Thursday, December 23, 2004


U.S. assumptions continue to be dashed on the I-rock of reality

While the media remain focussed on the presumed upcoming Iraqi election—just as the Bush administration would have them do—the situation in Iraq is going to hell in a handbasket.

On the PBS NewsHour, as a tip to the Mosul bombing, Gwen Ifill interviewed Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Ralph Peters, a retired lieutenant-colonel.

Peters turned rapturous about the election—

But they do... they are different organizations with different people, different long-term goals, but the one thing they do share in common is they want to derail the January elections in Iraq any way they can because while even a partial success, a badly flawed election is a serious defeat for the terrorists and for the Sunni and Arab insurgents because it just proves [sic] the idea that America is only there to conquer and we're only there for the oil.

And by the way, this will be... no matter how flawed that election is in January, no matter how flawed, that will be the first outside of Israel, the first free election between the Nile and the Euphrates.

And there are plenty of people who don't want it to happen.

This may be true—that many insurgents don't want the election—but it is also either of minor significance or irrelevant. I would suggest that holding an election will not curtail this insurgency nor is the prevention of an election the primary motivation of the insurgents.

It is convenient for the Bushies to hold out the election as the impetus for the increasing violence, as a smokescreen for their ineptitude, just as they previously held out Saddam's continued liberty as the cause.

Pollack got it right—

I think that the administration's characterization of who the principal groups within the insurgency is dead wrong.

Calling these guys Baathist dead-enders is ridiculous. First, there probably hasn't been a real Baathist in Iraq since about 1958. Baathism is not a political philosophy that guided Saddam Hussein's regime or anyone in Iraq for that matter.

There is the truth in the sense that many of these people were former members of the regime but they're not fighting us because they were former members of the regime or because they were Baathists.

They're homegrown Sunni and Shia fundamentalists like Muqtada al-Sadr. There are a whole range of groups; the one thing they have in common is they all hate us and they all want us out.

An election will not change the insurgents' hatred of the U.S. presence one whit, nor will it lessen the violence.

Peters continued to speak of the insurgency in strategic terms—

They know they've lost the Kurdish North. And they're looking even beyond the election to a possible break up of Iraq, maybe to seizing power again.

But they don't want to lose Mosul. That was a traditional Kurdish city. Saddam Arab-ized it. And they're determined that at a minimum, Mosul will be retained as a frontier outpost for the Sunni Arabs.

And Pollack rejoined with a socio-political perspective—

I don't know if Ralph would agree or disagree with this. But when I think about the center of gravity in this insurgency, I'm very concerned that we've not focused ourselves on the right center of gravity.

This is a true insurgency. My reading of history is that the true insurgency, the center of gravity is not a physical location; it's not even a military issue.

It is the political and economic wellbeing of the country. It is the political and economic grievances of the population.

We have alienated the Sunni tribesmen of Iraq. They are perhaps only 8-10 percent of Iraq's population but they do control a big chunk of territory.

As long as the population feels dispossessed, they're going to continue to allow the insurgency to thrive.

And historically the only way that you defeat an insurgency is by removing the underlying political and economic grievances that give rise to it.

If you don't do that, it doesn't matter how many insurgents you kill.

Lt.-Col. Peters was a good stand-in for Rumsfeld—

In real life there are sometimes losers. But I do agree with Ken that the center of gravity shifts and ultimately for me the center of gravity is the will.

Can you break their will? That's a big question, Gwen.

If that's the question, we've lost. The American people will not and cannot continue to support an invasion of another country when it means continued loss of American life. It is only the Bushies' insistence that we're there to "fight terrorism" that keeps the public addled, but the rationale is beginning to wear thin. Eventually people notice that we're losing more people to "fighting terrorism" than we are to terrorism.

Military outsourcing

The idea that the military could outsource some logistical functions to the private sector was promoted by Cheney during the administration of Bush Sr. and allowed to continue during the Clinton era, but it was the Neo-Cons who coupled the idea to their fantasies and their greed and really went bonkers. The fantasy was that our high-tech marvel of a military would be fighting "clean" wars from now on, wars that would allow the contractors in at their convenience. The greed came from their association, both now and in some hoped-for lucrative future, with Halliburton and a host of "security" firms.

It is here that Lt.-Col. Peters had a devastating comment to offer—

Well, what mystified me when I heard about this, Gwen, was that even in maneuvers back in the Cold War days when you were just playing war, you got your chow and you dispersed because in war if an artillery shell would hit you wanted them to kill two or three or four soldiers at most, not forty or fifty or sixty or eighty.

And what's clearly happened in Iraq is we violated our own rules about troop dispersion in wartime. I suspect it has to do with outsourcing. This mess hall, mess facility, chow hall was run by a contractor.

And, instead of security, what we saw was convenience and efficiency. But it just baffled me that this base and this chow hall specifically, dining facility as we term it now, PC version, it had been attacked before with rocket fire, with mortars.

And we were still crowding these troops not even staggering the schedules. It just astonished me.

This is the first bleep on the media radar, at least of which I'm aware, that outsourcing has actually caused deaths. But I believe there is a chain of logic that shows that many more deaths—perhaps our very presence in Iraq—may be laid at the feet of this policy.

We have to ask why soldiers are being asked to transport supplies in unarmored vehicles and killed for want of armor. Why wasn't the need for armored transport vehicles anticipated? The answer, it seems to me, has to do with outsourcing.

Rumsfeld and Cheney waved their fairy wands and said "Halliburton will take care of that." This is what was known as "planning." Hence no need for armored transports was anticipated. What this privatization of many logistical functions did was allow the Neo-Con idiots to assume that they didn't have to think about them at all. If they had thought about them, they might have concluded that we were not adequately equipped for this war and either delayed the invasion or sought other means to their goals. (Perhaps I exaggerate by suggesting that the Neo-Cons might have come to some other conclusion, but I do not believe it an exaggeration to say that the Pentagon generals might have been more forceful in presenting their caveats to the war.)

Reconstruction outsourcing

The rebuilding of Iraq, such a plum for many an American firm, has turned into a prune. Now the first American company has withdrawn. According to the AP,

Contrack International led a coalition of firms working on a $325 million contract to rebuild Iraq's roads, bridges and railways. Contrack withdrew from that contract last month after a surge in attacks on reconstruction efforts, said Lt. Col. Eric Schnaible of the Pentagon's project and contract office in Baghdad.

"It's hard to do construction in a place where people are shooting at you or intimidating your work force," Schnaible said by phone. "It's a challenge across the country."

And who's taking over their role? Why the military!

The office has taken over management of about 18 subcontractors working on transportation projects, Schnaible said.

And what might this bode?

[Schnaible] said Contrack's pullout was "a mutually agreed-to separation" and did not signal a larger movement by U.S. companies to abandon Iraq.

Of course it doesn't.

But NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports that "up to 60% of funds spent on some projects was going into security." Then there's the overhead of the delays. Basically, it's hard for these guys to make the money they had anticipated.

Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying—

It's pretty bad news.... This is certainly the largest American firm to pull out. And in the past a lot of these companies have been afraid to do so for fear of being blackballed, for fear of seeming disloyal, abandoning the effort, etc. and that it would harm their future contracts. So by doing this, in a sense, the worry is that it opens the floodgates for other companies to pull out.

Kathleen Schalch concludes—

Singer predicts that Contrack's experience could push reconstruction costs even higher as other contractors demand more money to compensate for problems and risks they're likely to face.

Note that Contrack actually withdrew last month. The military has been keeping it under wraps. Contrack's withdrawal has just now been "confirmed" to the media.


The NewsHour opened its segment last night with film-clips of Bush, Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard Myers and Lt. Gen. John Sattler. The tenor of the message was that things are getting better but that we shouldn't hold our breath. But Sattler was positive. He said of Fallujah—

We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency and we have taken away this safe haven.

But Nick Wadhams of Newsday begins his Iraq update today with this

U.S. Marines battled insurgents in Fallujah on Thursday with warplanes dropping bombs and tanks shelling suspected guerrilla positions, causing deaths on both sides, as the first 200 residents returned to the battered city.

Fallujans lined up in cars and on foot at checkpoints, brandishing documents to Iraqi police to show they had the right to re-enter the city. Once inside, they returned to the remains of bombed-out and looted homes, some with bodies still inside from weeks of fighting.

Sounds like we've got matters well in hand there.

Wadhams' account moves from the tragic to the downright comic—

Authorities had planned on Thursday to allow the return of 2,000 residents -- the first wave of tens of thousands who want to come back after being displaced by last month's bloody U.S.-led offensive to retake the rebel stronghold. But by the afternoon, only about 200 actually made the trip, some on foot, officials said Thursday.

Officials said the slow start was probably because people didn't know they were allowed in. More were expected after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday.

"Most of them get their information from the mosques so we think that tomorrow they'll get the word out more," he said.

That must surely be the explanation.

Meanwhile in Mosul...

According to Newsweek's Wadhams,

Early Thursday, hundreds of U.S. troops, Iraqi National Guards and Kurdish militiamen were seen in the streets of Mosul moving around in Bradley Fighting vehicles. In some eastern neighborhoods they searched homes for weapons. One of the city's five bridges over the Tigris River reopened Thursday, after all were blocked off by U.S. troops a day earlier.

One little trick currently being played by the administration is to speak of relatively unpopulated areas of Iraq as equivalent to the populated sectors. Here is Rumsfeld at his press briefing this past Wednesday—

We know that in terms of the totality of the country, some 18 provinces, that somewhere between 12 and 14 of them have relatively low levels of violence -- the north, the south -- and we know that four provinces have relatively high levels of violence. And the task is to have the violence reduced in those remaining four provinces. And I should add that those four provinces have higher population, one of them being Baghdad.

Shorter version: We're only having problems where the people are.

The point to be noted here is that Mosul is from three to four times the size of Fallujah and has a population of over a million. If Mosul goes the way of Fallujah, will they destroy it too?

Previous posts
Will kidnappings alter the Iraqi employment situation? (updated)
Iraqi insurgents now extending their targets
No court martial for recalcitrant troops
Campaigning, Iraq-style
The Iraq airlift has begun

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