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The Illogic of War


(Photo from Reuters via The Age.)

By now we have come to expect our President to present a dishonest defense of his Iraq occupation and escalation. He will blame everyone but himself for his policy disaster, while showing no willingness to compromise to avoid a confrontation and accept the growing public sentiment that our occupation should end. And it’s pretty much settled that his staunchest supporters will destroy their own credibility and shamelessly misuse the military to further the charade that progress is occuring even as affected eye witnesses contradict it.

Yet even those who value the truth and are not afraid to say it may nevertheless shrink from reaching the obvious conclusion. Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey teaches at West Point and appears regularly on NBC and cable networks news as a respected military analyst. In Wednesday’s LA Times, McCaffrey’s op-ed, No Choice: Stay the course in Iraq, looks deep into the abyss but argues that no matter how bad conditions are in Iraq, we have no choice but to remain in Iraq and “support the U.S. leadership team in Iraq for this one last effort to succeed.” To support his conclusion, McCaffrey marshals the arguments and evidence on each side. Here first are his arguments for staying [with my comments in brackets], comprising what McCaffery calls “the basis for hope.”

— Failure in Iraq at this point could generate a regional war among Iraq’s neighbors that would imperil U.S. interests for a decade or more. [Perhaps, but so will an indefinite, bloody US occupation of a country in the heart of the ME.]

–Petraeus’ strategy is sound, and the situation is not hopeless. [But keep reading.]

— U.S. troops continue to show determination, discipline and courage. [Okay, but keep reading; we’re abusing the Army.]

— We will have organized 370,000 members of the Iraqi police and army, in 120 battalions, by the end of the year. [Yes, but they can’t/wont’ move without our transporting/covering them; if left alone they don’t show up to fight and don’t fight against their own sects, but may brutalize members of the other sects; and if these guys were doing so well, why are we still needed?]

–The Maliki government has finally gotten its nerve and allowed joint operations by its police and U.S. special operations forces to arrest Sadr militia members in Baghdad. [True, but the militias have simply gone underground or moved outside the Baghdad area.]

— Petraeus has placed more than 50 Iraqi/U.S. police and army strong points throughout the city. [Okay, but the militias and death squads have gone elsewhere and continue to murder Iraqis outside Baghdad, and now the bombings and killings in Baghdad and elsewhere return the moment we leave and are now worse than before.]

— The murder rate has plummeted in response. [If true, only for Shia on Sunni murders in Baghdad, but murders have increased elsewhere, according to French sources.]

— The Sunni tribes in Anbar province have turned on the foreign fighters. [If we have so many friends there, why are so many US casualties still occurring in Anbar and other Sunni areas?]

That’s it. That’s the “basis of hope.” On the other side, McCaffrey lists the following negatives:

Iraq is being ripped apart by a low-grade civil war compounded by a dysfunctional, Shiite-dominated government. As many as 3,000 Iraqis are being killed or kidnapped a month, and American forces have suffered more than 27,000 killed and wounded.

Our troops face thousands of attacks each month from Sunni and Shiite Arabs employing improvised explosive devices (more than 2,900 a month), snipers, rocket and mortar fire, mines and, recently, suicide truck bombings rigged to release noxious chlorine gas. The “burn rate” on the Iraq war is $9 billion a month. The Iraqis are in despair. Three million are refugees or have fled the country. The ill-equipped Iraqi police and army suffered 49,000 casualties in the last 14 months. There is no security in most of the country under the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The threat we face is huge. More than 100,000 armed militia members and insurgents confront central authorities. A handful of foreign fighters (about 500) and a couple of thousand Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq extremists provoke sectarian violence through murderous attacks on the innocent civilian Shiite population and their mosques. This provokes a response of brutality and ethnic cleansing against the vulnerable Sunni civilian population.

U.S. forces have arrested more than 120,000 suspects and hold more than 27,000 as detainees. We have killed about 20,000 of these armed fighters. However, the armed struggle shows few signs of disruption.

Iraq’s neighbors, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have intensified the civil war as an extension of their own larger Shiite-Sunni conflict for power — or as a reaction to the presence of a foreign presence in Iraq. This war is primarily an internal struggle, with the preponderance of the leadership, fighters, money and armaments generated inside Iraq.

The American people have walked away from support of this war. The Army is beginning to show signs of great strain. Many units are now on their third combat tour, and the tours are being routinely extended. Recruiting standards are being lowered. Our equipment is shot. By the beginning of the coming year, we will be forced to downsize our deployment to Iraq or the Army will begin to unravel.

Only through the success of reconciliation talks can the bitter civil strife be moderated. We are running out of time. . . .The United States is now at a crossroads. We are in a position of strategic peril.

That’s quite a sobering assessment. One wonders how McCaffrey can accept all of that and still arrive at this conclusion:

We will know by the end of the summer if Petraeus’ strategy is going to prompt an adequate political response from the Iraqis. . . . [even though there is nothing to link the evidence he cites nor the US strategy with this desired outcome.]

We need to support the U.S. leadership team in Iraq for this one last effort to succeed.

It seems that even comparatively credible, realistic military analysts cannot bring themselves to accept the painful conclusion that sometimes it’s better to just back away from an unmitigated distater, and rethink what we’re doing, than to continue trying to fix it with the same approaches that failed before.

If there is another approach, it’s impllcit in the Democratic funding bills, which fully fund the escalation strategy for about a year — a period the general claims is sufficient to determine whether it’s succeeding or not. But the bills also address the deteriorating conditions of the Army, while putting increased pressure on the Iraqis to make the political accommodations that McCaffrey says are essential. And if that doesn’t work, we’re out.

It’s that bottom line that McCaffrey can’t reach, even though it flows directly from his own analysis. He promises this is the “last effort.” We’ll know about progress by “end of the summer,” he says. I’m counting on Andrea Mitchell to remind us when that time is up.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the Democrats should respond to the President’s recalcitrance. Unlike Obama, whom some have criticized for apparently throwing in the towel on the Bush veto threat, Russ Feingold shows how to respond, in this interview on NPR. [UPDATE: C&L also has the video of Feingold on Countdown last night.] Pretty easy to pick out the real leaders, isn’t it? This response also works.

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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