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Iraq: the dissonance effect

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The approaching submission of General David Petraeus's report on the progress of the United States's military "surge" strategy in Iraq refocuses attention on American options there after a summer of conflicting signals and assessments. The report, due to be presented by mid-September 2007, is already surrounded by politically charged speculation in a Washington gearing up for a new, post-Labor Day phase in the electoral cycle. What then is happening on the ground in Iraq that might make its way into the final draft?

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 2001Afghanistan: drugs and war

Before answering this question, it is worth noting a significant development in Afghanistan that echoes the theme of last week's column in this series (see "The Afghan tunnel", 23 August 2007). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has now confirmed that there has been a further increase in opium cultivation in Afghanistan. The crop in 2007 is 34% higher than in 2006, which was itself a record year. Opium production has doubled in two years and Afghanistan now produces no less than 93% of the heroin, morphine and other opiates on international markets (see Colum Lynch & Griff Witte, "Afghan Opium Trade Hits New Peak", Washington Post, 28 August 2007). The UNODC itself says: "Leaving aside 19th-century China..., no country in the world has ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale".

The connection between land-use and military conflict is reflected in the fact that much of Afghanistan's opium crop is grown in five provinces bordering Pakistan that have the most substantial Taliban presence. One province alone, Helmand, out-produces the drug supply of entire countries such as Colombia (coca) or Morocco (cannabis). This area has also been the focus of intense fighting between Taliban paramilitaries and British troops, whose casualties include three British soldiers killed in a "friendly-fire" incident on 23 August near Kajaki, in southern Helmand.

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
In the Sha Wali Kot district of neighbouring Kandahar province, an ambush by the Taliban on an Afghan military patrol on 28 August in the Sha Wali Kot district led to further fierce exchanges. The ferocious day-long battle between United States-led troops and militias there is another indicator of the challenge facing the coalition forces in face of a deep-rooted insurgency whose operatives are prepared to engage in close-quarters combat.

Iraq: the principal enemy

The problems in Afghanistan are a reminder that the "war on terror" is being fought on more than one front. At the same time, there is no doubt that Iraq is the far greater concern for Washington. A confirmation of this is the febrile, overheated rhetoric that underpins the intense effort by supporters of the George W Bush administration to convince its Republican core that the United States is winning in Iraq. The president's remarkable analogy between the Vietnam war and Iraq, made to an audience of military veterans on 22 August, seems to have infused this argument with a fresh ideological urgency: a conservative group, Freedom's Watch, is running a $15 million campaign in the media across twenty states warning against any defeatism, even as the committed rightwing media cheerleaders for the war such as the Weekly Standard continue to proclaim impending victory in Iraq.

In Iraq itself, the Shi'a forces of (respectively) Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr militia loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIR) are currently engaged in a power-struggle triggered by the annual pilgrimage to Karbala. But Shi'a militants are also responsible for most of the continuing attacks on US forces in Iraq, even as the Bush administration is at pains to label the al-Qaida movement as its principal enemy in Iraq. The dissonance this involves helps explain why so many observers can plausibly claim that the US is gradually inflicting a comprehensive defeat on its adversaries. One assessment even concludes that: "Because they [US forces] have finally learned how to protect the people of Iraq - and help them protect themselves - the United States and its allies are winning this war" (see Mario Loyola, "Operation Phantom Strike: How the US military is demolishing al-Qaeda in Iraq", Weekly Standard, 3 September 2007).

Such bold judgments need to be tested against the available facts. Two new reports suggest a more cautious view. First, the "strikingly negative" draft of the US government accountability office (GAO) seen by reporters finds that the Iraqi authorities have met only three of the eighteen congressionally-mandated "benchmarks" of political progress set for them (see Karen DeYoung &Thomas E Ricks, "Report Finds Little Progress On Iraq Goals", Washington Post, 30 August 2007).

Second, a set of data compiled by Associated Press shows that violence in Baghdad may indeed have decreased but is more than countered by measurable increases elsewhere in Iraq (see Stephen R Hurst, "Iraq Body Count Running at Double Pace", Los Angeles Times, 25 August 2007). Moreover, many deaths go unreported, such that AP regards its estimates as a minimum; even so, it has recorded an average of sixty-two war-related deaths a day so far in 2007 compared with thirty-three in 2006 (and thus a thousand more deaths in the first eight months of 2007 than in the whole of 2006).

The quantifiable evidence of the enduring severity of the conflict is supplemented by the qualitative. For example, the national electricity-supply grid that feeds electricity around Iraq is now in large part in the hands of armed groups rather than the government. Much of Iraq's electricity comes from generating stations away from Baghdad and central Iraq, which means that local militias simply divert supplies to their own areas at the expense of the capital (see James Glanz & Stephen Farrell, "Militias Seizing Control of Grid, Starving Baghdad of Electricity", International Herald Tribune, 22 August 2007).

The seizure of energy supplies gives insurgent groups even more leverage to conduct their campaign against coalition forces. A recent night-attack on a British-Iraqi base in Basra involved a degree of sophisticated coordination: the insurgents plunged a section of the city into darkness and launched their assault from there, before cutting supplies to another neighbourhood and repeating the process.

The next decade

There are many examples of the contrast in understandings between febrile Washington and sober Baghdad. Perhaps the most striking recent illustration is provided by the post-Baghdad reaction of Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democrat member of the House of Representatives and long-term opponent of the war. A briefing by General Petraeus had advised Schakowsky that some short-term progress notwithstanding, it would take another decade of US commitment and support to achieve stability. Schakowsky's response on her return was eloquent: "I come from an environment where people talk nine to ten months, and there he was, talking nine to ten years" (see Shailagh Murray, "After Iraq Trip, Unshaken Resolve", Washington Post, 26 August 2007).

Petraeus's projection of a conflict that would last until the late 2010s (at least) was no doubt a straight military assessment, though it too begs the question of whether the US army and marine corps can maintain the current tempo for anything like that period. The present strains on the US military - manpower, morale, injury, post-combat care - are enormous. As a result, some remarkable incentives are being offered to sustain the flow of recruits; for example, new recruits prepared to start basic combat training by the end of September are (from 25 July) being offered a bonus of $20,000, the equivalent of a year's additional pay for a non-graduate, spread over the first three years of deployment. Nearly 4,000 people took up the offer in the first three weeks (see Josh White, "Many Take Army's 'Quick Ship' Bonus", Washington Post, 27 August 2007).

The pressures on the US military must clearly be factored into political calculations about the US's future in Iraq. The US military has a particular job to do, which David Petraeus well understands: defeat the insurgents and the sectarian militias and stabilise the country under a pro-American administration, thus aiding US influence over the long-term security of the Persian Gulf. This is the requirement on the ground, even as the political mood in the United States can shift in one direction or another. If, however, the US lost the political will to maintain its project and its presence in Iraq, the resulting withdrawal from the world's most important oil-supplying region would entail a huge loss of its influence and prestige.

Such an outcome would be hugely difficult for any administration to contemplate, whether Republican or Democrat (see "The war for Gulf oil" [26 May 2004], and "It's the oil, stupid" [24 March 2005]). This is one reason why this series of columns has long argued that Bush's war on terror, once unleashed, will - unless there is a fundamental rethinking of policy - be measured in decades not years (see "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003). There is no sign of that whatsoever; indeed, Bush's hardline speech on Iran on 28 August is a further indication of the determination of his administration to maintain US control in the Persian Gulf (see Trita Parsi, "Bush Indictment of Iran Tops Usual Rhetoric" IPS, 29 August 2007).

This determination is the true measure of (on the other side) the advocacy by Jan Schakowsky, other members of Congress, and large sections of the American public of a US pull-out from Iraq. A key issue between now and November 2008 is whether opponents of the war can develop a rational policy that makes possible a withdrawal in full sight of the powerful interests focused on entrenching US dominance of the region. In this respect, General Petraeus's talk of another decade of conflict may have performed a very useful service in dispelling any illusions about imminent withdrawal. The difficulty in engineering a fundamental change of United States policy, and thus the scale of the task facing the anti-war movement, remain enormous. There is no turning back - yet - in Washington.


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