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Casey Loses McCain’s War, And Other Neocon Fantasies


Start the day at C&L. Since we last did a summary of what’s happening in Iraq and how the President’s plan to send more troops is faring in Congress, the situation has become even more complicated and confusing than before, if that is possible. The violence has not decreased; if anything, it's worse. Here’s a quick guide to a small fraction of what the media folks are reporting.

First, we thought that the President’s plan calls for sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, right? Well maybe not. We've known for some time that we simply couldn’t deploy that many troops quickly, both because we didn’t have them to send and because of the sheer logistics of moving 20,000 troops quickly into Iraq with their full support structure. Either way, it will take several months, at least to get that many more troops there.

On Thursday, we heard another version of the phase-in from General Casey, who testified at his confirmation hearing to become Army Chief of Staff. Casey was asked whether he thought Bush’s new tactic for securing Baghdad could be achieved with fewer than the proposed 21,500 additional troops. “Yes,” he said; we could do it with less than half – e.g., just the first two combat brigades, but Casey added that the three additional combat brigades Bush authorized would provide “additional flexibility.” The plan was "winnable," he said.

Of course, Casey’s answer only raised concerns among two Senate neocons – McCain and Graham – who probably fear that Casey would use his position to undermine the surge as it is being implemented. The neocons are clearly worried about Casey, because they want nothing to stand in the way of introducing even more troops than the President’s stated 21,500 increase if this “last chance” requires it. That suspicion increased Thursday with a report from the Congressional Budget Office that there may be plans to send between 35,000 to 48,000 more troops, not just the 21,500 announced by the President. After all, the "combat troops" need additional troops to support them, and when the President said “over 20,000” he probably meant just the combat troops. (Guess he forgot to mention that detail. As Howard Fineman observed on KO last night, the President doesn't seem to grasp that his credibility is at issue.) This may be the “last chance” but it appears to be an open ended “last chance” that will not be over until we “win.”

Second, we heard more about whom our troops are supposed to be fighting in Iraq. It’s a growing list: It started with Saddam’s army but quickly became foreign al-Qaeda and later included Rumsfeld’s “dead-enders” – Sunni/Baathist supporters of the deposed/hanged Saddam Hussein. These were presumably Sunnis. Then we added the Shiite militias and related death squads, which the Administration usually identifies with Moktada al-Sadr, to make things deceptively simple, even though it was clear that other Shiite leaders/clans also had militia and death squads. A report yesterday confirms that focusing on al-Sadr is not enough; there are dozens of Shiite splinter groups, many with their own militias, some leaning towards Iran and some not, some supporting the central government and some not, and some that appear to be just fundamentalist crazies plotting to murder the dominant Shiite clerics including the Ayatollah Sistani during the recent Shiite holy days. The existence, size and military capabilities of this last group, who call themselves the “Soldiers of Heaven,” surprised everyone last week and provoked a battle that resulted in hundreds of dead and captured militia.

Third, we’ve had a test of the Iraqi security forces’ ability to play their expected role in the President’s New War Forward. In the battle against the Soldiers of Heaven near Najaf, Iraqi forces were supposed to be in charge. Some time ago, the US had celebrated turning over security responsibility to the Iraqis in this predominantly Shiite region south of Baghdad, but in their first major encounter, the Iraqi forces were nearly overwhelmed by a splinter Shiite group we’d never heard of. The battle was won, prompting Mr. Bush to conclude optimistically that the Iraqi forces “showed me something,” but it appears the victory occurred only after US fighter planes were called in to drop 500 pound bombs, and after US combat troops were brought in from the Baghdad region. As I’ve pointed out before, the neocon’s own explanations suggested that the adequacy of the surge is predicated on (1) the Iraqi’s doing their share, (2) the US being able to focus on Baghdad and (3) the US mostly ignoring the al-Sadr and other Shiite militias while it focuses on pacifying the Sunni and mixed Sunni/Shiite neighborhoods. They weren’t planning on taking on new, well armed Shiite militias, let alone in areas in which security had been handed over to the Iraqis. The Soldiers of Heaven battle, though a “victory” for US/Iraqi forces, challenges all three assumptions.

Fourth, if there is a strategy associated with the Bush military surge tactic, it is to use the increased military to establish enough security in Baghdad to allow political and economic progress to be made. But a Boston Globe story indicates that Iraqi agencies can’t seem to perform basic functions.

WASHINGTON — The effort to resurrect vital government services in Iraq has been hampered by ethnic and sectarian purges among the ranks of civil servants, a high turnover rate for senior administrative officials, and a lack of comprehensive planning on the part of both Iraqis and the United States, according to an audit by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction released yesterday.

As a result, Iraq's ministries — the backbone of the fledgling government, responsible for hospitals, utilities, and the provision of food rations and gasoline — are struggling to perform basic functions, such as drafting budgets and hiring contractors, and too often depend on their American advisers. That in turn has led to the Iraqi government's failure to spend $13 billion — more than a third of its annual budget — in 2006, a situation that could further destabilize the country, the audit said.

"US mission officials view the Iraqi government's inability to spend its own budget resources . . . as a significant problem that, if not corrected, may lead to the failure of the government," the audit warned.

The NYT coverage adds this:

BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 — A federal oversight agency reported Wednesday that despite nearly $108 billion that had been budgeted for the reconstruction of Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the country’s electrical output and oil production were still below prewar levels and stocks of gasoline and kerosene had plummeted to their lowest levels in at least two years.

Next, we have the Administration’s latest justifications for why Congress should not oppose the President’s troop escalation: supporting any of the non-binding resolutions that oppose the increase would “embolden the enemy.” Glenn Greenwald and others have written about how pernicious this argument is. But my favorite argument is the circular claim that Congress should not prevent the increase in troop levels because that’s what General Petraeus needs to do the job. You have to think about that one: first you pick a general that says he can do something with more troops, then you say, “we need to give him the troops, because otherwise, he can’t do what he says he can do.” And the final argument we’re hearing is that we should do this because . . . because we should give the President’s plan a chance to succeed. One wonders what on earth in the President’s selling, defense and conduct of this war (or anything else) over the last five years would entitle him to “just trust me” deference?

Finally, as Swopa reported yesterday, in Thursday's confirmation hearing for General Casey, Senator McCain let us know who was responsible for the Iraq situation. McCain said he did not question Casey’s service to the country, but then proceeded to do just that. He described the situation in Iraq as “dire and deteriorating,” questioned the General’s “judgment” and said "we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure" for a failed strategy, implying that Casey was to blame not only for the worsening political and security conditions in Iraq but also the increasing numbers of US casualties. McCain’s not-mea culpa would have ranked as perhaps the most egregious evasion of personal responsibility we’ve seen in this war, except that Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George Bush have already raised that bar pretty high (and I haven’t even mentioned Joe Lieberman or Hillary). I guess “supporting the troops” does not apply to neocon Senators when talking about the Generals who did their best to carry out the neocons’ fantasies.

So put yourself in the boots of a US soldier in Iraq. You don’t know whether a few more or a lot more troops are coming, or how soon, and you don’t know what they’ll be used for. You're not sure about the joint US/Iraqi command. The mission is unclear. You don’t know whom you’re fighting, but it could be just about anyone, except the ones whose hearts and minds you're trying to win. You don’t think you can rely on your Iraqi allies, whose training was botched, and you suspect many of them are sympathetic to whoever “the enemy” is. You know that the political and economic sides of the broader strategy are failing, and with it the "hearts and minds" battle. And you know that the clowns that got you into this war are clamoring for more and behaving like irresponsible, spoiled brats if they don't get their way. Oh, and by the way, as Digby reminds us, the Administration may be trying to provoke the Iranians — who are also you're enemies if you find them in Iraq — to start another war right next door.

Someone needs to explain to me why the first priority of Congress is deciding whether the language in a non-binding resolution that expresses concerns about the escalation is polite enough to avoid hurting the President’s feelings. If this is just about sending a message about the sense of Congress, how about we debate an impeachment resolution instead.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley