Washington's Iraqi sandstorm

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A shift of vocabulary can be the harbinger of a new understanding. The notable increase in the past week in the use of the term "civil war" to describe what is happening in Iraq - which has included powerful statements from Kofi Annan and King Abdullah of Jordan - may, then, prove significant.

October 2006's civilian death-toll of 3,709 lends support to such pessimism. The United Nations-reported figure - drawn from the Iraqi health ministry, hospitals and other sources - exceeds the calculation for July, itself the highest since the war began in March 2003.

In providing the figures, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) also reported a surge in execution-style killings and the torture of victims, as well as repeated indications of the infiltration of police and security forces by militias.

The routine acceptance of the term "civil war" (rather than, say, an "insurgency") has become close to a necessary tactical adjustment for the United States leadership, since significant parts of the US media (including NBC and the Los Angeles Times) now use a phrase that has long been a taboo for the White House. At the same time, it might be thought to offer some crude political advantage - for it allows the violence to be blamed on internal Iraqi dynamics rather than resisters fighting a foreign occupation by American forces.

In this sense, "civil war" works to displace responsibility onto the Iraqis and away from the US itself - even if, under the terms of the Geneva conventions, an occupying power is responsible for maintaining security(see Thomas E Ricks & Robin Wright, "As Iraq Deteriorates, Iraqis Get More Blame", Washington Post, 29 November 2006 ).

The George W Bush administration has its response ready: Iraq is now an independent state. The reality, however, is of a government with a writ that scarcely extends beyond Baghdad, is dependent on US forces for its survival, and is closely managed by US staff working from the world's largest embassy now nearing completion in Baghdad.

The leaked memo (dated 8 November 2006) from Stephen J Hadley, the US's national-security adviser, assessing the weaknesses of the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki indicates that the US has no illusions about the Baghdad government. But Bush's supportive words about al-Maliki's "courage" when the two leaders met in Amman on 30 November, and opposition to suggestions that Iraq should be partitioned, are a marker in advance of the Iraq Study Group report's conclusions, now scheduled to be published on 6 December.

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 view on the ground

The evolving "blame game" is scarcely relevant to the situation on the ground in Iraq, where sectarian violence has increased and the US forces are engaged in a deep-rooted insurgency. The diversion of many US troops to Baghdad since August 2006 (in "Operation Together Forward") has done little to curb the violence there, and there has actually been an increase in American casualties in Anbar province.

The attempt to regain control of greater Baghdad started with the deployment of 7,200 extra US troops to the capital. The operation involved many street patrols and roadblocks, yet it is striking that despite this "exposure" there were fewer American casualties in the city than outside Baghdad (only a third of the total) in the period. The loss of security in Anbar in particular has been such that the marine corps moved 2,200 troops to the west of the province to try and regain a degree of control (see Lolita C Baldor, "More Troops Dying in Anbar Province", Associated Press, 25 November 2006).

The experience of these three months confirms a long-term trend: that if there are major US troop movements undertaken to enforce control of one part of central Iraq, the insurgency simply intensifies elsewhere. This trend, moreover, is exacerbated by two other problems.

The first is that the insurgency itself has become financially self-sustaining; the insurgent groups have acquired a range of financial resources sufficient to enable them to access weapons, munitions and many other means of support (see John F Burns & Kirk Semple, "Insurgents in Iraq finance themselves", International Herald Tribune, 26 November 2006). Any current estimate of their size can only be rough, but the sum may amount to as much as $200 million a year.

As much as $100 million may come from oil smuggling, over $30 million from ransoms paid for kidnap victims, and many millions more from counterfeiting, corruption and the activities of "charities". A figure of $200 million a year would still be less than the cost of the war to the United States every day. Pentagon expenditure is of the order of $96 billion in 2006; this suggests that a robust insurgency that pins down over 100,000 United States troops is able to operate at a tiny fraction of the cost it is obliging the US to spend.

The second problem stems from increasing evidence that the US programme to train Iraqi security and police forces has proved to be seriously defective (see Thomas E Ricks, "Flaws Cited in Effort to Train Iraqi Forces" Washington Post, 21 November 2006). At the root of the issue are four interconnected factors: inadequate training; inadequate numbers of American instructors; a conspicuous lack of interpreters; and an expectation that the Iraqis being trained would be effectively "clean slate", with little or no likelihood of linking up with militias.

The overall impact of these factors is that there remain major problems of reliability across the police, army and numerous security units. This is so much the case that where US, British or other coalition troops have withdrawn from particular areas, there has been little evidence of any central Iraqi government control in their place.

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 new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

The neocon flailing

If these developments are put together, what emerges is a bitter combination of a sustainable insurgency and deepening sectarian violence, without any indication that the United States military can cope. If the political factor of the Bush administration's major electoral defeat in the mid-term elections of 7 November is added, the question arises: will there now be a major change in US policy?

President Bush's reiteration of the firm, familiar statement that the United States would "stay the course" (delivered at the start of the Nato summit in Riga, Latvia on 28-29 November) would suggest otherwise. The stance is supported by Pentagon plans to maintain troop levels in Iraq at current numbers for another four years.

Beyond the official administration position, though, it is instructive to examine what the neo-conservative commentators and analysts are saying. Some prominent figures, including Richard Perle, are rounding on the president and his advisers; others are directing their arguments in different directions, three of which are notable (see "Neo Culpa", Vanity Fair, 3 November 2006).

The first is a clear tendency to blame the US media for accentuating the bad news and stirring up domestic public opposition to the war (see Michael Novak, "What the Islamists Have Learned: How to Defeat the US in Future Wars" Weekly Standard, 22 November 2006). This is reminiscent of the argument of the 1970s onwards that the US military would have won in Vietnam if it had not been betrayed by pernicious media defeatists back home.

The prominence in the media of some very pro-war voices (on, for example, Fox News and the numerous radio talk-shows) makes this seem an extraordinary claim. Yet it is indeed being made with some force, almost as if intellectually (and propagandistically) preparing the way for a fundamental excuse should a full withdrawal from Iraq ever be required.

A second argument is that a comprehensive withdrawal from Iraq would be an utter disaster for the United States and a clear sell-out of the so-called "realists" who are little more than appeasers. As the latest Weekly Standard editorial puts it:

"So let's add up the 'realist' proposals: We must retreat from Iraq, and thus abandon all those Iraqis - Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, and others - who have depended on the United States for Safety and the promise of a better future. We must abandon our allies in Lebanon and the very idea of an independent Lebanon in order to win Syria's support for our retreat from Iraq. We must abandon our opposition to Iran's nuclear program in order to convince Iran to help us abandon Iraq. And we must pressure our ally, Israel, to accommodate a violent Hamas in order to gain radical Arab support for our retreat from Iraq" (see Robert Kagan & William Kristol, "Surrender as 'Realism'", 4 December 2006).

It is nothing less than a cry of dismay, if not anguish, and a salutary indicator of the changing mood in the United States.

The third argument is the oft-repeated one that the real mistake has been to have too few forces in Iraq - what is required is an increase in the US troop presence in Iraq and tougher counterinsurgency operations backed up by a rapid expansion in the size of the US army (see Frederick W Kagan, "We Can Put More Forces in Iraq - and they would make a difference" Weekly Standard, 4 December 2006).

The administration's choice

These neocon responses together signal a degree of disarray in the ranks of the more hawkish elements around the Bush administration. The extraordinary flailing between demands for armed reinforcement and preparations for failure on the basis of "blame someone else" indicate the confusion.

But beyond this is a core strategic reality, and an argument that has been frequently made in this series of columns (if largely hidden from view in Washington). The massive fossil-fuel reserves in the Persian Gulf region make this the most important part of the world for Washington outside the continental United States; and Iraq really is a cornerstone of US security policy in the region.

This suggests an answer to the question posed above about a change in policy. A complete military withdrawal from Iraq remains highly unlikely; and, if it did ever happen, it would be a foreign-policy disaster for the United States of historic proportions - far more so than Vietnam.