No guarantee for success,

says Iraq Study Group


The Iraq Study Group report [1], published on 6 December 2006, is brutally frank about the catastrophe that Bush and Blair have visited upon Iraq.  It is completely devoid of the optimistic spin that they have continuously spewed out.  The word “victory” is conspicuously absent.


The President’s grandiose ambition of bringing democracy to the Middle East, beginning with Iraq, is dismissed in one sentence:


Most of the region’s countries are wary of US efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and the Middle East.” (p 28)


Bush and Blair constantly portray the holding of two elections and referendum as a great success for their policy of spreading democracy.  The Study Group mentions this “success” only to point out that it hasn’t produced a functional government.


The Study Group sets the goal for US policy as follows:


“We agree with the goal of US policy in Iraq, as stated by the President: an Iraq that can ‘govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself’.” (p 40)


This modest goal is barely recognisable as having come out of the President’s mouth - it did, on 25 October 2006 [2].  But the Study Group expresses little confidence that it can be achieved, even if all 79 of its recommendations are implemented in full.


Grave and deteriorating

The Executive Summary of the report begins:


“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved.”  (p xiii)


It goes on:


“If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe.” (p xiv)


Nearly half of the report is taken up with a formal assessment of the present situation, written in clear, precise language, and almost entirely without bullshit.  The assessment begins:


“There is no guarantee for success in Iraq. The situation in Baghdad and several provinces is dire. ... The level of violence is high and growing. There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement. Pessimism is pervasive.  ... the ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing” (p 1)


On the provision of services, it says:


“The Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education. In many sectors, production is below or hovers around prewar levels. In Baghdad and other unstable areas, the situation is much worse.” (p 20)


Attacks persistent and growing

On the security situation, it says:


“Attacks against U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi security forces are persistent and growing. October 2006 was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since January 2005, with 102 Americans killed. Total attacks in October 2006 averaged 180 per day, up from 70 per day in January 2006. Daily attacks against Iraqi security forces in October were more than double the level in January. Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month.” (p 3)


Furthermore, it says that there is “significant underreporting of the violence”, implying that the Bush administration has been hiding the seriousness of the situation from the US Congress and the American people:


“A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” (p 95)


There is a frank admission that the Sunni insurgency against US/UK occupation is home grown and popular:


“Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency. The insurgency comprises former elements of the Saddam Hussein regime, disaffected Sunni Arab Iraqis, and common criminals. It has significant support within the Sunni Arab community.” (p 3)


Of Al Qaeda, it says:


“Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts: suicide attacks, large truck bombs, and attacks on significant religious or political targets. Al Qaeda in Iraq is now largely Iraqi-run and composed of Sunni Arabs.” (p 4)


In other words, all those stories from Bush and Blair about Al Qaeda in Iraq being due to Syria allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq, were mostly bullshit.  Al Qaeda in Iraq is now largely home grown too.


A final point: the report is scathing about the lack of language skills amongst American personnel working in Iraq:


“All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency. In a conflict that demands effective and efficient communication with Iraqis, we are often at a disadvantage. There are still far too few Arab language–proficient military and civilian officers in Iraq, to the detriment of the U.S. mission.” (p 92)


Neo-conservative dominance

The publication of Study Group report, and the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, mark the end of the neo-conservative dominance of US foreign policy, which began with 9/11.  There has been a kind of coup in US foreign policy making, in which the “realists” who ran the President’s father’s foreign policy have finally reasserted themselves. 


Chief amongst the “realists” is James Baker, the co-chair of the Study Group, who was his father’s Secretary of State.  The new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates (who was a member of the Study Group before his appointment) also served in his father’s administration as deputy National Security Advisor under Brent Scowcroft, until his father appointed him director of the CIA.  A Task Force on Iran which he co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, recommended in July 2004 that the US reverse its 25-year policy of refusing to engage diplomatically with to Iran (see the Task Force report Iran: Time for a New Approach [3]).  These people are no less imperialist than the neo-conservatives, and they are much smarter about the application of US economic and military power in the furtherance US interests.


The report demonstrates with brutal frankness that the neo-conservative inspired invasion of Iraq has been a disaster that has been highly damaging to US interests.  The report doesn’t specifically state that it was very foolish of the President to follow neo-conservative advice and invade Iraq - on this question, the members of the Study Group refuse to comment - but the message is as plain as a pikestaff: this was an awful mistake, for which the US is going to have to pay, in a variety of ways, for a long time.


The report doesn’t mention Vietnam, but the shadow of Vietnam hangs over it and probably accounts for its brutal frankness.  US commentators of a certain vintage have been saying that it was a great pity that a report of similar candour wasn’t produced on Vietnam around 1968 and the impossibility of “victory” accepted then, rather than 5 years later, after tens of thousands more Americans (and millions more Vietnamese) had died.


Of course, the Study Group doesn’t propose the withdrawal of US troops immediately or soon.  But, it expresses little confidence that the measures it proposes will bring about the modest goal it sets for US policy, namely, an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.  The unanswered question in the report is why not pull out now, and be done with it. 


Study Group recommendations

The Study Groups recommendations fall under two headings (a) The External Approach: Building an International Consensus, and (b) The Internal Approach: Helping Iraqis Help Themselves.


The “external” recommendations, which include the involvement of Iran and Syria, seem to be there to signal the start of a new era in US foreign policy towards the Middle East, where military action, and threats of military action, are replaced by diplomatic engagement.  The Study Group cannot possibly expect that such engagement now will make much difference to what’s going on inside Iraq, even if Iran and Syria were willing to “help” (whatever that means).


It is worth remembering that, a year ago, having been authorised by President Bush, the US Ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, requested a meeting with Iran to talk about Iraqi matters, but no meeting has taken place.  The Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, has responded to the latest request for “help” by saying that when the US has decide to withdraw then, of course, Iran will help [4].  And quite right too.


As for the internal measures, here the Study Group dispenses with the pretence that there has been a sovereign Iraqi government since June 2004 and prescribes 50 or more things the Iraqi government must do, otherwise the US will stop supporting it.


As usual, there is much talk about intensifying the training of Iraqi security forces, so that they can take over the job that US/UK forces are now doing.  In this, the report talks the same bullshit as Bush and Blair have been doing for years, ignoring the obvious fact that, since the insurgency is a product of the US/UK occupation, the insurgency will end when the occupation ends.  This may seem an obvious point, but it is never made in the never ending chatter about building up the Iraqi security forces to take over when the occupation forces are withdrawn. 


Of course, it would be optimistic to expect that sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis would end when the occupation ends.  But there is some reason to be hopeful.  An element in Sunni antagonism towards Shias is that they perceive Shias as “collaborators”, because they have been more prepared to work with the occupiers and to help the occupiers suppress the Sunni insurgency.  The sooner the occupation ends, the sooner this factor fuelling the Sunni/Shia antagonism will end, and the sooner will the possibility that they can reach a modus vivendi open up.



David Morrison

26 December 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review




[1]  See



[4]  See Beirut Daily Star Iran demands major US policy shift in return for help on Iraq at