These are cautiously optimistic times for proponents of the United States military effort in Iraq. The "surge" is in its ninth month and on the surface is showing results sufficient to justify the claims of some in Washington - even beyond the community of true-believer neo-conservatives - that success is at last in sight.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
The evidence of an easing of the overall situation is threefold: a decrease in the number of attacks from al-Qaida elements, fewer US casualties (currently at a level characteristic of 2004-05), and a substantial decline in violence in parts of western Baghdad and Anbar province. The fact that there are counter-trends - among them an increase in insurgent violence in Nineveh province and a greater incidence of intra-community fighting (especially on the Shi'a side) - only marginally detracts from this more hopeful portrait.
At the same time, expressions of continued concern in senior US military circles at the trend of developments in Iraq are not hard to find. Two contributions in the past fortnight make the point. First, the recently retired Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez - who commanded US forces in Iraq for a year after the 2003 invasion - delivered a trenchant speech on 12 October 2007 that placed the current US approach in Iraq in the context of numerous failed policies and false choices made by the US since the start of the war: "From a catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan to the administration's latest surge strategy, this administration has failed to employ and synchronize its politic, economic and military power" (see "Ex-Commander in Iraq Faults War Strategy", Washington Post, 13 October 2007).
This view was echoed four days later by twelve former US army captains - all veterans of Iraq - who co-wrote a powerful opinion column arguing that the United States could only succeed in Iraq if it reintroduced the draft (see "The Real Iraq We Knew", Washington Post, 16 October 2007). The authors acknowledged that this is politically impossible, and concluded therefore that the best option was an immediate withdrawal.
The criticism of US policy in Iraq goes far wider than former members of the military establishment. An independent assessment from the United Nations assistance mission for Iraq, completed in August, reported the "devastating consequences" of violence on Iraqi civilians across the country in the period April-June 2007. The UN report finds that the the most serous issue is the treatment of detainees by both the US and Iraqi authorities: more than 44,000 suspects (an increase of almost 10% since June) were being held, many for months amid gross overcrowding without prospect of trial or even review, and vulnerable to torture (see Joshua Partlow & Colum Lynch, "U.N. Report on Iraq Details An 'Ever-Deepening' Crisis", Washington Post, 12 October 2007).
The release of the UN report was delayed for two months following a request from the US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan C Crocker. This unusual step gave the US authorities the opportunity time to gather material to respond to the allegations, and had the coincidental effect that the report appeared only after Crocker and General David Petraeus had delivered their high-profile (and relatively positive) testimony to Congress on 10-11 September.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security
monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007).
This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament
The war's supporters in Washington, many of whom naturally dismiss anything emanating from the UN, use this delay to their advantage in highlighting the decrease in violence since the UN assessment was completed. Moreover, they decry Ricardo Sanchez as a man seeking to displace blame for his own mistakes. Nonetheless, the deeper predicament of the US in Iraq and the region - not least, in relation to tensions around the Turkey-Iraq border after a spate of PKK attacks on Turkish forces and threats of an incursion by Turkey in response - is far less susceptible to an optimistic reading as the cheerleaders imply.
A strategy's holes
This point can be illustrated by looking at the emerging pattern of deployment of United States forces in the region. The US intends to withdraw five combat brigades from Iraq by mid-2008, reducing the total number of troops in the country to pre-surge levels. In the other direction, four brigades of national-guard troops (13,000 in all) will begin to deploy to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan between now and early 2008, to relieve pressure on regular troops who will continue to be stationed there. The Pentagon is already planning to alert a further seven units to replace these four brigades in 2008 and 2009.
This measure evidently will entail an additional strain on overstretched reserve units. But they are unavoidable, insofar as the only alternative would be either to extend the deployment of regular troop beyond the current fifteen months or reduce the time between deployments. A national-guard official observes: "All the active component brigade have been used as part of the surge, and the requirements are not going away. You create holes when you surge units forward, and someone has to fill them" (see Ann Scott Tyson, "National Guard Faces Call-Ups for 2008, '09", Washington Post, 18 October 2007).
These proposed deployments reinforce a point frequently made in earlier columns in this series: the enormous physical and psychological strains being imposed on the US army by the "war on terror" (see "Far from home, alone" [17 July 2003], "The American military: all stressed out" [8 April 2004] "The Pentagon's overstretch", [29 September 2007]. There is little relief in sight. The likelihood of the US military missions remaining active and dangerous is emphasised by a recent updating of the US campaign strategy in Iraq (covering the period through to mid-2009) which anticipates an increased confrontation with Shi'a militias. This factor - allied to the continuing possibility of an escalation of the tension between Washington and Tehran - may yet influence the planned combat-brigade withdrawal (see Ann Scott Tyson "U.S. Planners See Shiite Militias as Rising Threat", Washington Post, 22 October 2007).
Between plan and execution falls argument. There is tension within the Pentagon over a basic issue: whether to keep US troop numbers sufficiently high to prevent a resurgence of violence in 2008 (a view supported by the Iraq commanders, especially General Petraeus) or to speed up the withdrawal. The commanders who advance the latter view make the case that troops now in Iraq are needed for additional deployments in Afghanistan, and as an available reserve in the event of intensified emergencies in other crisis-spots (including Somalia, Lebanon and possibly Iran).
A house of cards
To a degree, however, intra-Pentagon disputes and calculations about required troop levels are a distraction from a fundamental point: that the United States is developing clear plans to maintain what effectively will be a permanent presence in Iraq. These plans reinforce a fixation apparent since at least the period immediately after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in April 2003: build four large bases in key strategic locations around Iraq, and prepare for a long occupation.
A consideration of current US intentions suggests that the existing network of fifty-five US bases across Iraq will be reduced to just twenty (and possibly short-term) "contingency operating locations" (COL); in addition, five or six much more substantial "contingency operating bases" (COB) will be constructed (see Michael Knights, "Backing Away: US plans for slow withdrawal from Iraq", Jane's Intelligence Review, October 2007 [subscription only]).
Most COBs are already under construction or even completed. One such is Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad. An even larger, almost-completed COB is Balad / Camp Anaconda complex north of the capital and away from built-up areas: the complex has runways and taxi-ways for the US's huge C-5s and C-17 airraft, facilities for 120 helicopters, and accommodation for 25,000 troops.
Two other installations are al-Asad air-base in Anbar province, currently housing 17,000 troops; and Tallil air-base in southern Iraq, capable of supporting up to 6,000 troops (the actual numbers involved are far higher, since the bases have large numbers of air-force and army aviation personnel in addition to army support-staff).
The immediate function of these bases will be to provide core force-support for the Iraqi security forces; the overall aim is to maintain a long-term presence of perhaps 50,000 troops that ensures the security of the Iraqi state, whatever its complexion, and makes it beholden to these US forces for its survival. By this means, Washington maintains a dependent client state in the heart of the Persian Gulf oil region.
This is not all: US forces stationed close to Iraq will have a "back-up" function that will allow them to intervene when necessary. These will include a "call- forward force" in Kuwait, carrier air-power in the Persian Gulf, and B1-B strategic bombers based in one of the Gulf states (possibly Qatar). It is important to emphasise that all these deployments are being seen in the context of a "best-case scenario" in which the level of insurgent violence in Iraq becomes manageable. If if it does not, then much larger US forces will remain for years.
A welcome gift
A striking aspect of this best-case (and astoundingly costly) planning is the United States authorities responsible seem to lack any idea of the impact even of these potential deployments. They appear to be trapped in a remarkable conviction that the US can maintain an extensive arsenal of military power - up to 50,000 troops in Iraq, many thousands elsewhere in the Gulf region, aircraft-carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and bombers and strike-aircraft at bases across the region - in a way that can find acceptability in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
There is a real lack of understanding and imagination here, of just how valuable this scenario is to the radical, jihadi movement. For Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders and strategists, the prospect of a US presence heavily entrenched for at least a decade in the heart of "their" world is a gift. Moreover, in the process of attempting to establish this position, the US will offer numerous (and perhaps expanding) opportunities for militant target-practice.
The key point is that the very best outcome from a US military perspective - a declining insurgency but a long-term military presence in Iraq - is still very good news indeed for al-Qaida. That alone is a predicament for the United States, one far beyond its current official mindset. This is indeed shaping up to be a long war.