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This article, by John Dean, was posted to AlterNet, January 24, 2009
Remarkably, the confirmation of President Obama's Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder, is being held up by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, who apparently is unhappy that Holder might actually investigate and prosecute Bush Administration officials who engaged in torture. Aside from this repugnant new Republican embrace of torture (which might be a winning issue for the lunatic fringe of the party and a nice way to further marginalize the GOP), any effort to protect Bush officials from legal responsibility for war crimes, in the long run, will not work.
It is difficult to believe that Eric Holder would agree not to enforce the law, like his recent Republican predecessors. Indeed, if he were to do so, President Obama should withdraw his nomination. But as MSNBC "Countdown" anchor Keith Olbermann stated earlier this week, even if the Obama Administration for whatever reason does not investigate and prosecute these crimes, this still does not mean that the Bush Administration officials who were involved in torture are going to get a pass.
With few exceptions, the discussion about what the Obama Administration will do regarding the torture of detainees during the Bush years has been framed as a domestic matter, and the fate of those involved in torturing has been largely viewed as a question of whether the Department of Justice will take action. In fact, not only is the world watching what the Obama Administration does regarding Bush's torturers, but other countries are very likely to take action if the United States fails to do so.
Bush's Torturers Have Serious Jeopardy
Philippe Sands, a Queen's Counsel at Matrix Chambers and Professor of International law at University College London, has assembled a powerful indictment of the key Bush Administration people involved in torture in his book Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values. He explains the legal exposure of people like former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney's counsel and later chief of staff David Addington, former Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo, the former Department of Defense general counsel Jim Haynes, and others for their involvement in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA secret prisons.
After reading Sands's book and, more recently, listening to his comments on Terry Gross's NPR show "Fresh Air," on January 7, 2009 I realized how closely the rest of the world is following the actions of these former officials, and was reminded that these actions appear to constitute not merely violations of American law, but also, and very literally, crimes against humanity -- for which the world is ready to hold them responsible.
Here is what Professor Sands told Terry Gross on NPR: "In talking to prosecutors around the world, as I have done, they all recognize the very real political difficulties of taking on someone who has been Vice President of the United States, or President of the United States, or Secretary of Defense of the United States. But those arguments melt away as you go a little down the chain. And I don't think the same arguments would apply in relation to the man, for example, who was Vice President Cheney's general counsel, at the time the decisions were taken, David Addington ... I think he faces a very real risk of, you know, investigation for complicity in an act that amounts to torture ... " Later, referring to "international investigations," he added that Addington (and others) were at "serious risk of being investigated."
These are remarkable statements from a very well-informed man. Because we have a common publisher, I was able to contact him in London, and pose a few questions. I find his book, statements and responses to my questions chilling.
Q & A With Professor Philippe Sands
The following is my email exchange with Professor Sands:
John W. Dean: When talking to Ms. Gross you said you were not calling for such international investigations because we all need more facts. Given the fact that Judge Susan Crawford has now made clear that torture occurred, do you -- and others with your expertise and background -- have sufficient information to call for other countries to take action if the Obama Administration fails to act?
Philippe Sands: Last week's intervention by Susan Crawford, confirming that torture occurred at Guantanamo, is highly significant (as I explain in a piece I wrote with Dahlia Lithwick: "The Turning Point: How the Susan Crawford interview changes everything we know about torture"). The evidence as to torture, with all that implies for domestic and foreign criminal investigation, is compelling. Domestic and foreign investigators already have ample evidence to commence investigation, if so requested or on their own account, even if the whole picture is not yet available. That has implications for the potential exposure of different individuals, depending on the nature and extent of their involvement in acts that have elements of a criminal conspiracy to subvert the law.|
JD: If yes, can you share what you and others might do, and when?
PS: I am in the process of completing the epilogue to my book Torture Team, which will be published in May 2009. That will set out, in detail, what I learned when I made a return visit to the European judge and prosecutor with whom I met in the summer of 2007, as described in the book. Watch this space.
JD: If no, what would it take for those like you to call for all countries with potential jurisdiction to take action?
PS: More than 140 countries may potentially exercise jurisdiction over former members of the Bush Administration for violations of the 1984 Torture Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, including the standards reflected in their Common Article 3. Whether they do so, and how they might do so, turns on a range of factors, including their domestic procedural rules. In the United Kingdom, one criminal investigation is already underway, in relation to the alleged treatment of Binyam Mohammed, a Guantanamo detainee who is a British resident. I doubt it will be the last. That said, having set out the relevant facts in one case [in my book], to the best of my abilities, I feel it will now be for others to take this forward as they consider appropriate.
JD: Also, when talking to Ms. Gross you said that you did not think that David Addington and others involved in torture were likely to be travelling outside the United States. Do you know for a fact that any country might take action? Have you discussed this with any prosecutors who could do so?
PS: This will be addressed in the epilogue to Torture Team.
JD: Do you believe that a failure of the Obama Administration to investigate, and if necessary, prosecute, those involved in torture would make them legally complicit in the torture undertaken by the Bush Administration?
PS: No, although it may give rise to violations by the United States of its obligations under the Torture Convention. In the past few days there have been a series of significant statements: that of Susan Crawford, of former Vice President Cheney's confirming that he approved the use of waterboarding, and by the new Attorney General Eric Holder that he considers waterboarding to be torture. On the basis of these and other statements it is difficult to see how the obligations under Articles 7(1) and (2) of the Torture Convention do not cut in: these require the US to "submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution". What happens thereafter is a matter for the prosecutor, who may decide that, in accordance with applicable standards ("authorities shall take their decision in the same manner as in the case of any ordinary offence of a serious nature under the law of that State") and the facts of the case, including the prospects for a successful prosecution, that proceeding to actual prosecution is not justified.
JD: Finally, you mentioned the case proceeding in the UK regarding possible torture of a British national. Is it possible that even an American ally like Great Britain could seek extradition, and undertake prosecution, of U.S. officials like Addington and Yoo for facilitating the torture of a citizen of Great Britain -- if the U.S. fails to act?
PS: It is possible. The more likely scenario, however, is that which occurred in Senator Pinochet's case: the unwitting traveller sets foot in the wrong country at the wrong time.
What Will The Obama Administration Do?
As all who have followed this issue know, President Obama hedged after he was elected as to what he may or may not do. So too did his Attorney General nominee. After Eric Holder declared waterboarding to be unlawful, no one on the Senate Judiciary Committee truly followed up as to what he was going to do, but it appears they are going to now press him on that point.
My question is how can the Obama Administration not investigate, and, if appropriate, prosecute given the world is watching, because if they do not, other may do so? How could there be "change we can believe in" if the new administration harbors war criminals -- which is the way that Philippe Sands and the rest of the world, familiar with the facts which have surfaced even without an investigation, view those who facilitated or engaged in torture?
One would think that people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Gonzales, Yoo, Haynes and others, who claim to have done nothing wrong, would call for investigations to clear themselves if they really believed that to be the case. Only they, however, seem to believe in their innocence -- the entire gutless and cowardly group of them, who have shamed themselves and the nation by committing crimes against humanity in the name of the United States.
We must all hope that the Obama Administration does the right thing, rather than forcing another country to clean up the mess and seek to erase the dangerous precedent these people have created for our country. A first clue may come when Holder resumes testifying.
It may finally be 2009, but in some ways, given these last years, it might as well be 800 BCE.
From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings who ruledthe Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled with enough deadbodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting –in almost comic strip-style– various bloody royal victories and conquests. At least one of them shows Assyriansoldiers lopping off the heads of defeatedenemies and piling them into pyramids foran early version of what, in theVCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s,Americans came to know as the "body count."
So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recordedthe numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian scribes had recorded countsof severed hands for victorious pharaohs).
Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt's burghers staring out at you across the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant past. In a darker sense, it's no less a reminder of our kinship across time to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making his count, and – eerily enough – feel at home. What a measure of just how few miles "the march of civilization" (as my parents' generation once called it) has actually covered.
Prejudiced Toward War
If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration, here's one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn't help it. They just had to count.
In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons, his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it's easy enough to imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been teleported into his world. True, his White House didn't have friezes of his victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was Saddam Hussein's captured pistol proudly stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later, however, Bush's "scribes," still traveling with the imperial forces, continued to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani
borderlands, and elsewhere.
Many of those body counts were duly made public. This record of American "success" was visible to anyone who visited the Pentagon's website and viewed
its upbeat news articles complete with enumerations of "Taliban fighters" or, in Iraq,
"terrorists," the Air Force's news feed listing the number of bombs dropped on "anti-Afghan forces," or the U.S. Central Command's
stories of killing "Taliban
On the other hand, history, as we know, doesn't repeat itself and – unlike the Assyrians – the Bush administration would have preferred not tocount, or at least not to make its body counts public. One of its small but tellingly unsuccessful struggles, a sign of the depth of its failure on its own terms, was to avoid the release of those counts.
Its aversion to the body count made some sense. After all, since the 1950s,body-counting for the U.S. military has invariably signaled not impending victory, but disaster, and even defeat. In fact, one of the strangest things about the American empire has been this: Between 1945 and George W. Bush's second term,the U.S. economy, American corporations, and the dollar have held remarkablesway over much of the rest of the world. New York City has been the planet's financial capital and Washington its war capital. (Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War, always came in a provincial second.)
In the same period, the U.S. military effectively garrisoned much of the globe from the Horn of Africa to Greenland, from South Korea to Qatar, while its Navy controlled the seven seas, its Air Forcedominated the global skies, its nuclear command stood ready to unleash the powers of planetary death, and its space command watched the heavens. In the wake of the Cold War, its various military commands (including Northcom, set up by the Bush administration in 2002, and Africom, set up in 2007) divided the greater part of the planet into what were essentially military satrapies. And yet, the U.S. military, post-1945, simply could not win the wars that mattered.
Because the neocons of the Bush administration brushed aside this counterintuitive fact, they believed themselves faced in 2000 with an unparalleled opportunity (whose frenetic exploitation would be triggered by the attacks of 9/11, "thePearl Harbor" of the new century). With the highest-tech military on theplanet, funded at levels no other set of nations could cumulatively match, the United States, they were convinced, was uniquely situated to give the phrase "sole superpower" historically unprecedented meaning. Even the Assyrians at their height, the Romans in their Pax Romana centuries, the British in the endless decades when the sun could never set on its empire, would prove pikers by comparison.
In this sense, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the various neocons in the administration were fundamentalist idolaters – and what theyworshipped was the staggering power of the U.S. military. They were believers in a church whose first tenet was the efficacy of force above all else. Though few of them had the slightestmilitary experience, they gave real meaning to the word bellicose. Theywere prejudiced toward war.
With awesome military power at their command, they were also convinced that they could go it alone as the dominating force on the planet. As with true believers everywhere, they had only contempt for those they couldn't convert to their worldview. That contempt made "unilateralism" their strategy of choice, and a global Pax Americana their goal (along with, of course, a Pax Republicana at home).
If All Else Fails, Count the Bodies
It was in this context that they were not about to count the enemy dead. In their wars, as these fervent, inside-the-Beltwayutopians saw it, there would be no need to do so. With the "shock and awe" forces at their command, they would refocus American attention on the real metric of victory, the taking of territory and of enemy capitals. At the same time, they were preparing to disarm the only enemy that truly scared them, the American people, by making none of the mistakes of the Vietnam era, including – as the president later admitted – counting bodies.
Of course, both the Pax Americana and the Pax Republicana would prove will-o'-the-wisps. As it turned out, the Bush administration, blind to the actual world it faced, disastrously miscalculated the nature of American power – especially military power – and what it was capable of doing. And yet,had they taken a clear-eyed look at what American military power had actuallyachieved in action since 1945, they might have been sobered. In the major wars (and even some minor actions) the U.S. military fought in those decades, it had been massively destructive but never victorious, nor even particularlysuccessful. In many ways, in the classic phrase of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, it had been a "paper tiger."
Yes, it had "won" largely meaningless victories – in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983; against the toothless Panamanian regime of Manuel Noriega in Operation Just Cause in 1989; in Operation Desert Storm, largely an air campaign against Saddam Hussein's helpless military in 1990 (in a war that settled nothing); in NATO's Operation Deliberate Force, an air war against the essentially defenseless Serbian military in 1995 (while meeting disaster in operations in Iran in 1980 and Somalia in 1993). On the other hand, in Korea in the early 1950s and in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from the 1960s into the early 1970s, it had committed its forces all but atomically, and yet had met nothing but stalemate, disaster, and defeat against enemies who, on paper at least, should not have been able to stand up to American power.
It was in the context of defeat and then frustration in Korea that the counting of enemy bodies began. Once Chinese communist armies had entered that war in massive numbers in late 1950 and inflicted a terrible series of defeats on American forces but could not sweep them off the peninsula, that conflict settled into a "meatgrinder" of a stalemate in which the hope of taking significant territory faded; yet some measure of success was needed as public frustration mounted in the United States: thus began the infamous body count of enemy dead.
The body count reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War, again as a shorthand way of measuring success in a conflict in which the taking of territory was almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to distinguish from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely unable to strengthen themselves. Those tallies of dead bodies, announced daily by military spokesmen to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the public face of American "success" in the Vietnam era. Each body was to be further evidence of what Gen. William Westmoreland called "the light at the end of the tunnel." When those dead bodies and any sense of success began to part ways, however, when, in the terminology of the times, a "credibility gap" opened between the metrics of victory and reality, the body count morphed into a symbol of barbarism as well as of defeat. It helped stoke an antiwar movement.
This was why, in choosing to take on Saddam Hussein's hapless military in 2003 – the administration was looking for a "cakewalk" campaign that would "shock and awe" enemies throughout the Middle East – they officially chose not to release any counts of enemy dead. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the administration's Afghan operation in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq thereafter, put the party line succinctly, "We don't do body counts."
As the president finally admitted in some frustration to a group of conservative columnists in October 2006, his administration had "made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team." Not intending to repeat the 1960s experience, he and his advisers had planned out an opposites war on the home front – anything done in Vietnam would not be done this time around – and that meant not offering official counts of the dead which might stoke an antiwar movement… until, as in Korea and Vietnam, frustration truly set in.
When the taking of Baghdad in April 2003 proved no more of a capstone on American victory than the taking of Kabul in November 2001, when everything began to go disastrously wrong and the carefully enumerated count of the American dead in Iraq rose precipitously, when "victory" (a word the president still invoked 15 times in a single speech in November 2005) adamantly refused to make an appearance, the moment for the body count had arrived. Despite all the planning, they just couldn't stop themselves. A frustrated president expressed it this way: "We don't get to say that – a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It's happening. You just don't know it."
Soon enough the Pentagon was regularly releasing such figures in reports on its operations and, in December 2006, the president, too, first slipped such a tally into a press briefing. ("Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.")
It wasn't, of course, that no one had been counting. The president, as we know from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, had long been keeping "'his own personal scorecard for the [global] war [on terror]' in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists – each ready to be crossed out by the president as his forces took hem down." And the military had been counting bodies as well, but as the possibility of victory disappeared into the charnel houses of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the president finally gave in. While this did not stoke an antiwar movement, it represented a tacit admission of policy collapse, a kind of surrender. It was as close as an administrationthat never owned up to error could come to admitting that two more disastrous wars had been added to a string of military failures in the truncated American Century.
That implicit admission, however, took years to arrive, and in the meantime, Iraqis and Afghans – civilians, insurgents, terrorists, police, and military men – were dying in prodigious numbers.
The Global War on Terror as a Ponzi Scheme
As it happened, others were also counting. Among the earliest of them, a Web site, Iraq Body Count, carefully toted up Iraqi civilian deaths as documented in reputable media outlets. Their estimate has, by now, almost reached 100,000 – and, circumscribed by those words "documented" and "civilian," doesn't begin to get at the full scope of Iraqi deaths.
Various groups of scholars and pollsters also took up the task, using sophisticated sampling techniques (including door-to-door interviews under exceedingly dangerous conditions) arrive at reasonable approximations of the Iraqi dead. They have come up with figures ranging from the hundreds of thousands to a million or more in a country with a prewar population of perhaps 26 million. United Nations representatives have similarly attempted, under difficult circumstances, to keep a count of Iraqis fleeing into exile – exile being, after a fashion, a form of living death – and have estimated that more than 2 million Iraqis fled their country, while another 2.7 million, having fled their homes, remained "internally displaced."
Similar attempts have been made for Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has, for instance, done its best to tally civilian deaths from air strikes in that country (while even TomDispatch has attempted to keep a modest count of wedding parties obliterated by U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq). But, of course, the real body count in either country will never be known.
One thing is certain, however: it is an obscenity of the present moment that Iraq, still a charnel
house, still in a state of near total disrepair, still on the edge of a whole host of potential conflicts, should increasingly be
portrayed here as a limited Bush administration "surge" success. Only a country – or a punditry or a military – incapable of facing the depths of destruction
that the Bush administration let loose could reach such a conclusion.
If all roads once led to Rome, all acts of the Bush administration have led to destruction, and remarkably regularly to piles of dead or tortured bodies, counted or not. In fact, it's reasonable to say that every Bush administration foreign policy dream, including its first term fantasy about a pacified "Greater Middle East" and its late second term vision of a facilitated "peace process" between the Israelis and Palestinians, has ended in piles of bodies and in failure. Consider this a count all its own.
Looked at another way, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror and its subsidiary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, in effect, been a giant Ponzi scheme. At a cost of nearly one trillion taxpayer dollars to date (but sure to be in the multi-trillions when all is said and done), Bush's mad "global war" simply sucked needed money out of our world at levels that made Bernie Madoff seem like a small fry.
Madoff, by his own accounting, squandered perhaps $50 billion of other people's money. The Bush administration took a trillion dollars of ours and handed it out to its crony corporate buddies and to the Pentagon as down payments on disaster – and that's without even figuring into the mix the staggering sums still needed to care for American soldiers maimed, impaired, or nearly destroyed by Bush's wars.
With Bush's "commander-in-chief" presidency only days from its end, the price tag on his "war" continues to soar as dollars grow scarce, new investors refuse to pay in, and the scheme crumbles. Unfortunately, the American people, typical suckers in such a con game, will be left with a mile-high stack of IOUs. In any Ponzi scheme comparison with Madoff, however, one difference (other than size) stands out. Sooner or later, Madoff, like Charles Ponzi himself, will end up behind bars, while George, Dick, & Co. will be writing their memoirs and living off the fat of the land.
Eight years of bodies, dead, broken, mutilated, abused; eight years of ruined lives down countless drains; eight years of massive destruction to places from Baghdad to New Orleans where nothing of significance was ever rebuilt: all this was brought to us by a president, now leaving office without apology, who said the following in his first inaugural address: "I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility… to call for responsibility and try to live it as well."
He lived, however, by quite a different code. Destruction without responsibility, that's Bush's legacy, but who's counting now that the destruction mounts and the bodies begin to pile up here in the "homeland," in our own body-count nation? The laid off, the pensionless, the homeless, the suicides – imagine what that trillion dollars might have meant to them.
It's clear enough in these last days of the Bush administration that its model was Iraq, dismantled and devastated. The world, had he succeeded, might have become George W. Bush's Iraq.
Yes, he came up short, but, given the global economic situation, how much short we don't yet know. Perhaps, in the future, historians will call him a
Caesar – of destruction. Veni, vidi, vastavi… [I came, I saw, I devastated…]
[Note: I rely on many wonderful sources and Web sites in putting together TomDispatch.com, but as 2009 starts, I would feel remiss if I didn't credit three in particular: Antiwar.com, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's The War in Context. Each is invaluable in its own way; each made my task of trying to make some sense of George W. Bush's world so much easier. A deep bow of thanks to all three. Finally, I can't help wondering about one missing Iraqi who remains on my mind: a young Sunni woman living in Baghdad in 2003, who adopted the pseudonym Riverbend. She began her "girlblog from Iraq," Baghdad Burning, with this epigraph: "…I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend…" For several years, she provided a vivid citizen's reportage on Bush's disaster that should have put most journalists to shame. As I wrote in 2006, hers was "an unparalleled record of the American war on, and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). [It represents] simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of the hell into which we've plunged that country." Her last report from Syria
– she had just arrived as a refugee – was posted on Oct. 22, 2007. Since then, as far as I know, she has not been heard from.]
On September 28, 2002, President Bush proclaimed: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons . . . The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist groups, and there are Al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq.” Just over a year after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the president and his administration used these two fears — unconventional weapons and terrorism — to win public approval for going to war in Iraq. But the premises proved to be false. The chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq concluded that President Saddam Hussein had no such weapons or the means to produce them, and the U.S. intelligence community determined that there was no meaningful connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. These conclusions came too late, however. On March 20, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began in an attempt to kill the Iraqi president and overthrow his regime. The Center for Public Integrity found that Bush and seven members of his administration made 935 demonstrably false statements in the lead-up to the war, from September 2001 to September 2003, as reported in Iraq: The War Card. The failure of the commander in chief and his administration to gather solid intelligence before sending U.S. troops to war has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives, billions of tax dollars, and the trust of not only of U.S. allies abroad, but also of a majority of the American people. When asked about the War Card study, a White House spokesman responded: “The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world.”
ABU GHRAIB PRISON SCANDAL
Few incidents have done more damage to America’s image in the world than the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. In late April 2004, Americans got their first glimpse of the haunting photographs of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad: scenes of naked, humiliated prisoners piled on top of one another, some forced to assume sexual positions, all while American soldiers posed nearby, smiling at the camera. The photos provoked an instant outcry around the world. In addressing the scandal, President Bush insisted that it was the fault of a few dishonorable soldiers, not a systematic problem with how the U.S. was managing the war in Iraq — but investigations suggest that the blame likely rises higher up the military’s chain of command. Some senior officials, such as General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq, were reprimanded and suspended. But the blame mainly fell on low-level soldiers, who were convicted and sent to prison for participating in sexual abuse, beatings, and other brutal acts. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said news of the abuse “stunned him.” But a military report by Major General Antonio Taguba found that the prison was overcrowded, undermanned, and short of resources, making accountability for prisoner treatment rare. Taguba also noted in 2004 that the Central Intelligence Agency had serious concerns about the kinds of interrogation techniques military forces used on detainees. But Taguba wasn’t permitted to delve much deeper; an article in The New Yorker in 2007 reported that military investigators were not allowed to look into the role of Rumsfeld and other Department of Defense officials. What is known is that the Pentagon found out about the existence of the photos in January 2004 and Taguba filed his report in March. President Bush knew about the abuses at Abu Ghraib at least by March, but he did not address the issue until the media publicized it in late April. Congress found out about the abuse the same day the American public did. “This is entirely unacceptable,” said Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican of Indiana and then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The scandal, Lugar added, “pushed international resentment and distrust of the United States to levels unprecedented in recent times.” The biggest failure, according to watchdogs: the lack of accountability for military officials who failed to stop or prevent the abuses. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously stated that the administration and the military acted quickly “to hold people to account and bring them to justice, and to also take steps to prevent something like that from happening again.”
ARBITRARY DETENTION AT GUANTANAMO
The U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has held hundreds of detainees without charging them with a crime. The White House conceived of Guantanamo as an extralegal zone for hardened terrorists whom it unilaterally declared were exempt from the Geneva Conventions. There, terrorists would have no recourse to the American legal system, lawyers at the Department of Justice argued; instead, they could be imprisoned for as long as the government saw fit. In June 2004, the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s plan and declared that the foreign nationals held at Guantanamo had the right to petition for their release in U.S. courts. Once forced to confront the legal status of its prisoners, the Department of Defense (DOD) began releasing or transferring many of the inmates. By October 2004, the United States had released 202 detainees from the prison camp and between late 2004 and March 2005 the remaining 558 detainees passed through “Combatant Status Review Tribunals,” which determined that 520 of these prisoners were “
By 2008, however, after further review of cases and intervention by U.S. courts, the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo dropped to approximately 255, according to the Pentagon. Another 60 or so have been cleared for release but can not be repatriated because their home country refused to accept them or due to other diplomatic complications. Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees have struggled to obtain documents from the U.S. military believed to contain evidence against their clients, and in some cases, the United States has had to drop prosecutions of Guantanamo inmates because much of their case was built on evidence obtained through interrogation methods widely considered to be torture. Asked to comment, a DOD spokesman directed the Center to a factsheet on Guantanamo: “Detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are not only afforded the majority of the protections granted to prisoners of war,” it states, “but many additional privileges that exceed the requirements established by the Geneva Conventions.
PENTAGON OFFICE’S MISLEADING INTELLIGENCE
An under-the-radar Department of Defense (DOD) office produced highly politicized intelligence assessments and promulgated one of the most inaccurate justifications for U.S. invasion of Iraq: that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein had a working relationship with Al Qaeda. The Office of Special Plans, part of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy led by Douglas Feith, created and provided these assessments to senior U.S. officials. Though neither illegal nor unauthorized, these assessments were, in the view of the DOD inspector general, “inappropriate” and “did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community.” A Senate Intelligence Committee report found not only that the work of other intelligence agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, was ignored, but also suggested that the Office of Special Plans shaped intelligence to fit the desires of policymakers — a cardinal sin in the intelligence world. According to several Democratic senators on the intelligence committee, “[C]riticism of the CIA’s analysis was sent by Under Secretary for Policy Feith to Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld.” W. Patrick Lang, the former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, told investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, “The Pentagon has banded together to dominate the government’s foreign policy, and they’ve pulled it off.” The 9-11 Commission would later conclude that it found “
no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”
A study conducted by a DOD-funded think tank, after a review of captured Iraqi government documents, also found no “
between Al Qaeda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Trumpeted by the White House as a key reason to invade Iraq, the much touted close “relationship” between Al Qaeda and Iraq simply did not exist.
MILITARY FAILURE TO SECURE IRAQ AFTER INVASION
Calling them “wildly off mark,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed the assessments of his own Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, and a 1999 Department of Defense (DOD) war game scenario, both of which predicted the need for hundreds of thousands of troops to secure post-invasion Iraq — far more than the 148,000 who were eventually assigned the job. According to an official U.S. Army history of the conflict in Iraq, “The military means employed were sufficient to destroy the Saddam regime; they were not sufficient to replace it with the type of nation-state the United States wished to see in its place.” A 2005 unclassified study for the Army by the RAND Corporation, which was suppressed until media reports and congressional pressure brought it to light, said that the chaotic security situation after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled were “conditions [that] enabled the insurgency to take root, and the Army and Marine Corps have been battling the insurgents ever since.” Though there were some strategies for securing post-invasion Iraq, “few if any made it into the serious planning process,” according to the RAND report. These ideas were “held at bay, in the most general sense, by two mutually reinforcing sets of assumptions that dominated planning . . . at the highest levels” — that few armed forces would be necessary after the invasion and that the military would not be an occupying force. Just days before the war began, Vice President Cheney said, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
LACK OF ARMORED PROTECTION FOR TROOPS
The U.S. military failed to provide adequate body armor and armored vehicles to soldiers and Marines fighting the Iraq war. Key assumptions made before the invasion and early in the occupation of Iraq proved faulty: namely, that the Iraqi people would welcome the United States’ presence and that the American military would not face an insurgency. In April 2003 military supply chiefs told the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Army Strategic Planning Board, led by General Richard Cody, that there was enough body armor and that the 50,000 troops behind the front lines did not need armor, according to a 2005 piece in The New York Times. By mid-May, as troops behind front lines faced attacks, Cody reversed that decision and ordered body armor for all, “regardless of duty position.” The case was similar for military vehicles. According to an Army history: “When OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] began, as in every previous war the U.S. Army has fought, logistical vehicles were largely unarmored or lightly armed. . . . The ‘360-degree’ Iraqi insurgency once again exposed the danger of this approach.” The early missteps were soon compounded by other problems. It took time for the bureaucracy at the Pentagon to move; for example, at one point, the Army's equipment manager reportedly reduced the priority level of armor to the same status of socks. Also, DOD relied on several unproven contractors, which led to delays. The result was that for too long too few troops had adequate armor in a conflict that turned out to have no front lines. Soldiers almost anywhere in Iraq could be targeted, especially by the insurgents’ weapon of choice, improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Between the beginning of the conflict in March 2003 through November 1, 2008, 2,145 troops were killed and nearly 21,000 troops were wounded by IEDs and other types of explosive devices in Iraq.
PENTAGON’S SLOW ADAPTATION TO A WAR-FOOTING
The Department of Defense (DOD) has often been unresponsive or slow to react to the needs of soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the United States when they return. “A lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Department of Defense weren’t at war,” and thus failed to support those who were in a wartime posture, said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Instead, he explained, they were “preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.” According to The New York Times, “In Iraq, Army officers say the Air Force has often been out of touch, fulfilling only half of their requests for the sophisticated surveillance aircraft that ground commanders say are needed to find roadside bombs and track down insurgents.” The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Gates has criticized the Pentagon’s slow initial procurement of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), saying, “I believe that one factor that delayed the fielding was the pervasive assumption . . . that regimes could be toppled, major combat completed, the insurgency crushed, and most U.S. troops withdrawn fairly soon.” Gates sees a lack of accountability at the root of the problems, citing as an example Walter Reed Army Medical Center: “Over a year ago, The Washington Post broke the story about inadequate out-patient care at Walter Reed. I was disappointed by the initially-dismissive response of some in the Army’s leadership, who went into damage-control mode against the press and, in one case, blamed a couple of sergeants. Wrong move. I concluded responsibility lay much higher and acted accordingly.”
INADEQUATE PLANNING FOR POST-INVASION IRAQ
The United States planned poorly for the post-invasion administration of Iraq, contributing to the rise of a broad insurgency and the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The blame can be cast widely. An official Army history of the Iraq conflict found that “
the Army, as the service primarily responsible for ground operations, should have insisted on better . . . planning and preparations. . . .” A RAND Corporation study concluded that the State Department’s “main postwar planning effort . . . raised many of the right questions. . . . Yet the Department of Defense largely ignored this project.”
Rand also found that much of the confusion between the State and Defense departments stemmed from poor direction from the National Security Council, which failed to mediate disputes between the departments. Others blame the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, which issued two orders that disbanded the Iraqi military and gutted the Iraqi government by banning members of the Ba'ath Party. Critics say those decisions, which took many U.S. civilian and military leaders by surprise, contributed to the rise in violence. Before Bremer replaced him as director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, Lieutenant General Jay Garner drafted a postwar plan for Iraq, which he introduced with, “History will judge the war against Iraq not by the brilliance of its military execution, but by the effectiveness of the post-hostilities activities.”
POOR HEALTH CARE FOR VETERANS
Veterans enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care programs have long complained of receiving inadequate treatment at poorly funded facilities. According to a 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, veterans were forced to travel long distances to receive care — about 25 percent of the vets lived more than a 60-minute drive from a VA hospital. They also had to endure long waits for appointments, especially in regions like Florida, home to a large number of aging veterans. Nursing homes for veterans were notoriously understaffed, making it difficult to keep up with the increasing population of older vets who need care. But the strains imposed by new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan exposed a whole new litany of problems for the VA and the military. Citizens and lawmakers were outraged after The Washington Post exposed dismal conditions for veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007. Several high-ranking Defense Department officials were fired or stepped down under pressure, and stories soon emerged about other medical facilities where veterans were placed in rooms teeming with fruit flies, slept on broken hospital beds or faced unprofessional staff. A subsequent investigation of 1,400 hospitals and other facilities for vets found more than 1,000 incidents of substandard conditions. The VA has also struggled to deal with the many young veterans complaining of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatment for PTSD was found to be inadequate in 2005, when only half of VA medical centers had a PTSD clinical team. Congressional testimony indicated that VA examiners felt pressure to conduct exams of veterans in as little as 20 minutes. The larger problem is that the VA’s patient workload has nearly doubled in the past 10 years; there are now 7.8 million enrollees in the VA health system. The VA “has faced difficulties in managing its resources” in the face of this rising workload, concluded the GAO. While the agency has dealt with challenges in recruiting and retaining health care professionals, it has also encountered problems in its internal budget process, the GAO found. Those issues have been exacerbated by an often-unpredictable Congressional appropriations process, which has frequently been late in delivering a finalized VA budget. The result is considerable confusion and inconsistency in the timely delivery and quality of care. A VA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but Gerald M. Cross, acting principal deputy under the secretary of health, told Congress in 2007 that the department is committed to “providing timely, high-quality health care to those who have helped defend and preserve freedom around the world.”
VETERAN DISABILITY CLAIMS LANGUISH
For many injured veterans — aging former soldiers as well as younger ones recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan — disability claims are a vital and necessary source of income. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), however, has long failed to process claims in a timely manner, forcing many vets to wait an average of six months for their claim to be processed, and as long as two years to wait for an appeal. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported a growing backlog of claims and lengthy processing times in 2001, and the problem has persisted. By February 2007, the backlog had grown to almost 400,000 — more than 130,000 of which had exceeded the VA’s 160-day goal to process a claim. This is due in part to the growing number of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan filing disability claims — total claims have jumped from about 579,000 in 2000 to some 806,000 in 2006, a 39 percent increase. The Senate unanimously passed a measure in 2007 to provide the VA with $70.3 million to eliminate the backlog of disability claims by hiring new processors and implementing better staff training. But increasing the number of processors on staff did not immediately solve the crisis. The GAO says that increased numbers must be paired with “adequate training and performance management” in order to issue timely and accurate decisions. Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has called for better technology, improved employee training, and an enhanced claims process to end the long delays. Until the problems are fixed, the persistent delays mean that tens of thousands of veterans and their families will continue to struggle financially. The VA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Patrick Dunne, the department's acting under secretary for benefits, told Congress in July 2008 that the department is “
continually seeking new ways to increase production and shorten the time veterans are waiting for decisions on their claims,”
which include “
longer-term efforts to enhance and upgrade our claims processing systems through integration of today's technology.”
FAILURE TO SECURE WEAPONS IN IRAQ
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops failed to secure weapons depots across the country, allowing Iraqis to loot vast amounts of explosives, ammunition, and weapons that were then used to fuel and supply the insurgency. Many sites around Iraq remained unsecured even three and a half years after the invasion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “According to lessons-learned reports and senior-level DOD [Department of Defense] officials,” the GAO reported, “the widespread looting occurred because DOD had insufficient troop levels to secure conventional munitions storage sites due to several . . . planning priorities and assumptions.” Among those assumptions — which turned out to be wrong — was a belief that the Iraqi military would assist in securing these installations. The GAO also found that the Pentagon “did not have a centrally managed program for the disposition of enemy munitions until August 2003, after widespread looting had already occurred.” The sites included many well known to intelligence experts, such as the sprawling Al Qaqaa military facility south of Baghdad. The Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation each stressed to Pentagon officials the need to secure these sites, but the military largely failed to address the issue. Stolen explosives traced to the looting have been used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the number-one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, at least 2,145 troops have been killed by IEDs and other types of explosive devices. The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but at a 2007 briefing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the scope of the problem. “We have destroyed several hundred thousand tons of Iraqi munitions,” he told reporters. “I mean, fundamentally, the entire country was one big ammo dump. And there were thousands of these sites... we're doing our best to try and find them, but given the expanse of the country and all the other tasks which the military is trying to carry out there, it's a huge task.
CONTRACTORS FAILING TROOPS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s escalating use of outside contractors has coincided with a decrease in oversight, endangering the well-being of American troops serving there and in Iraq. The Department of Defense (DOD) has suffered a “complete breakdown in the procurement process” during the past seven years, according to Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, echoing the findings of the Center for Public Integrity’s Windfalls of War and Windfalls of War II projects. Examples abound of companies providing substandard supplies to American forces, such as when Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), the largest contractor in Iraq, provided contaminated water to 5,000 U.S. troops in 2005 and when Halliburton, then KBR’s parent company, engaged in overcharges and questionable costs of $212.3 million for oil reconstruction work, as reported by DOD auditors. In July 2008, the Pentagon revealed that 16 Americans had died of accidental electrocution in Iraq, some tied to faulty wiring at facilities run by U.S. contractors. Among the problems cited by former electricians: inexperienced employees, including foreign electricians who did not speak English. Another problem plaguing U.S. contractors have been fires — 283 of them over just five months at facilities maintained by KBR, according to a 2007 report by the Defense Contract Management Agency. The most glaring case of poor oversight may be AEY Inc., which was awarded a nearly $300 million contract to supply ammunition for Afghanistan’s army and police. In a case that Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said speaks “volumes about what's wrong with the military contracting process today,” AEY was allegedly run out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach by a 22-year-old; much of the ammunition he sold were reportedly old rounds shipped from Albania that were considered so unstable that NATO and the United States spent millions of dollars to destroy the stockpiles. These, prosecutors charge, included $10 million worth of rounds manufactured in China in the 1960s; the selling of Chinese ammunition is a breach of U.S. law. All this allegedly happened despite AEY being on a State Department watch list since 2005.
SURGE IN OUTSOURCING CREATES PROBLEMS IN PERFORMANCE, OVERSIGHT
A dramatic increase in the contracting of government services has resulted in a litany of problems, ranging from cost overruns and missed deadlines to a lack of oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). From 2001 to 2005, the number of federal contractor jobs surged by 72 percent, increasing from 4.4 million to 7.6 million. Spending on contractors nearly doubled from FY 2001 to FY 2006, jumping from $234.8 billion to $415 billion The GAO has issued a series of reports identifying problems associated with the rise in outsourcing. Among the issues: “separating wants from needs; executing acquisition programs within available funding and established timeframes; using sound contracting arrangements with appropriate incentives and effective oversight; assuring that contractors are used only in appropriate circumstances and play proper roles; and sustaining a capable and accountable acquisition workforce ” GAO auditors found that interagency contracting was a “high-risk area” for outsourcing, as were the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The agency also cited concerns about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now contracts out one-third of its workforce. Lack of competition is another problem. The Department of the Interior’s inspector general found that more than a quarter of the agency’s $380 billion in contracts were awarded without competition.
FAILURE TO REGULATE SECURITY CONTRACTORS
In a busy Baghdad square, a disturbance between a group of Americans and Iraqis on September 16, 2007 resulted in the shooting death of 17 Iraqi civilians. The Americans involved were not military; they were private security contractors from a company called Blackwater. To date security contractors in Iraq number around 48,000 from various companies. Similarly, jobs such as cooking and cleaning on military bases — positions that in past wars were largely filled by military or government personnel — are increasingly outsourced to private companies. The number of private contractors, as well as the amount of money the government pays them, has risen considerably as the Iraq war has gone on, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s 2007 report, Windfalls of War II. The result has been less coordination in missions involving both military and private groups, such as U.K.-based Erinys, and U.S.-based Blackwater and KBR. The problem was highlighted in 2004, when insurgents ambushed a KBR truck convoy and drivers refused to work until security was improved. Without the deliveries, the military was left without adequate fuel, water, and ammunition. A complicating factor has been the ambiguous legal status of private contractors. In the 2007 Blackwater shooting, the security firm initially maintained that the guards fired in self-defense, but investigations by the Iraqi government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both conclude that the only shots fired came from Blackwater employees. The Department of Defense holds its contractors liable under laws covering the military, but Blackwater works for the State Department, which does not. Critics say that such large-scale security contracting results in a lack of coordination and accountability which poses a risk to American troops as well as to Iraqis, and that mistakes made by U.S. contractors will ultimately be seen by Iraqis as mistakes by the U.S. military. In a 2008 hearing, a senior official argued that contractors have long been an essential and cost-effective tool for ensuring safety in war regions. In Senate testimony, Patrick F. Kennedy, a State Department under secretary, said “The use of security contractors in these dangerous places has allowed the Department the flexibility to rapidly expand its capability… and to support national-security initiatives without the delays inherent in recruiting, hiring and training full-time personnel.
190,000 MISSING WEAPONS IN IRAQ
American weaponry intended for Iraqi security forces may have ended up in the hands of insurgents attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, due largely to oversights at the Department of Defense (DOD), according to government auditors. At least 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols disappeared between 2004 and 2005, some 30 percent of all weapons the United States distributed to Iraqi forces during that time, reported the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in an August 2007 study. While security assistance programs are traditionally operated by the State Department, the Pentagon — as it has in operations throughout the Iraq war— asserted control of the program early on, saying that it could provide greater flexibility. Until December 2005, neither the Pentagon nor Multinational Force-Iraq maintained any central record of equipment distributed during Iraqi security force training (then led by General David Petraeus). The GAO also found that 135,000 pieces of body armor and 115,000 helmets went missing during that time. A subsequent New York Times investigation found that Kassim al-Saffar, an Iraqi businessman Americans entrusted to supply Iraqi police cadets, turned the U.S. armory into a “private arms bazaar” selling weapons to anyone with cash in hand — meaning more U.S. resources wasted in Iraq and greater danger for American troops serving there.
This article, by Larry Kaplow, was originally published in News Week, Nanuary 9, 2009. This version was found using Lexis-Nexis.
An Iraqi police SUV stays parked across the entrance to the market in Mahmudiyah, about 10 miles south of Baghdad on the highway to Najaf. The market road through town has been closed to traffic for years, but drivers seem OK with the long, bumpy detour. Better to endure the inconvenience than to risk more car bombings or another attack like the explosives-and-gunfire rampage that killed roughly 70 people in one half-hour in July 2006. By late 2007, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in the area had slowed but still occurred about 15 times a week. Just last March, the town endured nearly a week of urban warfare in which roughly 2,000 Iraqi troops and 300 Americans battled a few hundred Shiite militiamen and their neighbors, who joined the shootout. Things are quieter now--although no one wants to take chances in the area that's been known since 2004 as the Triangle of Death.
Bombs explode occasionally, but mostly without hurting anyone. Awful exceptions remain, like the Jan. 2 suicide bombing that killed roughly 20 people gathered at a sheik's home in Yousifiyah, 10 miles from Mahmudiyah.
But thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police and tribal adjuncts stand guard at checkpoints all along the area's roads, on the lookout for wanted men and possible bombers as rows of cars pass between low concrete barriers. The Iraqis have tried to make some of the stops less grim by sticking plastic flowers to the gray slabs. Some checkpoints are painted with slogans like BE RESPECTFUL AND YOU WILL BE TREATED RESPECTFULLY.
You don't see many Americans now. It's a striking change from about a year ago, when troops scoured the marketplace for wanted killers and helicopters made twice- weekly assaults against Al Qaeda hideouts on the town's outskirts. But in recent months U.S. troops have pulled out of the neighborhood combat outposts they used to share with Iraqi forces, and their numbers have thinned to a third of what they were across the triangle in early 2008. Americans still pass through occasionally to check in with their Iraqi counterparts, attend local council meetings and do what they can about rebuilding the ravaged economy. Otherwise the Iraqis are mostly left to muddle along on their own.
Until now it was impossible to predict with confidence what the end of the war would look like in Iraq. But a clear picture could be emerging here in Mahmudiyah. The outcome is hardly what the occupation's supporters wanted, but it's too late for anyone to do much about that, under the deadlines set by the new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. By the middle of this year, American combat forces must complete their official withdrawal from population centers. Security duties will be left to Iraqi forces, although U.S. military trainers and advisers will remain. As of Dec. 31, 2011, three years from now, all U.S. troops are to be out of the country. Meanwhile they still have their hands full in the northern city of Mosul, where insurgents and jihadists have dug in for another showdown, and Iraqis are bracing for more violence in the run-up to elections at the end of this month.
In Mahmudiyah the drawdown began almost a year ago. As hard as the Americans tried to fix the place, it's still nothing to brag about. The economy, although improving, remains crippled. Public services are practically nonexistent. Courts and government offices are open, but schools lack working toilets, and teachers are so bad that parents scrape money together for private tutors. Sewage floods some side streets, and telephone landlines fail as often as not. The big government hospital is chronically short of medical supplies; late last month, a man scoured the town's drugstores for surgical thread because the hospital had none for his wife, who was undergoing a Caesarean delivery. "The military is, in some cases, the only government people see," says Maj. John Baker, who advised Iraqi troops in rural areas near Mahmudiyah until late 2008. By normal standards the town is a mess--but it's less dangerous than it was, and at this point that's about the best anyone can expect.
The situation is summed up in a phrase you hear among American combat troops and trainers: "Iraqi good enough." The term expresses their resignation--realism, they'd call it--about the limits of what America can accomplish in Iraq. They say it when an Iraqi Army unit has no choice but to buy fuel for its Humvees on the private market because Iraq's military-supply system is so corrupt and inefficient. Or when the persistent shortage of capable leaders forces Iraqi battalions to function with only half the number of officers they require. Or when Iraqi soldiers fall apart in a senior officer's absence because that's the way it goes in a top-down society. The concept has spread to American Embassy staffers, who invoke it when speaking of the near-impossible task of reforming the decrepit old welfare-state economy. "Good enough" may not live up to Americans' hopes for Iraq, but at this point it describes the place we're likely to leave behind in 2011--if things stay on track. "It's a hell of a lot better than I thought we were going to get four years ago fighting in Anbar, or two years ago in a civil war," says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl. "The high side may not be that high, but the costs of failure are severe."
Success seemed at hand as I watched a Marine convoy roll through Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The moment ended almost immediately. Stores and restaurants that had stayed open all during the invasion had suddenly bricked up their windows, and an orgy of lawlessness erupted. Amid it all, reporters at the Republican Palace were given a poster-size proclamation from the then Lt. Gen. David McKiernan vowing to make Iraq "a model of success to the international community." Few Iraqis saw it. I assured my Iraqi friends that the anarchy would subside when the lights were on again and reconstruction began. The looting did stop after nothing was left to steal, but other things got worse. Even so, U.S. commanders and spokesmen spun every insurgent attack as the death throes of a desperate minority, rather than a rising wave of resistance. That state of stubborn denial left American troops vulnerable to bombings in canvas-covered Humvees and embassy personnel facing rocket attacks in flimsy trailers.
Wishful thinking prevailed on the civilian side, too. Economic planners were convinced they could rescue Iraq from its welfare-state paralysis. They set out to privatize state factories, although it soon became obvious that few of the bloated dinosaurs could survive a free market. They wrote laws inviting foreign investment that never came close to the levels they sought and most Iraqis opposed. Some looked to post-Soviet Eastern Europe as a model for revival. When U.S. diplomats spearheaded the International Monetary Fund's requirement that Iraq reduce state fuel subsidies, Iraqis were outraged. It didn't help matters when a commercial counselor at the embassy introduced the plan in December 2005 by telling Iraqi journalists, "No pain, no gain." I asked one Iraqi what he thought of that. He said 30 years of Saddam was enough pain.
The turning point came in late 2006. Millions of Iraqis had fled their homes, driven off by sectarian kidnappings and killings. Four months of U.S. and Iraqi Army efforts had failed to quell the bloodshed in Baghdad. It was the then Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV who finally broke the U.S. military's code of public silence on the disastrous state of things. An earnest man, he liked to say he took his assignment as a chance to see the birth of a new democracy born in a country of great wealth and potential. But on Oct. 19, 2006, a glum Caldwell stood behind the podium in the press center and carefully sounded what amounted to an all-out alarm after three years of gung-ho military dissembling: "The violence is indeed disheartening."
America's expectations have plunged. Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East. The government will no doubt be repressive--not as bad as when Saddam Hussein was in charge, but even now Iraq's jails hold thousands of prisoners who have been held for months without hearing the charges against them. Corruption is rampant, in part because the state isn't strong enough to haul the biggest wrongdoers into court without touching off a rebellion. Residents of Mahmudiyah sarcastically call their mayor's neighborhood Owja, after Saddam's hometown--the lights stay on there even when the power is out everywhere else. And Tehran already has far more influence in the new Iraq than it did under Saddam.
If Iraq can defend its own borders, keep the oil flowing and not provide a refuge for international terrorists, that's what now counts as an acceptable outcome. Sometimes the newfound pragmatism verges on the heartless--as when U.S. officials refer to "tolerable" levels of violence. Translation: bombings and assassinations, as long as hostilities don't spiral out of control. Talking privately about "Iraqi good enough," one senior American adviser (he couldn't have spoken so bluntly if identified) gave me this definition: "Another way of saying 'we're out of here'."
Iraqis know "good enough" from the inside out. They have an old saying: "A man who has been through death is happy just to have a fever." Iraqi life is all about workarounds and adjustments and adapting to inevitabilities. Water pressure in the city mains is so weak that people need household pumps to get anything from their taps. One high-end model is nicknamed the Thief because it leaves nothing for the neighbors' smaller devices. There's no end in sight for the rough times. American commanders have encouraged at least one major U.S. company to put that fact to intelligent use. The electrical-equipment giant Cummins Inc. has plans to create a distribution and service center not far from Mahmudiyah, in the town of Iskandariyah. The company intends to train Iraqis to repair the mobile generators that U.S. troops and local neighborhoods rely on in place of the country's decrepit power grid. I recall an Iraqi who told me early in the war that we would have been smarter to come with thousands of generators. After all, he said, we managed to bring all those tanks. But in those days the Coalition's only thought was to get big industrial power plants up and running. The grandiose projects fell way behind schedule and are still plagued with problems.
One of the architects of the Mahmudiyah drawdown was the area's U.S. brigade commander at the time, Col. Dominic J. Caraccilo of the 101st Airborne. We met before he rotated home this past November. Between his two tours in Iraq, he had coauthored a book: "Achieving Victory in Iraq: Countering an Insurgency." Most American officers avoid the V word, preferring not to raise the implicit question of whether the war was worth the lives of 4,100 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Caraccilo's book doesn't really define victory except to say it needs to be redefined. But one of the chapters is titled "The Good Enough Solution," and that's pretty much what he made in Mahmudiyah in the course of adapting to a troop reduction that was thrust upon him by redeployments to other parts of Iraq.
He pulled troops out of small outposts and returned them to the big bases with mammoth dining halls and basketball courts, despite their isolation from the people. After all, Caraccilo figured, it's Iraqi troops who will inherit the fight. Now the Americans are teaching their jobs to the Iraqis, even highly specialized skills like operating the sophisticated IED-hunting vehicles that are now being turned over to the Iraqi military. The handover still hinges on decisions about what's good enough. Asked how he'd apply the term to an Iraqi soldier, Caraccilo says: "If he's getting shot at and shoots back without running away. That's good. If someone can bring him extra bullets, that's better."
Americans on the ground worry that the drawdown could be a step backward. Before, the idea was for U.S. troops to live among Iraqis to secure them and under- stand what was going on. The advisers on Baker's team, moving back to a big base near Mahmudiyah at the end of their tour in November, were already nostalgic for the days when they lived down the hall from Iraqi troops, sharing meals and chores and learning who could be trusted. In Mahmudiyah, America's hopes now center on Maj. Gen. Ali Jassem al-Frejee, commander of the new 17th Division of the Iraqi Army. All of 39 years old, he's battled against Sunni and Shiite extremists and has prudently seeded officers from both sects throughout his command. Like many now in charge, he was an officer and nominal Baathist in Saddam's military. When al-Frejee's younger brother was kidnapped in Baghdad, the general's forces rushed out of their sector to rescue him the same night. The brother, also a soldier, had been assigned to protect the general's home. "Now I have to get someone to protect my brother," al-Frejee says with a sardonic grin. But assassination is a constant risk for him. Some U.S. officers say other leadership could pick up the slack if he's harmed. "That's debatable," says Capt. Tom Goettke, a company commander who saw plenty of action with local Iraqi forces before rotating home in November.
American commanders are learning to choose their battles when dealing with their Iraqi allies. When an Iraqi lieutenant in Mahmudiyah was caught tipping off radical Shiites before they could be arrested, his commanding officer merely transferred him to a Sunni area instead of kicking him out of the service. But that was good enough; it got the unreliable lieutenant out of the way. (The Iraqi commander refuses to discuss the matter with colleagues in the U.S. military.) And it wasn't worth making waves when an Iraqi soldier beat an insurgent detainee who had called it "an honor" to kill Iraqi troops. Col. Akram al-Hamidawi gave the soldier a warning but told me--right in front of his American adviser--"If I were in his position I would have done more than that."
The Americans have enough to worry about already. Their ranks are stretched far too thin to keep a close eye on every trained-up Iraqi unit. "Because we don't have enough advisers, we are in effect saying all these battalions are good enough, whether they really are or aren't," says Baker, who led an 11-man military transition team (MiTT). Mahmudiyah demonstrates the truth of what one Iraqi analyst told me: Americans have spent the last couple of years trying to unwind mistakes they made earlier. They dismantled the Army--only to find they had to revive it, using many of Saddam's old officers. They scrapped the network through which Saddam bought the tribes' loyalty, but now it's been effectively rebuilt with Sunni tribal militias who joined U.S. forces, for a fee, to fight Al Qaeda. The coalition is fighting to remove Al Qaeda from a land where it did not operate before 2003 and has built blast walls to end a sectarian blood feud between sects that used to live in relative harmony.
Just as the rest of Iraq could slip back into deadly chaos, the threat continues to hang over Mahmudiyah. Shiite militia chiefs who were driven out early last year are thought to be seeking a new foothold. One, a locally born, Iranian-backed cell leader, cherishes Mahmudiyah as his "diamond." There are still occasional, nearly harmless, roadside bomb blasts on some routes where tribal security contractors are not allowed to patrol. Some U.S. troops suspect their tribal allies of setting the IEDs just to show there's no peace without them. The market remains open after dark, but not late at night, as the local government has urged. Shopkeepers aren't willing to push their luck. They gripe about power outages and the local government's failure to organize generator service even after U.S. forces have provided the machines. A few days ago U.S. soldiers and State Department people visited the market to negotiate with squatters running unlicensed shops. A municipal government worthy of the name could have handled the problem without help from the Americans.
The mixed Sunni-Shiite town is preparing for provincial elections, scheduled for Jan. 31. With luck, the democratic process might contain the seeds of a better Iraq someday. Rival Shiite parties, which once ruled the center of town and used to kidnap and kill each other's members, now merely stake out their turf the traditional way, with satiny red, black and green banners and posters of their martyrs. Most people in the surrounding countryside are tribal Sunnis. They're venturing into town again, unlike in recent years, but they've been suspicious and hesitant to mix in Shiite city politics. Now some are forming parties to take part in the contest; party posters are plastered along the rundown storefronts of the market, visible between the tangled wires clinging to local generators. There's doubt among the Americans that Iraqi forces will be able to secure polling stations all across the country without more assistance from U.S. troops. If Iraqis don't believe their votes have been counted honestly, the fragile peace could fall apart.
Whether or not the contest is clean, trouble is all but inevitable. "The local political pattern is, fight and negotiate and fight and negotiate," says the noted Iraq historian Phebe Marr. "There's going to be a continuing series of tests and probes." The country's traditions have developed over centuries on the frontier between empires, some indifferent and others ruthless, Marr theorizes, and people came to distrust central power, relying instead on ethnic and tribal networks. America has little choice now but to accept the risks. "It's time to let go," says Caraccilo. He's impatient with U.S. commanders who are too afraid of failure to let Iraqis run things their own way. "The Coalition has a very difficult time having the restraint and discipline to refrain from intervening," he says. Still, Adel Jumaili, a retired Iraqi Army officer in Mahmudiyah, warns that many of his countrymen aren't likely to be content with "good enough" after so many years of sacrifice and suffering. "Iraq has lost many of its sons and much of its potential, and at the end the only thing we get is 'less violence'?" he complains. "Was that the ultimate hope?" He worries that frustration and disappointment will bring more chaos when the Americans pull out. In the end, it's the Iraqis who decide what's good enough.
With Salih Mehdi, Ahmed Obeidi and Saad Al-Izzi in Mahmudiyah and Baghdad
This article, by Qassim Abdul-Zahara, was distributed by the Associated Press, August 7, 2008
BAGHDAD - Two Iraqi officials say the U.S. and Iraq are close to a deal under which all American combat troops would leave by October 2010 with remaining U.S. forces gone about three years later.
A U.S. official in Washington acknowledges progress has been made on the timelines for a U.S. departure but offered no firm date. Another U.S. official strongly suggested the 2010 date may be too ambitious.
A timetable is part of a security agreement being negotiated by U.S. and Iraqi officials. Both sides stress the deal is not final and could fall apart over the issue of legal immunity for American troops.
One of the U.S. officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a long and "very difficult" telephone conversation Wednesday in which she pressed the Iraqi leader for more flexibility, particularly on immunity.