“The insurgency in Iraq is in its last throes.”
– Vice President Dick Cheney, in May
Even the Central Intelligence Agency now admits that Iraq is the new Afghanistan – breeding a new, lethal generation of jihadis. Iraq has also been the new Vietnam since the day the resistance was born, April 18, 2003, in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad. Iraq as the new Vietnam replays – in a new setting – the movie of a superpower being subdued by a guerrilla war. Remember former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz’s famous words before the invasion: “Let the desert be our jungles.”
A mini-Tet offensive happened in Baghdad on Monday. In a city allegedly under the control of American and American-trained Iraqi forces, more than 100 guerrillas mounted a devastating attack on Baya’a, the biggest police station in Baghdad – employing successive waves of mortars, explosions, rocket-launcher attacks, hand grenades, sophisticated diversionary tactics and the sinister icing on the lethal cake, car bombings. Hi al-Elam, the neighborhood around the police station, was turned into a smoldering disaster zone. The guerrillas retreated after two hours, having lost dozens of men. But just like the Tet offensive, the message was clear: the writing, scrawled in graffiti, was literally on the walls of Hi al-Elam – “We’ll be back.”
Three days after this mini-battle in Baghdad, the Pentagon top brass had to face the fact that the writing on the wall is now becoming increasingly visible not only to tens of millions of Americans (60%, according to the latest polls) but to the cowed, Bush administration-intimidated Congress as well. Nevertheless, during eight hours of back-to-back testimony to House and Senate committees in Washington, the Pentagon still refused to abandon the rhetoric of “steady progress” and “victory is certain”.
General John Abizaid, the Centcom chief, had to admit “more foreign fighters [are] coming into Iraq than there were six months ago” – not exactly Cheney’s “last throes” scenario. Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, told Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to “get off your high horse” and stop answering questions “with a sneer”. Senator Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, went one step further and suggested it was time for Rumsfeld to go.
Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If the coalition were to leave before the Iraqi security forces are able to assume responsibility, we would one day again have to confront another Iraqi regime, perhaps even more dangerous than the last.” The occupation’s logic – we can’t leave because they would not know how to take care of themselves – happens to be the same espoused on the record by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, in Washington for official talks at the White House. Sunni Arabs in Iraq – as well as the Sadrists – will take note, adding even more fuel to the fire.
Help, the voters will kill us
The somewhat rash exchanges in Washington have to be put in the context of the 2006 mid-term elections in the US. The Iraq quagmire is leading senators and congressmen – especially Republican – to a degree of panic. They’re starting to realize that President George W Bush’s war is taking them down. Democrats for their part – including those who supported the war in the first place – are scenting blood. Crucially, no senators or congressmen suggested that the Pentagon should send more troops to Iraq – an extremely unpopular move. But at the same time, nobody suggested troops should be withdrawn immediately – which means they still, albeit grudgingly, subscribe to the Pentagon’s strategy.
The disorientation was more than evident in the behavior of Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and staunch war supporter. Graham said he was concerned by declining support for the war – which means bad news in the next elections – but he also said, ominously, “We have bought into a model that is extremely difficult, but the only answer, because you can’t kill enough of these people” – implying that it is such a pity the Pentagon cannot produce a thousand Fallujahs.
For his part, Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan and the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, came up with the wacky suggestion that “the United States needs to tell the Iraqis and the world that if that deadline [for approving a new constitution] is not met, we will review our position with all options open, including but not limited to, setting a timetable for withdrawal”. Levin shifts the blame for all the mess from the occupation to Iraq’s politicians. He should beware of what he wants: Iraqis may enthusiastically welcome his proposition, as throwing the occupiers out is their No 1 priority.
And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for
The Pentagon strategy is not working, and it won’t work for two main reasons. The neo-conservative American project for Iraq was based on ethnic, confessional sectarianism for a start. The current pre-civil-war atmosphere is just a consequence of privileging Kurds out of proportion and marginalizing Sunni Arabs – not to mention the blowback (from Washington’s point of view) of a weak Shi’ite-dominated, Islamic-leaning, Iran-friendly government having to fight not only the Sunni Arab guerrillas, but a Sunni-Sadrist political opposition. Moreover, the development of the so-called Iraqi defense forces may take at least five years. The current militia inferno – tolerated or even encouraged by the Americans – is bound to derail the country for at least a generation.
Just like in Vietnam, the Americans have no meaningful intelligence on the resistance. It’s a massive, American strategic, cultural and linguistic failure. That’s why American “counterinsurgency” in Iraq these days is reduced to supporting militias nested in the Interior Ministry – “Rumsfeld’s boys”, as they are known – as well as operations conducted by El Salvador-style death squads. There’s no way this will win Sunni Arab hearts and minds. For most Sunni Arabs, from the simply alienated to the terrified, most of them impoverished to sub-Saharan conditions, the American presence – in the form of awesome firepower – only means death and destruction.
The hearings this Thursday in Washington may have been just the tip of the iceberg. The real facts on the ground are, in Iraq, a horrific quagmire; and in the US, the unstoppable rising of anti-war sentiment. This is not a “last throes” scenario – rather the first throes of a national American rejection of the Iraqi imperial adventure. Just like in Vietnam.