New frontiers: from Iraq to outer space

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 October 2006

The war in Iraq continues to bring tragedy to Iraq's people and devastation to many American families. But just as there are minimal signs of any serious rethinking of military strategy in Iraq by the George W Bush administration, so the scale of forward thinking by the United States is revealed by its plans to dominate space

Iraq: time to regroup?

In the past week the war in Iraq has broken through to the heart of the established western media in a sudden and unexpected manner. It started on 13 October with comments by the head of the British army, General Richard Dannatt, that the presence of British forces in Iraq was proving counterproductive and that they should leave "sometime soon". 

On 17 October, the commander of 3 Para battlegroup recently returned from Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler, emphasised the manner in which the Iraq war has been a dangerous diversion from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, former United States secretary of state James A Baker - assigned by Congress with the blessing of the Bush administration to head an Iraq Study Group that is due to report in January 2007 - has given early indications of his deep concern at the desperate condition of Iraq; there are even suggestions that his team may recommend either a phased withdrawal or consultations with Iran and Syria to help end the fighting.

The reaction of the Bush administration to recent problems has been to focus once more on the supposed connection between the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, even going to the extent of conflating a series of issues into the overall  "long war against Islamofascism".  

This involves subsuming the extraordinary combination of al-Qaida, Hizbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents and any other Islamic groups believed to threaten US interests. The combination is then seen as one single threat that relates directly to 9/11 and the presumed vulnerability of the US homeland. 

Behind the concerns of people such as Dannatt and Baker lies a further deterioration across much of Iraq. The daily toll of violent civilian deaths is over 100, equivalent to the losses in the 9/11 attacks every month. Large parts of Iraq are entirely outside US or Iraqi government control and Baghdad itself has experienced a massive surge in violence in recent months.

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

Until a few months ago, US forces were moving towards a policy of fewer ground patrols and a greater emphasis on the use of helicopter gunships for counterinsurgency operations. This was intended to decrease US military casualties, though an inevitable side-effect was an increase in civilian casualties as intense firepower was brought to bear on presumed insurgents. But more recently, the upsurge in violence in Baghdad has necessitated a return to large-scale ground patrols, again exposing US troops to great dangers. An increase in US military casualties is the result; eleven soldiers were killed on 17-18 October alone.

During September there were seventy-one deaths in combat with another seventy-one in the first nineteen days in October, this being one of the worst periods for over eighteen months. Combat injuries also rose substantially - from the beginning of September to 19 October there were more than 1,300 injuries, with nearly 600 listed as serious.    

Yet whatever the vulnerabilities of its soldiers or the political controversies, there are few signs of any reconsideration by the Bush administration of its overall strategy.  Indeed, the administration is under particular pressure from the neo-conservative wing, with strong arguments being assembled that an Iraqi withdrawal would be a gift to the jihadists (see Reuel Marc Gerecht, "Running from Iraq", Weekly Standard, 23 October 2006).

There are few signs of change. According to US army chief-of-staff, General Peter Schoomaker, the Pentagon is planning to keep around 140,000 troops in Iraq for the next four years, with a composition probably similar to the current mix of 120,000 soldiers and 21,000 marines. This comes at a time when the fiscal-year 2007 defence budget is likely to amount to almost $600 billion including ongoing war costs.

The result could be spending higher in real terms than at any time since 1945, even including the peak years of the Vietnam war in the late 1960s (see William Matthews, "2007 U.S. Defense Spending on Track for Post-WWII Record", Defense News, 2 October 2006 [subscription only]). The United States will be spending as much on the military as every other country in the world put together.

More of the same

Within the Pentagon there is certainly some major analysis going on, but most of this concerns how to adjust to recent problems, especially in Iraq, and revolves around the current internal "Iraq Study Group" project, quite different to James W Baker's study of the same name (see Greg Grant, "U.S. Creates 'Iraq Study Group'", Defense News, 9 October 2006 [subscription only]). At its root is a recognition that the US army is primarily trained to fight high-intensity conventional wars and has proved to be thoroughly ill-equipped for war in Iraq or, for that matter, Afghanistan. 

It is true that the United States has a special-operations command with more than 50,000 personnel, but even these are stretched thin with counterinsurgency training missions in dozens of countries across the world, especially in Africa, coupled with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US army had originally pinned much faith in the new ultra-high-tech "future combat system": an extraordinarily expensive programme (costing around $300 billion) of new weapons and highly mobile armoured vehicles coupled with heavily computerised communications and analysis systems linked directly to individual soldiers. This was expected to provide superiority in conventional wars but is still based on the idea of rapid warfare coupled with the use of overwhelming firepower.

A key reason is that the US army defeated the Iraqi army in 1991 in barely a hundred hours, and the rush to Baghdad and termination of the Saddam Hussein regime twelve years later in 2003 took barely three weeks. Firepower seemed to work.  

What was missed was that in 1991 Saddam Hussein and his elite were mainly interested in regime survival rather than holding on to Kuwait, and kept back some of their most competent forces for a defence of Baghdad that proved unnecessary. Then, in 2003, key units such as the Special Republican Guard, various commando units and fedayeen did not even engage the US military as it approached Baghdad, but rather dispersed. As the insurgency began to develop, the US armed forces responded as usual with intensive firepower, killing many civilians and lending considerable support to the evolving resistance.

Apart from a few perceptive analysts within the US military, none of this was recognised. The result has been the US forces are being forced to face entirely unconventional enemies. Moreover, this looks to be the pattern for the future, whereas the army still clings to the need to fight major conventional wars.

The consequence is likely to be relatively minor modifications to existing strategies, almost as though a "something might turn up" outlook is all that's left. What is lacking is any recognition that the United States may actually be losing its war on terror. Instead, more of the same is planned.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
( October 2005)

No limit 

As if to confirm this mindset, there is now clear evidence that the US military is moving to the next potential frontier of conflict - space. In the early part of 2001, in the heady days before the 9/11 attacks, the unilateralist Bush administration refused to entertain the idea of arms control negotiations to prevent the weaponisation of space.  Now, a new national space policy has been announced that confirms this stance and firmly rejects any agreements that might limit US freedom of action. The policy was signed by President Bush on 31 August 2006, but released in a public document only on the late afternoon of Friday 6 October. 

This doesn't immediately involve the development and fielding of space-based weapons, but the policy does assert that "freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power" (see Marc Kaufman, "Bush Sets Defense As Space Priority", Washington Post, 18 October 2006).  

Theresa Hitchens of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information says that the new policy "kicks the door a little more open to a space-war fighting strategy" with a "very unilateral tone to it". Administration officials strongly deny this; but the United States was the only country to vote against United Nations proposals for a space-weapons ban in October 2005, while 160 states voted "yes".

What is evident is that in new frontiers of conflict such as space, just as in existing conflicts, the Bush administration's bottom line is the absolute need to maintain control. Its armed forces may be experiencing difficulties but there really is no evidence of a rethink of the heart as opposed to the details of policy.  

It is just possible that James A Baker's report might open up some new lines of thinking, but it is frankly unlikely. The strategic location of Iraq, and the loss of United States influence in the region if there was to be evidence of failure, together mean that a meaningful shift of policy is improbable - at least while George W Bush is in the White House.

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