On Sunday, in a front-page New York Times piece (“U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself“), John Burns and Kirk Semple reported that a federal “interagency working group,” looking into the finances of the various branches of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, had come to the conclusion that it was now financially self-sustaining. No need for old Ba’athist funds, no need to look outside the country. Some combination of oil thievery, ransom funds from kidnappings, counterfeiting, and money from “corrupt Islamic charities” has, according the secret government document slipped to the Times reporters, left it with, if anything, a surplus of funds.
The working group estimated though other experts claim that it’s pure speculation in the darkness of remarkable ignorance about the insurgency and its financial resources that the various rebellious factions were raising between $70 million and $200 million a year.
Let’s forget for a moment the speculative, not to say unreliable nature of these figures, and instead consider the larger context. The Times reporters, in fact, took a striking stab at this though deep inside the paper in the following paragraph:
“The group’s estimate of the financing for the insurgency, even taking the higher figure of $200 million, underscores the David and Goliath nature of the war. If the $200 million a year estimate is close to the mark, it amounts to less than what it costs the Pentagon, with an $8 billion monthly budget for Iraq, to sustain the American war effort here for a single day.”
Philip Morrison, the nuclear scientist, once wrote a whole text on size and context: Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. Let’s see if, in his spirit, we can add a few zeroes to the Times figures.
A while back, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes tried to tote up the long-term costs of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, based on an American troop withdrawal somewhere between 2010 and 2015. Their most conservative estimate of total costs to the United States: $1 trillion. Their “moderate” estimate: $2.2 trillion.
So let’s be conservative. At those levels of funding, assuming that Iraq’s Sunni fighters continue to motor their movement at the financial upper levels of the secret interagency estimate $200 million their insurgency could run for another 5,000 years.
Or perhaps we should subtract some zeroes and enter the micro-world of the U.S. military. If you gave the U.S. Army that $200 million dollars raised by the insurgents by hook or crook and told them to spend it as they wished actually, they’ve recently done just that. This October, the Army signed onto a $200 million (yep, that’s $200,000,000) a year contract with the McCann Worldgroup ad agency to launch an “Army Strong” ad campaign aimed at bringing into the fold those ever more resistant recruits needed to fight the Iraqi insurgency.
Imagine how strong “Insurgent Strong” must be then, since Iraq’s ragtag, minority insurgency continues to fight the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (all of whom have their own ad contracts) to a standstill for a mere $200 million.
Talk about “standing up” some Iraqi fighters.
This piece originally ran on The Nation‘s blog.