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Iraq out of sight

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A week after the publication of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report on 6 December 2006, it is blindingly obvious that the Bush administration may engage in a small amount of cherry-picking but will give little serious consideration to its seventy-nine recommendations.

The criticism of the Baker-Hamilton report has come from many sources, including the Iraqi authorities (such as the president, Jalal Talabani) and Iraqi commentators abroad (see, for example, the sharp analysis of Tareq Y Ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment", 8 December 2006). But it is clear that the real political damage to the report is coming from within the administration (see Godfrey Hodgson, "After the Baker report: America's challenge", and Sidney Blumenthal, "Bush's bunker of dreams", both 13 December 2006).

This internal opposition, buttressed by a weight of commentary from the neo-conservative right, is rooted in the central dilemma faced by the United States in Iraq: the fact that only two military options present themselves - complete withdrawal or stay to win. The Baker-Hamilton analysis does its best to present a middle way by proposing two changes in policy - reducing combat troops while boosting the training of Iraqi forces, together with engaging with the Iranians and the Syrians. Each is a non-starter.

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 current Iraqi security forces are so Shi'a-orientated that boosting their capabilities simply increases the extent to which those very forces engage in countering Sunni insurgents and militias, thereby increasing rather than decreasing the sectarian violence. The news that the US joint chiefs-of-staff are also recommending this change is a further indication of the limitations of current policy (see Robin Wright & Ann Scott Tyson, "Joint Chiefs Advise Change in War Strategy", Washington Post, 14 December 2006).

As to engagement with the Syrians and Iranians, this is simply a step too far for Bush and his associates. It would involve the hugely uncomfortable situation of dialogue with two elements of the "axis of evil" proclaimed in January 2002 - and from a position of weakness. Moreover, Damascus and Tehran hold far more of the cards than Washington, and that is no basis at all for a Republican president to involve himself in negotiations.

Furthermore, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's own domestic position is not nearly as strong as much of the western media assume (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: cracks in the façade", 11 December 2006). This makes it far more likely that he would enjoy a diplomatic confrontation with Washington, just as his current welcome of global holocaust-deniers to a Tehran conference may actually be intended to incite a confrontation with Israel.

A strategy of desperation

Since these core elements of Baker-Hamilton are untenable, and with no prospect of a complete United States withdrawal from Iraq any time soon, the administration returns to a familiarly dominant ideological refrain: "fighting to win". This indeed is a marked feature of recent commentary in the rightwing media and political scene (see Michael Abramowitz & Glenn Kessler, "Hawks Bolster Sceptical President", Washington Post, 10 December 2006). Much of it has been published in the usual outlets such as the National Review, Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal, as well as conservative talk-radio shows; but the true political significance of such an approach stems from the open criticisms of the report from Senator John McCain, a leading Republican candidate for 2008.

Before the ISG report's publication, the neo-conservative wing - convinced that victory in Iraq is absolutely essential - was both targeting the "liberal" media for undermining popular support for the war, and highlighting the need to pour more troops into Iraq. Since the report's publication there has been a subtle shift towards the latter emphasis; a shift rooted partly in the political calculation that the Congressional victory of the neocons' Democratic opponents in November's mid-term elections is a two-edged sword.

This is because it will become increasingly easy for Bush to blame the Democrats for obstructing the war effort and damaging prospects for victory, especially if they voice opposition to troop increases or elements of the massive defence budget now being planned - including an additional $150 billion for Iraq and the war on terror - for the next fiscal year. Furthermore, the administration will also focus incessantly on the divisions among the Democrats, playing the "patriotic card" for all it is worth (and whether or not there is another 9/11-level attack in the next two years).

All this suggests that the Republican right will continue powerfully to insist that the Pentagon must go for a clear-cut victory in Iraq and a defeat of the insurgents, even if this requires significant troop reinforcements.

An army under pressure

There is, however, a major problem with this reaffirmed neo-conservative agenda: namely, that it faces the blunt, intractable military reality of the condition of the United States armed forces.

These forces are (as earlier columns in this series have outlined) greatly overstretched; but more than this, their ability to continue the fight in Iraq, and indeed Afghanistan, is actually decreasing. A key factor here is that the tempo of conflict is exceeding the capacity to rest weary soldiers and repair or replace worn-out equipment (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Army, Marine Corps to Ask for More Troops", Washington Post, 13 December 2006).

Both the army and the Marine Corps are expected to ask the incoming defence secretary, Robert Gates, to finance a permanent increase in personnel, with these to be funded by the core defence budget rather than by supplemental requests.

The claims of the US army are representative of current military thinking. The army's current strength as covered by the core defence budget is 482,000, with another 25,000 covered by supplemental budget requests: this gives an actual strength of 507,000 troops. The army is seeking to have the extra figure embedded in the defence budget and thereby made permanent, and in addition to have 5,000 more troops who will be similarly embedded in the core spending outlay.

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)

Furthermore, according to senior army officials cited in the Washington Post, "the Army will press hard for 'full access' to the 346,000-strong Army National Guard and the 196,000-strong Army Reserves by asking Gates to take the politically sensitive step of easing the Pentagon restrictions on the frequency and duration of involuntary call-ups for reservists".

Similar sources indicate that two-thirds of army units in the continental United States are not currently deployable because of lack of personnel, training or equipment; the army and marine corps together need "$18 billion a year just to repair, replace and upgrade destroyed and worn-out equipment."

The first months of 2007 are likely to resound to major arguments in both houses of Congress over defence appropriations, as rightwing political circles reinforce their demands for more troops for Iraq. The summer of next year could be the period when the pressures will really start to show, especially as there are clear indications that southern Afghanistan is going to get much more violent as Taliban and other jihadi groups expand on their successes of the past eight months.

These political-military considerations reinforce the point that the Baker-Hamilton report is receding into the background at a speed that exceeds all expectations. It is, frankly, already history.

For the moment, the prospect for any fundamental rethinking of policies in Iraq, Afghanistan or indeed in relation to al-Qaida - which would need in any case to go well beyond the Iraq Study Group - is remote. At some stage, however, that rethinking will become unavoidable: and if the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan evolve to become a real crisis for the United States military, it could arrive as early as autumn 2007.


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