Iraqnophobia

Who's afraid of talking about the costs of this war?

| Mon Feb. 16, 2004 4:00 AM EST

"Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution, said the discretionary funds readily available to fill any financing gap could be exhausted by February or March. 'The military doesn't want to feel like it's living week to week, hand to mouth at the Congress's mercy,' he said."
- From Eric Schmitt's New York Times piece, 'Service Chiefs Challenge White House on the Budget'

Now there's a fascinating bit of mainstream expertise on offer, but a little background is useful. The President's break-the-bank budget turns out, unsurprisingly, to be missing the odd dotted i and crossed t. In particular, the next request for funds for waging war and occupying Iraq, estimated at $50 billion, has not been included in this year's budget. Like the previous two times around ($62.6 billion last spring and $87 billion in November), it will be submitted as a supplemental request in January. Think post-the November election -- perhaps on the theory that out-of-sight is out of mind, as opposed to out of one's mind.

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But here's the rub -- only the first of many conundrums this administration faces in regards to its Iraq policy -- the military in Iraq (and assumedly Afghanistan, where another American soldier died and a number were wounded yesterday) is only funded through September. Between September and January, the military will have to scrabble for Iraq funds to the tune of about $4 billion a month, which is almost but not quite chump change for the Pentagon. And -- horror of horrors -- as Brookings expert Hanlon put it to Eric Schmitt of the Times, the Pentagon fears being left out on the street, another Bush-era indigent, and worst of all (doesn't this little phrase speak a world about our world) "at the mercy of Congress." I may be no constitutional scholar, but wasn't that the point back when we weren't yet a full-scale military empire?

I suspect none of us are likely to live long enough to see the Pentagon out in the street playing the odd bit of martial music, hat in hand. Still, this little "crisis" in which the service chiefs actually went to Capitol Hill and complained before Congress, gives a sense of the baggage, reaching near mountainous proportions, that the Bush administration is dragging into this election year. The invasion/occupation of Iraq, which our secretary of defense assured us before the war wouldn't cost more than $50 billion in toto, now is going to cost us that much next year -- and that's if things go half well -- and like some embarrassing in-law, those costs, never part of the bargain that the neocons made with themselves, now have to be hidden in plain sight.

Iraqi knots and conundrums

Let me try to untie a few Iraqi knots, or at least loosen them a bit, and consider as best I can where we are right now. Remember -- it was hardly more than half a year ago -- when the Pentagon left the State Department out in the cold? Remember when its top civilian officials wanted every pathway in Iraq to lead back to the famed five-sided building and nowhere else? Well, how a few months can change matters.

According to Joseph Galloway, part of a Knight-Ridder team of journalists that's done some of the most revealing inside-the-Beltway reportage on the Iraqi crisis, the Pentagon's top brass has had it with its war in Iraq. Galloway writes:

"Rumsfeld and his key aides, meanwhile, are running for cover. In one recent high-level meeting, Rumsfeld looked at Secretary of State Colin Powell and said, 'Jerry (Ambassador Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq) works for you, right?' Powell looked as if he'd been struck by lightning. Bremer and every other U.S. official in Iraq reports directly to Rumsfeld and the Pentagon…

"When [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was asked a tough question about the controversies surrounding the U.S. contracting efforts in Iraq, he turned to [Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage and said: 'You can answer that one, right, Rich?' Armitage answered by noting that the Department of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of Defense control every American contract let in Iraq...

"'Iraq is now a contaminated environment and Rumsfeld and his people want out,' said one senior administration official. 'They can't wait for July 1 when the CPA (Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority) turns into the U.S. Embassy and the whole mess they have made becomes Colin Powell's.'"

But there's the rub, isn't it: First, they have to make it to July 1 in a country CIA agents in Baghdad now fear is on a "glide path to civil war"; and secondly, they have to wonder whether, as looks possible, that steadfast July 1 date is going to be like one of these little puddles on a bone-dry highway -- an ever-receding mirage.

But let's take this one step -- or knot -- at a time, starting with the low-level guerrilla war or insurgency that's mainly but not completely limited to the country's Sunni heartland. Talk about asymmetrical warfare! The weapon of choice for the insurgents has been the IED -- improvised explosive device -- which can, for instance, be a fire-extinguisher container filled with explosives buried at the side of the road and set off remotely by a garage-door opener. What a bizarre combination of high and low-tech -- and in a country littered with munitions, an unbelievably cheap way to go. Combine that with the more formal weapon of choice, the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), and you can destroy a Humvee or Bradley Fighting Vehicle or knock a helicopter out of the sky at a few bucks a pop. This is certainly the definition of low-level insurgency. Toss in some Iraqi spies somewhere in CPA operations and foreign jihadis ready to give up their lives behind the wheel of a car, and you have a constant level of danger without having a massive national liberation struggle to go with it.

I was planning to write today that, compared to Vietnam, there had been no platoon-sized assaults by the insurgents, but as it happens this just took place. A sizeable band of insurgents (some evidently with Lebanese passports) staged coordinated attacks on several police stations, a security compound, and a civil defense base in Fallujah. (At one of these, only the other day, a convoy ferrying America's top commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, came under fire.) More than 20 policemen were killed and many prisoners (most of whom may have been criminals rather than insurgents) freed. This is a small but striking escalation of a low-level insurgency.

American casualties have remained relatively constant, perhaps one dead and several wounded a day. The number of wounded remains in question. Jonathan Miller of Britain's Channel 4 reported recently on a situation in which "the true extent of US casualties in Iraq is still unknown. This has fuelled suspicion that the administration may be hiding the true human cost of the war and its aftermath. Channel Four News has been allowed a rare opportunity to meet some of America's wounded soldiers."

His piece begins:

"In a dark corner of Andrews Air Force base on the outskirts of Washington DC, America's war-wounded come home. The human cost of humbling tyrants. No ceremony, no big welcome. More than 11,000 medical evacuees have come through Andrews in the past nine months, the Air Force says. Most, we suspect, from Iraq. But that's 8,000 more than the Pentagon says have been wounded there…

"But when it comes to the wounded, an astonishing situation has arisen: the Pentagon's figures clash wildly with those of the US Army. The Pentagon lists 2,604 wounded in action and just 408 'non-hostile wounded'. But the Army says many thousands more have been medically evacuated from the conflict zone."

And then, of course, there's the issue of Iraqi casualties, which, when a figure is given at all, are now regularly put at 10,000. This is the "maximum" figure given by a very conscientious on-line group, Iraq Body Count, which has been heroically tracking media reports of Iraqi casualties since the war began. Ten thousand is a staggering enough number, but these figures are surely low. It takes no imagination at all to realize that for every casualty that makes it into a reputable news account, there must be others that pass unnoticed by the media. The Iraqi dead -- from military conscripts to assassinated Baathist officials, to families in cars killed by trigger-nervous American soldiers, to passers-by and the like assassinated by suicide bombers -- lie in the true unmarked graves of this ongoing catastrophe. The American military has studiously hewed to a policy of never counting the Iraqi dead.

In addition, the Iraqi resistance, such as it is, has recently turned fiercely on those seen as "collaborating" with the American occupation, from laundresses and translators to policemen and civil defense forces. Two massive suicide car bombs this week were carefully aimed (or at least as carefully as is possible with such indiscriminate weapons of destruction) at recruitment stations for the police and the new army, killing or wounding hundreds of Iraqis.

Despite the usual upbeat statements by the administration and CPA spokespeople, Nicolas Pelham of the British Financial Times reports:

"A confidential report prepared by the US-led administration in Iraq says that the attacks by insurgents in the country have escalated sharply, prompting fears of what it terms Iraq's 'Balkanisation'…

"'January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003,' the report said. 'The violence continues despite the expansion of the Iraqi security services and increased arrests by coalition forces in December and January.'…

"According to the report, 'January national review of Iraq', strikes against international and non-governmental organisations increased from 19 to 26 in January. It said that high-intensity attacks involving mortars and explosives grew by 103 per cent from 316 in December to 642 in January; non-life threatening attacks, including drive-by shootings and rock-throwing, soared by 186 per cent from 182 in December. It also recorded an average of eight attacks a day in Baghdad alone, up from four a day in September, and a total of 11 attacks on coalition aircraft… It described the 'profuse availability' of roadside bombs, the favoured weapon of the insurgents, as 'alarming', saying attacks had surged almost 200 per cent."

The most striking aspect of all this is how little is known about who exactly the insurgents are, whom our troops are actually facing. Every suicide bombing is now labeled "al Qaeda," which is meaningless under these circumstances, and the attacks on civilian "collaborators" are often dealt with here as if they were simply some cowardly blow at the soft underbelly of the occupation. But such "soft" targets are naturally what insurgents go after. As Tariq Ali writes in the Guardian:

"And how better to facilitate this than by dredging up the bogey of the Wahhabite al-Qaida? The US may have sought to blame it for this week's car bomb attacks. But this ignores the fact that 'if you collaborate, then be prepared to pay the price' has been the message of virtually every national struggle over the last century.

"In Vichy France and occupied Yugoslavia and later in Vietnam, Algeria, Guinea and Angola, collaborators were regularly targeted. Then, as in Iraq today, the resistance was denounced by politicians and the tame press as 'terrorists'. When the occupying armies withdrew and the violence ceased, many of the 'terrorists' became 'statesmen'."

Christian Parenti, met some of the Iraqi insurgents recently and wrote about them in Two Sides, Scenes from a nasty, brutish & long war in the latest issue of the Nation magazine. He says that the fighters he ran into seemed to be less part of a movement "than a collection of shamed and angry men with access to military training, weapons and targets." He concludes, however, that the low-level but bloody insurgency has already "settled into a lopsided and contradiction-fraught stalemate" that won't go away any time soon.

For Iraqis, in certain areas, as Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times reports, working with the occupation, even when it's simply a matter of keeping one's economic head above water, has become a deadly gamble:

"In the weeks and months after the U.S.-led invasion began in late March, insurgents picked off Iraqi police, mayors, an Iraqi Governing Council member and oil and electrical workers. But the number and brutality of the attacks seem to be accelerating. Since the beginning of February, more than 200 civilians have been killed…

"Two Armenian Christian translators for the Americans recently quit their jobs after receiving threats, [a translator's] father said. They were lucky. Local papers have reported at least five translators killed in the last three weeks. The coalition has declined to confirm that number."

This may be the most literal example of the insurgency's attempt to cut ties between the occupation and the rest of Iraq -- after all, without communication, there is, in essence, no occupation. As Rubin's carefully shaded report reveals, many Iraqis now find themselves trapped between an unpopular occupation that looks increasingly hapless and a brutal resistance. Even simple everyday security remains at critical levels in many parts of the country including the capital. Check out, for instance, the girl blogger of Baghdad's vivid account of how one of her cousin's was kidnapped on his way home by car one recent night and held for a $15,000 reward.

So neocon Washington, which expected a "cakewalk" in Iraq after a cakewalk in Afghanistan, now finds itself knotted into what increasingly seems like a series of inchoate occupations of Islamic lands, as Pepe Escobar puts the matter in the Asia Times, with only a modest degree of exaggeration:

"Al-Qaeda may have given the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration the perfect motive for bombing Afghanistan and then invading Iraq. But even seriously disabled, al-Qaeda benefits enormously, although not directly. The fact is that the US military machine now rules over more than 50 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. Untold numbers are turning to a myriad Islamist radicals groups and sub-groups all over the Muslim world -- which they identify as the only force, although incoherent, capable of at least facing and demoralizing bit by bit the American empire."

It's like watching Osama bin Laden's dystopian dream come true in hideous slo-mo -- and I haven't even touched on the tangled matter of turning over "sovereignty" in Iraq.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web-log of The Nation Institute.

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