Petraeus on Iraq: Same shit, different schill; or, Iraq still a clusterfuck (just a little more clustered)

1. On Petraeus’ Role as Surge Salesman

As brand-new commanding general in Iraq, it made sense for Petraeus to lend his credibility to the “troop surge” plan in a public way—as he did beginning in Jan. 2007 with his first Senate speech; conversely, his nomination for commander was due in part to his friendliness to the plan, in development long before his confirmation. But neither his nomination nor his affinity for the “surge” were primary cause of the other. Both circumstances flowed from a third and prior source: Early this year, Petraeus was selected by Bush to, as the President told his only real biographer, “sell…progress [in Iraq] to the American people.”

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The political skill demonstrated to this end from January through the September hearings explains this selection better than either the General’s reliability as a reporter or his results in the field ever could: Recall, first, his peppy op-ed for the Washington Post in Sept. 2004, describing “tangible progress” and “gather[ing]…momentum” in various Iraqi “institutions” which were all much better off than now. The essay focused on the Iraqi Army which Petraeus was then charged with reconstructing; this endeavor proved especially challenging after the General allowed its entire procurement budget of $1.2b to be embezzled. Today, the “rebuilt” army remains quite possibly the most corrupt legal institution in the world.

Before that, Petraeus had been in charge of securing the city of Mosul against the “insurgents.” Here the General applied tactics which would become core to the “surge.” Months after his withdrawal, the city was overrun by the anti-occupation forces he had come to fight, who eagerly seized the 200,000 weapons the General had left for Iraqi police.

2. What Exactly is the “Surge” and What is it Supposed to Do?

A few preliminary points on the idea of the “surge”: Contrary to its enthusiasts, the “surge” hardly amounts to a strategic shift, being neither new nor in itself a coherent strategy at all. It is, rather, a complex of tactics used elsewhere and before in the war in varying combinations. In addition, we have seen “mini-surges” in Iraq each time relatively large contingents of troops are redirected internally to new areas. Often enough such redeployments are paired with like combinations of tactics. Neither these “mini-surges” nor tactical shifts are generally correlated with “progress” (more on just what this means to follow) along the lines now being claimed for the surge, making the plan as questionable a choice from a military standpoint as that of its chief coordinator.

It is tempting to to view the surge plan as a symptom of the U.S.’s confounded lack of political influence in the country, which forces the administration to think of problem-solving in terms of the rather crude military-force options it can actually execute: “Things going badly? Gotta pump in more soldiers!” (This prejudice probably explains why Crocker the diplomat hasn’t earned nearly the hype of his soldier counterpart.) And yet, it is unclear that a meaningful “surge” has even taken place: Yes, there are 30,000 more troops in Iraq now than in January, but January numbers were scarcely above the war’s low point and thus are an unfair baseline to use; nor do the present numbers constitute a high point—we had virtually the same number of soldiers on the ground in December of 2005. The point is compounded when you consider the dwindling numbers of coalition troops from other countries; the increase in U.S. troops has at best merely replenished the allied losses of the last two years. In short, if the numbers weren’t enough to get things done before, how are they supposed to do so now? (The tactical reconfigurations accompanying the numbers won’t make the difference, as these are either (a) more “labor-intensive” than those of 2005 (i.e., new emphases on holding cleared areas), or (b) in themselves likely to seed sectarian violence rather than curb it (i.e., the six-fold increase in indiscriminate air attacks)).

A broad official goal of the surge is to “secure” the capital city of Baghdad. Military figures claim that since January the U.S. has gained control of just under half of Baghdad. This is still less both in terms of the previous numerical “high point” and in qualitative terms of controlling key areas as opposed to less critical ones. Far less widely reported is the leaked Pentagon report citing the U.S. is able to “protect the population” and “maintain physical influence” over less than a third of the city. But consider that whatever the real figures, it isn’t clear what “securing the capital” actually gets us: In Afghanistan, control of Kabul has meant virtually nothing in terms of the “security” situation of the nation as a whole. Securing Baghdad is not being presented as a jumping-off point for some much broader campaign and it isn’t clear how it could function this way. The purely “linear” interpretation of this—that these 20,000 “surge” troops are intended to precede other contingents to secure other areas—is simply not on the agenda. And yet it isn’t clear how the alleged gains of Bush’s new plan are supposed to be extended to the country as a whole any other way: Military officials (still) argue that we need something like twenty-five times the number of additional troops Bush has called for to do for Iraq what Bush thinks he has done for Baghdad.

3. (More) Prima Facie Reason to Mistrust Petraeus’ Reporting

“Securing” Baghdad entails the component goal of lowering sectarian killings in the city, which Petraeus himself claims have been reduced by 75% in recent weeks. Other U.S. officials claim a 52% drop in civilian deaths in Baghdad (a trend we would expect insofar as sectarian violence is the main cause of civilian casualties). The figures are impossible to evaluate directly as the military refuses (against demands from all quarters) to provide the hard numbers or the evidence from which they are derived. We can confirm that they are contradicted by every other agency of the government reporting and the same military itself (and doubted on on their face by American diplomats and experts of every shape).

We have already noted Petraeus’ infamous op-ed piece, calling into question either his judgment or his honesty. Consider further: The General is reporting on his own performance in executing his own plan; and his coziness with the very administration whom he is to independently “oversee” is shown in that “his” draft report was—for God’s sake—written by the White House. All of which suggests a very strong lower limit on negative findings.

The timing of all of this is suspicious enough, the military hinting at a huge, almost miraculous turnaround in casualty numbers in August—that is, in the month nearest the reports and, given the “stats-lag,” hardest to verify before they are delivered. It is also convenient that on the whole the other agencies that contradict these claims, like the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) [see two links back], cover the violence through July, just “out of reach” of the military’s August miracle.

We also know that the U.S. systematically undercounts these things: The Iraq Study Group attributed this to “a tracking system…designed in such a way that minimized the deaths of Iraqis.” For example, “attacks” are counted but are so narrowly defined as to exclude casualties from, for example, “simple” murders of Iraqis, and car bombings or rocket and mortar attacks that don’t kill any Americans. Also, when the Pentagon released its June 2007 count of civilian casualties, it shadily revised its old count for March 2007, upping the latter retroactively by nearly 2,000 dead—thereby making the June (post-surge) numbers appear lower by comparison. In any case, self-reporting is not divested of its conflicts of interest when it is performed by an occupying force; the high stakes, secrecy and past deceptions just complicate this situation further.

4. But What Has the Surge Accomplished?

Not only is the surge unsustainable, but even if we accept the military’s figures, it would be unfortunate if it (or its effects) were sustained:

First, the Baghdad figures in themselves don’t mean a net improvement of anything, as any decrease in violence in one area is formally compatible with an increase elsewhere. This is, in fact, just what to expect with any concentrated military “push”: a scattering or displacement of violence like the one which fed the Mosul insurgency after Fallujah was cordoned.

But the present situation is actually worse than a mere displacement: The Associated Press tallies civilian deaths across Iraq at 1,809 for the month of August, up from 1,760 in July. The Iraqi Interior Ministry confirms civilian deaths are up 20%. Contrary to Petraeus, et. al., August marks the high point for casualties not only among the surge months but for the entire year. (An Interior Minister gave the New York Times even higher figures of 1,980 dead for July and 2,890 for August). Overall, says the AP, Iraq is enduring double the number of war-related deaths across the country compared with last year.

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Surging the hell out of them

The Red Crescent reports the number of internal refugees more than doubled during the surge period. 100,000 Iraqis fled their homes during each surge month. 83% of these fled from Baghdad, a quarter of them, as the UN reports, leaving their homes at gunpoint. These numbers reflect another ugly effect of the surge—an increase in the process of ethnic cleansing which has turned a city which was 65% Sunni to one now 75% Shiite. The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) confirms that those pockets in the capital where “conflict levels have diminished” are thanks to this trend of ethnic cleansing. Identical conclusions are drawn by the Jones report, drafted by a 20-member military panel led by Gen. James Jones. Recent reports by McClatchy Newspapers, the New York Times and the Independent (UK) describe Sunni ghettos carved off from the Shiite neigborhoods with towering concrete blast walls topped with searchlights and razor wire, designed to block car bombs and militia incursions. The “cleansed” areas have acquired a relative peace simply because there are no people left there to kill. (In this way, Iraq, like capitalism, only ever gets “better” by getting worse.)

(Let us not overlook that American prison detentions of Iraqis are up 50% during the surge months; virtually none of these detainees are, if the Red Cross is telling the truth, guilty of anything—not that they will ever be charged or convicted if they are. And they will be subject to the violations documented in the upcoming quarterly UN human rights report—which Ambassador Crocker convinced the organization to delay so as to not dampen the hearings.) Finally, the rate of dead American soldiers, too, has increased during the surge months.)

After Baghdad, the surge is chiefly concentrated in Anbar province. Military officials tout success for this region even more vigorously. The downturn in violence in Fallujah has been cited as an example. Of course, nearly 90% of Fallujans had already abandoned the city when the U.S. prepared its 2004 “mini-surge” against it. Tens of thousands of these have not—that is, cannot—return as the American siege reduced three quarters of the city to rubble, never to be rebuilt. Large parts of the city have been totally without water or electricity for the 3 years since. No hospitals or ambulances have operated since and employment is virtually nil. A total ban on vehicle traffic was put in place this past May (just in time to contribute to the August “miracle”). In this way, Fallujah—and to a lesser extent other Anbar cities like Ramadi and Samarra—represents another example of how a technical relative “peace” can reflect on balance very undesirable conditions. (If I killed or relocated almost everyone in your family, I could soon take credit for diminished family squabbles.)

The greatest success claimed for the surge in Anbar (and probably overall) is the enlistment of Sunni tribes in fighting “al-Quaeda” insurgents. Our new Ba’athist-nationalist allies have turned neither pro-occupation nor anti-insurgent overnight; they have fought the Islamists and the occupiers since the very start. The recent “alliance” is one borne of convenience: The U.S. (a) has simply “joined ‘em” whom they haven’t been able to beat and (b) want to be on the side who is actually winning against “al-Quaeda”; while the Sunni leaders are happy to take their money while it lasts. Meanwhile, as noted by Dahr Jamail, one of the only “unembedded” reporters in Iraq, “[t]here is no area in Andar where U.S. soldiers walk around or go outside their bases without using armored vehicles or as part of a large operation.” It is these operations, along with air strikes, that keep most Anbar residents inside while insurgent attacks roll on much as always. (Note also: Al-Quaeda in Iraq represents a few per cent of anti-occupation fighters. The Sunni tribes are fighting, rather, “al-Quaeda,” which represent around another few percentage points of the whole. Either way, these tendencies are not in any sense the hard-core of the “insurgency” and wiping them off the map—which won’t happen—would leave U.S. troops in virtually the same position vis-a-vis “winning.”)

The final objective of the surge is to help bolster the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bush’s “New Way Forward” talking points describe the effort as “creat[ing] space for political progress”; other officials speak of “buying time” or “giving breathing room” for Maliki to act. But what exactly these metaphors mean is unclear. Perhaps cooling the violence in Baghdad should in itself lend credibility to the government. Certainly, the Sunni population, largely alienated from the Shiite-dominated parliament, is supposed to see surge tactics as reaching out to them, inspiring a reconciliation. In any case, nothing like this has happened. The surge has helped Maliki’s “coalition government” go from being a non-government—in the normal sense “government” conveys of passing and enforcing legislation to address important problems—to being a non-coalition: The one Sunni group that had been on board has pulled out of the government altogether, as have the other three political parties, all of them Shiite. (And those Sunnis fighting “al-Quaeda” are largely unsympathetic to Maliki and were happy to see their fellow Sunni politicians abandon him.) In brief, the government is in tatters and would collapse altogether if American troops left—not that anything would change if it did.

5. Conclusion

Like the person of Petraeus himself, the troop surge is more about Washington than Baghdad. The General has hinted that recent “progress” should permit a drawdown of 4,000 troops by December, to be followed by further reductions. The most favorable official estimates predict 130,000 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq by the close of 2008. But this figure merely sets us back to the numbers right before the surge. Again, we’ve come down from “surge” numbers before, yet nobody thinks we’ve been in a meaningful “withdrawal” phase since 2005. (Consequently, 130,000 is the precise number of troops in Iraq when Bush swooped in to declare the end of major combat operations–in 2003.) So Bush gets to leave office with the “drawdown” everyone wants, while leaving forces adequate for the long-term occupation of Iraq that our “permanent bases” imply. (Bush envisions this along the lines of South Korea, where we have been in force for 60 years.)

All of which explains Iraqi opposition to the surge and all its works: A new ABC/BBC/NHK (Japan) poll of Iraqis indicate a majority believe the surge has made security worse; and numbers of Iraqis calling for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops has increased across the surge period. Not that anyone is listening: All polling of Iraqis confirms the occupiers are unwanted. (The occupation itself, in the form of Bremer’s CPA, used to poll high majorities opposed to the American presence, sympathetic to attacks on Americans, and the like. These were conducted under Donald Hamilton, Bremer’s PR director, who admitted the “pretty grim” results weren’t much good for PR after all.) It just isn’t about what the Iraqis think.

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One response to “Petraeus on Iraq: Same shit, different schill; or, Iraq still a clusterfuck (just a little more clustered)

  1. Pingback: Troop surge revisited « amerikanbeat

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