Takes More Friendly Fire
The right-wing coalition that powered the United States into Iraq earlier this year appears in ever greater disarray amid increasingly heated complaints by friends, as well as foes, that the US occupation is not going well at all.
The main target is Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who appears increasingly at a loss to explain US strategy beyond his now-famous admission in a "leaked" memo to his top aides last month that the situation in Iraq not to mention the wider war against al-Qaeda terrorists will be a "long, hard slog."
That was before Iraqi insurgents shot down a Chinook transport helicopter, killing 15 US servicemen at a single blow 10 days ago, and then destroyed a Blackhawk helicopter late last week and killed 6 more.
Meanwhile, the daily US death count, as well as the number of attacks against US forces, has roughly doubled since midsummer, while public confidence in President George W. Bush's Iraq policy continues to erode.
A whopping 87 percent of respondents in one ABC-Washington Post poll taken before the Chinook disaster said they feared that the United States is getting bogged down, while public and media discourse is increasingly studded with the dreaded "V" word, for Vietnam.
While military commanders continue to insist that the attacks on US forces do not amount to anything like a strategic threat, their latest reactions suggest a sharp rise in concern, at the very least.
In the past week, for example, the administration announced a dramatic acceleration of plans to recall thousands of Iraqi army troops, police and even intelligence officers to active duty, a strategy that will necessarily mean far less training than originally contemplated and a much stronger likelihood that former Baathists or other anti-US elements will be back in uniform.
Moreover, US military raids against suspected guerrilla strongholds in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" in central Iraq are now being carried out with much more firepower.
After the Blackhawk was shot down, US warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs on suspected enemy sites near Tikrit and Fallujah for the first time since Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended May 1.
Other reports said that tanks and howitzers were also involved in an assault, in what commanders in the field called "a show of force."
As more than one commentator has pointed out, such tactics risk undermining the battle for "hearts and minds" in the most troublesome Sunni areas, which Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer says must become a focus of US efforts.
"These growing attacks against American forces have two clear goals: inflict casualties and force a reaction that alienates the local population," wrote Milt Bearden, a retired Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer who oversaw US covert actions against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the New York Times Sunday.
"Both are being achieved, as the quick-response raids by coalition troops to seize those behind the attacks fuel Iraqi alienation."
But that is not the only risk of more aggressive tactics. Larger shows of force also demonstrate to the public both here and in Iraq that the insurgency must be taken seriously.
In the face of this development, the administration in general and Rumsfeld in particular, are getting no end of increasingly biting advice, from friendly as well as less friendly sectors.
Neo-conservatives, the most insistent war boosters outside the administration before last March's invasion, are plainly upset with what they see as Rumsfeld's desperation to reduce US troop numbers in favor of activating the Iraqis.
In a two-page lead editorial Monday, the Weekly Standard newspaper accused the defense chief, its former hero, for essentially subverting the express wishes of the commander-in-chief.
"The president wants to win, and the Pentagon wants to get out," wrote Executive Editor William Kristol and Contributing Editor Robert Kagan in their piece called Exit Strategy or Victory Strategy?
The accelerated "Iraqification" strategy, according to the two founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) the platform on which the "Attack Iraq" coalition behind Bush's post-Sept. 11 policies was forged posed a potential disaster given the likelihood that the force will be inadequately trained and almost certainly penetrated by Baathists.
"It takes only a couple of mistakes in background checks to have a disaster," they warned.
Their answer is to sharply increase US troop numbers in Iraq, particularly in Sunni areas, and to increase the size of the US army from 10 to 12 divisions, even at the risk of fueling public worries that the country is becoming a quagmire, both militarily and fiscally.
Their advice echoed that given by Republican Senator John McCain, who, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last week, charged that the administration's actions, in contrast to its rhetoric, was creating the impressions that "our ultimate goal in Iraq is leaving as soon as possible, not meeting our strategic objective of building a free and democratic country in the heart of the Arab world."
McCain stressed that he believed Washington could still achieve its strategic objective with a greater military commitment, "but not if we lose popular support in the United States."
But that appears to be what is happening, judging by the latest polls, as well as the increasing frequency with which the current situation is being compared to the Vietnam War.
For their part, Democrats are behaving cautiously, seeing in the administration's obvious flailing about an opportunity to score political points and attack Bush's unilateralism.
Their leading presidential candidates also agree with the administration, the neo-conservatives and McCain that "cutting and running" is unacceptable because Washington would lose all "credibility" another oft-heard echo of Vietnam in the Middle East and beyond, and leave Iraq to the Baathists and even Islamist terrorists.
Their general solution is to internationalize the occupation, both by enlisting NATO forces under US command to keep the peace and by handing control of the civil and economic administration to the UN Security Council or some other multilateral mechanism.
But both options were rejected by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney in September, and the deterioration in the security situation since then makes it much less likely that either the United Nations or most NATO members will want to get deeply involved.
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since the well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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