Michael Schwartz

A tipping point for fossil fuels: How to stop big energy before the threshold of total catastrophe

As Donald Trump gave in to the demand that the transition process to the Biden years officially begin, the administration and its fossil-fuel allies doubled down on their efforts to implement destructive environmental policies that President Biden might try to reverse. Those initiatives have included a campaign to jump-start oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the long-delayed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota; and a push by utility companies to obtain funding and permits for the construction of 235 gas-fired power plants, each with a 30-year life expectancy.

In response, horrified progressives have sought to pressure the president-elect to appoint officials committed to blocking these and other similar projects. But the strategy of pressuring leading Democrats hasn't worked particularly well for environmentalists in the past and doesn't seem to be working now. Despite the movement's full-court press for a real environmentalist presence in the administration, Biden designated Congressman Cedric Richmond as his "liaison" with that very movement. Richmond voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and, among Democrats in the House, he was the fifth-largest recipient of fossil-fuel cash.

Fortunately, a more promising strategy for defeating new fossil-fuel projects has been quietly bearing fruit, even in the Trump era. Climate and Indigenous organizers have been attacking Big Energy companies and their investors, using economic pressure, boycotts, lawsuits, and disruptive direct-action tactics to impede drilling, interrupt the transportation of oil and gas, and choke off the flow of financing to, and insurance for, such projects. This multipronged strategy has been so surprisingly successful that the companies themselves -- especially their sources of funding -- have begun divesting from fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure. As our desperately overheated planet continues setting records, understanding the largely unnoticed success of recent resistance movements is crucial if we hope to prevent total ecological collapse.

Why the Fossil-Fuel Industry Is Vulnerable, But the End of Fossil Fuels Isn't Inevitable

The fossil-fuel industry and its champions in Congress recently complained that financial institutions were "discriminating against America's energy sector." Specifically, banks were "folding to activist environmental groups' pressure" by adopting "policies against investing in new oil and gas operations." Trump's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) responded by trying to force Wall Street to fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge and undertake other new fossil-fuel initiatives.

Why have the banks suddenly become so unwilling to invest in a longtime favorite sector of theirs? One reason is that easy-to-access fossil fuels are getting scarcer. In this era of "extreme" energy, companies have found themselves investing striking amounts of Wall Street capital (and wreaking environmental devastation) to find, extract, and transport hydrocarbon deposits from deep oceans, the Arctic, oil sands, and shale. At a time when oil prices were reliably above $80 per barrel, such projects were enormously profitable. But the fracking boom of the Obama years burst that bubble, with oil prices dropping as low as $40 per barrel by 2015 and remaining well under $80 during the first three years of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources (especially wind) were growing cheaper by the month and siphoning off investment capital, further reducing the demand for carbon-based power.

The global spread of Covid-19 tanked energy demand, turning the drop in oil prices into a nosedive. The pandemic itself, the economic lockdowns, the lack of travel that went with them, and a Saudi-Russian price war drove oil to a calamitous low of $19 per barrel in April 2020. The result was widespread bankruptcies among shale producers and weakening viability among major banks saddled with $300 billion in shaky hydrocarbon loans. To prevent further losses, those banks started to withhold funding for new projects, while oil companies wrote down the value of their reserves, implicitly acknowledging that many of them may never be extracted. A number of experts are now predicting that the "fracking revolution" has entered a period of terminal decline.

This potntially dire situation helps explain the latest Trump initiatives. In order to lock in the next generation of major fossil-fuel projects, the industry's partisans must convince the major oil companies to borrow and invest the many billions of dollars needed to complete them. They must also convince or coerce increasingly reluctant banks to fund the projects and induce insurers to underwrite ventures that are enormously risky.

This is a daunting but not impossible undertaking. The history of capitalism is strewn with the carcasses of major industries that fell into terminal crisis and were overtaken by new competitors. When it came to manufacturing, water power was replaced by electric power, just as fossil-fueled transportation replaced horses. But history is also littered with industries that somehow survived the challenge of apparently superior substitutes. The nuclear power industry, for instance, has survived despite its monumental costs, poor performance, and the environmental catastrophes associated with it. The reason: the U.S. government invested vast resources in it, forced other institutions to do the same, and suppressed political and economic resistance to it.

The same thing could happen with fossil fuels. The major carbon corporations wield so much power and remain so deeply embedded in the U.S. economy that they can call on governments for subsidies to keep them afloat, no matter the economic (let alone environmental) irrationality of continued fossil-fuel production. Trump's gambit in the Arctic Refuge, like his entire energy policy, has been anchored by attempts to increase such subsidies and so prolong the fossil-fuel era. The industry giants are also using the current crisis to acquire bankrupt competitors at low prices and consolidate production into a ruling oligopoly. The survivors could emerge even more powerful and so potentially even more capable of demanding handouts from the public.

Why Fossil Fuels Might Be Defeated

Ironically, the Trump administration's latest initiatives on behalf of fossil fuels also reveal how the industry can be defeated. Because investors are increasingly reluctant to fund troubled extraction and infrastructure projects, the industry has enlisted the U.S. government to force them to do so. The Arctic Refuge, a pristine wilderness area in Alaska where the Trump administration's OCC and the industry have, absurdly enough, invoked anti-discrimination law (alleging discrimination against both fossil-fuel producers and Indigenous Alaskans) to try to compel the banks to invest, is the most obvious case of this.

Their desperation reflects just how effective the resistance to fossil-fuel projects has been in recent years. All across the U.S. and Canada, climate and Indigenous organizers have successfully raised the level of risk attached to such investments. The industry is highly vulnerable to delays in both drilling and the construction of the transportation infrastructure necessary to deliver oil and gas. Delays raise production costs, while creating long-term uncertainty about the competitiveness of fossil fuels. Green resistance movements have created a credible threat of chronic delays to and interruptions of such projects, leading major lenders to begin shifting from reluctance-to-invest to outright refusal.

The OCC's efforts to strong-arm lenders are based on its recent finding "that some of the nation's largest banks had stopped doing business altogether with one or more major energy industry categories." As Alaskan lawmakers put it grimly, the banks were increasingly "folding to activist environmental groups' pressure."

Why has that pressure worked? By obstructing drilling and the construction of infrastructure (especially pipelines and power plants), the green movement has added to the industry's operating costs in increasingly bad times, while leaving investors fearing the risks now associated with those projects. In this way, it's won victories, even in a moment when the Trump administration was aggressively promoting fossil fuels, when a far-right majority controlled the Supreme Court, and when most congressional Democrats were sitting on their hands.

The movement has applied four mutually reinforcing strategies that, together, have often succeeded in blocking or at least delaying such projects and, in doing so, have rendered them ever less viable.

First, resistance groups mounted disruptive protests at extraction sites and along the routes of proposed oil and natural gas pipelines. Actions against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access (DAPL) pipelines, led by Indigenous communities seeking to protect their lands from devastation, have been the most visible examples of this. In addition to forcing months of delays in construction, these on-site protests inspired a broader movement against fossil fuels and gave added impetus to demands for regulators, judges, and politicians to intervene.

Second, the movement targeted regulators in an effort to prevent or postpone the issuing of permits for the projects. Even during the Obama era, federal regulators had mostly acted as "rubber stamps" for new fossil fuel projects. But the Standing Rock Sioux campaign against DAPL successfully pressured the Army Corps of Engineers to announce a new environmental review of the pipeline, delaying it until Trump took office.

Third, the movement has filed lawsuits based on industry violations of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws. Such suits often challenged the validity of permits already issued, which slowed down industry operations and provided the movement with an alternative choke point when regulators and politicians proved unresponsive.

Finally, it targeted the "money pipeline," pressuring banks, insurers, and other large institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Initially, this strategy was largely symbolic, but no longer. It's now adding to the financial difficulties of Big Energy. Shell Oil Company, for instance, recently labeled the divestment movement a "material risk." In the case of the Arctic Refuge, the movement's pressure on Wall Street has made big loans harder to obtain and also led investment firms to put pressure on insurance companies to steer clear of projects there.

This four-pronged strategy has yielded many victories and now poses a credible threat to future fossil-fuel projects. In July 2020, for instance, the business media announced a cascade of ominous news affecting four important pipelines:

  • A federal judge ruled that the DAPL permit was in violation of NEPA and ordered a time-consuming full environmental review. Though the pipeline had been successfully built in North Dakota despite much resistance, it is now at risk of being permanently closed anyway.
  • An Indigenous landowners' lawsuit arguing that a second North Dakota pipeline, Marathon Oil's Tesoro High Plains line, illegally trespassed on their territory led the Bureau of Indian Affairs to order its closing after 67 years of operation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a Montana district court judge that had stopped construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cancelled their Atlantic Coast pipeline project "after years of delays and ballooning costs."

In response to that last cancellation, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette complained that "the obstructionist environmental lobby has successfully killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline." His attitude reflected a growing exasperation among industry leaders who have recently decried the "rising tide of protests, litigation, and vandalism" against pipelines and warned that the movement is reaching a new "level of intensity" with "more opponents" who are "better organized."

Indeed, the resistance has increased pessimism among industry executives and their investors. According to Bloomberg News, typically a gauge of Wall Street sentiments, the core big energy companies are ever more often concluding that "the mega-projects of the past are no longer feasible in the face of unprecedented opposition to fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports them."

A Tipping Point?

The July decisions on the two North Dakota pipelines were especially significant since they threatened already operating projects. As one former pipeline executive put it, this meant that even projects that successfully weathered a storm of protests and secured the necessary permits to operate remained vulnerable and might be shuttered long before repaying their immense debts. With that prospect, "I think it's going to be incredibly difficult for anybody to invest in any kind of [fossil-fuel] infrastructure." Echoing his view, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum warned that the DAPL ruling might be "a tipping point, which actually could really cripple production in North Dakota."

Even if the industry ultimately wins some of its current battles, it might not be able to keep investors on board. The prospect that some future judicial decision could imperil their existing investments deprives them of "certainty from the government," as one industry lobbying group warned in March. This threat is compounded by the prospect that, in the Biden years to come, other parts of the government may finally begin taking action to stop climate destruction, which could leave fossil-fuel assets "stranded."

If the green movement can continue to disrupt the certainty that investing in oil fields and pipelines will return big profits, count on this: capitalists will begin to desert fossil fuels big time. Billionaire investment strategist Jeremy Grantham predicts a tipping point in the near future. He expects that investors will respond to the mounting threats to the fossil-fuel industry "very slowly" for a while and then "all at once." The point of resistance, then, is to increase the delays, closures, and disruptions that make fossil fuels a risky investment, therefore ensuring that the "all at once" tipping point arrives before humanity crosses the threshold of irreversible catastrophe.

What does all this mean for the current movement to win a Green New Deal? Electing pro-GND candidates has helped place it on the legislative agenda, but the movement must avoid the trap of investing all its energy and resources in electoral campaigns and lobbying. The Democratic Party leadership, including President-elect Biden, has mocked the Green New Deal and committed itself instead to a dangerous "all of the above" energy policy that includes plenty of oil, gas, and nuclear power. Even if Democrats were to win a Senate majority from the two January run-off elections in Georgia, Green New Deal legislation would remain a hard lift at best.

The environmental movement can, however, still move this country closer to a Green New Deal through the very same strategy that brought it victories during the Obama and Trump eras. By obstructing fossil-fuel projects at every turn, it can deprive the industry of the Wall Street investments it needs and lead private investors to view renewables, ever cheaper to produce, as a safer option. The government itself will be forced to invest in renewables in order to meet society's energy needs and provide jobs to replace those lost when fossil-fuel projects are blocked, as the climate movement has long demanded. Direct resistance to fossil fuels is the shortest and surest path to a renewable energy transition. When you make the building of more pipelines and gas-powered plants so much harder, you also make the Green New Deal and a livable planet so much more possible.

Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Albany, and author of First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (Verso, 2020). Michael Schwartz is distinguished teaching professor of sociology (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Kevin Young is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Schwartz and Young are the co-authors, with Tarun Banerjee, of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, 2020).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Richard Lachmann, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin Young

The Emerging Reign of Terror: The Evolving Profile of Institutional Bigotry Under Trump

We need to been alert and prepared, as the fog of neoliberal Obamaism lifts to reveal the stark outline of the Trumptatorship. The telltale early signs can be read by the dreadful events that first occurred – and continue to occur with a dreadful drumbeat –at the airports; where seemingly (but not actually) random travelers are swept up without warning, dragged into detention areas,and then are subjected to “aggressive interrogations.” And often enough dragged away in shackles (!) to flights out of the country.

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Inside the Titanic Power Struggle in Iraq to Control Its Oil

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Refugee Crisis Threatens Future of Iraq

I'm an innumerate, but the figures on this -- the saddest story of our Iraq debacle -- are so large that even I can do the necessary computations. The population of the United States is now just over 300,000,000. The population of Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion was perhaps in the 26-27 million range. Between March 2003 and today, a number of reputable sources place the total of Iraqis who have fled their homes -- those who have been displaced internally and those who have gone abroad -- at between 4.5 million and 5 million individuals. If you take that still staggering lower figure, approximately one in six Iraqis is either a refugee in another country or an internally displaced person.

Now, consider the equivalent in terms of the U.S. population. If Iraq had invaded the United States in March 2003 with similar results, in less than five years approximately 50 million Americans would have fled their homes, assumedly flooding across the Mexican and Canadian borders, desperately burdening weaker neighboring economies. It would be an unparalleled, even unimaginable, catastrophe. Consider, then, what we would think if, back in Baghdad, politicians and the media were hailing, or at least discussing positively, the "success" of the prime minister's recent "surge strategy" in the U.S., even though it had probably been instrumental in creating at least one out of every ten of those refugees, 5 million displaced Americans in all. Imagine what our reaction would be to such blithe barbarism.

Back in the real world, of course, what Michael Schwartz terms the "tsunami" of Iraqi refugees, the greatest refugee crisis on the planet, has received only modest attention in this country (which managed, in 2007, to accept but 1,608 Iraqi refugees out of all those millions -- a figure nonetheless up from 2006). As with so much else, the Bush administration takes no responsibility for the crisis, nor does it feel any need to respond to it at an appropriate level. Until now, to the best of my knowledge, no one has even put together a history of the monumental, horrific tale of human suffering that George W. Bush's war of choice and subsequent occupation unleashed, or fully considered what such a brain drain, such a loss of human capital, might actually mean for Iraq's future. Tom

Iraq's Tidal Wave of Misery: The First History of the Planet's Worst Refugee Crisis
By Michael Schwartz

A tidal wave of misery is engulfing Iraq -- and it isn't the usual violence that Americans are accustomed to hearing about and tuning out. To be sure, it's rooted in that violence, but this tsunami of misery is social and economic in nature. It dislodges people from their jobs, sweeps them from their homes, tears them from their material possessions, and carries them off from families and communities. It leaves them stranded in hostile towns or foreign countries, with no anchor to resist the moment when the next wave of displacement sweeps over them.

The victims of this human tsunami are called refugees if they wash ashore outside the country or IDPs ("internally displaced persons") if their landing place is within Iraq's borders. Either way, they are normally left with no permanent housing, no reliable livelihood, no community support, and no government aid. All the normal social props that support human lives are removed, replaced with...nothing.

Overlapping Waves of the Dispossessed

In its first four years, the Iraq war created three overlapping waves of refugees and IDPs.

It all began with the Coalition Provisional Authority, which the Bush administration set up inside Baghdad's Green Zone and, in May 2003, placed under the control of L. Paul Bremer III. The CPA immediately began dismantling Iraq's state apparatus. Thousands of Baathist Party bureaucrats were purged from the government; tens of thousands of workers were laid off from shuttered, state-owned industries; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military personnel were dismissed from Saddam's dismantled military. Their numbers soon multiplied as the ripple effect of their lost buying power rolled through the economy. Many of the displaced found other (less remunerative) jobs; some hunkered down to wait out bad times; still others left their homes and sought work elsewhere, with the most marketable going to nearby countries where their skills were still in demand. They were the leading edge of the first wave of Iraqi refugees.

As the post-war chaos continued, kidnapping became the country's growth industry, targeting any prosperous family with the means to pay ransom. This only accelerated the rate of departure, particularly among those who had already had their careers disrupted. A flood of professional, technical, and managerial workers fled their homes and Iraq in search of personal and job security.

The spirit of this initial exodus was eloquently expressed by an Iraqi blogger with the online handle of AnaRki13:

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Benchmarking Iraq for Disaster



President Bush has called upon Congress, the American public, the Iraqi people, and the world to suspend judgment -- until at least September -- on the success of his escalation of the war, euphemistically designated a "surge." But the fact is: It has already failed and it's obvious enough why.



Much attention has been paid to the recent White House report that recorded "satisfactory performance" on eight Congressional benchmarks and "unsatisfactory performance" on six others (with an additional four receiving mixed evaluations). Fred Kaplan of Slate and Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, among others, have demonstrated the fraudulence of this assessment. Cockburn summarized his savaging of the document thusly: "In reality, the six failures are on issues critical to the survival of Iraq while the eight successes are on largely trivial matters."



As it happens, though, these benchmarks are almost completely beside the point. They don't represent the key goals of the surge at all, which were laid out clearly by the President in his January speech announcing the operation:


"Our troops will have a well-defined mission: to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs."


The success of such "benchmarks" can be judged relatively easily. As President Bush himself put the matter: "We can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents."



This was supposed to be accomplished through two major initiatives. Most visibly, the U.S. military was to adopt a more aggressive strategy for pacifying Baghdad neighborhoods considered strongholds for the Sunni insurgency. Occupation officials blame them for the bulk of the vehicle bombs and other suicide attacks that have devastated mainly Shiite neighborhoods. The second, less visible (but no less important) initiative involved subduing the Mahdi army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- the largest and most ferocious of the Shia militias -- which occupation officials blame for the bulk of death-squad murders in and around the capital.



These changes should have been observable as early as this July. By then, as a "senior American military officer" told the New York Times, it would already be time to refocus attention on "restoring services and rebuilding the neighborhoods.""



To judge the surge right now -- by the President's real "benchmarks" -- we need only look for a dramatic drop in vehicle and other "multiple fatality bombings" in populated areas, and for a dramatic drop in the number of tortured and executed bodies found each morning in various dumping spots around Baghdad.



By these measures, the surge has already been a miserable failure, something that began to be documented as early as April when Nancy Youssef of the McClatchy newspapers reported that there had been no decline in suicide-bombing deaths; and that, after an initial decline in the bodies discarded by death-squads around the capital, the numbers were rising again. (These trends have been substantiated by the Brookings Institution, which has long collected the latest statistics from Iraq.)



A more vivid way to appreciate the nature of the almost instantaneous failure of the overall surge operation is anecdotally by reading news reports of specific campaigns -- like the report Julian Barnes and Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times sent in from Baghdad's Sunni-majority Ubaidi neighborhood, which was headlined: "U.S. troop buildup in Iraq falling short"). It concluded ominously, "U.S. forces so far have been unable to establish security, even for themselves."



Or we might note that, instead of ebbing, violence in Iraq was flooding into new areas, just beyond the reach of the U.S. combat brigades engaged in the surge. Or perhaps it's worth pointing out that, by July, the highly fortified "Green Zone" in the very heart of Baghdad -- designed as the invulnerable safe haven for American and Iraqi officials -- had become a regular target for increasingly destructive mortar and rocket attacks launched from unpacified neighborhoods elsewhere in the capital. According to New York Times reporters Alissa J. Rubin and Stephen Farrell, the Zone has been "attacked almost daily for weeks."



Or we could focus on the fact that the long supply lines needed to support the surge -- massive convoys of trucks moving weapons, ammunition, and supplies heading north from Kuwait into Baghdad -- have become a regular target for insurgents. Embedded reporter Michael Yon, for instance, recently reported that, for convoys on this route, "it's not unusual to be diverted or delayed a half-dozen times or more due to real or suspected bombs."



In the end, though, perhaps the best indicator is the surging strength of the surge's primary target in Shia areas. Since the surge plan was officially launched in mid-February, according to the Times' Rubin, the Mahdi Army "has effectively taken over vast swaths of the capital."



Twenty thousand more American combat troops are now in and around the capital. (The rest of the 28,500 troops the President sent surging into Iraq have been dispatched to other provinces outside the capital.) This has meant a tripling of American troops on patrol at any given time, but it has failed to produce either significantly "fewer brazen acts of terror" or progress in "restoring services and rebuilding the neighborhoods." So it can be no surprise that the surge has failed to generate "growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents."



Why Don't U.S. Troops Try to Protect Shia Markets and Mosques?



Why then has the surge failed? And so quickly at that?



This only makes sense when you explore the strategy utilized by the U.S. military to reduce the number of suicide bombers and the "multiple fatality bombings" they perpetrate. Terrorist attacks of this sort need four elements for success: an organization capable of creating such bombs; a pool of individuals willing to risk or sacrifice their lives to deliver the explosives; a host community willing to hide the preparations; and a target community unable to prevent the delivery of these deadly, indiscriminate weapons of massive destruction.



Virtually all of these attacks are organized by Sunni jihadists and, while the Brookings database shows that many of them are aimed at military or government targets, the majority of deaths occur in spectacular bombings of public gathering spots -- "soft targets" -- in Shia neighborhoods. It might then have seemed logical for U.S. commanders to concentrate their increased troop strength on these obvious delivery areas, setting up checkpoints and guard posts that would scrutinize car and truck traffic entering highly vulnerable areas.



This strategy might indeed have worked if the U.S. were willing to form an alliance with local Shia neighborhood defense forces. As it happens though, the Shia communities in Baghdad are already well patrolled by the Mahdi army, whose street fighters have proven effective in either spotting alien vehicles or responding to reports from local residents about suspicious cars or people. However, enormous public spaces, filled with large numbers of non-residents and outside vehicles, require dense patrolling practices. The Mahdis have been able to generate such patrol "density" only in their headquarters community, Sadr City -- the vast Shia slum in the eastern part of Baghdad. There, where the Mahdis have a huge presence, there were almost no suicide attacks until late 2006 when the U.S. military began sending patrols into the community aimed at disarming, disrupting, or destroying the Sadrist militia. This forced them off the streets, opening the way for suicide bombers to reach their targets.



If the U.S. had decided to join forces with the Mahdis, augmenting their neighborhood patrols with a strong American presence in public gathering places, they might indeed have choked off all but a few of the most determined, resourceful, or lucky bombers. However, this strategy was not adopted, at least in part because it would have strengthened the Mahdis, a group that the U.S. military and President Bush had -- until their recent fixation on al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) -- repeatedly designated as their most dangerous enemy.



Instead, the surge has been forced to focus on the suicide-bomber "supply side." Lt. Gen Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations, told Barnes of the Los Angeles Times that the anti-bombing strategy was directed toward al-Qaeda in Iraq because they "are the ones that are creating the truck bombs and car bombs.... So we are going after the safe havens that allow them to build these things without a lot of interference." According to Barnes, the generals charged with implementing the plan endorsed the surge into Sunni neighborhoods because, "for the first time, they have enough forces to root out Al Qaeda fighters by entering havens where U.S. forces have not been for years."



Thus, the American strategy for preventing suicide bombings in Shia communities involved flooding Sunni communities with huge numbers of soldiers.



Invading the Hotbeds of the Insurgency



Historically, to successfully "root out" groups like the al-Qaeda fighters requires an occupying force capable of enlisting the aid of large numbers of people within a host community. After all, those planning multiple-fatality bombings need a level of toleration, if not outright support or participation, from the surrounding community. If local residents are totally alienated from the effort, someone will either take direct action or contact the occupying authorities, who can then raid key locations, capturing or killing the plotters.



An attack on the "supply side" might therefore have been a viable option for the Americans, if the host community was hostile to the jihadists. In fact, such hostility does exist in many Sunni communities, including among insurgent groups that are the backbone of the fight against the American occupation. This hostility derives partly from a principled opposition to attacks on Iraqis -- most of the 30 or so key insurgent groups have explicitly stated that they support armed force only against the American-led coalition forces, often exempting even Iraqi police and military units from attack. But the hostility also comes from distaste for the violently enforced demands of the jihadists that local citizens conform to their fundamentalist beliefs -- including prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco consumption, as well as an insistence that men grow full beards and women wear headscarves.



As a result, a tactical alliance of convenience between the occupation and the nationalist Sunni insurgency against the AQI and other fundamentalist jihadists has been an option for the U.S. military since as early as the last months of 2004, when the U.S. refused an offer by insurgent leaders in Falluja to expel the jihadists if the U.S. would refrain from its pending attack on the city. The next year, during a major offensive in Western Anbar province, U.S. military commanders stood idly by -- despite explicit calls for help -- while local insurgents fought fierce battles with jihadists, telling embedded reporters that they were letting two equally objectionable enemies weaken each other. American commanders have repeatedly enunciated a general principle that they would never form an alliance with, or give aid to, any "Sunni group that had attacked Americans."



Starting in early 2007, this principle was apparently compromised in Anbar Province; by July, under the pressure of the failing surge, it was also being eroded in Baghdad. But these alliances with local militia groups of various sorts involve their own sets of problems. They only create further conundrums for U.S. strategists since, of course, they undermine the larger goals of the occupation. After all, the anti-al-Qaeda insurgents -- not the jihadist car-bombers -- are, by far, the major force in the insurgency and they are unremitting enemies of the occupation as well as of the Shia and Kurdish-dominated central Iraqi government, which they view as an agent of either the American occupation or Iranian imperial designs.



Major General Rick Lynch, who was involved in negotiations with the Anbar insurgents, quoted them as saying, "We hate you because you are occupiers. But we hate Al Qaeda worse, and we hate the Persians even more." Under these circumstances, any alliance can almost certainly only be temporary, strengthening as it does the chief antagonist to the American presence. The Independent's Cockburn summarized the situation this way:


"The US is caught in [a] quagmire of its own making. Such successes as it does have are usually the result of tenuous alliances with previously hostile tribes, insurgent groups or militias. The British experience in Basra was that these marriages of convenience with local gangs weakened the central government and contributed to anarchy in Iraq. They did not work in the long term."


In Baghdad, the U.S. chose -- at least for the opening months of the surge -- to hold the line against such an alliance with Shia insurgents. Instead, they used the presence of al-Qaeda militants in Sunni communities as an invitation to attack the communities themselves, attempting to "root out" the insurgents, who have been their chief adversary all these years, while also capturing or killing the al-Qaeda activists responsible for the suicide attacks on Shia neighborhoods.



But this dual strategy has no hope of capturing the support of local Sunni communities and, without such support, the U.S. has no choice but to adopt a grim, if straightforward, strategy of brute force in neighborhoods where its sources of information (and so targeting) are, at best, severely limited. The military has, in fact, taken such crude -- and, in the end, self-defeating -- tactical measures as erecting massive barriers around target Sunni communities to prevent their quarry from escaping; manning check-points at all entrances to capture suspects with weapons and explosives in their vehicles; and erecting outposts within these hostile communities to create a 24-hour quick-response presence. Worse yet, they have conducted knock-the-door-down, house-to-house searches looking for suspicious individuals, weapons, or literature -- the sort of approach that, for years, has been known to thoroughly alienate the inhabitants of such neighborhoods.



This strategy insures that the failure of the surge is no passing phenomenon. It leads, first of all, to the brutal treatment of local civilians (of a sort recently documented by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian though the testimony of American military personnel in the Nation magazine) -- at checkpoints, by patrols, and most strikingly during those home invasions. These assaults only generate further hatred of the occupation, which, of course, rallies support for the local guerrillas. As one soldier, who, earlier in the war, participated in such a midnight home invasion that terrorized a dozen members of an Iraqi family, recalled: "I thought of my family at the time and thought, 'If I was the patriarch of the family, if soldiers came from another country and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent too.'"



These localized applications of "overwhelming" force, when meeting sustained resistance, lead to the calling in of air power or, in some cases, artillery fire. A strategy guaranteed to kill and wound guerrillas and local inhabitants alike, destroy homes, generate more refugees, wreck local economies, and, in the end, create ghostly, uninhabitable former neighborhoods.



Ironically (but logically), while target communities have been crippled by such prolonged operations, both the insurgency and the jihadists have only grown stronger. The attacks swell the ranks of the insurgency, while a small but sufficient supply of embittered individuals become willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve some measure of revenge against the American occupation and/or its Shia allies.



As for the tiny group of jihadist planners and bomb manufacturers, most escape targeted neighborhoods when under pressure, having harvested a new wave of bitterness to fuel a new wave of suicide bombings.



Meanwhile, Back in Sadr City...




In the Shia areas, on the other hand, the Americans were providing an unprecedented opportunity for suicide bombers to breach Mahdi Army security. In the second prong of the surge, American patrols were sent into these Shia communities to target local Mahdi Army leaders. While these operations did not add up to the full-scale invasions visited upon Sunni neighborhoods, they nonetheless tended to force Mahdi patrols off the streets, opening up such communities to jihadist suicide attacks.



Having relocated to new quarters (apparently on the outskirts of Baghdad), the jihadi leadership utilized newly recruited suicide volunteers to exploit this sudden vulnerability with a wave of attacks that sent the number of Shia deaths from multiple-fatality bombings recorded in the Brookings database soaring from under 300 before the start of the surge to well over 400 in the months after it began.



And then came the death squads. Originally, they seem to have been organized from Shia militia members by U.S. military and intelligence personnel and housed in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Modeled after the American-organized death squads in Central America in the 1980s, they were designed to murder suspected Sunni resistance leaders and therefore weaken the insurgency.



After the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra on February 22, 2006, they achieved partial or full independence from their American organizers and began targeting Sunni men in indiscriminate campaigns of torture and execution, justified by the argument that they were suspected of involvement in attacks on Shia communities. Just as the car bombers see themselves as retaliating against American and Iraqi government atrocities in Sunni communities, the death squads see themselves as executing the jihadist perpetrators of attacks on their neighbors and their possible supporters.



When the surge began, the number of death-squad murders fell, evidently in part because the death-squad members hoped that American offensives in Sunni communities would significantly reduce suicide attacks. But as this hope was dashed, the number of death-squad killings began to rise again.



The Occupation Faces a "Lose-Lose" Dilemma



As this latest debacle developed, President Bush and his commanding generals began to argue -- to Congress, American public opinion, the Iraqi people, and the world -- that we must reschedule the benchmark moment. First, it was from July to September, and then from September to November, and soon after from 2007 to 2008, and lately from 2008 to 2009. Congress (which has temporarily suspended its debate on Iraq policy) and American public opinion (where Bush recorded an exceedingly modest uptick in "approval" recently) might well give the President a little more breathing room on the basis of these appeals.



But events on the ground in Iraq do not respond to Presidential appeals or the sunny testimony of generals. In Baghdad and surrounding provinces, the situation has already entered what might be thought of as post-surge reality. In part as a consequence of the surge strategy, ethnic cleansing in major neighborhoods of Baghdad may be nearing completion; meanwhile, in the north, the shaky relationship between the Kurds and Turkey is wavering on the brink of a hot war, while the Kurd-Turkmen-Arab cauldron in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk may erupt any time into a new Baghdad.



While all this goes on, desperate American military leaders have embraced, amplified, and expanded their anti-al-Qaeda-in-Iraq alliance with local guerrillas in al-Anbar Province -- so much for dismantling Iraqi militias -- and are lurching toward a new set of disasters. These may already be underway, starting with a confrontation between the American commander of the surge plan, General David Petraeus, and the head of an increasingly embattled and shaky Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. According to Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website, Maliki "fears that once the Sunni tribesmen have dispatched 'al-Qaeda,' they will turn on the largely Shiite government with their new American weapons." To prevent this, he "has considered asking Washington to pull the general out of Baghdad." For President Bush, who has visibly put all his eggs in General Petraeus' surge basket, this would be inconceivable, which means that the next crisis in Iraq policy -- and probably several after that -- is already underway.



As Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi politician, put it, "The Americans are defeated. They haven't achieved any of their aims."

Why Withdrawal Is Unmentionable

The report of James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group has already become a benchmark for Iraq policy, dominating the print and electronic media for several days after its release, and generating excited commentary by all manner of leadership types from Washington to London to Baghdad. Even if most of the commentary continues to be negative, we can nevertheless look forward to highly publicized policy changes in the near future that rely for their justification on this report, or on one of the several others recently released, or on those currently being prepared by the Pentagon, the White House, and the National Security Council.

This is not, however, good news for those of us who want the U.S. to end its war of conquest in Iraq. Quite the contrary: The ISG report is not an "exit strategy;" it is a new plan for achieving the Bush administration's imperial goals in the Middle East.

The ISG report stands out among the present flurry of re-evaluations as the sole evaluation of the war by a group not beholden to the President; as the only report containing an unadorned negative evaluation of the current situation (vividly captured in the oft-quoted phrase "dire and deteriorating"); and as the only public document with unremitting criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

It is this very negativity that brings into focus the severely constrained nature of the debate now underway in Washington -- most importantly, the fact that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (immediate or otherwise) is simply not going to be part of the discussion. Besides explicitly stating that withdrawal is a terrible idea -- "our leaving would make [the situation] worse" -- the Baker report is built around the idea that the United States will remain in Iraq for a very long time.

To put it bluntly, the ISG is not calling on the Bush administration to abandon its goal of creating a client regime that was supposed to be the key to establishing the U.S. as the dominant power in the Middle East. Quite the contrary. As its report states: "We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq." If you ignore the text sprinkled with sugar-coated words like "representative government," the report essentially demands that the Iraqi government pursue policies shaped to serve "America's interest and values in the years ahead."

Don't be fooled by this often quoted passage from the report: "By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq." The ebullient interpretations of this statement by the media have been misleading in three different ways.

First, the combat brigades mentioned in this passage represent far less than half of all the troops in Iraq. The military police, the air force, the troops that move the equipment, those assigned to the Green Zone, the soldiers that order, store, and move supplies, medical personnel, intelligence personnel, and so on, are not combat personnel; and they add up to considerably more than 70,000 of the approximately 140,000 troops in Iraq at the moment. They will all have to stay -- as well as actual combat forces to protect them and to protect the new American advisors who are going to flood into the Iraqi army -- because the Iraqi army has none of these units and isn't going to develop them for several years, if ever.

Second, the ISG wants those "withdrawn" American troops "redeployed," either inside or outside Iraq. In all likelihood, this will mean that at least some of them will be stationed in the five permanent bases inside Iraq that the Bush administration has already spent billions constructing, and which are small American towns, replete with fast food restaurants, bus lines, and recreation facilities. There is no other place to put these redeployed troops in the region, except bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, none of which are really suited to, or perhaps eager to, host a large influx of American troops (guaranteed to be locally unpopular and a magnet for terrorist attacks).

Third, it's important not to ignore those two modest passages: "subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground" and "not necessary for force protection." In other words, if the Iraqi troops meant to replace the redeployed American ones are failures, then some or all of the troops might never be redeployed. In addition, even if Iraqi troops did perform well, Americans might still be deemed necessary to protect the remaining (non-combat) troops from attack by insurgents and other forces. Given that American troops have not been able to subdue the Sunni rebellion, which is still on a growth curve, it is highly unlikely that their Iraqi substitutes will do any better. In other words, even if the "withdrawal" parts of the Baker report were accepted by the President, which looks increasingly unlikely, its plan has more holes and qualifications than Swiss cheese.

Put another way, no proposal at present on the table in Washington is likely to result in significant reductions even in the portion of American troops defined as "combat brigades." That is why this statement says that the combat troops "could be out of Iraq," not "will be out of Iraq" in the first quarter of 2008.

So, the ISG report contemplates -- best case scenario -- "a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant [at least 70,000 strong] force in Iraq, and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar..." Given a less-than-optimum scenario, the American presence in Iraq would assumedly remain much higher, perhaps even approaching current levels. As if this isn't bad news enough, the report is laced with qualifiers indicating that the ISG members fear their new strategy might not work, that "there is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq" -- a theme that will certainly be picked up this week as the right-wing of the Republican Party and angry neocons continue to blast at the report.

Danger to Empire

Why was the Iraq Study Group so reluctant to advocate the withdrawal of American troops and the abandonment of the Bush administration's goal of pacifying Iraq? The likely explanation is: Its all-establishment membership (and the teams of experts that gave it advice) understood that withdrawing from Iraq would be an imperially momentous decision. It would, in fact, mean the abandonment of over two decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East. To grasp this, it's helpful to compare the way most Americans look at the war in Iraq to the way those in power view it.

Most Americans initially believed that the U.S. went into Iraq to shut down Saddam Hussein's WMD programs and/or simply to topple a dangerous dictator (or even a dictator somehow connected to the 9/11 attacks). Of course, had that really been the case, the Bush administration should have withdrawn almost immediately. Even today, it could, at least theoretically, withdraw and declare victory the day after Saddam Hussein is executed, since the WMDs and the 9/11 connection were evanescent. In this scenario, the dismal post-invasion military failure would represent nothing but the defeat of Bush's personal crusade -- articulated only after the Hussein regime was toppled -- to bring American-style democracy to a benighted land.

Because of this, most people, whether supporters or opponents of the war, expect each new round of policy debates to at least consider the option of withdrawal; and many hold out the hope that Bush will finally decide to give up his democratization pipe dream. Even if Bush is incapable of reading the handwriting on the Iraqi wall, this analysis encourages us to hope that outside advisers like the ISG will be "pragmatic" enough to bring the message home to him, before the war severely undermines our country economically and in terms of how people around the world think about us.

However, a more realistic look at the original goals of the invasion makes clear why withdrawal cannot be so easily embraced by anyone loyal to the grandiose foreign policy goals adopted by the U.S. right after the fall of the Soviet Union. The real goals of the war in Iraq add up to an extreme version of this larger vision of a "unipolar world" orbiting around the United States.

The invasion of 2003 reflected the Bush administration's ambition to establish Iraq as the hub of American imperial dominance in the oil heartlands of the planet. Unsurprisingly, then, the U.S. military entered Iraq with plans already in hand to construct and settle into at least four massive military bases that would become nerve centers for our military presence in the "arc of instability" extending from Central Asia all the way into Africa -- an "arc" that just happened to contain the bulk of the world's exportable oil.

The original plan included wresting control of Iraqi oil from Saddam's hostile Baathist government and delivering it into the hands of the large oil companies through the privatization of new oil fields and various other special agreements. It was hoped that privatized Iraqi oil might then break OPEC's hold on the global oil spigot. In the Iraq of the Bush administration's dreams, the U.S. would be the key player in determining both the amount of oil pumped and the favored destinations for it. (This ambition was implicitly seconded by the Baker Commission when it recommended that the U.S. "should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise")

All of this, of course, was contingent upon establishing an Iraqi government that would be a junior partner in American Middle Eastern policy; that, under the rule of an Ahmed Chalabi or Iyad Allawi, would, for instance, be guaranteed to support administration campaigns against Iran and Syria. Bush administration officials have repeatedly underscored this urge, even in the present circumstances, by attempting, however ineffectively, to limit the ties of the present Shia-dominated Iraqi government to Iran.

Withdrawal from Iraq would signal the ruin of all these hopes. Without a powerful American presence, permanent bases would not be welcomed by any regime that might emerge from the current cauldron in Baghdad; every faction except the Kurds is adamantly against them. U.S. oil ambitions would prove similarly unviable. Though J. Paul Bremer, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, our three ambassador-viceroys in Baghdad, have all pushed through legislation mandating the privatization of oil (even embedding this policy in the new constitution), only a handful of top Iraqi politicians have actually embraced the idea. The religious leaders who control the Sunni militias oppose it, as do the Sadrists, who are now the dominant faction in the Shia areas. The current Iraqi government is already making economic treaties with Iran and even sought to sign a military alliance with that country that the Americans aborted.

Still Staying the Course

Added to all this, from Lebanon to Pakistan, the administration's political agenda for the "arc of instability" is now visibly in a state of collapse. This agenda, of course, predated Bush, going back to the moment in 1991 when the Soviet Union simply evaporated, leaving an impoverished Russia and a set of wobbly independent states in its place. While the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton did not embrace the use of the military as the primary instrument of foreign policy, they fully supported the goal of American preeminence in the Middle East and worked very hard to achieve it -- through the isolation of Iran, sanctions against Iraq, various unpublicized military actions against Saddam's forces, and a ratcheting upward of permanent basing policies throughout the Gulf region and Central Asia.

This is the context for the peculiar stance taken by the Iraq Study Group towards the administration's disaster in Iraq. Coverage has focused on the way the report labeled the situation as "grave and deteriorating" and on its call for negotiations with the previously pariah states of Iran and Syria. In itself, the negotiation proposal is perfectly reasonable and has the side effect of lessening the possibility that the Bush administration will launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future.

But no one should imagine that the "new" military strategy proposed by Baker and his colleagues includes dismissing the original goals of the war. In their letter of transmittal, ISG co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton declared: "All options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world and protect America's credibility, interests and values."

This statement, couched in typical Washington-speak, reiterates those original ambitious goals and commits the ISG to a continuing effort to achieve them. The corpus of the report does nothing to dispel that assertion. Its military strategy calls for a (certainly quixotic) effort to use Iraqi troops to bring about the military victory American troops have failed for three years to achieve. The diplomatic initiatives call for a (certainly quixotic) effort to enlist the aid of Syria and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, in defeating the insurgency. And the centerpiece of the economic initiatives seeks to accelerate the process of privatizing oil, the clearest sign of all that Baker and Hamilton -- like Bush and his circle -- remain committed to the grand scheme of maintaining the United States as the dominant force in the region.

Even as the group called on the President to declare that the U.S. "does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq" once the country is secure, it immediately hedged this intention by pointing out that we "could consider" temporary bases, "if the Iraqi government were to request it." Of course, if the Bush administration were somehow to succeed in stabilizing a compliant client regime, such a regime would surely request that American troops remain in their "temporary" bases on a more-or-less permanent basis, since its survival would depend on them.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the ISG report is its embrace of the Bush administration's imperial attitude toward the Iraqi government. Although the report repeatedly calls for American "respect" for Iraqi "sovereignty" (an implicit criticism of the last three years of Iraq policy), it also offers a series of what are essentially non-negotiable demands that would take an already weak and less-than-sovereign government and strip it of control over anything that makes governments into governments.

As a start, the "Iraqi" military would be flooded with 10,000-20,000 new American "advisors," ensuring that it would continue to be an American-controlled military, even if a desperately poor and recalcitrant one, into the distant future. In addition, the ISG offered a detailed program for how oil should be extracted (and the profits distributed) as well as specific prescriptions for handling a number of pressing problems, including fiscal policy, militias, the city of Kirkuk, sectarianism, de-Baathification, and a host of other issues that normally would be decisions for an Iraqi government, not an American advisory panel in Washington. It is hardly surprising, then, that Iraqi leaders almost immediately began complaining that the report, for all its bows to "respect," completely lacked it.

Most striking is the report's twenty-first (of 79) recommendations, aimed at describing what the United States should do if the Iraqis fail to satisfactorily fulfill the many tasks that the ISG has set for them: "If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government."

This could be interpreted as a threat that the United States will withdraw -- and the mainstream media has chosen to interpret it just that way. But why then did Baker and his colleagues not word this statement differently? ("... the United States should reduce, and ultimately withdraw, its forces from Iraq.") The phrase "reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government" is probably better interpreted literally: that if that government fails to satisfy ISG demands, the U.S. should transfer its "political, military, or economic support" to a new leadership within Iraq that it feels would be more capable of making "substantial progress toward" the milestones it has set. In other words, this passage is more likely a threat of a coup d'état than a withdrawal strategy -- a threat that the façade of democracy would be stripped away and a "strong man" (or a government of "national salvation") installed, one that the Bush administration or the ISG believes could bring the Sunni rebellion to heel.

Here is the unfortunate thing. Evidently, the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq has not yet deteriorated enough to convince even establishment American policymakers, who have been on the outside these last years, to follow the lead of the public (as reflected in the latest opinion polls) and abandon their soaring ambitions of Middle East domination. If they haven't done so, imagine where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are in policy terms. So far, it seems everyone of power or influence in Washington remains committed to "staying the course."

Seven Hair-Raising Realities About the Iraq War



With a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon holding, the ever-hotter war in Iraq is once again creeping back onto newspaper front pages and towards the top of the evening news. Before being fully immersed in daily reports of bomb blasts, sectarian violence, and casualties, however, it might be worth considering some of the just-under-the-radar-screen realities of the situation in that country. Here, then, is a little guide to understanding what is likely to be a flood of new Iraqi developments -- a few enduring, but seldom commented upon, patterns central to the dynamics of the Iraq war, as well as to the fate of the American occupation and Iraqi society.



1. The Iraqi Government Is Little More Than a Group of "Talking Heads"



A minimally viable central government is built on at least three foundations: the coercive capacity to maintain order, an administrative apparatus that can deliver government services and directives to society, and the resources to manage these functions. The Iraqi government has none of these attributes -- and no prospect of developing them. It has no coercive capacity. The national army we hear so much about is actually trained and commanded by the Americans, while the police forces are largely controlled by local governments and have few, if any, viable links to the central government in Baghdad. (Only the Special Forces, whose death-squad activities in the capital have lately been in the news, have any formal relationship with the elected government; and they have more enduring ties to the U.S. military that created them and the Shia militias who staffed them.)



Administratively, the Iraqi government has no existence outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone -- and little presence within it. Whatever local apparatus exists elsewhere in the country is led by local leaders, usually with little or no loyalty to the central government and not dependent on it for resources it doesn't, in any case, possess. In Baghdad itself, this is clearly illustrated in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr city, controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and his elaborate network of political clerics. (Even U.S. occupation forces enter that enormous swath of the capital only in large brigades, braced for significant firefights.) In the major city of the Shia south, Basra, local clerics lead a government that alternately ignores and defies the central government on all policy issues from oil to women's rights; in Sunni cities like Tal Afar and Ramadi, where major battles with the Americans alternate with insurgent control, the government simply has no presence whatsoever. In Kurdistan in the north, the Kurdish leadership maintains full control of all local governments.




As for resources, with 85% of the country's revenues deriving from oil, all you really need to know is that oil-rich Iraq is also suffering from an "acute fuel shortage" (including soaring prices, all-night lines at gas stations, and a deal to get help from neighboring Syria which itself has minimal refining capacity). The almost helpless Iraqi government has had little choice but to accept the dictates of American advisors and of the International Monetary Fund about exactly how what energy resources exist will be used. Paying off Saddam-era debt, reparations to Kuwait from the Gulf War of 1990, and the needs of the U.S.-controlled national army have had first claim. With what remains so meager that it cannot sustain a viable administrative apparatus in Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, there is barely enough to spare for the government leadership to line their own pockets.



2. There Is No Iraqi Army




The "Iraqi Army" is a misnomer. The government's military consists of Iraqi units integrated into the U.S.-commanded occupation army. These units rely on the Americans for intelligence, logistics, and -- lacking almost all heavy weaponry themselves -- artillery, tanks, and any kind of airpower. (The Iraqi "Air Force" typically consists of fewer then 10 planes with no combat capability.) The government has no real control over either personnel or strategy.




We can see this clearly in a recent operation in Sadr City, conducted (as news reports tell us) by "Iraqi troops and US advisors" and backed up by U.S. artillery and air power. It was one of an ongoing series of attempts to undermine the Sadrists and their Mahdi army, who have governed the area since the fall of Saddam. The day after the assault, Iraqi premier Nouri Kamel al-Maliki complained about the tactics used, which he labeled "unjustified," and about the fact that neither he, nor his government, was included in the decision-making leading up to the assault. As he put it to an Agence France-Presse, "I reiterate my rejection to [sic] such an operation and it should not be executed without my consent. This particular operation did not have my approval."



This happened because the U.S. has functionally expanded its own forces in Iraq by integrating local Iraqi units into its command structure, while essentially depriving the central government of any army it could use purely for its own purposes. Iraqi units have their own officers, but they always operate with American advisers. As American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad put it, "We'll ultimately help them become independent." (Don't hold your breath.)



3. The Recent Decline in American Casualties Is Not a Result of Less Fighting (and Anyway, It's Probably Ending)



At the beginning of August, the press carried reports of a significant decline in U.S. casualties, punctuated with announcements from American officials that the military situation was improving. The figures (compiled by the Brookings Institute) do show a decline in U.S. military deaths (76 in April, 69 in May, 63 in June, and then only 48 in July). But these were offset by dramatic increases in Iraqi military fatalities, which almost doubled in July as the U.S. sent larger numbers of Iraqi units into battle, and as undermanned American units were redeployed from al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, to civil-war-torn Baghdad in preparation for a big push to recapture various out-of-control neighborhoods in the capital.





More important, when it comes to long-term U.S. casualties, the trends are not good. In recent months, U.S. units had been pulled off the streets of the capital. But the Iraqi Army units that replaced them proved incapable of controlling Baghdad in even minimal ways. So, in addition, to fighting the Sunni insurgency, American troops are now back on the streets of Baghdad in the midst of a swirling civil war with U.S. casualties likely to rise. In recent months, there has also been an escalation of the fighting between American forces and the insurgency, independent of the sectarian fighting that now dominates the headlines.



As a consequence, the U.S. has actually increased its troop levels in Iraq (by delaying the return of some units, sending others back to Iraq early, and sending in some troops previously held in reserve in Kuwait). The number of battles (large and small) between occupation troops and the Iraqi resistance has increased from about 70 a day to about 90 a day; and the number of resistance fighters estimated by U.S. officials has held steady at about 20,000. The number of IEDs placed -- the principle weapon targeted at occupation troops (including Iraqi units) -- has been rising steadily since the spring.



The effort by Sunni guerrillas to expel the American army and its allies is more widespread and energetic than at any time since the fall of the Hussein regime.




4. Most Iraqi Cities Have Active and Often Viable Local Governments



Neither the Iraqi government, nor the American-led occupation has a significant presence in most parts of Iraq. This is well-publicized in the three Kurdish provinces, which are ruled by a stable Kurdish government without any outside presence; less so in Shia urban areas where various religio-political groups -- notably the Sadrists, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Da'wa , and Fadhila -- vie for local control, and then organize cities and towns around their own political and religious platforms. While there is often violent friction among these groups -- particularly when the contest for control of an area is undecided -- most cities and towns are largely peaceful as local governments and local populations struggle to provide city services without a viable national economy.



This situation also holds true in the Sunni areas, except when the occupation is actively trying to pacify them. When there is no fighting, local governments dominated by the religious and tribal leaders of the resistance establish the laws and maintain a kind of order, relying for law enforcement on guerrilla fighters and militia members.



All these governments -- Kurdish, Shia and Sunni -- have shown themselves capable of maintaining (often fundamentalist) law and (often quite harsh) order, with little crime and little resistance from the local population. Though often severely limited by the lack of resources from a paralyzed national economy and a bankrupt national government, they do collect the garbage, direct traffic, suppress the local criminal element, and perform many of the other duties expected of local governments.



5. Outside Baghdad, Violence Arrives with the Occupation Army




The portrait of chaos across Iraq that our news generally offers us is a genuine half-truth. Certainly, Baghdad has been plunged into massive and worsening disarray as both the war against the Americans and the civil war have come to be concentrated there, and as the terrifying process of ethnic cleansing has hit neighborhood after neighborhood, and is now beginning to seep into the environs of the capital.



However, outside Baghdad (with the exception of the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, where historic friction among Kurd, Sunni, and Turkman has created a different version of sectarian violence), Iraqi cities tend to be reasonably ethnically homogeneous and to have at least quasi-stable governments. The real violence often only arrives when the occupation military makes its periodic sweeps aimed at recapturing cities where it has lost all authority and even presence.



This deadly pattern of escalating violence is regularly triggered by those dreaded sweeps, involving brutal, destructive, and sometimes lethal home invasions aimed at capturing or killing suspected insurgents or their supporters. The insurgent response involves the emplacement of ever more sophisticated roadside bombs (known as IEDs) and sniper attacks, aimed at distracting or hampering the patrols. The ensuing firefights frequently involve the use of artillery, tanks, and air power in urban areas, demolishing homes and stores in a neighborhood, which only adds to the bitter resistance and increasing the support for the insurgency.



These mini-wars can last between a few hours and, in Falluja, Ramadi, or other "centers of resistance," a few weeks. They constitute the overwhelming preponderance of the fighting in Iraq. For any city, the results can be widespread death and devastation from which it can take months or years to recover. Yet these are still episodes punctuating a less violent, if increasingly more run-down normalcy.




6. There Is a Growing Resistance Movement in the Shia Areas of Iraq



Lately, the pattern of violence established in largely Sunni areas of Iraq has begun to spread to largely Shia cities, which had previously been insulated from the periodic devastation of American pacification attempts. This ended with growing Bush administration anxiety about economic, religious, and militia connections between local Shia governments and Iran, and with the growing power of the anti-American Sadrist movement, which had already fought two fierce battles with the U.S. in Najaf in 2004 and a number of times since then in Sadr City.



Symptomatic of this change is the increasing violence in Basra, the urban oil hub at the southern tip of the country, whose local government has long been dominated by various fundamentalist Shia political groups with strong ties to Iran. When the British military began a campaign to undermine the fundamentalists' control of the police force there, two British military operatives were arrested, triggering a battle between British soldiers (supported by the Shia leadership of the Iraqi central government) and the local police (supported by local Shia leaders). This confrontation initiated a series of armed confrontations among the various contenders for power in Basra.



Similar confrontations have occurred in other localities, including Karbala, Najaf, Sadr City, and Maysan province. So far no general offensive to recapture the any of these areas has been attempted, but Britain has recently been concentrating its troops outside Basra.




If the occupation decides to use military means to bring the Shia cities back into anything like an American orbit, full-scale battles may be looming in the near future that could begin to replicate the fighting in Sunni areas, including the use of IEDs, so far only sporadically employed in the south. If you think American (and British) troops are overextended now, dealing with internecine warfare and a minority Sunni insurgency, just imagine what a real Shiite insurgency would mean.



7. There Are Three Distinct Types of Terrorism in Iraq, All Directly or Indirectly Connected to the Occupation



Terrorism involves attacking civilians to force them to abandon their support for your enemy, or to drive them away from a coveted territory.



The original terrorists in Iraq were the military and civilian officials of the Bush administration -- starting with their "shock and awe" bombing campaign that destroyed Iraqi infrastructure in order to "undermine civilian morale." The American form of terrorism continued with the wholesale destruction of most of Falluja and parts of other Sunni cities, designed to pacify the "hot beds" of insurgency, while teaching the residents of those areas that, if they "harbor the insurgents," they will surely "suffer the consequences."





At the individual level, this program of terror was continued through the invasions of, and demolishing of, homes (or, in some cases, parts of neighborhoods) where insurgents were believed to be hidden among a larger civilian population, thus spreading the "lesson" about "harboring terrorists" to everyone in the Sunni sections of the country. Generating a violent death rate of at least 18,000 per year, the American drumbeat of terror has contributed more than its share to the recently escalating civilian death toll, which reached a record 3,149 in the official count during July. It is unfortunately accurate to characterize the American occupation of Sunni Iraq as a reign of terror.



The Sunni terrorists like those led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have utilized the suicide car bomb to generate the most widely publicized violence in Iraq -- hundreds of civilian casualties each month resulting from attacks on restaurants, markets, and mosques where large number of Shia congregate. At the beginning of the U.S. occupation, car bombs were nonexistent; they only became common when a tiny proportion of the Sunni resistance movement became convinced that the Shia were the main domestic support for the American occupation. (As far as we can tell, the vast majority of those fighting the Americans oppose such terrorists and have sometimes fought with them.) As al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, these attacks were justified by "the treason of the Shia and their collusion with the Americans." As if to prove him correct, the number of such attacks tripled to current levels of about 70 per month after the Shia-dominated Iraqi government supported the American devastation of Falluja in November 2004.




The Sunni terrorists work with the same terrorist logic that the Americans have applied in Iraq: Attacks on civilians are meant to terrify them into not supporting the enemy. There is a belief, of course, among the leadership of the Sunni terrorists that, ultimately, only the violent suppression or expulsion of the Shia is acceptable. But as Zawahiri himself stated, the "majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it." So the practical justification for such terrorism lies in the more immediate association of the Shia with the hated occupation.



The final link in the terrorist chain can also be traced back to the occupation. In January of 2005, Newsweek broke the story that the U.S. was establishing (Shiite) "death squads" within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, modeled after the assassination teams that the CIA had helped organize in El Salvador during the 1980s. These death squads were intended to assassinate activists and supporters of the Sunni resistance. Particularly after the bombing of the Golden Dome, an important Shia shrine in Samarra, in March 2006, they became a fixture in Baghdad, where thousands of corpses -- virtually all Sunni men -- have been found with signs of torture, including electric-drill holes, in their bodies and bullet holes in their heads. Here, again, the logic is the same: to use terror to stop the Sunni community from nurturing and harboring both the terrorist car bombers and the anti-American resistance fighters.



While there is disagreement about whether the Americans, the Shia-controlled Iraqi Ministry of Defense, or the Shia political parties should shoulder the most responsibility for loosing these death squads on Baghdad, one conclusion is indisputable: They have earned their place in the ignominious triumvirate of Iraqi terrorism.




One might say that the war has converted one of President Bush's biggest lies into an unimaginably horrible truth: Iraq is now the epicenter of worldwide terrorism.



Where the 7 Facts Lead




With this terror triumvirate at the center of Iraqi society, we now enter the horrible era of ethnic cleansing, the logical extension of multidimensional terror.



When the U.S. toppled the Hussein regime, there was little sectarian sentiment outside of Kurdistan, which had longstanding nationalist ambitions. Even today, opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Sunnis and Shia stand opposed to the idea of any further weakening of the central government and are not in favor of federation, no less dividing Iraq into three separate nations.




Nevertheless, ethnic cleansing by both Shia and Sunni has become the order of the day in many of the neighborhoods of Baghdad, replete with house burnings, physical assaults, torture, and murder, all directed against those who resist leaving their homes. These acts are aimed at creating religiously homogeneous neighborhoods.



This is a terrifying development that derives from the rising tide of terrorism. Sunnis believe that they must expel their Shia neighbors to stop them from giving the Shiite death squads the names of resistance fighters and their supporters. Shia believe that they must expel their Sunni neighbors to stop them from providing information and cover for car-bombing attacks. And, as the situation matures, militants on both sides come to embrace removal -- period. As these actions escalate, feeding on each other, more and more individuals, caught in a vise of fear and bent on revenge, embrace the infernal logic of terrorism: that it is acceptable to punish everyone for the actions of a tiny minority.



There is still some hope for the Iraqis to recover their equilibrium. All the centripetal forces in Iraq derive from the American occupation, and might still be sufficiently reduced by an American departure followed by a viable reconstruction program embraced by the key elements inside of Iraq. But if the occupation continues, there will certainly come a point -- perhaps already passed -- when the collapse of government legitimacy, the destruction wrought by the war, and the horror of terrorist violence become self-sustaining. If that point is reached, all parties will enter a new territory with incalculable consequences.

A Formula for Slaughter

A little over a year ago, a group of Johns Hopkins researchers reported that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the Iraq war during its first 14 months, with about 60,000 of the deaths directly attributable to military violence by the U.S. and its allies.

The study, published in The Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal, applied the same rigorous, scientifically validated methods that the Hopkins researchers had used in estimating that 1.7 million people had died in the Congo in 2000. Though the Congo study had won the praise of the Bush and Blair administrations and had become the foundation for U.N, Security Council and State Department actions, this study was quickly declared invalid by the U.S. government and by supporters of the war.

This dismissal was hardly surprising, but after a brief flurry of protest, even the anti-war movement (with a number of notable exceptions) has largely ignored the ongoing carnage that the study identified.

One reason the Hopkins study did not generate sustained outrage is that the researchers did not explain how the occupation had managed to kill so many people so quickly -- about 1,000 each week in the first 14 months of the war. This may reflect our sense that carnage at such elevated levels requires a series of barbaric acts of mass slaughter and/or huge battles that would account for staggering numbers of Iraqis killed. With the exception of the battle of Falluja, these sorts of high-profile events have simply not occurred in Iraq.

Mayhem in Baiji

But the Iraq war is a 21st-century war, and so the miracle of modern weaponry allows the U.S. military to kill scores of Iraqis (and wound many more) during a routine day's work made up of small skirmishes triggered by roadside bombs, sniper attacks and American foot patrols. In early January 2006, the New York Times and the Washington Post both reported a relatively small incident (not even worthy of front page coverage) that illustrated perfectly the capacity of the American military to kill uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians each year.

Here is the Times account of what happened in the small town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, on January 3, based on interviews with various unidentified "American officials":

"A pilotless reconnaissance aircraft detected three men planting a roadside bomb about 9 p.m. The men 'dug a hole following the common pattern of roadside bomb emplacement,' the military said in a statement. 'The individuals were assessed as posing a threat to Iraqi civilians and coalition forces, and the location of the three men was relayed to close air support pilots.'

"The men were tracked from the road site to a building nearby, which was then bombed with 'precision guided munitions,' the military said. The statement did not say whether a roadside bomb was later found at the site. An additional military statement said Navy F-14s had 'strafed the target with 100 cannon rounds' and dropped one bomb."

Crucial to this report is the phrase "precision guided munitions," an affirmation that U.S. forces used technology less likely than older munitions to accidentally hit the wrong target. It is this precision that allows us to glimpse the callous brutality of American military strategy in Iraq.

The target was a "building nearby," identified by a drone aircraft as an enemy hiding place. According to eyewitness reports given to the Washington Post, the attack effectively demolished the building and damaged six surrounding buildings. While in a perfect world, the surrounding buildings would have been unharmed, the reported amount of human damage in them (two people injured) suggests that, in this case at least, the claims of "precision" were at least fairly accurate.

The problem arises with what happened inside the targeted building, a house inhabited by a large Iraqi family. Piecing together the testimony of local residents, the Times reporter concluded that 14 members of the family were in the house at the time of the attack, and nine were killed. The Washington Post, which reported 12 killed, offered a chilling description of the scene:

"The dead included women and children whose bodies were recovered in the nightclothes and blankets in which they had apparently been sleeping. A Washington Post special correspondent watched as the corpses of three women and three boys who appeared to be younger than 10 were removed Tuesday from the house."

Because in this case -- unlike in so many others in which American air power utilizes "precisely guided munitions" -- there was on-the-spot reporting for an American newspaper, the U.S. military command was required to explain these casualties. Without conceding that the deaths actually occurred, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad, commented: "We continue to see terrorists and insurgents using civilians in an attempt to shield themselves."

Notice that Lt. Col. Johnson (while not admitting that civilians had actually died) did assert U.S. policy: If suspected guerrillas use any building as a refuge, a full-scale attack on that structure is justified, even if the insurgents attempt to use civilians to "shield themselves." These are, in other words, essential U.S. rules of engagement. The attack should be "precise" only in the sense that planes and/or helicopter gunships should seek as best they can to avoid demolishing surrounding structures. Put another way, it is more important to stop the insurgents than protect the innocent.

And notice that the military, single-mindedly determined to kill or capture the insurgents, cannot stop to allow for the evacuation of civilians either. Any delay might let the insurgents escape, either disguised as civilians or through windows, backdoors, cellars or any of the other obvious escape routes urban guerrillas might take. Any attack must be quickly organized and -- if possible -- launched unexpectedly.

The Real Rules of Engagement in Iraq

We can gain some perspective on this military strategy by imagining similar rules of engagement for an American police force in some large city. Imagine, for example, a team of criminals in that city fleeing into a nearby apartment building after gunning down a policeman. It would be unthinkable for the police to simply call in airships to demolish the structure, killing any people -- helpless hostages, neighbors or even friends of the perpetrators -- who were with or near them.

In fact, the rules of engagement for the police, even in such a situation of extreme provocation, call for them to "hold their fire" -- if necessary allowing the perpetrators to escape -- if there is a risk of injuring civilians. And this is a reasonable rule because we value the lives of innocent American citizens over our determination to capture a criminal, even a cop killer.

But in Iraqi cities, our values and priorities are quite differently arranged. The contrast derives from three important principles under which the Iraq war is being fought: that the war should be conducted to absolutely minimize the risk to American troops; that guerrilla fighters should not be allowed to escape if there is any way to capture or kill them; and that Iraqi civilians should not be allowed to harbor or encourage the resistance fighters.

We are familiar with the first principle, the determination to safeguard American soldiers. It is expressed in the elaborate training and equipment they are given, as well as the ongoing effort to make the equipment even more effective in protecting them from attack. (This was most recently expressed in the release of a Pentagon study showing that improved body armor could have saved as many as 300 American lives since the start of the war.) It is also expressed in rules of engagement that call for air strikes like the one in Baiji. The alternative to such an air attack (aside from allowing the guerrillas to escape) would, of course, be to use a unit of troops to root out the guerrillas.

Needless to say, without an effective Iraqi military in place, such an operation would be likely to expose American soldiers to considerable risk. The Bush administration has long shied away from the high casualty counts that would be an almost guaranteed result of such concentrated, close-quarters urban warfare, casualty counts that would surely have a strong negative effect on support in the United States for its war. (The irony, of course, is that, with air attacks, the U.S. is trading lower American casualties and stronger support domestically for ever lessening Iraqi support and the ever greater hostility such attacks bring in their wake.)

The second principle also was applied in Baiji. Rather than allow the perpetrators to take refuge in a nearby home and then quietly slip away, the U.S. command decided to take out the house, even though they had no guarantee that it was uninhabited (and every reason to believe the opposite). The paramount goal was to kill or capture the suspected guerrilla fighters, and if this involved the death or injury of multiple Iraqi civilians, the trade-off was clearly considered worth it. That is, annihilating a family of 12 or 14 Iraqis could be justified if there was a reasonable probability of killing or capturing three individuals who might have been setting a roadside bomb. This is the subtext of Lt. Colonel Johnson's comment.

The third principle behind these attacks is only occasionally expressed by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, but is nevertheless a foundation of American strategy as applied in Baiji and elsewhere. Though Bush administration officials and top U.S. military officers often, for propaganda purposes, refer to local residents as innocent victims of insurgent intimidation and terrorism, their disregard for the lives of civilians trapped inside such buildings is symptomatic of a very different belief: that most Sunni Iraqis willingly harbor the guerrillas and support their attacks -- that they are not unwilling shields for the guerrillas, but are actively shielding them. Moreover, this protection of the guerrillas is seen as a critical obstacle to our military success, requiring drastic punitive action.

As one American officer explained to New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, the willingness to sacrifice local civilians is part of a larger strategy in which U.S. military power is used to "punish not only the guerrillas, but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating." A Marine calling in to a radio talk show recently stated the argument more precisely: "You know why those people get killed? It's because they're letting insurgents hide in their house."

This is, by the way, is the textbook definition of terrorism -- attacking a civilian population to get it to withdraw support from the enemy. What this strategic orientation, applied wherever American troops fight the Iraqi resistance, represents is an embrace of terrorism as a principle tactic for subduing Iraq's insurgency.

Escalating the War Against Iraqi Civilians

Baiji, a loosely settled village, is not typical of the locations where American air power is regularly loosed. In Iraq's densely packed cities, where much fighting takes place, buildings usually house several families with other multiple-occupancy dwellings adjacent. Moreover, city battles often involve larger units of guerrillas who ambush U.S. patrols and then disperse into several nearby dwellings or snipers who shoot from several locations.

As a consequence, when U.S. F-14s, helicopter gunships, or other types of aircraft arrive, their targets are larger and more dispersed. Liquidating guerrillas can then require the "precise" leveling of several buildings (with "collateral damage") or even a whole city block. Instead of 100 cannon rounds and one 500-pound bomb, such an attack can (and often does) involve several thousand cannon rounds and a combination of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs.

Needless to say, the casualties in such attacks are likely to be magnitudes greater, though we hardly read about them in the American press, since reporters working for American newspapers are rarely present before, during or after the attack. This has started to change since "Up in the Air," a New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh garnered much attention for outlining a Bush administration draw-down strategy in which air attacks are to be increasingly relied upon.

One particularly vivid recent account by Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer discussed the impact of air power during the American offensive in Western Anbar province last November. Using testimony from medical personnel and local civilians, Knickmeyer reported that 97 civilians were killed in one attack in Husaybah, 40 in another in Qaimone, 18 children (and an unknown number of adults) in Ramadi, and uncounted others in numerous other cities and towns. (The U.S. military typically denied knowledge of these casualties.)

All of these resulted from the same logic and the same rules of engagement as the Baiji attack, and in most cases, the attacks seem to have been chosen in place of mounting ground assaults. In each case, "precision guided munitions" were used, and -- for the most part, as far as we can tell -- American forces destroyed mainly the targets they intended to hit. In other words, this mayhem was not a matter of dumb munitions, human error, carelessness or gratuitous brutality. It was policy.

These same principles apply to all engagements undertaken by the U.S. military. There are about 100 violent encounters with guerrillas each day, or about 3,000 engagements each month, most of them triggered by IEDs, sniper fire, or low-level hit-and-run attacks. (Only a relative handful of these -- never more than 100 in a month and recently far fewer -- involve suicide bombers.) The rules of engagement call for the application of overwhelming force in all these situations. The hiding places of the attackers -- houses, commercial shops, even mosques and schools -- essentially become automatic targets for attack.

For the most part, rifles, tanks and artillery are sufficient to eradicate the enemy, and air power is only called in as a last resort (though with a recent surge in air missions reported, that "last resort" is evidently becoming an ever more ordinary option). Instead of body counts ranging as high as 100 per incident, only a small minority of these daily engagements produce double-digit mortality rates. Nevertheless, the 3,000 small monthly engagements often involve attacking structures with civilians in them, and the lethality of these battles, combined with the havoc and destruction wrought by the air attacks, does add up to possibly thousands and thousands of civilian deaths each year.

Seymour Hersh's article made the new Bush administration policy of relying on air power public. It involves, in the near future, substituting Iraqi for U.S. foot patrols as often as possible (which means an instant drop in the quality of the soldiering involved). And, since the Iraqi military do not have tanks, artillery or other heavy weaponry, the U.S. plans to compensate both for weaker fighting outfits and lack of on-the-ground firepower by increasing its use of air strikes. In other words, in the coming months those 3,000 encounters a month are likely to produce even more victims than the already staggering civilian casualty rates in Iraq. Each incident that previously might have killed a few civilians will now be likely to kill many more.

The Washington Post, along with other major American media outlets, has confirmed that a new military strategy is being put in place and implemented. Quoting military sources, the Post reported that the number of U.S. air strikes increased from an average of 25 per month during the summer of 2005, to 62 in September, 122 in October and 120 in November. The Sunday Times of London reports that, in the near future, these are expected to increase to at least 150 per month, and that the numbers will continue to climb past that threshold.

Consider then this gruesome arithmetic: If the U.S. fulfills its expectation of surpassing 150 air attacks per month, and if the average air strike produces the (gruesomely) modest total of 10 fatalities, air power alone could kill well over 20,000 Iraqi civilians in 2006. Add the ongoing (but reduced) mortality due to other military causes on all sides, and the 1,000 civilian deaths per week rate recorded by the Hopkins study could be dwarfed in the coming year.

The new American strategy, billed as a way to de-escalate the war, is actually a formula for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians.

Ten Ways to Debate Iraq

I often receive emails -- pro and con -- about my postings on the war in Iraq, and I try to respond to any substantive questions or critiques offered.

But when I received an email recently entitled "10 Questions" in response to a Tomdispatch commentary detailing the arguments for immediate withdrawal, I must admit my heart sank -- the questions were familiar, but the answers were complex and I was in no mood to spend the time needed to respond properly.

After a couple of days, however, I began to warm to the idea of writing short but pointed responses to these common criticisms of antiwar positions because, I realized, they are the bread and butter of daily Iraq discourse in our country. When the war comes up in the media or in casual conversation, these are the issues that are raised by those who think we have to "stay the course" -- and among those who oppose the war, these are the lurking, unspoken questions that haunt our discussions. So here are my best brief answers to these key issues in the crucial, ongoing debate over Iraq.

"I read your article on withdrawal of American troops," my correspondent began, "and questioned the lack of discussion of the following..." (His comments are in bold.)

1. Nothing was mentioned about improvements in Iraq (elections, water and energy, schools). No Saddam to fear!
Water and energy delivery as well as schools are worse off than before the U.S. invasion. Ditto for the state of hospitals (and medical supplies), highways, and oil production. Elections are a positive change, but the elected government does not have more than a semblance of actual sovereignty, and therefore the Iraqi people have no power to make real choices about their future. One critical example: The Shiite/Kurdish political coalition now in power ran on a platform whose primary promise was that, if elected, they would set and enforce a timetable for American withdrawal. As soon as they took power, they reneged on this promise (apparently under pressure from the US). They have also proved quite incapable of fulfilling their other campaign promises about restoring services and rebuilding the country; and for that reason (as well as others), their constituents (primarily the Shia) are becoming ever more disillusioned. In the most recent polls, Shia Iraqis now are about 70 percent in favor of U.S. withdrawal.

2. Nothing was mentioned about Iraqis who want the U.S. to remain (especially the Kurds and the majority of Iraqi women).
Among the three principal ethno-religious groups in Iraq, the Sunnis (about a fifth of the population) are almost unanimous in their opposition to the American presence, while around 70% of the Shia (themselves about 60% of the population) want the U.S. to withdraw. Hence, even before we consider the Kurds, the majority of Iraqis are in favor of a full-scale American departure "as soon as possible." It is true that the Kurds (about 20% of the population) favor the U.S. remaining. However, they have their own militias and many of them do not want significant numbers of American troops in their territory. (The U.S. presence there is small-scale at the moment.) What they desire is a U.S. occupation for someone else, not themselves. I think we can safely say that the vast majority of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. troops.

I know of no study indicating that Iraqi women favor the U.S. presence. Perhaps you are referring to the fact that large numbers of women in Iraq are upset and angry over the erosion of their rights since the fall of Saddam. I know some commentators claim that the U.S. presence is insurance against further erosion of those rights, but everything I have read indicates that a significant number of Iraqi women (like all Iraqis) blame the Bush administration for these policies. After all, the Americans installed in power (and continue to support) the political forces spearheading anti-woman policies in the country. Polling data do not indicate that any sizable group of Sunni or Shia women support a continued U.S. presence.

3. Nothing was mentioned about the benefits of the U.S. military gaining valuable experience and knowledge daily.
Certainly, the U.S. gains military and political "experience" from the war, as from any war, but at the expense of many deaths (2,127) and injuries (at least 15,704) to American soldiers. Beyond these publicly listed casualty figures lie the endless ways in which the lives of our soldiers are permanently damaged: On November 26, for example, the New York Times reported on a recent army study indicating that 17% of all personnel sent to Iraq have "serious symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder." Since about a million American troops have now seen service in Iraq, approximately 170,000 have gained the "experience" of having a severe mental problem. Moreover, the war experience in Iraq has proved so demoralizing to the military that many of the best soldiers are leaving at the end of their tours, instead of staying on in active or reserve status. This is undermining the viability of the military, long term.

U.S. casualties, of course, have been dwarfed by the damage done to the Iraqi people. Between 25,000 and 40,000 Iraqi civilians are dying each year -- and multitudes are injured. We are wrecking the country's infrastructure.

Certainly there is a better way to gain experience than this.

4. Nothing was mentioned about the future benefits of a strong democracy in the Middle East.
We can all agree that a strong democracy in the Middle East would have huge benefits for Iraq and for its neighbors as well as for the rest of the world. If I thought that our actions there were actually helping to bring this about, perhaps I might also believe that the benefits of an active democracy outweighed at least some of the many problems we have been creating. But from the beginning, the talk of democracy was a hollow mantra, just one of a group of public rationalizations for a war motivated by the Bush administration's desire to dominate Middle Eastern politics and economics. The U.S. government has never actually relinquished sovereignty to the Iraqi government.

5. Nothing was mentioned about the future benefits of oil reserves.
Though the Bush Administration denies it, many observers agree with you that access to Iraqi oil was a major motivation for the war. But we need to understand the nature of this motivation. Even before the invasion, when UN sanctions were still in place against Saddam Hussein's regime, American oil companies could (and, in many cases, did) buy Iraqi oil at market price. The issue was never "access" to Iraqi oil in the sense of simply being able to buy it. The Bush administration was thinking about other kinds of energy access, including controlling the heartland of the word's main future oil supplies and giving American oil companies privileged access to Iraqi oil reserves. (See, for example, the recent report by the Global Policy Forum). It's my contention that such privileged "access" for U.S. oil companies would not actually help the American people. The oil majors, after all, have a long history of exploiting Americans hardly less ruthlessly than they exploit the peoples of other countries, when they can make a larger profit by doing so. (The latest incident in their long and deplorable record involved the massive price increases they instituted at American pumps almost immediately after hurricane Katrina hit.) Moreover, such privileged access would have deprived the Iraqis of their right to use the oil to their own benefit -- something they desperately need now that the Saddam Hussein regime, twelve years of brutal sanctions, and the current war have gutted the country.

The best approach for us (but not necessarily for the American oil companies) would be to buy our oil on the open market, put our research money into conservation and renewable fuels instead of military adventures, and avoid trying to get "control" of something that doesn't belong to us.

6. Nothing was mentioned about what fundamentalist Muslims would like to achieve.
I assume that, when you refer to "fundamentalist Muslims," you are referring to terrorists, including those in Iraq and those who attacked the World Trade Center, the London tube, and the Madrid trains. First, I have to disagree with this identification of the terrorists (who are indeed fundamentalist) with all fundamentalist Muslims. That would be the same as characterizing those who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building as "fundamentalist Christians" and then implying that the destruction of such buildings is what all fundamentalist Christians yearn to achieve.

Second, I disagree with the implicit argument that somehow withdrawal will allow the terrorists to dominate Iraqi society and impose a horrible regime on an Iraq, bent on attacking its neighbors and the United States. A large part of my commentary in favor of withdrawal was devoted to debunking this prevalent idea. I think I made a reasonably good case for the possibility that Bush administration actions in Iraq are creating and strengthening the terrorist groups within the Iraqi resistance. The longer the U.S. stays, the more the Islamic terrorists there are likely to gain strength; the sooner the U.S. leaves, the more quickly the resistance will subside, and -- with it -- support for terrorism. The administration's Iraqi occupation policies are the equivalent of a nightmarish self-fulfilling prophesy.

7. Nothing was mentioned about the results of the U.S. evacuation from Southeast Asia (over a million killed within 5 years).
I think we need to disentangle two different events involving the (forced) American departure from Southeast Asia. First, there was Vietnam, where it was always predicted that a horrendous bloodbath would follow any American withdrawal. Indeed, there were certainly deaths there after the U.S. left, and many refugees fled the country, some for the United States. But whatever these figures may have been, they were dwarfed by the incredible bloodbath that the U.S. created by being in Vietnam in the first place. Reputable sources suggest that millions of Vietnamese died (and countless others were permanently wounded) during the war years. We must conclude, therefore, that in Vietnam our departure actually resulted in a drastic decline in the levels of violence, and -- sometime afterward -- an end to the havoc and destruction; not to speak of the fact that, for years now, the United States has had plenty of "credibility" in Vietnam.

Second, there was the holocaust in Cambodia, which may well have resulted in a million or more deaths. This was also, however, a complex consequence of the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, not a result of our departure. Cambodia had a stable, neutral government until the Nixon administration launched massive secret bombings against its territory, invaded the country, destabilized the regime, and set in motion the grim unraveling that led to the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge. If the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1965 or 1968, that holocaust would quite certainly never have happened.

The situation in Iraq is not that dissimilar. If the U.S. withdraws soon, there is at least a reasonable chance that the violence will subside quickly and that peace and stability in the region might ever so slowly take hold. The longer the U.S. stays -- further destroying the Iraqi infrastructure and destabilizing neighboring regimes (like Syria and Iran) -- the more likely it is that horrific civil wars and other forms of brutality will indeed occur.

8. Nothing was mentioned about the reputation of the U.S. if it retreats. Don't forget the quotes about Somalia from Osama Bin Laden. "Cut and Run."
Here we agree. If the U.S. withdraws, this "retreat" will undermine U.S. credibility whenever, in the future, an administration threatens to use military power to force another country to submit to its demands (and may also, as after Vietnam, make Americans far more wary about sending troops abroad to fight presidential wars of choice). I think there are two important implications that derive from this observation.

The first is that this has, in fact, already happened. The most crystalline case making this point is that of Iran, whose leaders were much more compliant to U.S. demands before the Iraq invasion than now that they have seen how the Iraqi resistance has frustrated our military. In fact, the invasion of Iraq has probably done more to strengthen the oppressive Iranian regime, domestically and in the Middle East, than any set of events in the past quarter-century. (See my recent article on this at Tomdispatch.) In other words -- from your point of view -- the longer the Bush administration stays and flounders, the more it undermines its ability to use the threat of military intervention to force other countries to conform to its demands.

From my point of view -- and this is the second implication I want to point out -- the undermining of U.S. credibility is one of the few good things that has resulted from the war in Iraq. I do not believe that anything positive is likely to come from American military adventures; quite the contrary, the Bush administration (and the Clinton, earlier Bush, and Reagan administrations) have used military power to impose bad policies on other countries. We would be much better off, I believe, with the multi-polar world that many Americans advocate (and this administration loathes the very thought of), in which no single state (including the U.S.) could impose itself on others without at least the support of a great many others. We would be far better off in a multitude of ways if our country stopped spending more on its military than the rest of the world combined and started spending some of that money on things that would actually improve the welfare of our people.

9. Nothing was mentioned about Germany, Japan, Korea, and the former Yugoslavia. Should we get out of those? Where was the pre-war planning to get out of all those locations. Did Lincoln have a pre-war plan to leave the South?
I agree that some wars, some interventions, and some occupations can be positive things (without evaluating the particulars of the examples you offer). That does not mean that all, or even most, of them are good. The invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq is neither justified, nor moral.

10. Nothing was mentioned about 9/11, where we were attacked by fundamentalist Muslims. How do we change their attitudes?
This query rests on two premises: The first belongs to the Bush administration and was part of the package of lies and intelligence manipulations that it used to hustle Congress and the American people into war -- the claim that Saddam Hussein's regime and the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 had anything in common or any ties whatsoever. They didn't and the truth is that 9/11, important as it was, really should have nothing to do with Iraq and no place in any discussion of the war there -- or at least that was certainly true until George Bush and his advisors managed almost single-handedly to recreate Iraq as the "central theater in the war on terror."

The second premise is one held by many Americans -- that the only way to change the attitudes of those who are fighting the U.S. involves "whipping their ass," which rests on another commonly held opinion -- that "these people only understand force." Attitudes are never changed in this way. Every serious scholar who studies terrorism agrees on this essential point: Terrorism arises from the misery that many people are forced to live in or in close proximity to. It is misguided and criminal, but it nevertheless derives from complaints people have about their daily lives, about the humiliations they experience in the larger social and political worlds they inhabit, and about the apparent impossibility of changing these circumstances.

The best way to transform such attitudes, built as they are on hopelessness, would be to take a fraction (a fraction!!) of the money we are now spending on the war in Iraq and on our military and invest it in the lives of others. One example: a panel of expert development economists just delivered a report to the UN saying that for $50 billion annually we could bring the income of the poorest people in the world up to a level that would largely eradicate the famines and mass starvation currently spreading from one continent to another. That project, if enacted, would do more to reduce terrorism than all the "anti-terrorist" activities of our government, including the entire official defense budget (about $400 billion a year), the $200 billion for the war in Iraq, and the $80 or so billion for the Department of Homeland Security. Put another way, if the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, it could fund an entire program to alleviate global suffering with but a modest portion of the money it saved, and start to reduce terrorism instead of increasing it.

Letting in the Draft

After two years of intensive fighting in Iraq, the Pentagon is feeling the strain in every military muscle and has been looking for relief in just about every direction but one -- the draft. All across the United States today, young people are wondering whether, sooner or later, in its increasingly airless military universe, the Bush administration will open the window a crack and let the draft in.

A key reason for the ever-more-evident strain on military resources is that more than 40% of the 150,000 soldiers in Iraq are Army Reserves and National Guards. As Army Historian Renee Hylton told Salon reporter Jeff Horowitz, use of these forces creates pressure to "win and get out...there's a definite limit to people's service." When they are called to active duty, these troops risk their jobs as well as their lives; so, when their mandatory two-year terms expire, a significant proportion of them, under the best of circumstances, are likely to refuse further service. And service in Iraq has already proved something less than the best of circumstances. Little wonder then that, just past the two year anniversary of our invasion, the military is under increasing pressure to replenish this crucial element in the recruitment mix -- without much of an idea of how to do so.

In addition, in order to maintain troop strength in Iraq at anything like present levels, large numbers of active-duty soldiers must return there for more than one nine-month tour of duty, and this redeployment too generates distrust and distaste. Sooner or later, sizeable numbers of these angry soldiers must nevertheless be convinced to re-enlist, or else the pressure for new enlistees will escalate out of control and beyond the bounds of the present system to satisfy.

Add to this a constantly increasing casualty toll, now well beyond 30,000, which, in a variety of ways, places yet more pressure on recruitment. Finally, as embittered double-deployment veterans and angry Reserves, along with wounded and mentally stressed dischargees, return home, they only stiffen the resistance to enlistment among the young in their neighborhoods.

None of this was anticipated at the start of the Iraq war by Bush administration officials; they were confident that the American military could topple Saddam Hussein's government and pacify any left-over "dead end" loyalists of the old regime in about three months. Defense Department figures, reported by the Washington Post on March 19, projected reductions in American troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan from just over 200,000 at the time of the invasion to about 125,000 by September 2003; to 50,000 six months later; and -- not counting troops left to garrison the permanent bases -- to zero by the end of 2004.

They were wrong, of course. Troop levels, after declining according to plan during the summer of 2003, began climbing again as the resistance grew -- in response to a deepening economic and infrastructural disaster, and to the brutal nature of the American military occupation. With some fluctuations, since the beginning of 2004 the numbers of boots on the ground in Iraq have remained at about the 150,000 level (not counting expensive private "security contractors" hired by the Pentagon and private firms) -- almost double the number that the U.S. could hope to sustain in the long run, given the force levels of the present volunteer military.

Several recent reports have documented the depth of the impending crisis, including a detailed analysis of troop strengths by Ann Tyson in the Washington Post. So far, over one million U.S. military personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some 341,000 already doing the dreaded double-deployments (and many now entering triple-deployment territory). The military has moved troops into Iraq from all over the world, including previously untouchable Cold War detachments in Korea, Germany, and Alaska, and it's still "scrambling" to keep 17 battalions regularly in Iraq, many severely undermanned. These shortages have led to an increasing dependence on expensive private security contractors, who themselves add to the Pentagon's recruitment problems by hiring away otherwise re-upable military personnel for four times the wages paid in the Army.

To make matters worse, the Defense Department (to protect against a crisis elsewhere) has decided, with Congressional authorization, to increase the overall size of active-duty forces by 30,000, which can only amplify the retention/recruitment crunch.

Recruitment: Entering Freefall

Last fall the military embarked on a Herculean set of efforts to meet these daunting demands. It manufactured a 40% increase in the pool of candidates available for the Guard and Reserve by relaxing entry standards and raising the enlistment age to 40 years. It added thousands of new recruiters (1400 for the National Guard alone) and equipped them with an array of new inducements, including signing bonuses as high as $20,000 (for those with previous experience) and up to $70,000 in college credits for new enlistees. Re-enlistment bonuses, depending on specialty, can now reach $100,000. The Defense Department also launched a new $180 million recruitment campaign that includes "sponsorship of a rodeo cowboy, ads on ESPN, and a 24 hour web site that allows users to chat with recruiters...24 hours a day." In a special effort to help the most stressed service, the military is offering six million dollars of recruitment money in exchange for the right to name the home of the new Washington Nationals baseball team National Guard Stadium.

The most dramatic of the new measures were aimed at inducing (or coercing) personnel to remain in the military beyond their enlistment contracts. Tom Reeves, author of The End of the Draft and longtime observer of draft policy, reports that 40,000 soldiers have already been retained by using the notorious "stop-loss" system, which allows the Army unilaterally to keep soldiers for up to 18 months beyond the date their enlistment is scheduled to terminate. This is essentially a more bureaucratic and politer form of the old British method of "impressment," also known as Shanghaiing. There is now a Congressional investigation into persistent reports that short-timers -- those with less then a year or so left on their enlistment contracts -- are being told that re-enlistment will guarantee a non-combat assignment, while refusal to re-enlist will lead to an Iraqi deployment during the remainder of their service. While the Defense Department denies that such blackmail-style practices are taking place, they do admit that station "stabilization" -- a pre-agreed upon duty station away from Iraq -- has become a major incentive for re-enlistment.

Such military efforts were augmented by what may be the ultimate sign of military desperation: the call-up of 5,500 members of the "Individual Ready Reserves." As Reeves notes, these are "older men and women whose regular reserve duty has ended -- including grandmothers and grandfathers edging toward retirement...who have no idea they would be recalled to duty." It is hardly surprising that nearly one-third of these superannuated reserves have refused to report. Nor is it surprising that modest signs of rebellion are appearing inside what was, until recently, a volunteer military. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, has documented cases of National Guard soldiers protesting inadequate equipment and 60 Minutes, among other places, has reported at least 5500 desertions among the troops, largely to avoid deployment or redeployment to Iraq.

Worse yet, from the Pentagon's point of view, even its most far-reaching and draconian efforts seem to be failing. Re-enlistment levels in both the Army and the Guard have now slipped below quota, and Reuters reports that this shortfall can be expected to get dramatically worse once larger numbers of soldiers reach that 18-month stop-loss limit. New recruitment appears to be entering freefall, with the most drastic declines among African Americans, who traditionally make up 25% of the volunteer army. January and February recorded the first Marine recruitment shortfalls in a decade; while the army is running 6% below targets for the year. Hardest hit have been the Reserves, with a 10% decline, and the Army National Guard at 26%. These units are in full crisis, with the Guard already announcing it will not reach full strength in 2005, and Reserve Commander General James Helmly stating that "overuse" is making his units into "a broken force." Reeves reports that even the military academies have suffered 15% to 25% declines in applications for admission. To make matters worse, as USA Today has reported, the anti-war movement has begun (with at least some success) targeting the recruitment process. (A meticulous account by activist Peter Charaek of one successful protest in Oregon can be found on the Jeff Rense website.)

Major General Michael D. Rochelle, the man in charge of army recruiting, told New York Times reporter Damien Cave that the recruitment crisis constituted the "toughest challenge to the all-volunteer army" since its inception in 1973.

The Iraqi Armed Forces: Replacement Killers?

Optimistic reports that our local military allies will soon begin to replace American troops follow a familiar pattern of miraculous overstatement (first established in Vietnam decades ago), as reporter Timothy Phelps documented in a March 21 article in Newsday that reviewed the history of American attempts to build Iraqi military forces. In the spring of 2004, official (and unofficial) Bush administration reports claimed the existence of 206,000 fully trained Iraqi troops. To the surprise of those who had accepted these claims, none of them fought successfully in the major battles that April (in Falluja, Najaf, or Sadr City). Most deserted beforehand, refused to fight, or fled under fire. A measurable minority, however, did fight ferociously -- for the resistance, using American-supplied weapons and equipment.

By fall 2004, though the U.S. was publicly claiming 135,000 "combat ready" Iraqi troops, one military official told New York Times reporter John Burns that as few as 1,500 Iraqi troops were actually fully trained. This was vividly demonstrated in the second battle of Falluja, when only Kurdish militia units imported from the north fought successfully alongside the Americans. The official Iraqi Army units resisted, either through mutiny or desertion, or by defecting to the other side. Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School told Newsday's Phelps that the second battle of Falluja was largely fought against Iraqis who had been "trained and equipped by Americans."

Then came Rear Admiral William Sullivan's report to Congress in Spring 2005 which spoke of 145,000 "combat capable," "new" Iraqi armed forces. This claim was disputed -- by of all people -- Sabah Hadhum, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. He told the British Telegraph reporter Anton La Guardia, "We are paying about 135,000 (members of the security services) but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working." As many as 50,000 of these may actually be what he termed "ghost soldiers"-- men not on duty but whose paychecks were being pocketed either by their officers or themselves.

Newsday's investigative report confirms Hadhum's negative assertion. Just under 40,000 of the reported 145,000 armed forces turn out to be holdovers from the old Iraqi National Guard. According to Army experts, they had received the same "haphazard training," as their predecessors (who refused to fight) and could be relied upon to do nothing except receive their paychecks.

Another 55,000 were Iraqi police whose unwillingness to confront the guerrillas has become legendary. The Deputy Governor of Nineveh province -- where the Iraqi "northern capital," Mosul, is located -- accused the 14,000 police there of being "in league" with the resistance. He assured reporter Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent that his bodyguards "don't tell them our movements," since he suspects them of trying to assassinate him. Military expert Kalev Sepp told Newsday the U.S. military had concluded that "70 percent of the police in Anwar province are insurgents or sympathizers," with substantial infiltration elsewhere as well. (According to Sepp, even "one infiltrator with access to intelligence" could give the enemy "forewarning," so imagine what a 20%-70% infiltration rate might do.)

According to Rear Admiral Sullivan, only a meager 14,000 troops were fully trained units in the "new Iraqi army," the first beneficiaries of what Burns of the Times called a "$5 billion American-financed effort." These troops had not, however, yet endured a major battle, and some of the American troops who worked with them evidently considered them worthless. As one trooper told London Times reporter Anthony Loyd, "I'm more scared of going out with these guys than clashing with the insurgents." According to Los Angeles Times reporter David Zuccino, even the 205th Iraqi Army Brigade, "considered the country's best unit by many U.S. trainers," had been infiltrated by insurgents. And Army Staff Sergeant Craig Patrick, one of the advisers in charge of training the Iraqis told Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru, "It's all about perception, to convince the American public that everything is going as planned and we're right on schedule to be out of here. I mean, they can [mislead] the American people, but they can't [mislead] us. These guys are not ready."

Nevertheless, in mid-February, Burns reported that two brigades of this new force "became the first home grown unit to take operational responsibility for any combat zone in Iraq," the restive Haifa neighborhood in Baghdad.

The remaining 30,000 troops in Sullivan's count were vaguely defined military personnel commanded by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. In the long run, U.S. military leadership hopes that these will become the Iraqi equivalent of the U.S. Special Forces, and will constitute a new secret police or other sinister entities. In the meantime, they are, it seems, largely incapable of confronting the resistance. In their first solo effort, reported in the New York Times, between 500 and 700 members of the First Police Commando Battalion, with air support from the American military, could not capture a training camp containing under 100 guerrillas. Eventually, U.S. ground forces were needed, and even then, the guerrillas might have escaped.

In a recent report to the Carnegie Endowment, military expert Jeffrey Miller concluded that the "gap" between the forces needed to handle the security situation in Iraq and the actual strength of the Iraqi military had doubled in the past year, raising "grave doubts about the...hope for success" of the strategy of transferring responsibility to the Iraqi military. Certainly, no such transfer can succeed in time to allow for a comfortable transition before the onset of the recruitment crisis now facing the American military.

Does Anyone Feel a Draft Coming In?

As the strain on the U.S. military continues to build, so does the pressure on policy. The only option that does not imply the sacrifice of many more American lives and magnitudes more Iraqi lives may be the withdrawal of American troops, but this option is "unthinkable" to the Bush administration -- and to its loyal Democratic opposition, not to speak of the bulk of the mainstream media. Only the American people (according to the most recent Marist Poll) -- and the rest of the world -- consider it "thinkable."

According to former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, avoiding this unthinkable option would require "500,000 troops, $500 billion and the resumption of the military draft." The need for a draft has been seconded by a wide range of military experts, including then-presidential candidate General Wesley Clark, who, in 2004, said the U.S. needed to start "thinking about the draft"; frequent Pentagon advisor Colonel David Hackworth, who called the draft a "no-brainer in '05 and '06"; and Charles Moskos, adviser to four presidents on military manpower, who declared that "we cannot achieve the number of troops we need in Iraq without a draft." Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris and national security analyst Philip Carter articulated what might be the most comprehensive argument, calling for what a "21st Century draft," that would "create a cascading series of benefits," including turning the tide in Iraq.

Despite this crescendo of advocacy by friends and foes of administration policy, government insiders continue to tread very lightly on the issue. The Project for a New American Century, the policy planning group that developed significant aspects of current foreign policy, has called for several years of 25,000 troop increments to the military, but they have not indicated how this could be done. Secretary of the Army, Francis J. Harvey, after "bursting into laughter" when asked about the draft, stated, "The D-word is the farthest thing from my thoughts." And President Bush has repeatedly re-asserted his commitment to keeping the volunteer army.

The deal-breaker for the administration may be exactly what they have repeatedly said since talk of the draft burst onto the scene during the 2004 election campaign -- the experience of Vietnam gave a conscripted army a bad name. The current volunteer army (even if its recruitment involves large elements of coercion and manipulation) is better suited for the sorts of wars the U.S. is fighting, they believe, and any move toward the draft would severely undermine commitment to such wars, both inside and outside the army. Even such partisan advocates as Glastris and Carter concede this problem, though they offer what they feel are viable ways of getting around it.

But if the draft advocates eventually persuade the administration that a conscripted army is viable, I believe they would still have to overcome a second layer of reluctance among decision-makers in charge of military policy: a fear that the draft will specifically alienate those who currently endorse the war in Iraq. Pro-war partisans rest much of their support of administration foreign policy on the expectation that the January 30 election was a turning point, that the battle of Falluja disabled the resistance, that Iraqi troops will be ready to handle the guerrillas in the not-too-distant future -- and that American troops will soon be brought home at least reasonably victorious. The reinstitution of a draft would constitute an admission that these beliefs are so many illusions. In all likelihood, therefore, any relaxation of the unequivocal opposition to the draft in the administration would indeed precipitate a sharp erosion of the war's already eroding base. Opposition might then reach the critical mass needed to make withdrawal "thinkable."

But this reluctance to embrace the draft leaves the Bush Administration in a knot of a dilemma. Without rejuvenating the armed forces, the situation in Iraq is likely to remain at best undecided, and even a stalemated situation would constitute a mighty blow against the administration's larger foreign policy goals. The goal of unilateral American dominance in global politics and in global markets depends on the image and reality of American military invincibility, so that -- with each passing day -- the lack of victory in Iraq undermines the credibility of Washington's threats to force regime change wherever "rogue states" resist its diplomatic will. As Carter and Glastris wrote in their Washington Monthly article, "America has a choice. It can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both."

For many Americans, the de-escalation of American imperial ambition is an attractive alternative to further war and a conscripted army. But for the Bush Administration, this alternative is just as unthinkable as the draft. They are stuck, therefore, between Iraq and a hard place.

The solution thus far has involved a contradictory and unstable set of pronouncements and policies. Rhetorically, the administration has continued to reaffirm its commitment to a no-draft military and its promise to pursue "preventive wars" of all sorts. At the same time, its officials have taken specific steps meant to give them added flexibility. As Reeves has documented, they have been quietly erecting the Selective Service System (SSS) needed for a future draft. In March, the SSS issued a report assuring the president that "it would be ready to implement a draft within 75 days" after Congressional authorization. Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, told reporter Eric Rosenberg of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the SSS already has in place "a special system to register and draft health care personnel" and that they were undertaking active planning for "a special skills draft" aimed at computer programmers and language specialists. These programs would be ready for implementation any time the need arose.

News of this high level of preparedness has added to already widespread rumors of a renewed draft, and has fed speculation that the government was perhaps waiting for a dramatic event which would justify the draft without jeopardizing support for the war -- perhaps an internal terrorist attack, or an authentic (or U.S. precipitated) crisis elsewhere.

Fitted together with this posture of waiting is a shift in military tactics in Iraq. General Richard Cody, the Army's second ranking general, told New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt that "a shift from combat operations" to American "leadership" over Iraqi troops has been underway since the January 30 election. Babakr Badarkhan Ziabri, the Iraqi commanding general, told the Arabic language paper Al-Zaman that American troops would withdraw into bases within six months, emerging only when Iraqi troops needed support, but avoiding offensive operations.

While this military strategy could slow or halt the disintegration of the forces stationed there (and lessen the wear and tear on their dangerously fraying equipment), it has already proven quite detrimental for the "pacification" effort. In early April, for example, the Washington Post quoted U.S. officials conceding that "many attacks have gone unchallenged by Iraqi forces in large areas of the country dominated by insurgents." At the same time, the Shia resistance, led by young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's forces, has re-emerged as a major force in many cities of the South.

These new strategies, therefore, are likely in the long run to further erode the U.S. military position and strengthen the resistance, and so may lead -- as Nixon's Vietnamization program did decades ago -- to the increased use of American air power against resistance strongholds. Such a strategy would promise an intolerable rate of civilian casualties, as well as the devastation of homes and neighborhoods wherever the resistance is strong. This, in turn, would, of course, only heighten support for the guerrillas and increase pressure on American forces.

The Bush administration is likely to find itself increasingly trapped between Iraq and a hard place, wound in an ever-tightening knot of failing policy and falling support, at the heart of which lies a decision about reconstituting a draft. How this will resolve itself will be one of the complex dramas of our time.

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