The Iraq Quagmire Deepens

There are not going to be any timetables…. Why would you say to the enemy: Here’s a timetable, just go ahead and wait us out? It doesn’t make any sense to have a timetable. You know, if you give a timetable, you’re conceding too much to the enemy… Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” 
– G.W. Bush speaking on the war in Iraq, June 2005

I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program… An announcement of a fixed timetable for our withdrawal would completely remove any incentive for the enemy to negotiate an agreement. They would simply wait until our forces had withdrawn and then move in… As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”
– Richard Nixon in his “Silent Majority” speech on the Vietnam War, November 1969

 

After Bush’s reelection, many around the world thought the end of the world had come. According to them, the American “sheeple” had been duped once and for all, and Bush would effortlessly ram through his ultra-reactionary policies at home and abroad. Americans were incapable of fighting back and would let themselves be steamrolled by the Neocon juggernaut. We explained that nothing was further from the truth. Bush had no real “mandate” or “political capital”. The country was even more divided than before the elections. That Bush ended up in office a second time was due largely to the lackluster alternative presented to the American populace. It was certainly not the result of overwhelming enthusiasm for his policies. At least with Bush they knew what they were getting. Why vote for John Kerry, a pro-war, pro-Patriot Act, pro-Plan Colombia, and pro-Big Business candidate when there was already one of those in office?

As we predicted, Bush’s honeymoon period disappeared in a flash. Almost immediately, he ran into a wall of public opposition on his most important domestic project, the privatization of Social Security. Now, seemingly overnight, the mood of the American people has finally turned against the war in Iraq. Bush’s overall approval has dropped to 43 percent – the lowest in his presidency. Just 39 percent now say they favor the Iraq war, down from a high of 72 percent in April 2003, the day after the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad. A new high of 57 percent said the administration deliberately misled the public with allegations of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. 42 percent of likely voters said they would favor impeachment proceedings if it is found the President misled the nation about his reasons for going to war. Even the rabidly pro-war media has come out in cautious questioning of U.S. policy in the Iraq. In typical opportunist fashion, several members of both corporate parties have raised criticisms of how the war is being conducted – though few question the validity of the war in the first place.

However, this change in mood did not really burst out of nowhere. It has been simmering beneath the surface since the mass anti-war movement was forced underground by the start of the war, the clarion calls to “support the troops”, and John Kerry’s “Anyone But Bush Even if He’s Pro-War” presidential campaign. Now, the accumulated frustration at the way things are going in general here in the U.S., combined with an emboldened Iraqi insurgency and increasing U.S. casualties with no end in sight has given millions the courage to express their real feelings about the war.

Escape from Reality

For a long time, the American people took a “wait and see” approach to see if what their leaders told them about the war was true. They waited for evidence of a 9/11 connection, for caches of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), for mobile WMD laboratories, for plans for WMD, for WMD hidden in Syria, for Iraqi sovereignty to be handed over, for “democratic” elections to take place, for Iraqi troops to be trained in enough numbers to allow the U.S. to start to withdraw, etc. In the end there was no connection with 9/11, no WMD, and no timeline for withdrawing the troops. “Democracy” and “freedom” are as far away as they were under Saddam. In fact, for millions of Iraqis, things are worse now than they were 3 years ago. At least then they had electricity and water, and didn’t have to worry about being blown up by suicide bombers at the local market. In the meantime, over 1,700 U.S. troops have been killed with tens of thousands more wounded or traumatized. After many months of not wanting to admit that things are as bad as they are, millions of Americans’ patience is wearing thin.

The reality of the situation is that Bush and co. don’t seem to know whether they?re coming or going on the question of Iraq; different officials apparently have completely different views of the situation. One day, Vice President Dick Cheney adamantly claims that the insurgency is in its “last throes”. Days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the war could go on for 5, 6, 8, 10 or 12 years. As to whether or not U.S. forces have met with the insurgents to negotiate a political solution, Rumsfeld claims it happens “all the time”, while Army Gen. George Casey gave the exact opposite answer at the same press conference.

Another general announced that U.S. troop levels will begin to fall by next year, while at the same time many politicians in Washington insist that more troops are needed. True to form, John Kerry, the Democratic Party presidential candidate who succeeded in deflating the anti-war movement by sucking them into his pro-war campaign, refers to the insurgents as “jihadists”, and criticizes Bush for not fighting the war more effectively. For his part, Bush rejects both bringing home and sending more troops. He is literally between “Iraq and a hard place”. Sending more troops will anger millions of Americans and undermine efforts to get the Iraqis to take over the fighting. On the other hand, bringing the troops home will anger some of his closest political allies, and encourage the insurgents to fight even harder for a complete U.S. withdrawal. What to do?

In other words, there is no consensus as to what is really happening on the ground. More and more, Bush and the Neocons seem to be living in the imaginary “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land” of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds – a place where everything is perfect and problems do not exist. This is no accident – those running the White House and Pentagon are so removed from reality that they really believe that things are going great and that victory is around the corner. How could it not be? Are these not the cleverest people in the world, in command of the world’s most fearsome military machine? The same applies to their understanding of the U.S. economic situation and U.S. foreign policy in general.

Seymour Hersh, the journalist famous for his coverage of both the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib in Iraq summed up the situation in a recent interview: “I don’t think this war has ever been winnable… the worst times are ahead. The next few months are going to be very disturbing for all of us because Bush has got a real problem in Iraq, and he’s not aware of it.”

It is truly a case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. No one is willing to tell Bush and his pals that they are walking around naked. Sooner or later, the American working class will expose them.

 

Vietnam Revisited?

The civilian hawks at the Pentagon imagined the Iraq war would be a cakewalk. And yet, their plans for world domination were hardly out of the starting gate when they got bogged down in a quagmire. According to the war planners, troop levels in Iraq would be reduced to just 30,000 or 40,000 shortly after the end of the ground war, freeing up over 100,000 for other military operations in the region. Instead, nearly 140,000 remain pinned down in Iraq and the military is stretched to the limit. Long gone are the days when the Bush Administration could deny that there even was an insurgency, or pretend that the war was over and the “mission accomplished”. They have now had to admit that not only is the war going to continue indefinitely, but that there can be no military defeat of the insurgents. And to think they once denied the very possibility of a guerrilla war because there are no jungles in Iraq!

Any historical analogy is valid only within certain limits, but parallels with the Vietnam War are apparent to all who would see (see also: Hearts and Minds: Vietnam and the War in Iraq). Bush’s recent statements on the course of the war and the way out are eerily reminiscent of Nixon’s famous “Silent Majority” speech. The majority was indeed silent for many years – but once they spoke up and moved against the war, it was all over for the hawks in the Pentagon. In the case of Iraq, the result will be much the same – but on an even higher level.

The overall pursuit of the war in Iraq is much more similar to the war in Vietnam than to, say, World War Two or Korea. There are no clearly defined front lines or enemy combatants. As in Vietnam, every city street and country village is a potential battleground; every Iraqi old enough to walk is treated as a potential enemy – all-too-often with tragic consequences. Every occupation soldier, including female support personnel who are not supposed to be in “combat zones” are targets. Even the highly secured “Green Zone” is often the scene of mortar and rocket attacks and suicide bombings.

With just 138,000 troops on the ground, and only a fraction of these involved in the patrolling and policing operations, it is simply impossible for them to be everywhere at the same time. Instead of holding and securing territory, the goal in Iraq appears to be similar as it was in Vietnam: to wage a war of attrition in order to degrade the insurgents’ ability to fight. But this strategy is going nowhere. Attacks against coalition forces continue unabated and are in fact becoming more effective in inflicting casualties on U.S. and other occupying troops.

U.S. forces regularly launch assaults on villages or regions, drive out the insurgents in the vicinity, count up the bodies, and then retire to their base camps. But this results only in what U.S. Army General George W. Casey calls the “the Pillsbury Doughboy idea” – pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere. Holding territory requires “boots on the ground” – all the superior firepower and technology in the world are of no use against an enemy that appears and disappears without warning. What use is dominating the skies when you can’t maintain control at ground level?

As reported recently in The Army Times: “U.S. commanders grudgingly concede they remain a step behind insurgents’ ever-adapting use of improvised explosive devices… Col. Mike Formica of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division said it’s the insurgent, not the U.S. soldier, who ‘has the initiative when it comes to executing these operations.’ Until an insurgent attacks, Formica said, ‘you do not know who the enemy is.’ And immediately after the attack, ‘he melts back into society.?

”Each time U.S. soldiers venture outside their heavily protected bases in Iraq, they enter a minefield that varies in structure, density and location every day, even every hour… Col. Robert Davis, who commanded the explosive ordnance disposal teams in Iraq, said that when a U.S. patrol leaves a street, ‘the battle space returns to the insurgent control.?

”When U.S. forces added steel plating to their Humvees and increased the use of heavy tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, the insurgents responded with sophisticated shaped-charge explosives that can penetrate even the thickest armor… Insurgents recently have targeted ‘iconic vehicles,’ such as the 70-ton Abrams tank, to show U.S. soldiers they?re not safe no matter how much armor surrounds them.”

This situation has forced the generals and even Rumsfeld to grant that despite the occupying forces’ overwhelming superiority in arms, the insurgency will never be defeated militarily. According to Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, “I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that … this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations.”

This is a far cry from the Administration’s earlier insistence that the insurgents were nothing but “dead-enders” still loyal to Saddam, or a handful of foreign infiltrators. 44 of the 55 most wanted Iraqis have been captured or killed, including Saddam, and yet the resistance increases in boldness and effectiveness. It is like the mythological hydra: “We can’t kill them all; when I kill one I create three, “ said Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops.

The Tet Offensive, “Vietnamization”, and “El Salvadorization”

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a clear military defeat for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars, depleting their reserves and resources for years to come. But it didn’t matter; the dramatic attacks shocked U.S. public opinion into realizing that the Vietnamese people would never accept the continued subjugation of their country by a foreign power. The patriotic fervor that accompanies the start of every war was dissipating. The tide finally began to turn against the war.

Recent spectacular attacks in Iraq, though not strategically threatening to the occupying forces’ hold on the country, have played a similar role in polarizing U.S. public opinion. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Funk recently expressed his worries about the effect of recent bold attacks and rising U.S. casualties: “The media got Tet wrong and they?re getting Iraq wrong. We are winning but people won’t know that if all they are hearing about is death and violence.”

It is common for those on the right to “blame” the defeat in Vietnam on the “unpatriotic” media. This “explanation” obscures the far more complex and uncomfortable reality of that ignominious defeat, but there is nonetheless a grain of truth in this assertion. War is full of death and violence, and these images and stories are disturbing to most people. This is why the Pentagon has moved might and main to censor and sanitize the images and stories the U.S. public sees and hears out of Iraq.

Those who oppose or even question U.S. policy in Iraq are browbeaten and accused of “giving comfort to the enemy” and “demoralizing” the troops. It is a case of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”. As long as we don’t hear, see, or speak of the horrors of war, they may as well not exist! Unfortunately, for thousands of U.S. troops and millions of Iraqis, the violence and horror of war are not seen on television but in their cities, on the streets, and in their homes.

In 1969, in response to the rising sentiment against the war, President-elect Nixon made his famous “Silent Majority” speech, touting his plan for the “Vietnamization” of the war. The idea was that the U.S would train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) to increasingly take over the responsibility of fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). But the fact of the matter is, most generals had little confidence that the ARVN could cope with both the NVA and the Viet Cong. Foremost in their minds was the need to ease public opinion at home by the steady withdrawal of U.S. forces. The perspective of training ARVN troops to take over the fighting was a recognition that there was no political resolution forthcoming.

Bush’s exit strategy in Iraq is nothing but a form of “Vietnamization”. The idea is that Iraqi forces will be trained in enough numbers to cope with the insurgency, thus allowing for the steady withdrawal of American troops. And yet, occupation forces and their puppet government have already given up hope of a military resolution – they are hoping to achieve a political arrangement whereby the insurgents join the political process. But this simply will not happen. Some insurgent groups may be co-opted in this way, but the majority of them are fighting for one basic goal: the end of the occupation. Yet the Quislings in the Iraqi government would not last a day without U.S. firepower backing them. Therefore, a nice, clean, peaceful political solution is simply impossible. Illusions in a political solution will dissipate soon enough, leaving the U.S. government with only one option: the gradual withdrawal of its forces, leaving the Iraqi lapdogs to their fate.

As in Vietnam, pressure against the war at home will ultimately play a greater role in the handling of the war than the military necessities of at least containing the insurgency within certain limits. The military defeat of the insurgency is ruled out. The Iraqi people are fighting a legitimate struggle against a foreign occupier. As the Army officer quoted earlier said, for every insurgent they kill, three more are created. Even with the most advanced military technology in the world, it is impossible to hold down an entire country that wants you out – even a relatively small and impoverished country crippled by decades of war and sanctions.

Training a cohesive national army to take on the insurgents is proving far more difficult than the U.S. imagined. With astronomical unemployment rates, many Iraqis see the dangerous job of policeman or soldier as the only way to escape starvation. But this by no means indicates that they support the occupation or even the government they are being paid to defend. Thousands of Iraqi policemen and soldiers have gone AWOL, abandoned their posts, run away during battles, refused to fight, or even defected to the other side in the middle of a firefight. Members of the security forces themselves have carried out several of the recent suicide bombing attacks against Iraqi police and soldiers.

The lack of quality intelligence on the insurgency is testimony to the fact that the vast majority of the population is opposed to the continued U.S. presence. It seems Rumsfeld and co. actually believed the nonsense about occupation troops being received with open arms. Unfortunately, for thousands of U.S. troops who have been killed, disfigured, and traumatized for life, this has not been the case.

In desperation, the occupying forces have resorted to another tried and true strategy, often referred to as the “El Salvador” option. This involves the use of ethnic / religious-based militias and “death squad” units. In the context of Iraq, the occupation forces have worked to implement the old strategy of “divide and conquer” by setting the Shiia and Kurds against the Sunnis, who make up the core of the armed resistance. Top Shiia and Kurdish figures in the government have given official endorsement to the Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite Badr Brigade militias. And yet this runs counter to the only possible resolution to the insurgency – bringing the Sunnis into the government. Setting death squads after them is hardly a way to inspire confidence and trust. Aside from increasing the body count and guaranteeing a new generation of insurgents, this strategy has likewise achieved nothing.

In the end, “Vietnamization” was a failure for the American imperialists. Pressure at home accelerated the withdrawal and the South Vietnamese Army was no match for the disciplined and dedicated NVA and Viet Cong. On April 30, 1975, the puppet regime of Duong Van Minh in Saigon fell, with the infamous scenes of the evacuation of the U.S. embassy forever engraved in America’s collective memory.

“End the Occupation Now!”

It would seem a gradual Iraq exit strategy would play well to a U.S. public sick of the endless reports of violence without any real hope of an improvement in the situation. But Bush’s recent efforts at regaining public confidence in his Iraq strategy failed miserably to allay their concerns. Bush’s political “capital” is fast deteriorating as the old “Al Qaeda”, “Bin Laden”, “War on Terror”, “Axis of Evil”, and “Remember 9/11” rhetoric is wearing thin.

The body count is nowhere as high as in Vietnam, and the media and government have colluded to shelter the public from the terrible realities of war, but the monotonous stream of dead and wounded, and the never-ending reports of violence are having an effect. With no end in sight, millions of Americans are beginning to realize that the Iraq adventure has served no purpose whatsoever. It has not stabilized the Middle East or decreased the chance of another terrorist attack on the “homeland”, as openly acknowledged by top officials in the aftermath of the recent attacks in Britain. It has not even secured cheap oil, which is now at record highs. The economic drain of the nearly $300 billion spent on the war so far is also having an effect. The connection between the cuts at home and the spending abroad is increasingly clear to millions.

Opposition to the war is on the rise across the country. Millions who were initially cowed by the bellicose triumphalism of Washington are now openly questioning the war. It is no longer just a handful of anti-war activists who are making noise, but Americans from every walk of life. Iraq War veterans and their families are an increasingly vocal group. Cindy Sheehan, a mother who lost a son in Iraq, and president of Gold Star Families for Peace recently gave a scathing and moving indictment of Bush and his “illegal and unjust war”.

As reported in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader: “Sheehan ridiculed Bush for saying that it’s ‘hard work’ comforting the widow of a soldier who’s been killed in Iraq. ‘Hard work is seeing your son’s murder on CNN one Sunday evening while you’re enjoying the last supper you’ll ever truly enjoy again. Hard work is having three military officers come to your house a few hours later to confirm the aforementioned murder of your son, your first-born, your kind and gentle sweet baby. Hard work is burying your child 46 days before his 25th birthday. Hard work is holding your other three children as they lower the body of their big (brother) into the ground. Hard work is not jumping in the grave with him and having the earth cover you both.?

”?We’re watching you very carefully and we’re going to do everything in our power to have you impeached for misleading the American people,’ she said, quoting a letter she sent to the White House. ‘Beating a political stake in your black heart will be the fulfillment of my life.?”

These powerful words from a grieving mother go right to the heard of the matter: war is not the sanitized game GW and co. are making it out to be. These emotions are shared by tens of thousands of American and Iraqi families.

Opposition among active duty soldiers is also on the rise. Stretched nearly to the breaking point, the military cannot keep up with the unexpectedly long and difficult occupation of Iraq. The continuing military operations in Afghanistan are also a drain, not to mention the dozens of smaller theaters in the global “war on terror”. The military is even reconsidering its long-held “two war strategy” whereby it maintains enough troops on hand to fight two major conventional wars at a time. Given current availability of troops and supplies, taking on North Korea, Iran, China, or even Syria or Venezuela would likely break the military’s back. Poor post-war planning has led to shortages of qualified personnel, body armor, vehicle armor, even rations and water. Making up for this after the fact has meant massive unplanned spending. Untold taxpayer millions are also being spent on the private security army which operates under the public radar in Iraq.

Recruitment levels have slumped dramatically in 2005, falling short by 42 percent in April. This has forced the military to keep some 22,000 soldiers on active duty beyond their agreed-upon terms through its “stop loss” program. Re-instituting the draft is simply not an option at this stage, as it would unleash a tremendous backlash of opposition. 7 in 10 oppose bringing back the draft despite the serious problems with recruitment. A draft would also undermine the entire basis of the all-volunteer military, which was created in an effort to restore morale after the experience of the conscripted forces used in Vietnam.

There have even been instances of “fragging” – a term coined during the Vietnam War – which entails the murder of officers by enlisted men. Between 1969 and 1971, the Army reported 600 fragging incidents that killed 82 Americans and injured 651. In 1971 alone, there were 1.8 fraggings for every 1,000 American soldiers serving in Vietnam, not including gun and knife assaults. No one wanted to be the last person to die in a senseless war. Things aren’t nearly that bad in Iraq, but the occupation is a long way from over.

Even the right-wing media is beginning to express its doubts. Niall Ferguson, a staunch supporter of U.S. imperial expansion was recently quoted in the New York Times: “The numbers that matter right now are 174 to 1. That is not only the ratio of Iraqis to American troops. It is starting to look alarmingly like the odds against American success.”

In the history books, “Vietnamization” is followed shortly thereafter by “humiliating defeat and withdrawal”. Sooner rather than later, anti-war sentiment in the U.S. will again be expressed massively in the streets.

For the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops in Iraq! Let the Iraqi People Decide! Money for Health care, Jobs, and Education!

July 10, 2005

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