Far from home, alone

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 July 2003

The security problems in Iraq discussed in recent weeks in this series of articles have shown no sign of easing, and some Pentagon sources are predicting that they will get even worse in the coming weeks. Attacks on US units, especially supply convoys, are continuing daily, with further deaths and injuries to troops. A major bomb attack on a police station occupied by US troops was only avoided when the bomb detonated prematurely.

Retaliation by US troops is forceful, and frequent pre-emptive raids are further increasing tensions. Even the recently established national advisory council is widely seen as little more than an adjunct to the occupying power.

The extent of the security problem is such that soldiers of the Third Infantry Division have just been informed that they will have to stay in the region indefinitely, having been told only last week by their commanding office, General Buford C Blount III, that they would be back in the homeland by late summer.

The costs of commitment

The developing problems in Iraq come at a time when the huge expenses entailed by the war and its aftermath are having to be revised upwards. This indeed is one of the issues that is encouraging leading Democratic politicians to become much more forceful in their attitude to George W. Bush and his whole Iraq policy.

Until now, the war has cost the US about $50 billion, adding substantially to already-planned military spending for 2003 (see Jonathan Weisman, “Iraq cost could mount to $100 billion”, Washington Post, 13 July), but it is the rising cost of post-war operations that is causing particular disquiet.

When the war started in March, there was already an awareness that there would be continuing costs even after the regime had been deposed. At the time, the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, Dov Zakheim, estimated post-combat operations at about $2.2 billion a month, but that had increased to $3 billion by the beginning of June and is now estimated at $3.9 billion – or around $47 billion on an annual basis.

What has to be recognised is that these monthly expenditures are being incurred at a time when many of the US forces have actually left the region. Many of the air force units are now back in the United States and the majority of the naval units, including most of the aircraft carrier battle groups, have long since left the region. This context gives us some idea of the extent of the ground force commitments the US is making in Iraq.

The brunt of these operations is being borne by the army, with substantial movements of supplies necessary to sustain troops that are operating continually under near-combat conditions. For the time being, at least, there is no end in sight, and this means an added overall strain on the US federal budget.

The $100 billion estimate for military costs throughout the year comes at a time when the current year’s federal budget deficit is being put at $455 billion. This is a huge increase on previous estimates and stems from a combination of slow economic growth, tax cuts and the cost of the war and its aftermath.

Such a deficit is a record for the United States, exceeding the previous (1992) record of $290 billion, although it is relatively smaller in proportion to the total economy than some of those truly massive deficits of the Ronald Reagan era at the height of the cold war.

Yet deficits at this level, which are expected to rise still further next year, are part of the reason why President Bush’s popularity is beginning to slip, and also why there is a much more intense focus on what is happening in Iraq. The extent of the US commitments in Iraq mean that there is now serious talk of reversing some of the personnel cuts of the 1990s and reducing army numbers towards cold war levels – a very different prospect to that favoured by Donald Rumsfeld with his preference for light and highly mobile forces.

A force under pressure

The US army is essentially organised into ten divisions, subdivided into thirty-three brigades and made up of about 200,000 troops in all. This is less than half of the total army personnel, but it represents the core of the fighting forces, essentially those capable of combat operations overseas. Of those ten divisions, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, the 1st Armoured Division and the 101st Airborne Division are all in Iraq, together with elements of other divisions.

The Iraq commitments therefore represent the equivalent of five divisions. Another division is committed to Afghanistan and another to Europe, including the Balkans; only one division is currently being held in reserve in the United States. A further measure of current pressures is that, at present, nineteen of the army’s thirty-three brigades are stationed or deployed overseas.

There is, in addition, the large Marine Corps, but that has its own commitments in East Asia and would also be used (if these prove necessary) for operations in Liberia, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The US army can also call on large numbers of reservists and National Guard units, but these are all people in regular employment and the numbers already called up are leading to strains in the system.

Thus, both for both budgetary and personnel reasons, there is now a premium on trying to reduce troop levels in Iraq, and it is here that the problem is really developing. Until recently, the US hoped and expected that it could persuade a number of states to make significant troop commitments to garrisoning Iraq. There have been some “successes”, with units from Spain, Italy and Poland taking up duties in some of the quieter parts of Iraq, but what were really needed were division-strength deployments from countries that had large professional armed forces.

The Indian ‘no’

It is here that problems have arisen, because most such countries are frankly unwilling to make the commitments. Britain is already fully stretched in south-east Iraq, and France and Germany have both made it clear that they are not interested, at least at any substantial force levels. Spain is highly unlikely to increase its force levels, given the domestic unpopularity of the war and its aftermath, and Turkey and Russia are politically unacceptable even if they were willing.

The one key country that remains is India, with its sizeable and experienced army. The United States asked the Indian army to commit a full division of 17,000 troops to the northern, Kurdish region of Iraq around Mosul. While this is not a region of high tensions, it would have been a very valuable addition for the Americans, relieving some pressure on their own troops while sending a powerful political signal to other states, especially those in Nato.

There might have been questions about India taking part in operations in what is essentially an Islamic country, but in any case the Indian government this week decided not to accede to the American request.

This decision is highly significant as well as something of a surprise. The prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had been under heavy US pressure to agree the troop movements, and there were some sound political reasons for doing so. One was the perceived need for India to ally itself to the world’s only superpower; another was Pakistan’s evident strategy of positioning itself alongside Washington in the “war on terror”. Also, India’s ability to sustain a full army division overseas would demonstrate the extent of its military capabilities.

Indian defence analysts believe that Vajpayee’s decision is very much the result of domestic politics. Put bluntly, the Iraq war was highly unpopular in India, and opposition to sending troops now is very high; recent opinion polls show around 69%-87% against any deployment. To complicate matters for the government, elections are due in five states later this year, four of them in strong Congress Party areas, and the results would help set the scene for the general election that is due in just over a year.

Reaping the consequences

The Indian government may yet make a much smaller military commitment to Iraq, and would probably do it much more readily if there was a stronger UN influence in the country, but the core fact is that the United States simply cannot get many of its presumed allies to help it out, especially as levels of violence and insecurity in Iraq increase.

In March 2003, Washington went to war in the teeth of strong international opposition, with only Britain and Australia (and to a degree Poland) offering direct military support. Its hope was that Iraq would move rapidly into a post-war state of stability, wartime opposition would recede and other states would then come in on a large scale to help with maintaining security.

That has simply not happened, and a bitter insurgency is still developing. The end result is that states such as India, France and Germany are willing to leave the United States to carry the considerable burdens it now faces. Poland, Spain, Britain and others may help out to a limited extent, but in the regions of major instability and violence in Iraq, the US is essentially on its own and is beginning to reap the political as well as the military consequences of the war.

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