Deluded Presidential Promises of Progress in Iraq

President George W. Bush held an hour-long video conference with Iraqi leaders on Monday and pronounced himself “impressed and reassured,” announced White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. The president believes that Iraqi “leaders are working together” on important issues.

Yes, President Bush has seen light at the end of the tunnel. He believes that we have turned the corner. He knows the dark of night is about to give way to the light of dawn. He thinks we have achieved a real turning point. What could be more obvious?

Of course, that’s what he has been telling us ever since he stood on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 and declared: “Mission Accomplished.” In March 2004 President Bush cheerfully told soldiers at Fort Campbell that “Because America and our allies acted, all the world is now seeing democracy rising in the heart of the Middle East.” Iraqi law now “guarantees basic rights for all: freedom of religion, the right to cast a secret ballot, and equality under the law. And these historic changes are sending a message across the region from Damascus to Tehran: Freedom is the future of every nation.”

As news from Iraq grew darker, President Bush continued to verbalize happy thoughts. Last June, for example, U.S. troops were on the move and Iraqi politicians were promising results. President Bush announced that “I sense something different happening in Iraq.” A few months later he dumped Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, before promising victory by escalating the war.

Now the president says he is “impressed and reassured.”

The Bush surge has been billed as a last resort, an escalation intended to reduce violence enough to help Iraqi politicians reach an accommodation. Give credit to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq: he’s experimenting with new tactics, rather than simply doing more of the failed same. Putting a good face on events in Iraq, he said that the extra troops had enabled “us now to launch operations into sanctuaries, areas in which we have had very little coalition force presence other than raids in recent years.”

Unfortunately, while it might be too early to call the Bush escalation a bust, there is little reason to believe that it will result in anything approaching “victory,” whatever that means. Adding five combat brigades to Iraq has had only a limited impact on the violence, and even that appears to be wearing off. And Iraqi politicians seem little inclined to make the compromises necessary to achieve genuine reconciliation. Indeed, the legislature is taking two months off this summer, as if it had completed its work and peaceful nirvana had replaced sectarian war. If this is the best Iraq is going to become, then why are U.S. troops still there?

Sadly, the president has been living in a dream world from the moment he first considered attacking Iraq. He imagined that the U.S. could magically implant liberal democracy in the Mideast with Iraqis cheerfully submitting to foreign rule. For a long time his officials reinforced the president’s message. But the president’s appointees suddenly seem to be edging away from him.

For instance, Ryan Cocker, the American ambassador in Baghdad, says that “the surge by itself does not fix the problem.” He calls the situation “a mixed picture, but certainly not a hopeless one.” Quite an endorsement.

Speaking of the Iraqi government, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says “that frankly we are disappointed by the progress so far.” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the operational commander in Iraq, admits that the authorities have full control of only 40 percent of Baghdad, despite the concentrated enforcement as part of the surge. The rest of Baghdad lacks outside control or suffers “a high level of violence.” This information hardly fills one with confidence.

Gen. Petraeus admitted on Fox News that “certainly it is a mix,” with the number of sectarian murders and car bombs in Baghdad falling but the overall number of attacks in Iraq rising. Moreover, he said that September is too soon to assess the impact of the troop increase. The many challenges facing the U.S. won’t even be resolved “in a year or even two years,” he contended. Petraeus pointed to British counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland which “have gone at least nine or ten years.” He also cited the long-term U.S. security guarantee for South Korea – now in its 54th year – as “probably a fairly realistic assessment” of what the U.S. would need to do. This judgment is really encouraging.

Last weekend the U.S. military initiated “Operation Arrowhead Ripper,” sending 10,000 troops into Diyala province, 31 miles northeast of Baghdad. The sweep is supposed to flush out and kill Al-Qaeda operatives. The early results were “positive,” explained Bobby Ghosh of Time magazine, by which he meant “the U.S. forces reported they had killed at least 22 insurgents.” At this rate even ten years obviously is a wildly optimistic estimate for pacifying the country. Indeed, over the last four years the Bush administration has claimed to have killed thousands of insurgents, yet their number continues to grow.

In any case, on its own terms the surge appears to be faltering. This is not the first time that the U.S. sought salvation in Iraq through a troop build-up. In early 2004 the growing insurgency caused Iraqi officials to join American politicians in calling for more troops. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made permanent a previously temporary increase in personnel in order to enhance U.S. military operations. That troop “surge” did not prevent Iraq from falling down several rungs of Dante’s hell.

Even today’s increased force level is too low to have any real chance of success. The U.S. currently has 150,000 troops in Iraq, about the same as in May 2003. (The number of other Coalition personnel actually has dropped by 11,000 over the same period.) As such, the “surge” has merely put us back to the inadequate numbers with which Washington began the occupation.

Alas, that number is clearly insufficient under the anti-insurgency doctrine developed by Gen. Petraeus; instead, the occupation force should be two or three times larger. But the U.S. doesn’t have sufficient manpower and the administration doesn’t have sufficient public support to use that manpower even if it was available.

Unfortunately, the results of the Bush escalation bear out this judgment. Last month was one of Iraq’s bloodiest, with at least 2,155 Iraqi deaths. In Baghdad there were 743 execution-style murders in May, close to the pre-surge number of 830 in January. With 126 American personnel killed, May was the worst month since 2004, and U.S. military officials warn that the coming months could be even worse.

Equally disheartening is the Brookings Institution’s latest statistical State of Iraq. Looking at the month of May, they find that U.S. troop deaths were 37 in 2003, 69 last year, and 123 in 2007. Iraqi security force deaths were, respectively, 50, 150, and 198. Attacks on Iraqi and coalition civilians ran 150, 3,500, and 4,200. Iraqi civilian deaths were 500, 2,670, and 2,750. The number of Iraqis forced to flee were 10,000, 100,000, and 80,000. Multiple fatality bombings were 0, 56, and 42. The percentage of Iraqis saying that their country was moving in the right direction was 70, 39, and 36.

Los Angeles Times reporter Tina Susman finds that Iraqis who felt safer in the immediate aftermath of the surge now report “the reappearance of roaming Shiite militiamen and corpses on the streets.” A junior Army officer, who remained anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told her: “I just know it’s not much different than it was seven months ago. We aren’t holding ground.”

Even more astonishing, the Pentagon’s latest official assessment, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,”[pdf] offers little reason for optimism. Actual experience continues to belie administration promises.

For instance, political reconciliation appears to be going no where fast. DOD notes that “Reaching consensus among a wide array of political factions with competing agendas has proven difficult.” Reform of the de-Baathification process “could be delayed months.” Moreover, “Iraqi politicians continue to make little progress toward enacting laws that could advance reconciliation.” Overall, the process “has been complicated by violence and slow progress in forging cooperation among political parties, as well as by the dominance of identity politics over politics based on issues.”

The economic news, despite some positive signs, is equally disappointing. Reports DOD: “Over the past quarter the Iraqi government has made little progress” in “improving the availability of basic services such as electricity, water, and health care.” That Iraq is actually producing less oil and generating less electricity than earlier in the occupation is truly shocking. Access to health care “continues to face numerous challenges due to increases in demand due to violence, shortages in electricity and medical supplies, and intimidation and kidnapping of doctors and nurses, as well as reports of theft and corruption.”

Even worse is the appraisal of the security situation. The challenge obviously is enormous. Explains the Pentagon:

"The increasingly complex conflict has remained a struggle among and within ethno-sectarian, criminal, insurgent and terrorist groups to wrest political and economic power from the elected [Iraqi government]. Much of the violence is attributable to sectarian friction, and each faction is driven by its own political and economic power relationships. Illegally armed groups are engaged in a cycle of sectarian and politically motivated violence, using tactics that include indiscriminate bombing, murder, executions, and indirect fire to intimidate and to provoke sectarian conflict."

As Gen. Petraeus and others have noted, the “surge” has resulted in some good news: sectarian violence and car-bombings are down in Baghdad, while Sunni tribal resistance to al-Qaeda has reduced violence in parts of Anbar Province. The Iraq security forces have somewhat improved their performance. Gen. Petraeus even claims “astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad, such as soccer leagues.

However, notes the Pentagon, “terrorist attacks increased in other areas as [al-Qaeda Iraq] and other groups attempted to spread sectarian conflict.” Indeed, this “however” almost completely subsumes the good news.

First, security remains largely a U.S. job. Notes DOD, “Iraqi government delivery on these commitments [to even-handed enforcement] has been uneven.” Essentially nothing has been done to disarm the sectarian militias, and “militia infiltration of local police remains a significant problem.”

Moreover, says the Pentagon, “Coalition advisors continue to report marginal improvement in the [Ministry of the Interior’s] ability to perform key ministry functions such as developing and implementing plans and policies, intelligence, personnel management, logistics, communications, and budgeting.” Moreover, “Corruption, illegal activity and sectarian/militia influence constrain faster progress in developing [Interior ministry] forces and gaining Iraqi populace support.” The Ministry of Defense is little better, since its “continued limited logistic and sustainment capacity is a key hindrance to Iraqi forces’ ability to assume missions from the Coalition.” The best DOD could say is that the Iraqi government had made “some progress in developing capacity to manage” police and military forces.

Second, the Bush escalation has reshuffled rather than reduced violence in Iraq. The Pentagon offers this astonishing admission:

"The overall level of violence in Iraq this quarter remained similar to the previous reporting period but shifted location. Insurgents and extremists are unable to operate as freely in Baghdad because of [U.S. operations] and in Anbar Province because of growing tribal opposition to [al-Qaeda]. Accordingly, many insurgents and extremists have moved operations to Diyala, Ninewa, and the outlying areas of Baghdad Province. Outside Baghdad and Anbar, reductions in Coalition force presence and reliance upon local Iraqi security forces have resulted in a tenuous security situation. Sectarian violence and insurgent attacks still involve a very small portion of the population, but public perceptions of violence have adversely affected reconciliation and contribute to population migration."

In western Iraq, other than Anbar Province, the Pentagon reports that “insurgent groups continue to attack Coalition and [Iraqi security] targets.” Moreover, the military reported “increased inter-sectarian violence in Diyala, increased high-profile attacks in northern Iraq by [al-Qaeda], and Coalition and Iraqi forces confronting the [Mahdi Army] – the Shia militia associated with the radical cleric Muktada-al Sadr – in Diwaniyah.” Intra-Shia violence rather than al-Qaeda attacks bedevils southern Iraq and, reports DOD, “has contributed to a significant increase in attacks against Coalition forces in Basrah and an observed greater hostility towards Coalition presence, as well as high-lighted the failure of the Iraqi police to challenge Shia militants in southern Iraq.”

Even Baghdad, the focus of allied efforts, looked anything but normal. The Mahdi Army “continued to act as a de-facto government in Sadr City,” admitted the Pentagon. Despite increased security efforts, al-Qaeda “maintained the ability to conduct infrequent, high-profile, mass-casualty attacks.” Finally, “Although sectarian-motivated Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has declined in Baghdad, violence against Coalition and Iraqi security forces remained consistent with previous levels.”

Lest anyone miss the point, DOD helpfully provides a look at “overall attack trends and violence.” Explains the Pentagon: “The aggregate level of violence in Iraq remained relatively unchanged during this reporting period. Violence has decreased in the Baghdad security districts and Anbar, but has increased in most provinces, particularly in the outlying areas of Baghdad Province and Diyala and Ninewa Provinces.”

Throughout the country “the total number of attacks on Coalition forces, the [Iraqi security forces], and Iraqi civilians increased by 2% in the February through May reporting period compared with the previous quarter. High-profile attacks, usually conducted by [al-Qaeda], are now causing more casualties in Baghdad than do murders by militia, criminals, or other armed groups.” The number of suicide attacks nationwide jumped from 26 in January to 58 in each of March and April.

It is hard to read the Pentagon’s latest report and call the result of the surge “progress.” Indeed, the latest “Failed States Index” from the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine places Iraq at number two, trailing only Sudan. Iraq ran fourth last year, but has deteriorated in virtually every category. In such areas as group grievances, human flight, security forces, refugees, and human rights, Iraq now is at or near the bottom. In a rare moment of realistic thinking, President Bush allowed that “No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq.”

Yes, it was.

In a new Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans said they wanted to bring home the troops – as soon as possible. That’s up from 53 percent in April. Those wanting to keep personnel in Iraq fell from 41 percent to 39 percent. Obviously, Americans are growing impatient with the Iraq occupation, and who can blame them? If the administration’s definition of a successful surge is increased violence across Iraq, then what would be the administration’s definition of a failed escalation?

Of course, it would be wonderful if the U.S. could turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. But even a competent, realistic, far-sighted administration would have little hope of achieving “victory” in Iraq. The Bush crew has no chance.

Indeed, this administration has been guilty of criminal incompetence from day one. Actually, from before day one, since officials failed to plan for the Iraq occupation. Gen. Jack Keane, former Army Vice Chief of Staff – and one of the architects of the present escalation – said recently that while the president uses “terms like ‘win,’ ‘we’re going to defeat the insurgents,’ ‘victory’,” the military “never had that as a mission in Iraq.” Rather, he explained: “We never even considered an insurgency as a reasonable option. We took down the regime, and we thought what we had to do then was occupy the country, stabilize it, and in the matter of a few months we could reduce the force.”

God help us.

President Bush says that he’s “impressed and reassured” with progress in Iraq. Of course he is. Helicopters could be lifting U.S. personnel off of building rooftops in Baghdad and the president would tell Americans that all was well. He has been wrong from the beginning. Every promise and prediction offered by the administration has been proved wrong. The early evidence is that the Bush escalation isn’t even reducing overall violence, let alone leading to the sort of permanent political solution necessary for any semblance of peace in Iraq. Administration policy is a debacle.

The U.S. will leave Iraq. The only question is how soon and under what circumstances? With Iraq in flames, as violence continues and American deaths climb, an American withdrawal cannot come soon enough.

Read more by Doug Bandow