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The Changing Terms for Iraq “Success”

Cheney in Iraq While Congressional Democrats struggle with how to fund the troops now but force an eventual end to occupation, two other efforts are surreptitiously undermining their efforts. First, occupation supporters want to delay any decision on whether to continue funding from September, a date embraced by nervous Republicans, until next April. Second, the President’s supporters are decoupling the definition of “progress” from the level of violence, so that whenever the next “decision date” occurs, there is a greater chance they can claim progress. The public is thus being prepared to tolerate continued occupation even if the surge fails to significantly stop Iraqis from killing each other.

In this Washington Post article, we find that the Pentagon is already planning to continue the troop escalation well into next year:

The Pentagon announced yesterday that 35,000 soldiers in 10 Army combat brigades will begin deploying to Iraq in August as replacements, making it possible to sustain the increase of U.S. troops there until at least the end of this year.

U.S. commanders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that heightened troop levels, announced by President Bush in January, will need to last into the spring of 2008. The military has said it would assess in September how well its counterinsurgency strategy, intended to pacify Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, is working.

“The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander for U.S. military operations in Iraq. The new requirement of up to 15-month tours for active-duty soldiers will allow the troop increase to last until spring, said Odierno, who favors keeping experienced forces in place for now.

“What I am trying to do is to get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not,” he said in an interview in Baghdad last week. “Are we making progress? If we’re not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we’re making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge.”

So while Congress (and the WaPo) are under the impression that the key evaluation about whether the surge plan is working will occur in September, Odierno is telling us, “no, it can’t occur until next April.” Another Friedman Unit, anyone?

After Secretary Gates failed to commit to this view, General Odierno claimed he was “misquoted,” suggesting a continuing debate inside the Pentagon. Those who argued for the surge appear to be jockeying to push the decision month into next year, while skeptics like Gates are keeping their options open. But there are also those who are concerned about the condition of the US military. I suspect this latter group is leaking reports to the media that the evidence on the surge is already coming in, and it isn’t good. From the same WaPo article:

Commanders said that even with the ongoing increase in Iraq of tens of thousands of American troops, violence could increase in coming months, and some indicators in Baghdad suggest that is already happening.

Partial data on attacks gathered from five U.S. brigades operating in Baghdad showed that total attacks since the new strategy began in February were either steady or increasing. In some cases, certain kinds of attacks dipped as the U.S. troop increase began, only to begin rising again in recent weeks. Overall, “the number of attacks has stayed relatively constant” in Baghdad, said one U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.

The U.S. military commands that oversee Baghdad and Iraq as a whole have so far failed to meet requests to release current statistics on attack trends, with some U.S. officers voicing concern that the information would be skewed by critics to argue that the strategy is not working.

How reassuring. But if violence is likely to increase, then the occupation’s supporters cannot have continued funding depend on a decrease in violence, because that would imply that the escalation strategy is already failing. Realizing they may not be able to control the violence, both the President and Secretary Gates made statements this week suggesting that the level of violence should not be the litmus test for sustaining the escalation. The President introduced this argument early in the week by stating that success does not mean an end to violence but only a reduction in violence to levels that allow the Iraqis to go on with their lives. Secretary Gates then clarified the Administration’s position:

“The question is whether the level of violence is such that the political process can go forward in Iraq. And that then sets the stage for us to begin drawing down our troops,” he said.

Got it? September (never mind July) is too early to decide whether the surge is working, and success does not require any definable reduction in the level of violence. The stage is now set for last night.

Last night, after defeating the McGovern bill (171-255) to force a troop withdrawal to begin in 90 days, the House adopted (221 – 205) an Iraq funding bill that would provide about $43 billion of the President’s $100 billion request, enough to cover expenses into July, but then require another vote to release the remaining funds for operations through September. You can watch closing arguments of Democratic leaders here (Pelosi, Obey) and here (Murtha). The bill also requires the President to report in July on Iraqi progress in meeting certain political “benchmarks,” a report that would presumably inform the vote on whether to release the remaining funds. (Selise provided a quick bill summary in last night’s comments.)

Before the House vote, the President made it clear he would veto any two-month funding bill, calling it a dangerous piecemeal approach to waging war — which of course, it is, since the point of the bill is to end the occupation, not continue it without limits. He also signaled his willingness to consider “benchmarks.” That ought to raise red flags to Democrats about the wisdom of linking funding with benchmarks that directly undermine Iraqi sovereignty, even though polls suggest the public agrees with imposing benchmarks on the Iraqis.

It is not clear how the House bill will affect negotiations with the Senate over a final bill. But embracing the benchmarks path is risky when dealing with the Bush/Cheney regime. It is folly to give this regime the leverage to put pressure on the Iraqis to determine important questions about their country’s future. Our direct assault on Iraqi sovereignty is, after all, the principal reason many of the Iraqi insurgents and militias (and Muslims generally) view the US as the enemy. And to hand this leverage to a US regime that has so little judgment and respect for principle is as irresponsible as would be giving them another 100,000 troops to deploy at will. For Congress to give Bush/Cheney any more power, leverage, or influence would only compound the original mistake in voting for the Authorization to Use Military Force.

And what about the Iraqis? If it were your country, would you want Bush/Cheney in a position to strongly influence how to revise your constitution on where to draw the line between federal and provincial authority? Or how to structure your elections? Or dictate the conditions under which your oil resources will be developed and your oil revenues distributed? Would you want this White House influencing hiring decisions, including whether officials from a prior lawless regime should be rehired? The Iraqis desperately need reconciliation, but on their terms, not ours. If the concept of national sovereignty means anything, none of these decisions should be made or influenced by the US government, let alone this US Administration. And if that means that we cannot justify another American death because we can’t control these outcomes, well, welcome to the original folly and illegality of this war.

Photo credit: Gerald Herbert/Pool/Reuters — Cheney greeted by General Petreus in Iraq.

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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

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