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Peter Van Buren: Iraq and the Battle of the Potomac

“War is the continuation of Politik (state policy) by other means” – Carl von Clausewitz

Last week, the New York Times front-paged a story about plans for “Iraq” to mount “a major spring offensive against Islamic State fighters.”  Its goal, among other things: to take back the country’s second largest city, Mosul.  The plan, wrote Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, was “being devised with the help of American military planners [and] will require training three new Iraqi Army divisions — more than 20,000 troops — over the coming months.”

Now, follow me for a minute while I slip back into history.  In the spring of 2003, George W. Bush and his pals took down the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Full-scale invasion, deck of 52 cards, decapitation strikes, “stuff happens,” and all the rest.  Turned out that they didn’t think much of Saddam’s battle-hardened military, which had fought a bitter eight-year war with Iran.  You know, too Baathified, too set in its pre-liberation ways.  So Bush’s proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, simply tossed the whole army out.  Officially disbanded it that May.  In other words, he turned up to 400,000 militarily trained Iraqis, including a complete officer corps, out onto the streets, singlehandedly ensuring both an insurgency to come and the creation of the very outfit the Bush administration had been claiming as one of its justifications for the invasion: an al-Qaeda branch in Iraq.  It hadn’t been there, of course, but post-Bremer it surely would be and some of those footloose Iraqi vets would lend a hand.

In the meantime, the Americans started all over again and by 2011, they had trained up, advised, and armed a new Iraqi military of 350,000 troops at a cost of billions and billions of taxpayer dollars.  Quite an achievement when you think about it.  Only one problem.  At the end of that year, the U.S. military slipped out of Iraq (with its “head held high,” as President Obama claimed), leaving that new army behind.  The poor kid was only eight years old!  A mere tot.  And anyone knows what happens when you leave your kid home alone.

So jump ahead a few years, and of course, the worst did happen.  That army, filled with “ghost soldiers,” collapsed in the face of a relatively small number of Islamic State fighters led by, you guessed it, former officers of the disbanded Iraqi army (aka al-Qaeda-in-Iraq updated).  It left its substantial pile of weaponry, vehicles, and god knows what else behind, essentially disbanding itself and fleeing Iraq’s northern cities.

You’ve been extremely patient, and now we’ve finally made it back to the present moment — to, that is, Washington’s remarkable and innovative plan to create what in essence is a third Iraqi army, funding and arming it as well.  In my childhood, we used to say three strikes and you’re out.  But in Washington, there’s evidently no magic number at all when it comes to how many disbanded Iraqi armies is too many for another step to the plate and another whiff.  In the process, you can assume one thing: all that “Iraqi” planning for a future offensive will mean more American advisers, more American boots touching the ground in Iraq, and further escalation to come.  And with further escalation and yet another Iraqi army, there’s always hope, isn’t there?  Hope for getting it wrong all over again.  Certainly, State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch regular and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, thinks so. Tom

What Could Possibly Go Right?
Four Months into Iraq War 3.0, the Cracks Are Showing — on the Battlefield and at the Pentagon
By Peter Van Buren

Carl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military thinker, is best known for his aphorism “War is the continuation of Politik (state policy) by other means.” But what happens to a war in the absence of coherent state policy?

Actually, we now know. Washington’s Iraq War 3.0, Operation Inherent Resolve, is what happens. In its early stages, I asked sarcastically, “What could possibly go wrong?” As the mission enters its fourth month, the answer to that question is already grimly clear: just about everything. It may be time to ask, in all seriousness: What could possibly go right?

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.