U.S. troops in Mosul, Iraq in 2007. A foreign presence to Iraqis
I’m a retired U.S. military officer. When I think of U.S. troops, naturally I see them as my gals and guys. I identify with them. And I know enough of them to know that their intent is usually good — at least in the sense that they seek to do their duty.
But I’m also an historian with a modicum of empathy. I know that foreigners don’t see the U.S. military as I see it. Nor do they experience it the way I experienced it. To cite just one anecdote: I recall a story in the New York Times in which U.S. troops in Iraq ask an Iraqi farmer if he’s seen any foreign fighters around. The Iraqi has a simple answer: “Yes. You.”
Six years ago, I wrote an article for Huffington Post on “Catch-22 in Afghanistan.” I argued that the more the U.S. military intervened in the affairs of Afghanistan, the less likely it was that a permanent, and suitably Afghan, solution would be found to the problems confronting that country. Not much has changed in those six years, except that today the Taliban controls even more territory, the drug trade is even more pervasive, and corruption is even more endemic.
We need to learn (or re-learn) a basic lesson: The more the U.S. intervenes in conflicts within other countries, the less likely it is that a favorable outcome will result (favorable for the U.S., that is), simply because U.S. forces are viewed as a foreign contagion. And indeed we are that.
Ignoring its Afghan failures, the U.S. government now seeks to widen its military commitment to the most hotly contested areas of the Middle East. Our leaders act as if the way to end civil wars driven in part by radical Islam is violent intervention led by American troops.
But American troops (and drones and bombs and all the rest) are not the answer. Indeed, their actions spread the contagion further.
The other day, I was reading about “super-bugs,” those bacterial infections that have become highly resistant to traditional antibiotics due to misuse and overuse of the same. In seeking to “destroy” ISIL and similar “infections,” the American government instead often feeds them. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that in medicine there are super-bugs that literally feed on traditional antibiotics. They gain strength from being attacked. Such is often the case for “bugs” like ISIL, which feed off of heavy-handed U.S. military actions.
This is not an argument for the U.S. military to do nothing. Rather, it’s a reminder of the limits of power and the complexity of life. It’s a reminder too that to foreigners the U.S. military is the foreign presence, the contagion. Even when it seeks to act as a “cure,” it may in fact be feeding the disease.
My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night. Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance. First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering. Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder. My wife and I looked at each other. Are you fearful, honey? Neither am I.
President Obama himself made many good points. Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam. Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA. Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people). And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.
These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious. But he does. Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.
Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.
Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame. Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones. (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)
President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror. All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards. Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less. Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror. Not such a good idea, right?
Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office. As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure. Wrong. His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within. Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent. “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders. Liberty was. And liberty entails risks.
A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost. (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)
The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values. He was right to talk about human dignity. He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear. Now we as Americans need to live up to those words. And so does he.
Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus. Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability. Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life. To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”
Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability. Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain. The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.
Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing. Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick. America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.
Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.” We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.
Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility. It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground. But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.
By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam. Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be. Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).
America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters. When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.
After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine. When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?
Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”
Difficult to see. Always in motion the future, Yoda once said. He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it? If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety? Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt? It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.
American reporting on Iraq focuses on the eternal now, such as the rise of ISIS or recent battles in Tikrit. Rarely is any context given to these events, and rarer still is any accounting of the costs of war (still rising) to the Iraqi people.
Let’s return to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Before the invasion, the U.S. Army War College accurately predicted what was to come. A report co-authored by Conrad C. Crane and W. Andrew Terrill warned that U.S. forces would have “to prevent Sunnis from fighting Shiites, secular Iraqis from fighting religious ones, returned Iraqi exiles from fighting non-exiles, Kurds from fighting Turkomans or establishing an independent state, tribes within all these groups from fighting one another, Turkey from invading from the north, Iran from invading from the east, and the defeated Iraqi army–which may be the only national institution that can keep the country from being ripped apart–from dissolving,” as summarized in “After Saddam,” a short article in “Primary Sources” in the Atlantic Monthly in June 2003.*
Read that last bit again: America’s military experts stated the Iraqi army had to be preserved so as to prevent Iraq from devolving into factionalism and chaos. So what did America’s proconsul for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proceed to do when he took over in 2003? He dissolved the Iraqi army! Under the orders of the all-wise Bush Administration.
In a much longer article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows detailed how the Bush Administration went “Blind into Baghdad” (January/February 2004). Fallows concluded that Bush/Cheney (and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz) oversaw “a historic failure” in Iraq precisely because they “willfully” disregarded “a vast amount of expert planning.” Whether this was by design or not is still disputed, but one must recall Cheney’s rosy prediction that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.”
Hubris is one explanation for such folly. Other commentators suggest a deliberate policy to destabilize Iraq. Whatever the case, the big winner of Iraq’s decline and near fall was Iran, followed by various forms of Islamic extremism that arose from the ashes of violence and civil war.
By the spring of 2004, as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Bremer prepared to return “sovereignty” to the allegedly newly-democratic Iraq, American officials who hadn’t drunk the kool-aid recognized that civil war was coming. A friend of mine, an Army major, was at that time serving with the CPA in Baghdad. He wrote to me at the time that:
“The emperor has no clothes … corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war [in Iraq] is accepted as given amongst the CPA staff. The focus is on making some sort of transition on 30 June  to whatever ‘government’ we can get in place by then. Anything after 30 June is ‘we’ll get to that when we can.’ This whole operation is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”
Ominously, my friend concluded that “Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam [fell] have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.” This was because the U.S. was throwing its support behind an Iraqi regime “which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy.”
In short, the CPA and Bush Administration were selling a lie in 2004, and they knew it. But Bush won reelection later that year, so who really cares if the U.S. lost, in the words of my friend, “serious credibility” in the region as a result?
For informed Americans not suffering from amnesia, the above narrative shouldn’t come as a total surprise. By its actions and inaction and lies, the Bush Administration brought endless civil war to Iraq. The U.S. essentially created the conditions for the rise of ISIS and similar extremist groups. But the U.S. media has cloaked this hard reality in a shroud of myths about the “decisive” Petraeus Surge of 2007 (really a temporary lull in the civil war) or various other “mission accomplished” moments promoted by both Bush and Obama.
Mission accomplished? A magnificent victory? Only if the “mission” was the dismantling of Iraq, and “victory” is measured by more and more war.
*The report, dated February 2003, was “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.”
Over at TomDispatch.com, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?
As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):
“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”
One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror. What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.
The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong. Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.” So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).
Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong. And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.
As Bacevich notes:
The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities. Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself. That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….
The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts. Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name. A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.
All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight. It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future. If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot. Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”
Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion. The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous. Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.
News that President Obama has doubled the number of American troops (whoops — I mean advisers) in Iraq to 3100 is already a tacit admission of defeat in that troubled region. Let’s recall that the Iraqi security forces the U.S. trained and equipped to the tune of $25 billion simply melted away when faced with serious combat this summer. Their performance put me to mind of the National Rifle Association’s slogan against John Kerry in the presidential campaign of 2004. Kerry had gone bird shooting, mainly it seems to be photographed with a gun in his hand, a necessity for any red-blooded American male (just ask Obama). But the NRA wasn’t fooled (or so they claimed). “That dog don’t hunt,” the NRA said about Kerry. And something about that slogan stuck.
You could say the same of that Iraqi army that the U.S. created and funded and trained and equipped: That dog don’t hunt. Or, it won’t hunt for us. Because that’s not its purpose. That’s not how or even why we trained it. But that’s OK. We’ll just send more American troops to Iraq, and waste more money, further destabilizing the region, making it even easier for radical jihadists to recruit more followers, whether to the ISIS banner or some other Islamist flag (Khorasan, perhaps?).
It’s just incredible how inept U.S. foreign policy is today. If George C. Marshall had been like this during World War II, we’d be speaking German today at the Pentagon, instead of simply misinterpreting Clausewitz.
Of course, Congress will have to authorize funding for the latest U.S. military misadventure. Anyone want to offer odds on Congress actually exercising oversight on our foreign entanglements? A long shot, indeed.
Even as Congress seeks to cut funding to the poor, there’s always plenty of money for military adventurism overseas, no matter how often those adventures fail. When it comes to exercising real oversight, Congress is always a lame duck — so lame that even a dog that don’t hunt (that Iraqi military again) succeeds in bagging billions of dollars from the American taxpayer.
The moral to the story? America doesn’t lack for guns; we lack for brains.
Update: Iraq has “shook up” its military, relieving 26 officers of their commands and forcibly retiring 10 others, even as 18 new commanders were appointed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi among promises of greater professionalism and less graft and corruption. Progress? Time will tell. But what does it say about a military that, in spite of prolonged training and massive infusions of cash from the U.S., was so ridden with corruption that it collapsed when facing its first challenge? Sadly, the need for ever more U.S. advisers and money suggests this is yet another case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Update 2 (written by b. traven)
What is truly tragic is how the back story to the total failure of the Bush-Cheney wars is not reviewed by Obama, the Senate, or the House as this tragedy for Iraq unfolds. Obama just continues to follow the Bush lies by one week saying no “boots on the ground” while his top military people say “yes, more boots” and the next week Obama announces doubling the number of troops with no sense of embarrassment. And the American people stay entranced with baseball, football, and basketball scores.
And you can say you saw it here first. No sooner had General Dempsey said he wanted more troops in Iraq then Obama complied by doubling the force. Now Dempsey has told Obama what he wants even more troops so you can count on Obama complying in a couple of weeks. There’s nothing like doubling down on a failed policy in hopes that the result will come out differently than the last failure. Here’s Dempsey’s new demand as reported in the Guardian of London newspaper:
“The top-ranking officer in the American military said on Thursday that the US is actively considering the direct use of troops in the toughest upcoming fights against the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, less than a week after Barack Obama doubled troop levels there.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, indicated to the House of Representatives armed services committee that the strength of Isis relative to the Iraqi army may be such that he would recommend abandoning Obama’s oft-repeated pledge against returning US ground troops to combat in Iraq.”
President Truman fired the most renowned five star General of his day, Douglas MacArthur for voicing a policy contradicting Truman’s in regard to China. If we had a real president he would do the same with Dempsey, who is certainly no MacArthur.
In my latest article for TomDispatch, I examine why the Iraqi security forces that the U.S. trained and equipped at a cost of $25 billion performed so poorly when attacked by ISIS in June. Read on! And be sure to check out other articles at TomDispatch, a contrarian site edited by the inestimable (and indefatigable) Tom Engelhardt.
In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.
Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking. To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order. You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military. The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.
Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch. According to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, that force was initially conceived as a small constabulary of 30,000-40,000 men (with no air force at all, or rather with the U.S. Air Force for backing in a country U.S. officials expected to garrison for decades). Its main job would be to secure the country’s borders without posing a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or, it should be added, to U.S. interests.
Bremer’s decision essentially threw 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including a full officer corps, out onto the streets of its cities, jobless. It was a formula for creating an insurgency. Humiliated and embittered, some of those men would later join various resistance groups operating against the American military. More than a few of them later found their way into the ranks of ISIS, including at the highest levels of leadership. (The most notorious of these is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former general in Saddam’s army who was featured as the King of Clubs in the Bush administration’s deck of cards of Iraq’s most wanted figures. Al-Douri is now reportedlyhelping to coordinate IS attacks.)
IS has fought with considerable effectiveness, quickly turning captured American and Syrian weaponry, including artillery pieces, Humvees, and even a helicopter, on their enemies. Despite years of work by U.S. military advisers and all those billions of dollars invested in training and equipment, the Iraqi army has not fought well, or often at all. Nor, it seems, will it be ready to do so in the immediate future. Retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who played a key role in organizing, arming, and paying off Sunni tribal groups in Iraq the last time around during the “Anbar Awakening,” and who has been charged by President Obama with “coordinating” the latest American-led coalition to save Iraq, has alreadygone on record on the subject. By his calculations, even with extensive U.S. air support and fresh infusions of American advisers and equipment, it will take up to a year before that army is capable of launching a campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
What went wrong? The U.S. Army believes in putting the “bottom line up front,” so much so that they have even turned the phrase into an acronym: BLUF. The bottom line here is that, when it comes to military effectiveness, what ultimately matters is whether an army — any army — possesses spirit. Call it fire in the belly, a willingness to take the fight to the enemy. The Islamic State’s militants, at least for the moment, clearly have that will; Iraqi security forces, painstakingly trained and lavishly underwritten by the U.S. government, do not.
This represents a failure of the first order. So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit? The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand. In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.
In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:
1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause. Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit. ISIS has fought with conviction. The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t. The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common. This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation.
2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government. So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders. Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point. In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training. That’s already been tried — and it failed.
3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army. On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper. For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”
When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:
“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”
Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.
Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.” U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”
4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results. Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison. As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.”
Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation. He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves. A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State. For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.” In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support. In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors.
The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealedhardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.
The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”
Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam. After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy. It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing. Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.
To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed. This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State. Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck. To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts. Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs? With, of course, the usual results.
One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies. Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.
And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.
In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan. A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser. That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”
Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:
The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.
Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan). Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak). And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?
The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:
Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria. Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”? And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?
In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. In his words:
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
That is indeed the question. As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East. Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.
But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.” Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation. Impossible for us. Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.
The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left. How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East? Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.
General John Allen wants to “destroy the Islamic State now.” So he says in an article for Defense One. Allen, a retired Marine Corps general who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. But what is distinguishing him in this article is his crusader-speak, a remarkable blend of religious extremism and chauvinistic parochialism.
Let’s tackle the latter first. For Allen, the good people of Iraq are “poor” and “benighted.” But some of them can serve as our “boots on the ground” in the region, i.e. they can serve as bullet magnets while the U.S. provides air support with impunity. It’s up to the U.S. to “orchestrate” their attacks against the Islamic State. As long as they follow our conductor’s baton, all will end well, perhaps with a crescendo of U.S. bombs. (As an aside, he describes the Taliban in Afghanistan as “cavemen” when compared to the new enemy in Iraq. Some of those “cavemen” did fairly well against the former Soviet Union, did they not?)
My charge that the general’s language is that of “religious extremism” may itself appear extreme, but take a close look at his article. The general refers to the Islamic State as a “scourge” and an “abomination.” (I’ve read my Bible and recognize the religious resonances here.) They are “beyond the pale of humanity” and must be “eradicated” because they are engaged in “total war” aided by a “witch’s brew” of foreign recruits.
In sum, General Allen has demonized the enemy while at the same time diminishing potential allies (those “poor benighted” people in need of an American conductor). The answer is eradication, i.e. extermination of that enemy. Now!
Remind me again: Which side is engaged in religious war here?
As Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not in any way defending the murderous extremism of the Islamic State. What I’m saying is that the best solution is not to return the favor (unless you’re truly seeking a crusade). I’m also suggesting that the general’s article is (unintentionally) indicative of a mindset that explains much about why American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed.
When you do something again and again, placing great faith in it, investing enormous amounts of money in it, only to see indifferent or even negative results, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a neutral observer questioned your sanity or asked you if you were part of some cult. Yet few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents as they continue to seek solutions to complex issues by bombing Iraq (as well as numerous other countries across the globe).
Poor Iraq. From Operation Desert Shield/Storm under George H.W. Bush to enforcing no-fly zones under Bill Clinton to Operation Iraqi Freedom under George W. Bush to the latest “humanitarian” bombing under Barack Obama, the one constant is American bombs bursting in Iraqi desert air. Yet despite this bombing — or rather in part because of it — Iraq is a devastated and destabilized country, slowly falling apart at seams that have been unraveling under almost a quarter-century of steady, at times relentless, pounding. “Shock and awe,” anyone?
Well, I confess to being shocked: that U.S. airpower assets, including strategic bombers like B-52s and B-1s, built during the Cold War to deter and, if necessary, attack that second planetary superpower, the Soviet Union, have routinely been used to attack countries that are essentially helpless to defend themselves from bombing.
In 1985, when I entered active duty as an Air Force lieutenant, if you had asked me which country the U.S. would “have” to bomb in four sustained aerial campaigns spanning three decades, among the last countries I would have suggested was Iraq. Heck, back then we were still helping Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, sharing intelligence that aided his military in pinpointing (and using his chemical weapons against) Iranian troop concentrations. The Reagan administration had sent future Bush secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there to shake Saddam’s hand for a photo op. We even overlooked Iraq’s “accidental” bombing in 1987 of a American naval vessel, the USS Stark, that resulted in the death of 37 American sailors, all in the name of containing Iran (and Shia revolutionary fervor).
What we need in 2014 is a new expression that catches the essence of the cult of U.S. air power, something like: “The bomber will always get funded — and used.”
Let’s tackle the first half of that equation: the bomber will always get funded. Skeptical? What else captures the reality (as well as the folly) of dedicating more than $400 billion to the F-35 fighter-bomber program, a wildly over-budget and underperforming weapons system that may, in the end, cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion. Yes, you read that right. Or the persistence of U.S. plans to build yet another long-range “strike” bomber to augment and replace the B-1 and B-2 fleet? It’s a “must-have,” according to the Air Force, if the U.S. is to maintain its “full-spectrum dominance” on Planet Earth. Already pegged at an estimated price of $550 million per plane while still on the drawing boards, it’s just about guaranteed to replace the F-35 in the record books, when it comes to delays, cost overruns, and price. And if you don’t think it’ll get funded, you don’t know recent history.
Heck, I get it. I was a teenager once. In the 1970s, as an Air Force enthusiast and child of the Cold War, I hugged exotic and therefore pricey bomber jets to my chest. (Well, models of them, anyway.) I considered them to be both uniquely American and an absolute necessity when it came to defending our country against the lumbering (but nevertheless menacing) Soviet “bear.” As a result, I gasped in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter dared to cancel the B-1 bomber program. While I was a little young to pen my outrage, more mature critics than I quickly accused him of being soft on defense, of pursuing “unilateral disarmament.”
Back then, I’d built a model of the B-1 bomber. In my mind’s eye I still see its sexy white body and its rakish swing wings. No question that it was a man’s bomber. I recall attaching a firecracker to its body, lighting the wick, and dropping the plane from the third-floor porch. It exploded in mid-air, symbolic to me of the plane’s tragic fate at the hands of the pusillanimous Carter.
But I need not have feared for the B-1. In October 1981, as one of his first major acts in office, President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s cancellation and revived the mothballed program. The Air Force eventually bought 100 of the planes for $28 billion, expensive at the time (and called a “turkey” by some), but a relative bargain in the present budgetary environment when it comes to bombers (but these days, little else).
At that point, I was a young lieutenant serving on active duty in the Air Force. I had by then come to learn that Carter, the peanut farmer (and former Navy nuclear engineer), was right. We really didn’t need the B-1 for our defense. In 1986, for a contest at Peterson Air Force Base where I was stationed, I wrote a paper against the B-1, terming the idea of a “penetrating strategic bomber” a “flawed strategy” in an era of long-range air-launched cruise missiles. It earned an honorable mention, the equivalent of drawing the “you have won second prize in a beauty contest” card in Monopoly, but without the compensatory $10.
That “penetrating,” by the way, meant being loaded with expensive avionics, nowadays augmented by budget-busting “stealth” features, so that a plane could theoretically penetrate enemy air defenses while eluding detection. If the idea of producing such a bomber was flawed in the 1980s, how much more is it today, in an age of remotely-piloted drones and missiles guided by GPS and in a world in which no country the U.S. chooses to bomb is likely to have air defenses of any sophistication? Yet the Air Force insists that it needs at least 100 of the next generation version of them at a cost of $55 billion. (Based on experience, especially with the F-35, you should automatically double or even triple that price tag, cost overruns and product development delays being a given in the process. So let’s say it’ll cost closer to $150 billion. Check back with me, God willing, in 2040 to see whether the Air Force’s figure or mine was closer to reality.)
Idols for Worship, Urges to Satisfy
Obviously, there are staggering amounts of money to be made by feeding America’s fetish for bombers. But the U.S. cult of air power and its wildly expensive persistence requires further explanation. On one level, exotic and expensive attack planes like the F-35 or the future “long range strike bomber” (LRS-B in bloodless acronym-speak) are the military equivalent of sacred cows. They are idols to be worshipped (and funded) without question. But they are also symptoms of a larger disease — the engorgement of the Department of Defense. In the post-9/11 world, this has become so pronounced that the military-industrial-congressional complex clearly believes it is entitled to a trough filled with money with virtually no accountability to the American taxpayer.
Add to that sense of entitlement the absurdist faith of administration after administration in the efficacy of bombing as a problem solver — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and you have a truly lethal combo. Senator John McCain was widely mocked by progressives for his “bomb Iran” song, warbled during the 2008 presidential campaign to the tune of the Beach Boys’s “Barbara Ann.” In fact, his tuneless rendition captured perfectly Washington’s absolute faith in bombing as a solution to…whatever.
Even if the bombs bursting over Iraq or elsewhere don’t solve anything, even when they make things worse, they still make a president look, well, presidential. In America, land of warbirds, it is always better politically to pose as a hunting hawk than a helpless dove.
So don’t blame the Air Force for wanting more and deadlier bombers. Or don’t blame only them. Just as admirals want more ships, flyboys naturally want more planes, even when strategically obsolete from scratch and blazingly expensive. No military service has ever willingly given up even a tiny slice of its share of the prospective budgetary pie, especially if that slice cuts into the service’s core image. In this sense, the Air Force takes its motto from King Lear’s “Reason not the need!” and from Zack Mayo’s “I want to fly jets!” (memorably uttered by that great Shakespearean actor Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman).
The sad truth runs deeper: Americans evidently want them, too. More bombers. More bombs. In the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick got it all wrong. It’s not speed Americans feel a need for; they have an urge to bomb. When you refuse to reason, when you persist in investing ever more resources in ever more planes, use almost automatically follows.
In other words, fund it, build it, and, as promised in the second half of my equation, the bomber will always get used. Mock him all you want, but John McCain was on to something. It’s bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb if not (yet) Iran… then Iraq, or Pakistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or (insert intransigent foreign country/peoples here).
And like cults everywhere, it’s best not to question the core belief and practices of its leaders — after all, bombs bursting in air is now as American as the “Star Spangled Banner.”