Thursday, December 01, 2005

25 years before an Iraqi army

George W. Bush is playing a game with public perception on Iraq. It is one part "kick the can" and one part word play. It is, however, quintessential Bush. The good news is that a large scale reduction of American forces is around the corner. The bad news is that the war in Iraq will continue for a long period of time.

The game is part “kick the can” in the sense that the president does not define specific dates linked to goals. Though there were a great deal of specifics in the speech yesterday, they were of the kind that are not exceedingly helpful to understand the entire strategy. They are purposefully vague anecdotes and statistics. Such statements reassure the public while leaving options open depending upon the situation in the country -- which is sensible.

By “kicking the can”, Bush keeps America in the region as an active, militaristic force only miles from Damascus and Tehran. Through a public relations offensive, the administration is trying to ensure that the American people will be tolerant of military action for a lengthy period of time.

But, this public relations blitz is also designed to discount alternative plans of a short term military presence in Iraq, such as the one advanced by Representative Jack Murtha.

Many administration members and military brass have stated that the involvement in Iraq will be for the long term. The president’s newly released national strategy confirms this by breaking the war down into three phases of duration.

When Murtha proposed a one stage plan for continued U.S. involvement, the administration and Republicans in the Congress immediately labeled it as “cut and run”. That perception persists today in brief references to the plan among elements of the Main Stream Media. It is not, however, what Murtha proposed.

His idea was for an approximately six month redeploying of American troops away from Iraq, yet remaining in the region. The effort to label this an immediate withdrawal was designed to marginalize it to the anti-war fringe, which Scott McClellan did in his initial reaction. Bush then struck a more conciliatory note, which the media and this blog took on face value, but in retrospect it appears to have been a drawdown from hostile response because the damage was done. Obscuring Murtha’s option as a contrast between “stay the course” and “cut and run” is just one aspect of the new Iraq policy.

Though the president says the policy he is operating under is the same as was written in 2003, the fact is that we are now moving to a long term -- perhaps a decade or two -- involvement in Iraq. That lengthy duration is also obscured by the administration by clever word play and a false intuitive conclusion deriving from it.

The president’s word play centers on the simplistic statement that as Iraqis stand up, Americans can stand down. This is simplistic for a purpose, because the argument will lead you to believe that America is on its way out of Iraq under this calculus. But, there is no timetable and there are no published numbers.

James Fallows writes in this month’s Atlantic that the American military is more than vital to the continued counterinsurgency and shall be for some time to come:

In short, if American troops disappeared tomorrow, Iraq would have essentially no independent security force. Half its policemen would be considered worthless, and the other half would depend on external help for organization, direction, support. Two thirds of the army would be in the same dependent position, and even the better-prepared one third would suffer significant limitations without foreign help.


Fallows also writes that the long term commitment to Iraq is complicated far beyond easier references to effective combat battalions. Battalions require logistics and so much more to operate:

"The simple part is individual training," Jay Garner says. "The difficult part is collective training. Even if you do a good job of all that, the really difficult thing is all the complex processes it takes to run an army. You have to equip it. You have to equip all units at one time. You have to pay them on time. They need three meals a day and a place to sleep. Fuel. Ammunition. These sound simple, but they're incredibly difficult. And if you don't have them, that's what makes armies not work."

The United States will have to agree to stay in Iraq in another significant way. … The idea, as a former high-ranking administration official put it, was "We're building a spearhead, not the whole spear."

The rest of the spear consists of the specialized, often technically advanced functions that multiply the combat units' strength. These are as simple as logistics—getting food, fuel, ammunition, spare parts, where they are needed—and as complex as battlefield surgical units, satellite-based spy services, and air support from helicopters and fighter planes.

The United States is not helping Iraq develop many of these other functions. Sharp as the Iraqi spearhead may become, on its own it will be relatively weak.


The United States is not standing up some exceptional, modern Iraqi army to replace each and every American or coalition soldier and contractor in the country. Yes, with less boots on the ground, one would be able to argue that America is less involved. Yet, the boots that remain will likely be in that country for a very long time. Those troops will be the logisticians, military paymasters, interpreters, fighter and bomber pilots, support staff for the aforementioned personnel and a remaining force of traditional combat personnel with special forces working in a complex, 21st century war.

That complex and new form of war is a mix between hot and cold. It is stunning how much in sync the idea is with Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation model of the American military. Small, elite, highly trained and technically wired military units using unique tactics to punish the opposition. That is the luke-warm to red-hot spectrum of the conflict. The room-temperature to ice-cold aspect of this complex engagement is what this military force can do to Syria and Iran. Reports of incursions into Syria have been presented in the media. The force available in Iraq for the coming years will be willing to continue this militarism, in the president’s policy.

Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker reports that continued and specialized military involvement will continue for some time. Note the invocation of “mission accomplished” once again, while United States forces remain in the country, and presumably in harm’s way:

The second Pentagon consultant told me, “If Allawi becomes Prime Minister, we can say, ‘There’s a moderate, urban, educated leader now in power who does not want to deprive women of their rights.’ He would ask us to leave, but he would allow us to keep Special Forces operations inside Iraq—to keep an American presence the right way. Mission accomplished. A coup for Bush.”


There are other reports that lead one to believe that a long term military presence in Iraq is planned by this administration. Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times today reports that administration advisors are not worried about 2006, but they are concerned about Iraq as an issue in 2008:

The longer term worry of the White House, Mr. Bush's advisers say, is that support for the war could drop so precipitously by the 2008 presidential election that a majority in Congress could demand withdrawal and start to hold back financing - the "cut and run" strategy that Mr. Bush both derides and fears.


The exact intentions of the president insofar as Iraq are debated hotly. Howard Fineman of Newsweek said on last night’s edition of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown:

Now, there‘s a big debate raging here in Washington about what‘s going on in George Bush‘s head. Is he really saying, We‘re there forever, and don‘t you cross me, and victory mean a peaceful Iraq, a democratic Iraq, a fully trained, 150 battalions of Iraqi troops?

I don‘t buy it. I think actually there‘s a kind of subtle tug-of-war going on between Dick Cheney, who is the ultimate stay-the-course guy, and Karl Rove, who‘s still in there, still under investigation, but still influential, and he‘s saying, Look, Mr. President, if we don‘t begin this draw-down, and it‘s going to take place regardless, if we don‘t begin this draw-down, then you‘re going to lose at least one chamber of the Congress in ‘06 to the Democrats, and you‘re going to spend the last two years of your administration responding to subpoenas for explanations of how we got into the war to begin with.


This does not link with what Bumiller reports this morning. The reason for the different narratives? They address the vagaries in the administration’s public position. Fineman sees a tug-of-war internally between pragmatic and electoral minded Rove versus Neoconservative Cheney.

My narrative is very different. The administration is hoping to claim a series of victories over the coming years, miniature “mission accomplished” moments without the infamous banner in the background. These victories will be inherently premature, because the battle will continue within Iraq. It will involve United States forces in a highly technical and sophisticated manner.

The battle in Washington, the one that Bumiller’s advisors fear will spill into 2008’s elections, will be fought over whether we’re going to stay in Iraq. It will be incremental, a few billion here and a few billion there. It will be linguistic, Iraqis standing up, but never sufficiently to remove America from the region as a protectorate and a threat depending on a nation’s actions. The administration will never acknowledge sea changes in policy, perhaps a tweak when politically necessary to satiate the American public. But, we are going to remain in that country for a very long time.

Don't believe me? Look to what John Murtha had to say on yesterday's Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Well the president said, Mr. Murtha, that he‘s going to stay there until we have a trained Iraqi army that can defend the country that practices democracy and we‘re going to keep training those guys over there until they can do the job. That doesn‘t seem complicated as a goal.

MURTHA: Well, let me tell you why it‘s complicated. He‘s allowing Iraqis to set the timetable. You think they want to do the fighting? They‘re going to let us do the fighting. The Iraqi government is going to let us do the fighting even though they‘ve said they want us out, and that the ones that support the United States don‘t get elected.

So we‘ve got a position where if we won‘t redeploy, as I‘m suggesting, and let the Iraqis change their own destiny, let them handle their own destiny, we‘re going to be there for 100 years. I remember one time in the closed hearing, one of the top generals said, “we‘ll be there for 25 years.” I said you saying 25 years? A lot of people think it would take that long.

The American public is not going to put it with that. It‘s not progressing, it‘s not getting better. We‘ve got to let the Iraqis handle this themselves. We‘ve got to let them handle their own destiny. Now there‘s one other thing that I need to say. This is not terrorism in Iraq. This is insurgency in Iraq. You have to separate. They keep trying to wrap them together. We had terrorism in Afghanistan.


I believe in a strong foreign policy for the United States. I believe it should also be ethical and designed with the explicit consent of the American people.

2 Comments:

Blogger Ezzie said...

A couple points: Murtha's plan called for having troops home within 6 months - that's essentially immediate withdrawal. Tying to specific dates in general is a foolish attitude in a decision of this magnitude: Murtha's assertions that the Iraqis want us to do the fighting is ridiculous, and contradictory to his other statements. It is illogical to say that the Iraqis, whom he says are resentful of our presence, would want us to do all their fighting. The opposite would be true: Improve their own security forces to speed up the process of the US leaving. They don't want suicide bombings any more than we do.

4:55 PM  
Blogger copy editor said...

You raise good points.

Murtha's plan may be called "immediate" if you are willing to grant that definition of immediacy, but by that point your characterization becomes an axiom. Plus, he also wants to keep a force in the region, though he does not state the size, location nor duration.

He does contradict his own sentiment when he says that we are not wanted there and that we'll be forced to do the fighting while Iraqis stay on the sideline. For the former, he is refering to a British poll that said about 80 percent of Iraqis want us out and yesterday and 45 percent say attacks against western troops are legitimate. For the latter, I disagree with him. It is not tenable given the brave sacrifices of Iraqis under arms fighting alongside our troops.

Nor do I agree with Murtha's strategy or an adjusted version of it. He has not defined it well enough, at least in my reading. However, I do think the GOP and the administration rail roaded him as quickly as they could. Murtha is but a facet of what I tried to detail above. In some capacity, we're going to be in Iraq for a very, very long time and I think the administration is worried about this and also seeks to take advantage of it geopolitically.

Often a complex situation will carry good and bad in one package. I wish this was debated more by the public and I wish the administration would provide more details about their goals other than a liberalized democracy. That just is not shaping up.

6:31 PM  

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