56). Fortunately, I can spell it for you: It’s o-i-l. Take, as the Village Voice pointed out, the New York Times piece on the possible Khalilzad appointment which “ran 592 words and referred to Khalilzad’s high school basketball career and his graduate work at the University of Chicago,” but not his “experience as a consultant to a major oil company,” one that once negotiated with the Taliban to build a pipeline across Afghanistan.
Iraq, as it happens, sits on top of probably the second largest oil deposits in the Middle East (after Saudi Arabia where we’ve been drawing down our bases for a while) and right in the strategic heartland of the oil lands of the Earth. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t even been much oil exploration in the country in the last two decades, so who knows how much of what may lie under its territories? As is too seldom mentioned, the Bush administration is an energy regime with a number of its major players connected at various past moments to energy companies of various sorts. (Failing sorts in the case of our President.) Our present Secretary of State, a Chevron director from 1991-2001, once even had an oil tanker named after her.
As a group, they quite naturally look on the planet in an energy sort of way and dream of global control, at least in part, in terms of controlling energy flows. (That some of these dreams may prove quite irrational is beside the point. Just recall the mad fantasies of gold that once drove Spaniards deep into the New World and that have left us with land developers who give their projects historically bizarre names like El Dorado Acres? After all, they don’t call oil “black gold” for nothing.) In the future, can there be any question that historians will look upon our most recent Iraq War as an energy war? If you have your doubts and want a sense of just how much oil was on the mind of the Bush administration as it invaded Iraq, consider Greg Palast’s most recent piece of reportage, Secret U.S. Plans for Iraq’s Oil, based on revelations by the BBC’s Newsnight (or Juan Cole’s take on it).
Or just think about the “withdrawal” news in the New York Times piece mentioned above. If all goes really well, we might draw down to 105,000 troops in Iraq by 2006. And if the Iraqis can begin to take over basic internal security jobs, then, as in Afghanistan, perhaps we’ll try to organize one of those “strategic partnerships” and claim at least some of those KBR bases that are now as much a part of the Iraqi landscape as any ziggurat.
The most significant fact of our Iraq War and occupation (and war), which can’t be repeated too many times, is that the Bush administration busted into the country without an exit strategy for a simple reason: They never planned to leave — and they still don’t. If you have a better reason for taking a withdrawal position and pressing for it, let me know by at least the beginning of Year Four of the Iraqi Deconstruction Era.
[Special thanks for research work goes to Nick Turse.]
Tom Engelhardt writes and edits Tomdispatch.com, where this piece first appeared.