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Iraq: 'The Greatest Strategic Disaster in American History'

The U.S. failure in Iraq has been even more damaging than Vietnam because the opponent was punier and the imperial ambitions even greater.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Patrick Cockburn's new book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso, 2006).

It has been the strangest war. It had hardly begun in 2003 when President George W. Bush announced on May 1 that it was over: the American mission had been accomplished. Months passed before Washington and London realized that the conflict had not finished. In fact, the war was only just beginning. Three years after Bush had spoken the US military had suffered 20,000 dead and injured in Iraq, 95% of the casualties inflicted after the fall of Baghdad.

Almost without thinking, the US put to the test its claim to be the only superpower in the world. It spurned allies inside and outside Iraq; in invading Iraq Tony Blair was Bush's only significant supporter. The first President George Bush led a vast UN-backed coalition to complete victory in the Gulf War in 1991 largely because he fought a conservative war to return the Middle East to the way it was before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. It was a status quo with which the world was familiar, and restoring was therefore supported internationally -- and in the Middle East. The war launched by his son, George W. Bush, twelve years later in 2003 was a far more radical venture. It was nothing less than an attempt to alter the balance of power in the world. The US, acting almost alone, would seize control of a country with vast oil reserves. It would assume quasi-colonial control over a nation which fifteen years previously had been the greatest Arab power. Senior American officials openly threatened to change the governments of states neighboring Iraq.

The debate on why the US invaded Iraq has been over-sophisticated. The main motive for going to war was that the White House thought it could win such a conflict very easily and to its own great advantage. They were heady times in Washington in 2002, as the final decisions were being taken to invade Iraq. It was the high tide of imperial self-confidence. The US had just achieved a swift victory in Afghanistan. The Taliban forces had evaporated after a few weeks of bombing by B-52s and the withdrawal of Pakistani support. Their strongholds in Kabul and Kandahar fell with scarcely a shot fired. To Tony Blair, believing that the US was about to fight another short and victorious war, support for Bush must have looked like a safe bet.

There was no reason why Saddam Hussein should not be defeated with the same ease as the Taliban. His army was a rabble, his heavier weapons, such as tanks and artillery, obsolete and ill-maintained. Iraq was exhausted by its eight-year war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, the humiliating defeat in Kuwait three years later and the thirteen long years of UN sanctions. If Bush and Blair had truly believed the Iraqi leader possessed the military strength sufficient to pose a threat to the Middle East through weapons of mass destruction, they probably would not have attacked him.

They were right to suspect he could not put up much of a fight. A few years earlier I had watched a military parade in Baghdad from a distance. A well-disciplined column of elite infantry marched past Saddam, standing on a raised platform near the Triumphal Arch made of crossed swords that commemorated the victory over Iran. All the soldiers appeared to be wearing smart white gloves. Only when I got closer did I realize that the Iraqi army was short of gloves, as it was of so many other types of equipment, and that the soldiers were wearing white sports socks on their hands.

Few governments can resist the temptation to fight and win a war that will boost their standing at home. It enables them to stand tall as defenders of the homeland. Domestic political opponents can be portrayed as traitors or lacking patriotism. The Bush administration had been particularly successful in wrapping the flag around itself after September 11 and later during the war in Afghanistan. It intended to do the same thing in Iraq in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

It was evident to very few in the US or the rest of the world that Bush was engaged in an extraordinary gamble. Even opponents of the war mostly cited moral objections to the invasion. For supporters of the attack on Iraq this was the moment that the US would lay the ghosts of Vietnam and Somalia. But history is full of examples of wars launched by great powers against weaker opponents in the mistaken expectation of an easy victory. The Duke of Wellington, warning hawkish politicians in Britain against ill-considered military intervention abroad, once said: "Great nations do not have small wars." He meant that such supposedly insignificant conflicts can inflict terrible damage on powerful states. Having seen what a small war in Spain had done to Napoleon, he knew what he was talking about.

The US failure in Iraq has been even more damaging than Vietnam because the opponent was punier and the original ambitions were greater. The belief that the US could act alone, almost without allies, was quickly shown to be wholly false. By the summer of 2004 the US military had only islands of control. The failure was all the worse because it was self-inflicted, like the British invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser in 1956. But by the time of the Suez crisis the British empire was already on its deathbed. The disaster only represented a final nail in its coffin. Perhaps the better analogy is the Boer War, at the height of the British imperial power, when the inability of its forces to defeat a few thousand Boer farmers damagingly exposed both Britain's real lack of military strength and its diplomatic isolation.

In many ways the guerilla war in Iraq resembled Vietnam. A year after it started I talked to US sappers with the highly dangerous job of looking for buried bombs, known as IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), usually several heavy artillery shells wired together and detonated by a long wire or by remote control. These so-called "convoy killers" were to prove a devastating weapon, causing half of US fatal casualties. The sappers explained they had received no training for the job. "I never heard of an IED before I came to Iraq," remarked one soldier. A sergeant said that he had with difficulty obtained an old but still valid US Army handbook, printed during the Vietnam war, about this type of bomb and the lethal booby traps often placed nearby to kill unwary sappers. He believed the army had not reissued the handbook, useful though it was, because doing so might appear to contradict the official line from the Pentagon that Iraq was not like Vietnam.

There should be no doubt about the extent of the US failure. General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, the largest US intelligence agency, called it "the greatest strategic disaster in American history." Back in the US it took time for this to sink in. Right-wing commentators claimed that the good news about Iraq was being suppressed. US network news programs were edgy about reporting the bad news because they feared being accused of lack of patriotic zeal. The same inhibition hamstrung the Democrats during the presidential election in 2004.

The sharpest denunciations of the US debacle in Iraq first came from the US Army or its political allies. "Many say the army is broken," said Congressman Murtha, former Marine and veteran of Vietnam, in a stirring philippic on the war in November 2005. "The future of the country is at risk. We cannot continue in our present course. ... It's a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion." He added that the very presence of US soldiers was fueling the uprising and referred to a leaked British Ministry of Defense poll showing that 80% of Iraqis opposed the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

It was the overwhelming unpopularity of the occupation among the five million Sunni Arabs in Iraq which led to the speedy start of guerilla warfare. The Shia leaders were also hostile to the occupation but were not going to oppose it in arms if they could take power through the elections. But neither Sunni nor Shia were ever going to provide reliable allies for the US. All of this became evident during the first year of the war.

Less obvious was the failure of the US to give most Iraqis a better life at the most basic level. For instance, before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 50 percent of Iraqis had access to drinkable water, but this figure had dropped to 32% by the end of 2005. Some $4 billion was spent by the US and Iraqi governments on increasing the electricity supply, but in April 2006 this fell to 4,100 megawatts, below pre-invasion levels, which represents half the 8,000 megawatts needed by Iraq. Oil production touched a low of 1.4 million barrels a day. These figures meant that most Iraqis lived on the edge of destitution, surviving only because of cheap government rations. At least 50 percent of people who could work were unemployed. Violence was not going to end so long as there were millions of angry young men so desperate for work that they were prepared to fight in any militia or join any criminal gang.

It was not only the poor -- the vast majority of Iraqis -- who were alienated. One friend, a highly educated businessman, described listening to a US officer solemnly lecturing half a dozen Iraqis with PhDs and the command of several languages on the future of their country. One place where the US might have hoped for a sympathetic hearing was among the brokers on the Baghdad stock exchange. But in 2003 control of the exchange was given to a 24-year-old American whose main credential for the job was his family’s contributions to the Republican Party. He allegedly failed to renew the lease on a building housing the exchange, which consequently stayed shut for a year.

After six months the brokers’ frustrated fury at the US occupation made them sound more like Islamic militants from Fallujah than the highly conservative businessmen they were.

Copyright Verso Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.

Patrick Cockburn is a reporter for the The Independent and is author of, most recently, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso, 2006).

 
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