Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Doleful Fifth

Five years – half a decade – of combat in Iraq started in earnest on this date in 2003.

That, at any rate is how Washington sees the situation. But I seem to recall that western combat aircraft – mostly U.S., a number of British, and for a while some French – had been flying over the northern and southern thirds of Iraq almost from the end of hostilities of the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in February 1991.

During those 12 years the western air forces had zero fatalities. How many Iraqis, whether soldiers manning tactical radar and missile defense sites or Iraqi civilians in the wrong place during a fly-over – were killed by munitions launched by the allied aircraft will never be known. (Nor will the deaths caused by the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq ever be more than general estimates.)

Today the current President Bush spoke at the Pentagon on the “progress” and the current conditions in Iraq. It was in tone remarkably aggressive and defiant – a challenge as ill-advised as his “bring ‘em on” remark of July 2003. Needless to say, the audience was sympathetic – at least to judge from the occasional applause.

That this would not be an apology of any kind was apparent from the outset of the speech, In answer to his own rhetorical questions (attributed to the public), Bush affirmed his decision for war as something the U.S. had to do, as a war that could and had to be won, and that it was worth the cost.

As in the past, Bush’s assertions have no evidentiary backing or substance to them. Yes, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his sons has been broken, but only to be replaced by the tyranny of sectarian and ethnic warfare whose end point, if any, is lost in the mists of future time.

Bush also declared that with Saddam gone, the world is better and the U.S. is safer. Again, the assertion assumes that whatever the U.S.-led coalition has done in and to Iraq and Iraqis has been less evil than what Saddam might have done. I suggest that this is another highly biased “western” viewpoint intended to soothe the public’s conscience. Psychologically, if one is doomed to suffer, most people would choose someone they know or with whom there is a connection over a complete stranger who might well be unassuagable

Conversely, the president has never spoken truer words than these: “The battle in Iraq has been longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated.” Since March 19, 2003, 3,990 U.S. military personnel fighting or supporting the fighting forces assigned to Operation Iraqi Freedom have lost their lives. Fatalities from coalition countries have reached 308. Since January 2005, Iraq security force losses are reported to be more than 8,000 while civilian dead from the same starting date are put at 40,000. (One UK organization estimates Iraqi civilian fatalities since the war began total 89,000). Iraqi deaths for March are 538 with nearly two weeks still to go in the month. The latest update from the Pentagon lists 29, 314 U.S. soldiers wounded.

In January 2003 the Pentagon said the war would cost $50-60 billion but that reconstruction of the country would be financed by oil sales by a liberated Iraq. The Congressional Research Service’s latest estimate of war costs is an order of magnitude greater – $526 billion – and that does not count the estimated $172 billion in the 2009 Defense appropriations request and supplemental appropriations bill.

The cost of long-term rehabilitation and medical costs for wounded U.S. veterans is nearly $600 billion. The added interest on the debt for putting the war on credit is another $600 billion, and the Pentagon says it will need nearly $300 billion to rebuild.

Only World War II has cost more in national treasure than the Iraq war.

Yet, according to Bush, “The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory.”

The public doesn’t by it. In the latest surveys, 66% of respondents continue to oppose the war and 61% say additional troop withdrawals should begin within months of the inauguration of the new president.

Bush’s other claim is that the surge in 2007 worked: fatalities are down for all groups; Baghdad is calmer; al-Anbar province is quieter; al-Qaeda has had to retreat to Mosul, where coalition and Iraqi forces will bring them to heel. In fact, Bush insisted that the “Surge has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror.”

The purpose of the surge was to relieve pressure on Iraqi politicians so that they could institute needed reforms, propel reconciliation, and break the political logjam that has existed from the opening days of the parliament. None of that has happened, and now that the “surge” is in the process of ebbing, casualties among the Iraqis are rising again.

This is victory?


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