Iraq:  Is the US about to declare victory and leave?


In a speech at the Annapolis Naval College on 30 November 2005, President Bush set out what he asserted was “a clear strategy for victory” in Iraq.  He uttered the word “victory” fifteen times in his speech, declaring:


“We will never back down. We will never give in. And we will never accept anything less than complete victory.”


The speech was one of four the President delivered on Iraq in the weeks leading up to the Iraqi election on 15 December 2005.  At the same time, the White House National Security Council published a 38-page document entitled The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.


This flurry of activity by the administration on the Iraq issue was in response to the growing popular opposition to the war, which has arisen because there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.  This is the major factor in extremely low poll ratings for the President himself, which has begun to worry Republicans with mid-term Congress elections less than twelve months away.


Murtha speaks out

The Iraq issue was brought into sharp focus in mid-November by Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who made a blunt and cogent case for the withdrawal of US troops as soon as possible.  Murtha is a Vietnam veteran with a long career in the US Marine Corps, who has been a supporter of the military in Congress since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, so his remarks were difficult to dismiss out of hand by the administration (though it tried to do so initially).


Murtha’s intervention began on 17 November 2005 with a statement entitled The War in Iraq, which called for an immediate redeployment of US forces from Iraq, and he proposed a resolution in the House of Representatives to put this into effect.  He followed this up with a long explanatory letter on why he adopted this position on 14 December 2005.  You can watch an interview with him on BBC Newsnight on 16 December 2005 here.


Both of his documents are well worth reading.  They are not the work of someone who wants to end, or even reduce, US military intervention in this world, unlike most critics of the war.  He just thinks that the particular intervention in Iraq has served US interests badly – and should be ended as soon as possible.


He criticises the ever shifting justification for the intervention, beginning with the non-existent threat from Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”.  He doesn’t buy the Bush mantra, repeated in his speech on 30 November 2005, that Iraq is “the central front in the war on terror”.  On the contrary, he argues that the intervention in Iraq has stirred up antagonism to the US in the Middle East and acted as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda with no gain to the US, while putting the US military under immense strain.


He says bluntly that the insurgency is a consequence of the US presence, which is obviously true:


“Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency.  They are united against US forces and we have become a catalyst for violence.  US troops are the common enemy of the Sunnis, Saddamists and foreign jihadists.     A poll recently conducted shows that over 80% of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops, and about 45% of the Iraqi population believe attacks against American troops are justified.  I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis.”


He quotes the US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, and his boss, the head of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid, expressing similar sentiments to Congress in September 2005.  (I think this was to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 29 September 2005, but I haven’t been able to confirm it).  According to Murtha, Casey said on this occasion:


“… the perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency.”


and Abizaid said:


“Reducing the size and visibility of the coalition forces in Iraq is a part of our counterinsurgency strategy.”


There is an obvious conclusion from this: reduce the size and visibility to nil by redeploying them out of Iraq and over the horizon, as Murtha proposes.


“Progress” in Iraq

There’s a devastating passage in his press statement on recent “progress” in Iraq, based, he says, on an official report by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:


Last May 2005, as part of the Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill, the House included the Moran Amendment, which was accepted in Conference, and which required the Secretary of Defense to submit quarterly reports to Congress in order to more accurately measure stability and security in Iraq.  We have now received two reports.


“I am disturbed by the findings in key indicator areas.  Oil production and energy production are below pre-war levels.  Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation.  Only $9 billion of the $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent.  Unemployment remains at about 60 percent.  Clean water is scarce.  Only $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects has been spent.


“And most importantly, insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to over 700 in the last year.  Instead of attacks going down over time and with the addition of more troops, attacks have grown dramatically.  Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled.    An annual State Department report in 2004 indicated a sharp increase in global terrorism.”


And there’s an equally devastating piece on the state of the military:


“The threat posed by terrorism is real, but we have other threats that cannot be ignored.  We must be prepared to face all threats.   The future of our military is at risk.  Our military and their families are stretched thin.  Many say that the Army is broken.  Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards.


“Defense budgets are being cut.  Personnel costs are skyrocketing, particularly in health care.  Choices will have to be made.  We can not allow promises we have made to our military families in terms of service benefits, in terms of their health care, to be negotiated away.  Procurement programs that ensure our military dominance cannot be negotiated away.  We must be prepared.  The war in Iraq has caused huge shortfalls at our bases in the U.S.


It was against this background of low popular support for the war in Iraq, plus a blunt demand to end it from a figure who is respected in military circles (and probably speaks for a large segment of the military) that Bush set out his “strategy for victory” in Iraq.


Victory to be declared?

For reasons which I set out below, it seems to me that the President’s “victory” speeches are a prelude to the US declaring victory in Iraq and getting out unconditionally, the timing being determined by the need to show light at the end of the tunnel to the US public before next November’s Congress elections.  My guess is that, over the next year or so, the US will gradually declare more and more Iraqi security forces fit to “take over” from US forces, whose numbers will be gradually reduced (and, needless to say, Britain will follow suit).


The victory will not be entirely a hollow one, even though it will have been forced upon the US by the Sunni insurgency.  It will not be entirely hollow, since Saddam Hussein has been removed from power and the Ba’athist state he established has been destroyed.  With that, the possibility of a strong Arab state being established in Iraq has been eliminated for the foreseeable future.  If Iraq hangs together as a state, which is by no means certain, it will be a very weak state.  That is a positive gain for the US and its allies.


Britain and France balkanised the Middle East at the end of the first world war, carving a series of artificial states out of the Ottoman Empire.  A possible outcome of the US/UK invasion of Iraq will be the further balkanisation, with three states within the present territory of Iraq instead of one.  If this happens, the US and its allies will not mind: small, weak states are easier to kick around and exploit.


Tactical retreat

Whatever happens, the US will have gained, but it will have gained much less than it hoped when it invaded in March 2003.  What did it hope to gain?  The neoconservatives, who were the driving force behind the project, seem to have got carried away with their own rhetoric and convinced themselves that the US troops would be greeted as liberators, and that therefore the establishment of an Iraqi government friendly to the US was a given.  They expected that such a government would be happy to host a raft of US military bases, would implement neoliberal economic reforms and invite US oil companies to exploit Iraqi oil and supply US demand for oil.  Another hope was that a friendly Iraqi government could eventually be persuaded, against Iraqi interests, to opt out of OPEC and, when oil production got going again in a big way, drive down the price of oil by over supply.


If the US does disengage in the near future, it remains to be seen to what extent any Iraqi government (or governments) will do the bidding of the US thereafter.  However, it doesn’t seem that the neoconservatives will get much of their wish list before the US departs, and to that extent the US victory will be hollow.


But my guess is that a decision has been made to beat a tactical retreat from Iraq for now, with a view to more indirect non-military intervention at a later date.  Even if the US doesn’t leave permanent military bases behind, it doesn’t mean that US bases will never be established in Iraq.  And even if US oil companies don’t get their hands on Iraqi oil before US troops depart, it may happen later.


The US has rarely exercised power by direct rule, as it has done in Iraq since March 2003.  Its predominance in this world has been achieved by acting through intermediaries.  It has bases in around 130 (out of less than 200) states in this world without ruling them directly.


Negotiation with insurgents

As I said, my guess is that the US is going to withdraw unconditionally over the next year or so.  What is the evidence for this?


First, there has been a distinct shift in the US attitude to the insurgency.  Bush’s The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq is full of the usual bull about Iraq being “the central front in the global war on terror”, which makes “victory in Iraq a vital US interest” (p2,3).  But, implicit in it is a recognition that the insurgency is a consequence of the US presence – and , once that is recognised, there has to be some other overriding reason to escape the logical conclusion that the US presence should be ended, as Murtha has concluded.


The document identifies three elements in the insurgency, which it describes as “rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaida” which share a common opposition to “presence of Coalition forces” (p6), that is, the US presence.


Of these, “rejectionists are the largest group” and “are largely Sunni Arabs who have not embraced the shift from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to a democratically governed state”, but are judged to be capable of being brought into the political process.  Underlying this is the naïve assumption that taking part in the political process is incompatible with continuing military action against the invader.  As the republican movement in Ireland has proved, a strategy of operating with “the IED in one hand and the ballot box in the other” is perfectly feasible.


(They would be very foolish to abandon armed insurgency since that would only encourage the invader to stay: if the insurgency had not emerged in the autumn of 2003, much to Paul Bremer’s surprise, he now says, he would still be in his palace in Baghdad as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.)

The US is now devoting great effort to woo this section of the insurgency.  This effort is being led by the US Ambassdor in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, who, along with the military commanders on the ground, seems to be the author of the modified US strategy (see, for example, a Newsweek article of 5 December 2005, entitled The New Way Out).  Khalilzad, who is Afghan by background (he is a Pashtun), used to be US Ambassador in Kabul.

President Bush has authorised Khalilzad to talk to this element of the insurgents, that is, to people responsible for killing Americans.  He was interviewed about this by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition on 11 December 2005, just before the Iraqi election (see transcript here).  When Blitzer asked:


“So when [Bush’s National Security Adviser] Stephen Hadley says you can meet with insurgents, but not with those that have blood on their hands, what exactly do you understand that means?”


Khalilzad replied:


“Well, those that we know have directly participated in killing Americans, have committed crimes against Iraqi people, we will not deal with those and meet with those. But in a broad term, only two groups, the terrorists and their associates, the Zarqawi folks and the jihadists and the Saddamists, are the ones that we will not negotiate with.


“But others, in a general way, with that caveat that you referred to, we’re willing to talk to, we’re willing to deal with their legitimate concerns, we’re willing to facilitate their participation in the political process and encourage them to seek a resolution of disputes, to seek the pursuing of their interests through the political process. And on that score, we’re making progress.”


The distinction between “rejectionists”, with whom negotiations are permitted, and “Saddamists” (defined in The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq as people who “harbor dreams of reestablishing a Ba’athist dictatorship”) with whom negotiations aren’t permitted, is a distinction without a difference, but it is useful for presentational purposes.  It would be difficult for the US to admit that it is talking to Saddam Hussein loyalists.  It is bad enough to have to admit that it is talking to people responsible for the deaths of American troops.


Talking to Iran

Another pointer to US desperation about their position in Iraq is that President Bush has authorised Khalilzad to talk directly to Iran about Iraqi issues.  This was first revealed in the Newsweek article mentioned above, which says:


“To secure the country with so few troops, Khalilzad and [General] Casey [the US commander in Iraq] have had to swallow their pride. They are making compromises with Sunni supporters of the insurgency that would have been unthinkable a year ago. President Bush is also doing what he has been loath to do: asking neighboring countries for help, even the rabid anti-American Islamists in Tehran. Khalilzad revealed to NEWSWEEK that he has received explicit permission from Bush to begin a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, which has meddled politically in Iraq. ‘I’ve been authorized by the president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan directly’, says Khalilzad. ‘There will be meetings, and that’s also a departure and an adjustment.’”


This is an extraordinary shift in US policy towards Iran: what is being proposed are one on one diplomatic meetings between the US and Iran of a kind that haven’t taken place since 1979.  (The contacts with Iran on Afghanistan, mentioned by Khalilzad, were of a different kind: they were through the UN-sponsored Six Plus Two group – the six states bordering Afghanistan, one of which is Iran, plus the US and Russia.)


There has been no confirmation that any meetings have taken place, and there is even some doubt as to whether Iran is prepared to meet the US about Iraqi issues.  Khalilzad told Wolf Blitzer on 11 December 2005 that no meetings had taken place, but that discussions were ongoing about the “modalities” of such meetings.


On training “Iraqi security forces”

The official US/UK story about withdrawal from Iraq is that troops will be withdrawn as and when Iraqi security forces have been “trained” to “take over” the security role now undertaken by “coalition forces”.


This is a convenient piece of codswallop, convenient because it allows the US/UK to withdraw at the time of their choosing – by declaring at any time that the desired state of readiness has been reached.


It is codswallop in two ways.  First, since the insurgency is a product of occupation, security needs will alter dramatically once occupation ends.  Military activity directed against the occupiers will no longer be possible, so Iraqi security forces will not have to deal with the military activity directed against the occupiers.  This may seem an obvious point, but it is never made in the endless chatter about building up the Iraqi security forces to take over, so that US/UK forces can be “drawn down”.


Has the Prime Minister ever made this point?  Of course not, because to mention it is to beg the question as to why US/UK forces remain in Iraq, when they are generating an insurgency that wouldn’t exist if they weren’t there.  Keeping them there then looks like the irresponsible act of a Prime Minister, who is getting British troops killed and injured to no purpose.


Second, the notion of training Iraqi security forces is codswallop because Iraqi security forces, in the sense of forces loyal to, and under the command of, an Iraqi state don’t exist.  How can they when an Iraqi state, commanding the loyalty of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, doesn’t exist?  What seems to exist are Kurds and Shias (and perhaps a few Sunnis) in Iraqi uniform, with their own loyalties, and no amount of training will change this.


Khalilzad “thinks” …

On CNN’s Late Edition on 11 December 2005, Wolf Blitzer asked Zalmay Khalilzad to respond to Congressman Murtha’s proposal that US troops be withdrawn as soon as possible.  Khalilzad’s reply began by saying that “recalibration in the size and mission and composition of our force is desirable and will take place beginning next year”, in other words, Murtha’s demand would begin to be met in 2006.  He went on:


“But a total withdrawal within the time frame that he’s talking about will, in fact, result in several negative things to happen [sic]. One, there could be a Shia-Sunni civil war that could engulf the entire region. The Kurds, the scenario you talked about before, taking matters into their own hands, is another possibility. And a little mini state a la Talibastan in Afghanistan, in cooperation with Al Qaida, could take place in part of Iraq.


“There is a better way, one in which there is increased political participation, bringing the Sunnis in, building up Iraqi forces, and incrementally decreasing the size and mission of US forces, adjusting downward. And I think that’s a better way than a rapid withdrawal without those other circumstances that I talked about being in place.”


The contrast between this and Bush’s assertion that “we will never accept anything less than complete victory” is very marked.  Khalilzad “thinks” that staying a while longer is “a better way than a rapid withdrawal”, lest a Shia-Sunni civil war break out or a Talibistan be established in Iraq.  But the unanswered question is: how will staying a while longer make either of these less likely?  And if a reasonable answer cannot be given to this question, then the lives of US troops are being put at risk to no purpose.


If the US isn’t prepared to put up with ongoing expenditure of blood and treasure for no obvious gain, then sooner or later it will have to hand Iraq over to the elements that have been unleashed by the destruction of the Ba’athist state (and to the Kurds who have been outside the Ba’athist state since 1991).  What will happen then is unknowable, but this applies whether the handover is tomorrow or years hence.  The only difference is that fewer American lives will be lost if the handover is tomorrow.  The US hope that the Sunni insurgency can be brought to an end by drawing Sunnis into the political process is unlikely to succeed – while the occupation lasts it’s odds on that Sunni insurgency will continue, not least because they know they’re winning.


Handover happening

In a sense, the handover is already happening: in many parts of Iraq, the occupation forces are “bystanders”, to use Peter Oborne’s description in his excellent Channel 4 Dispatches programme, Iraq: The Reckoning, broadcast on 17 November 2005 (which can be watched here).  The forces that have been unleashed by the invasion are in charge and there is very little the occupation forces can do to influence events on the ground, despite their military muscle, even if they want to.


Events in Basra on 19 September 2005, when two SAS soldiers were arrested by Iraqi police, brought home the reality that Shia militias (Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)) are in charge on the ground and that there is a considerable overlap between them and the Basra police.  This arrangement was described in the British media as “infiltration” of the police by Shia militia, as if it had come about without the knowledge of the British occupation authorities.  It didn’t: it certainly came about with their knowledge, and probably with their encouragement, with a view to maintaining order in the Basra area at least cost to themselves.


On 9 December 2005, BBC Newsnight programme broadcast an item by Mark Urban, entitled Brits in Basra, which illustrated the inability of British forces to affect things on the ground today.  At the time of writing, you can still watch it here.   Most the activity illustrated was completely futile.  The bit that sticks in my mind is an attempt by Scottish soldiers to persuade Iraqi police to patrol at night somewhere in Basra.  It showed heavily protected soldiers in armoured vehicles making their way to a police station, arriving unannounced lest advance notice of their arrival be passed to people who do not have their welfare at heart.  With reluctance, a grand total of three policemen were persuaded to patrol for a while, accompanied by 10 Scottish soldiers.  It was an exercise in sheer futility.  It put the lives of soldiers at risk to no purpose whatsoever.


Peter Oborne’s programme produced evidence to show that the US has come to an arrangement with the Moqtada al-Sadr, allowing his Sadr Bureau to run Sadr City in Baghdad.  Captain Jason Novack, a US Army intelligence officer, explained on camera that a decision had been made at a level above his pay grade not to arrest Moqtada al-Sadr.  The upside for the US occupation authorities in this arrangement with Moqtada al-Sadr is that fewer US troops get killed.


A State Department official called James Jeffrey was interviewed on the programme.  Since October 2005, he has been Condoleeza Rice’s policy co-ordinator on Iraq.  Speaking about the Sunni insurgency, he said:


“We understand and accept that many of the people in this insurgency are indigenous guerrillas who are fighting, we think mistakenly, for a national pride or to bring back the old regime or to fight off what they think is Iranian threats or whatever or foreign occupation.   We believe that these people, there’s a good chance can be integrated back into the political system if they are given a chance to participate in the process. A good example of how that works is with the Army of Muqtada al Sadr.”


This confirms that the US has an arrangement with Moqtada al-Sadr, which it regards as a model for another with the Sunni insurgency.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

7 January 2006